Ahead in a New World,
Power Plants to Power Struggles
Five alumni offer prescriptions for protecting our country
by Doug McInnes 70
for Human Rights
The United States has pushed a tough human-rights agenda with countries
such as China and Pakistan. With others, such as Saudi Arabia, it
has let the issue slide, but when federal investigators unraveled
the identities of the September 11 hijackers, 14 of the 19 were
the surface, religious extremism was the motivating factor behind
the attacks, with Osama bin Laden employing his own brand of Islam
to motivate his followers. But William F. Schulz 71, executive
director of Amnesty International USA, believes that Americans should
delve deeper, focusing particularly on human rights violations in
Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
The fact that there have been so few democratic institutions
in many of those countries is what has made religious extremism
attractive, says Schulz, author of In Our Own Best Interest
(Beacon Press, April 2000). Without human rights and democracy,
you build a situation in a country like Saudi Arabia in which the
average person on the street becomes extremely alienated from his
or her government. Extremists are seen as speaking for the average
The truth is that extremism, whether it be of a religious
or political nature, finds fertile ground when there are not other
mechanisms through which people can express their dissatisfaction.
The U.S., acting from expediency, has let the human-rights issues
in such countries slide, Schulz believes. We have chosen not
to confront the Saudis about their abysmal human-rights record because
we are concerned about the supply of oil. We have been unwilling
to confront Egypt about its violations because we see Egypt as a
stabilizing influence in the Middle East.
In the long run, he says, the policy is far from expedient because
it fosters the very terrorism we seek to prevent. Im
not offering this in any way as an excuse for what happened. The
September attacks were criminal. But if one is to prevent future
crimes against humanity, one needs to understand the milieu from
which those crimes arose.
It comes down to this, he adds. Support for human
rights is not only idealistic, but pragmatic and in our own best
interest. By this standard, the U.S. will be tested again
and again, including in Afghanistan, where American forces have
mounted more than 100 air strikes a day.
Schulz says the American handling of the Afghan war and the kind
of government that takes over afterward will determine whether Afghanistan
continues as a haven for terrorism. If the next Afghan government
is respectful of human rights, it will be a more stable government
and far less likely to harbor terrorists, he says. If
we dont solve Afghanistans human-rights problems, extremism
will continue to fester.
Support Some Arab Interests
Does the Arab population harbor a deep hatred for the United States?
The issue is complex, says Bill Rugh 58, former U.S. ambassador
to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. Some people of Arab descent
do find American foreign policy hard to swallow, but only on some
issues, he says. Their opposition lies in the United States
failure to support democratic reforms in the Middle East, a pro-Israel
policy tilt, and sanctions on Iraq, which many Arabs blame for triggering
starvation and disease among Iraqi civilians.
is president of American-Mideast Educational and Training Services,
which promotes understanding between Americans and the people of
the Middle East and North Africa. He explains that dislike of American
national policy does not extend automatically to Americans themselves.
The Arab people could very well say to an American, I
like you as a person, but how can your government be so hostile
toward us? Or they may wonder why our government supports
dictatorship abroad, while working as a democracy at home. But these
same people send their children to America to study. They listen
to American music. They buy American technology. They vacation at
Life under authoritarian regimes may satisfy some, but others want
change and find the United States failure to support democracy
particularly perplexing, he says. Our country labored for decades
to free Eastern Block countries from Soviet dominance; why not the
same for Middle Eastern dictatorships?
We have other interests in addition to our love of democracy,
says Rugh. Economic, strategic, and political reasons. Also,
we really do believe in national self-determination and are reluctant
to try to change domestic political systems. Its easy to say
we ought to support the good guys, but how do we do that? Do we
provoke a revolution? Do we send in the Marines to support an opposition
group? Then, if the opposition wins power, we wonder if they are
tainted by our support.
As a practical matter, says Rugh, U.S. support of anti-government
groups in the Middle East could antagonize the government
in power, which could punish us by, say, cutting off oil. So its
not simple. But there is a price to be paid for supporting
demagogues if they lose power, such as when the U.S.-backed Shah
of Iran was toppled in the Iranian revolution.
He says that the U.S. could change its policy in Iraq and Israelfor
example by lending strong support to a freeze on Jewish settlements
in Palestinian areas. Lending support doesnt mean meeting
every Arab demand, but it does call for adjustments that support
American interests while showing some understanding of Arab interests.
We should also look at the proposal to deploy international observers
to the West Bank and Gaza Strip to monitor violence, he says.
The U.S. failed to support that proposal simply because Israel
rejected it. These are examples that reinforce the Arab perception
of American bias.
Better Intelligence? Read the Tea Leaves
Pfister 57 joined the U.S. Army the year he graduated from
Oberlin, when Middle Eastern terrorists confined their violence
to their own region and the Pentagon had not a single guard at the
door. Terrorism wasnt on the radar screen, not in the
international sense, says Pfister, who rose to the rank of
major general within 30 years and served as director of intelligence
for the U.S. Central Command, responsible for the Middle East and
Pfister served in Vietnam, witnessed the collapse of the communist
block, and watched the spread of terrorism to the United States.
Now retired, he emphasizes that military operations are just one
aspect of the protracted conflict that our country faces; improving
U.S. intelligence is also critical. In the intelligence business,
its not just about discovering our enemies capabilities,
its about finding out how tenaciously they will fight for
Its easy to be wrong. Consider the Cold War. There were
very few analysts who predicted the fall of the Soviet Union,
he says, adding that our government also underestimated the will
of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong in the face of growing domestic
opposition and discontent. The North Vietnamese were more
determined than we gave them credit for, and they outlasted us.
