Commentary

Anti-Globalization or Anti-Civilization?

By Aaron Lukas
September 21, 2001
The IMF and the World Bank have cancelled their meetings that were scheduled in Washington, D.C. at the end of this month. Despite that change, the word on anti-globalization Web sites is that, incredibly, protesters are still coming to town to demonstrate not only against the “evils” of global capitalism, but also against the “danger posed by increased racism and the grave threat of a new war.” (If you want to feel angry, just take a look at www.beatbackbush.org/index1.html). Americans should not forget that when this country faced its greatest threat in recent memory, the anti-globalization crowd chose to condemn their government even before it acted.

It’s true that Washington, relative to New York, suffered less on September 11. Police here can certainly deal with the activists, however frustrating the experience may be. But the symbolism of the protests is sickening. Even as Washingtonians honor their fallen, the enemies of capitalism and modernity have no qualm with further traumatizing a city still reeling — mentally, if not physically — from foreign attack. At the least, D.C. police forces have been stressed and deserve not to work long hours baby-sitting disgruntled college students and left-wing extremists seeking to disrupt the government in a time of crisis.

New Yorkers should be especially outraged, as the upcoming protests directly mock their loss. The late Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the World Trade Center, once remarked that his creation “should … because of its importance, become a living representation of man’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men, and through this cooperation his ability to find greatness.” Until last Tuesday, he was correct: The seemingly-mighty edifice was a symbol of American free enterprise, of the marvels that can be achieved by people working together voluntarily, free from the edicts of kings, ayatollahs, or lords. Capitalism equals freedom, and the building was, in many ways, capitalism’s monument.

Today, though, the still-smoking rubble is a reminder of the horrific consequences that can occur when adherents of a primitive philosophy commandeer modern technology in pursuit of their nefarious ends. In this case, a symbol of capitalism has fallen to a barbarous attack, and thousands of innocent people were murdered in the process. The symbol is not the thing, of course, and America’s strength — embodied in her people’s love of liberty, their ingenuity and generosity — is as enduring as ever. A monument to our way of life has been attacked. But our great experiment in liberty will go on.

For the anti-globalization faithful, however, America, and the economic freedom she defends, has always been the villain, to be opposed at all costs. Like terrorists, the anti-globalization movement is disdainful of democratic institutions. When elections don’t go your way, then maybe hurling a fire extinguisher at a policeman will get your message across. The belief among many activists is that the rules of civilized society don’t apply to them.

Forget the propaganda about “peaceful” demonstrations. Terrorism, if not so heinous as what we witnessed last week, has always been part of the protesters’ game plan. In Seattle, thousands were held hostage in their hotel rooms, denied the freedom of movement that all Americans should take for granted. Vandalism was rampant. In D.C. last year, angry mobs surrounded downtown buildings, trapping the inhabitants as part of their declared goal of “shutting down” the global economy.

And those are the actions of moderates; the radical protesters do far worse. “As dangerous as arson is,” reads one activist primer, “it is also by far the most potent weapon of direct action … A simple way to burn a vehicle is to place a sheet or blanket on top or underneath and soak it in flammable liquid…If not using a time-delay device, try to light it from as far away as possible.”

It would be morally disingenuous, of course, to place the protesters — who at worst are merely thugs — on the same level as the monsters that attacked us. But in the terrible clarity of war, it is apparent who is on one side and who is on the other. In the struggle between civilization and barbarism, those who torch a McDonald’s and those who ram airplanes through skyscrapers are releasing their destructive energies in a common cause.

To his credit, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney recently said that union members, many of whom have made common cause with anti-globalization activists, “Stand fully behind the President and the leadership of our nation in this time of national crisis.” If he means it, then Sweeney should call upon organized labor to avoid sharing the stage with such people in the future. If there was once a benefit to unions in blurring the lines between anti-trade radicals and loyal Americans, that time has passed.

When the protesters surround the White House next week, think carefully about whose worldview they really represent.

Aaron Lukas is an analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies.