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August 20, 2004

In late March 2004 former White House advisor Richard Clarke was winding up his testimony before the official 9/11 Commission in Washington. In San Francisco a group of citizens — described in the Chronicle as “conspiracy theorists, anti-war activists, and those with healthy doses of skepticism about the official version of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks” — gathered at Herbst Theatre to open their own “International Inquiry into 9/11.” Historical geographer Gray Brechin, author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, was one of the speakers.

The Great Endarkenment

Placing 9/11 in the Historical Context of “Barbarism vs. Civilization”

By Gray Brechin

I want you to imagine that you are looking at history — and most other things that humans do — in a very uncustomary way, as if you were looking at the world through polarized lenses. We're going to spend a few minutes looking at history as flows of energy.

How many times recently have we been told that we are engaged in unremitting warfare between good and evil, between light and dark, between civilization and barbarism — but not in terms of energy. We of course know which side we are on. We are on the side of civilization, since we represent its apex. And so it's only appropriate that America — still young and virile, and as resolute in purpose as when first set upon its destiny by the Founding Fathers — should have returned a year ago to the place where civilization began in the Fertile Crescent, in Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers. We have brought civilization back to where it began but where it then went bad there while we went good here; we have brought light to what had gone dark. We have come to liberate its people and, incidentally, to help them develop the energy that lies under their wrecked and now radioactive soil.

One could regard civilization, like humanity — indeed like all of life itself — as a constant quest for energy. The difference between ourselves and others is that your average fern or hawk or platypus uses only as much energy as it needs to live and to reproduce itself. They know the meaning of "enough"; they don't build cities or empires, where there never is enough. To civilize means literally to "citify." Mesopotamia is where cities first appeared... and it shows.

By now you're probably used to those scenes of bleak devastation you've seen on television — not the ones that Saddam Hussein or the Taliban made or we are making, but the landscape created thousands of years ago by civilizations that are now piles of hardened mud and artifacts currently being looted to decorate apartments and mansions in today's imperial cities. Those Mesopotamian cities rose upon the surplus energy made possible by irrigated agriculture which, in turn, made possible division of labor, hierarchies, writing, accounting, leisure time, sciences, the arts, architecture... and, of course, warfare in order for the elites of those cities to get still more energy. At its simplest, warfare is a vast expenditure of energy needed to get more energy with which to fight more wars... and so on.

Much of that energy consists of the labor of humans and animals fueled by carbohydrates, and that means topsoil. But throughout most of history, it was also wood; the quest for forests for fuel and building material has been one of the chief stimuli to expansion and conquest. The fates of forests, soils, and cities are intimately entangled throughout history in ways that often only the wisest understood. Plato knew that Greece had once been covered with forests which had nourished rivers and springs, but that in his own time the land looked like the body of an emaciated person wasted by disease because the forests had been felled and Greece consequently impoverished. He was looking at the consequences of an unremitting quest for energy; by that time, the Fertile Crescent was no longer very fertile; it was well on its way to becoming the salty desert that we see now because of the demands made upon it by Babylon, Nineveh, and other fabled cities. Imperial Rome, in its turn, would be literally buried by about 20 feet of soil washed off the deforested Apennines; its appetite would waste North Africa, Spain, and everywhere else around the Mediterranean called upon to send it tribute.

And yet, we did get something in return for all that energy extracted from the earth and from the sun and concentrated in a few great cities. The lights went on. We created art, and we created knowledge. And we stored it, as we stored energy in granaries. Humans created libraries. But those libraries were not for most of us; they were for them. The elites who built and ran the cities and their empires knew that knowledge was power, and they kept it to themselves. For us, they concocted belief systems that sent us to war to get more energy for themselves. They created some of the most cockamamie religions you can imagine to motivate millions of little people to build temples and palaces and tombs for themselves, and to go to war to get more energy with which to build and accumulate more. "Enough" is a word these people have never added to their vocabularies.

Nonetheless, they built some wonderful places. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Venice is a more beautiful and ingenious place than, say, Phoenix, or even Las Vegas. It became that way because, in 1204, Venice's rulers diverted the Fourth Crusade from the Holy Land to besiege and sack the ancient city of Constantinople — a Christian city like Venice. Venice took much of the loot and 3/8 of the Byzantine Empire to begin making its own empire. God, of course, was on its side. To this day, there are people in Istanbul who hate Venice for what it did to their city 800 years ago. Much of what was the Venetian Empire is a desert today because of the energy that it took. Memories are long in that part of the world; we forget that at our peril.