The U.S. did not envision itself as a colonialist, but to the North
Vietnamese, we were just the successors to the colonial regime.
This accounted for some of their staying power.
Intelligence efforts, he says, include seeking out warnings of terrorist
intentions without help from the terrorists themselves. It
is highly unlikely that we will ever recruit from the inner circle
of a suicide group, says Pfister. But that doesnt
mean we cant find out what theyre up to. There will
be clues. A case in point: one of the September 11 suicide
pilots reportedly conveyed to his instructor at an American flight
training school that he didnt need to learn how to take off
or land the plane, a tell-tale remark that wasnt relayed to
The question then becomes, Can we organize our own intelligence
to pick up enough clues to read the tea leaves? asks
Pfister. And can we do it without becoming a society in which
neighbors inform on neighbors?
A further challenge, he says, is for the president to keep our country
united, despite disagreement within the population about how to
administer a war against terrorism. The real lesson from Vietnam
that is applicable today is not tactical, but a lesson in politics
and civics. We need to orchestrate domestic and congressional support
and have the staying power, the national will, to deal with the
Rethink Electrical Power: Is Smaller Better?
It is an unofficial American motto: bigger is always better. Massive
factories dot our landscapes. The vast Mall of America is a city
unto itself. The electric power grid is the marvel of the industrial
world. Each of these things seems to make economic sense. So, too,
did the World Trade Center.
The equation for what makes economic sense may have changed, for
the bigger something is, the more its loss will be felt. For that
reason, electricity in the U.S., which is based on giant plants,
giant dams, and a giant power grid is particularly vulnerable to
terrorism, says Hisham Zerriffi 95, who works at creating
models that are more efficient and less susceptible to terrorism.
As a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon, Zerriffi had been rethinking
electric power generation, envisioning radically different electric
systems for war-torn areas such as Lebanon. Although he was aware
that the U.S. power system was vulnerable to terrorism, September
11 pushed the issue to the top of his agenda. We were in a
state of shock the first few days, he recalls. Afterwards
we sat back and realized that our research obviously had to change.
We have to think about the implications of developing more robust
power systems in the United States.
Our current power grida network of transmission lines that
is particularly vulnerable because of its sizeis susceptible
to both a direct terrorist attack and cyber-manipulation, Zerriffi
says. It would be impossible to protect every mile.
Knocking out one section of line can cause a neighboring section
to fail. If the person triggering the blackouts understands
where key transmission lines are located, he could start the dominoes
One solution would be to create many small generating plants located
where the power is used. Because each plant would be small and in
populous areas, the transmission network would be easier to protect,
and the loss of any one plant would have a minimal impact. In addition,
heat generated by electric production could easily be tapped for
other industrial processes. In large power complexes, currently
isolated in rural areas, huge quantities of heat energy are simply
lost into the air.
Electric power runs our economy, Zerriffi says. You
would see massive disruptions of the economy if the power system
were hit repeatedly and in an intelligent way by terrorists. The
physical structure needs to be rethought. One way is to make the
power system more of a fortress. The other way is to change it.
Now is the time to look at the second option.
Contend with American Ignorance
In the Palestinian territories, conversations commonly begin with
the question, How is the situation? Translated, it is
a way of asking if violence has erupted again. It was also a phrase
heard over and over again by Maren Duke Zerriffi 95 during
the six months she spent in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The question was not, however, one she expected to hear in the United
States. Then came September 11, and email from concerned Palestinian
friends arrived with the heading, How is the situation in
That my country, which has been so tranquil, now suddenly
warranted this question was very strange and troubling to me,
says Zerriffi, a doctoral candidate in political science with a
focus in Middle East comparative politics and a minor in Islamic
studies at McGill University in Quebec.
Zerriffi resolved to focus on the Islamic world following the 1990
Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. A high-school senior at the time, she
helped to organize a teach-in to help Americans sort myth from fact
regarding the misunderstood region. At Oberlin, she wrote her honors
thesis on U.S. policy toward Islamicism in the Middle East and Central
Asia. Today she seeks to educate Americas about the Islamic world
as part of her job as community outreach director at the World Affairs
Council of Pittsburgh.
Zerriffi has found considerable interest among Americans in learning
more about the Islamic world, although there are exceptions. While
at her hairdresser she overheard a salon employee comment that Arabs
had failed to evolve. The words stung. Zerriffis husband,
Hisham 95, and father-in-law, Ali Zerriffi 69, were
born in Morocco. Seeking to fight such ignorance with facts, Zerriffi
counters the notions that Islam and terrorism go hand in hand and
that most of the Islamic world hates America. Theres
this whole idea of them and us. It lends
itself to the idea that there is a conflict between Islam and the
West. Thats inaccurate. There are approximately six million
Muslims in the United States, she says.
Even if there is a degree of grievance with U.S. foreign policy,
it does not mean that Muslims support the terrorist attack. Its
more accurate to say that any religion can be perverted and misused
by a small group of people who do not have support of the mainstream
religion. Its improper to draw conclusions about Islam from
bin Laden and his perversions.
Thats the horror that many Muslims feelthat somebody
has so perverted their religion that the world now views that perversion
as representing Islam, she adds. Their hearts broke
over how many people died September 11. That somebody who claimed
to be a Muslim did this broke their hearts a second time.
McInnes is a freelance science writer in Casper, Wyoming.
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