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Meeting the Enemy of September 11, 2001: A Chestertonian Perspective

Dale Ahlquist is President of the American Chesterton Society and a recent convert to Catholicism. He invited Mark and Louise to speak on the economics of Distributism at the Chesterton Conference in June 2001.

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, my son, Adrian Chesterton Ahlquist, had his fifth birthday. That meant a party with a birthday cake and brightly-wrapped presents. It meant installing a new horn on his bicycle and pumping the tires full of air, so that he could ride around in front of the house on a beautiful sunny day. He was a picture of pure joy. He had only a vague idea that something horrible had happened that same morning in New York City and Washington, DC. When he saw the scenes on television, he asked if it was for real.

It did seem unreal. It still does. It happened in my country. In the days that followed, with the images burned into my brain, I tried to look behind those images and consider what they really mean. Here are those thoughts. They may not quite fit together, because we are all still picking up the pieces.

The attack was vicious, but also symbolic. While there was genius in the malice and malice in the genius to be able to kill thousands without firing a shot, there was also a clear message being sent in the very selection of the targets. As with most clear messages, most everyone seems to have missed it. It was not our country that was attacked that day, but our gods in their holy places: Mammon and Mars, the one in his twin temples in New York, the other in his five-sided fortress in Washington. For the past many decades we have put all our trust in money and military power. They did not protect us that day, and ultimately, they do not protect us at all.

Someone out there has defied out gods and succeeded spectacularly in exposing their weaknesses. From the smoking rubble comes a wordless shout: “I can fight your army without an army. I can blow up your biggest building without a bomb. I can kill thousands of your people with a box cutter.”

And so we rush to avenge our gods. How? By mobilizing our armies and spending a quick $40 billion.

We have identified the enemy, sort of. It is not another country. It is something even less than an organization. For the sake of convenience, we have given it a face.

But the most interesting report that I have heard (and this from a member of the maligned “intelligence community” that somehow was supposed to have prevented this disaster) is that Osama Bin Laden is not the “mastermind” of the anti-Western terrorist operation that perpetrated this act. He is only the distraction. His success is in drawing attention to himself while others do the dirty work, and even more aggravating, drawing attention to himself without anyone knowing where he is. The strength of this group is that it is decentralized and very spread out. It is quite likely that when we do strike back, we won’t have many clear targets at which to strike. So we have raised the stakes. We have said we will attack the nations that harbor these terrorists. The problem is that we are one of those nations. The terrorists have lived here and trained here and bowled in our alleys for a long time.

We have characterized this as an attack against civilization and said that we are now going to go to war to defend civilization. Perhaps the civilization we are starting to defend should begin to resemble a civilization. Now that we have identified an outside enemy we can stop being our own enemy. Perhaps now we can start defending life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We can defend life by not killing our babies. We can defend liberty by not being utterly dependent on big government and even bigger corporations. We can defend the pursuit of happiness by abandoning the pursuit of happiness–all those worthless diversions that are fueled by greed and lust and envy. This might mean doing away with that form of propaganda called advertising and that form of mind-numbing putrification called television. After all, defending civilization is not without a cost. But the cost is not so great if we could realize that the pursuit of happiness has to do with the simple pleasures of the home and family and daily bread, and the profound pleasures of communion with God.

G. K. Chesterton was one of the great defenders of civilization. But the civilization he defended was Christendom. He pointed out that on more than one occasion the enemy of Christendom has been Islam. The most powerful poem he ever wrote was about the Battle of Lepanto, the turning point in history that effectively ended the Muslim threat against Christian Europe. He might be pleased to find that he would be called upon once again to defend the philosophy of the Crusades. But he might be troubled to see the civilization he is now being asked to defend.

Even if we were to set aside the question of Christendom, which we really cannot do, there is still a Chestertonian argument to make. Chesterton would still defend that ignored if not scorned idea, that thing called Distributism. Chesterton believed in an economy based on the home, based on the family living and working together, owning its business, living in a small community that is largely autonomous. He believed that government should be local, that the decisions that most directly affect people should be made by the people themselves, not by a remote government, or a remote corporation. He argued that the more we depend on trade rather than on self-sufficiency, the more freedom we give up. Towards the end of his life, while many people urged him to focus his considerable talents on creating some great work of literature or poetry, Chesterton devoted most of his time to a floundering newspaper that warned of a coming world crisis because of the marriage of big government to big business and the resulting unjust distribution of wealth. A year before his death he wrote:

“In all normal civilizations the trader existed and must exist. But in all normal civilizations the trader was the exception certainly he was never the rule; and most certainly he was never the ruler. The predominance which he has gained in the modern world is the cause of all the disasters of the modern world.”

In the wake of our most recent disaster, our leaders kept saying that freedom was under attack. But it was the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that were attacked, the two centers of money and power. It was understandable that our leaders would call on that perfectly natural virtue of patriotism, to make all of us feel that our way of life was being threatened. But I have been feeling that particular threat for a long time. This was an attack on something else. America was vulnerable to this attack because of our centralized government and our centralized economy. And it is quite possible that our centralized government and centralized economy have turned us into a beast bloated by money and power, one that is so hated and feared that people are willing to sacrifice themselves trying to destroy it.

There is real danger here. We are top heavy. And that is why we can be toppled. The best way to defend our nation, and to defend what we really care about, is to distribute the weight more evenly.

If our economy were more self-sufficient and ownership more spread out, we would not have to rely on world trade, we would not need a World Trade Center, and we would not have to concentrate our population into crammed cities. If our government were more democratic and local, our power base would be as wide as the country itself and much more stable, much less affected by, or reliant upon, a handful of politicians in one Capitol building. If our military were more concerned with the simple task of guarding the wall and not being the world’s policeman, we would not feel compelled to bomb places like Serbia and Sudan, and we might find some worthy opponents interested in a fair fight and not these sneaks that we are content to call cowards. In short, if we were a more Distributist society, as Chesterton urged, we probably would not have been attacked at all, but in any case, whoever it was who attacked us would have had a hard time finding a target. Just as we are now going to have a hard time finding them.

(Reprinted with permission from Gilbert! The Magazine of G. K. Chesterton (800-343-2425).

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXI, No. 7, December 2001.