It happens over and over again. God is forever on the side of the victor, or the losers did something bad to merit His disfavor. History became a litany of wars fought in His name, masking the constant quest for more energy.

And then, in the eighteenth century, something different happened. For shorthand, we call it The Enlightenment. A group of philosophers, mainly in France, proposed that humans could organize themselves in a different way. And the U.S. is the product of that.

Chiefly, the founders proposed that people could rule themselves, but to do so, they would have to have access to the information that had formerly been monopolized by the few, particularly by the priests. Government would not only be representative, but it should be transparent so as to keep it honest and free of tyranny to which it otherwise tends. Hence, freedom of the press. Hence, separation of church and state. Hence, libraries; that is why Thomas Jefferson made a library central to his University of Virginia, and started the Library of Congress. These were meant to enlighten the many, and this, to my mind, was a real advance in civilization.

These were noble ideals, often honored only in the breach. The country, and the cities grew, and as they grew, they required more energy which they took from more distant sources, often by force. Because there was no state religion, there had to be some other motivating ideal by which large numbers of men would march or sail off to distant places to take and add them to what was often referred to as "this empire of liberty." In 1845, a journalist named John O'Sullivan coined the phrase "Manifest Destiny" to describe why the U.S. must stretch from sea to shining sea, and then some. "Manifest Destiny" was code for God, while few bothered to ask just how O'Sullivan or the politicians who used that term to their own advantage had channeled the Deity and knew what He wanted His chosen people to do. At that time, what God apparently wanted was for the U.S. to attack its weak neighbor Mexico and take its northern half. God wanted the U.S. to have San Francisco Bay as its strategic gateway to the Pacific, but along with the bay came a great deal of real estate, gold, silver, copper, fertile soils, and a huge surplus of energy which would go a long way to making the U.S. a superpower in the twentieth century.

The glittering charm of Manifest Destiny was that it was so Un-Manifest [only Un italicized] that, whenever called upon, it could justify taking All Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, the Western Hemisphere, and, finally, the Pacific Ocean itself. Stabs were made at all of those lands and oceans until 1898 — 50 years after the War With Mexico — when Manifest Destiny made an encore after a U.S. warship called the Maine mysteriously exploded in Havana harbor, allowing the U.S. to righteously declare war on Spain and to take most of its remaining overseas territories. What happened in 1898 and afterward is remarkably similar to what we are going through now. "The Splendid Little War" was so brief and glorious that it was immensely popular in this country, and self-declared patriots vilified those who opposed it as traitors. Nonetheless, there were many who spoke out, calling it an imperial venture and a betrayal of America's ideals. The most eloquent anti-imperialist was elderly Mark Twain. Many of his fans were baffled that the great humorist could turn so bitter, so sarcastic, so treasonous — and so, you have probably never read his writings from that time, which are among his best.

What few Americans knew was that the war on Spain had been planned by a few men well before the Maine exploded. The idea was to get the Philippines and Guam and annex Hawaii in order to control the Pacific Ocean. There was a large fly in that ointment, however; the Filipinos didn't want to be occupied by another colonial power, and they fought back. The Splendid Little War turned into a very Dirty Long War with no exit strategy and thousands of dead, diseased, maimed, and mentally wrecked soldiers returning to the homeland, while the Philippines were wasted by a brutal guerrilla war and scorched earth retaliation. It was a potential public relations disaster for the McKinley administration, so pundits were duly rolled out to explain it in the usual terms of bringing light to the dark places of the earth. Kipling wrote "The White Man's Burden" to steel American nerve for what its soldiers and sailors had to do. "God" was still around, but increasingly, Humanity, Civilization, and Team Spirit stood in for Him. Secretary of War Elihu Root assured Americans that "the warfare has been conducted with marked humanity and magnanimity"; San Francisco historian Hubert Howe Bancroft wrote:

It was worth to Spain all it cost in delivering her from her unprofitable colonies; and it was worth to the United States many times its cost as an object lesson, teaching men how to kill their fellow men gracefully, humanely, and in all Christian charity. Never before was seen in war such zeal and patriotism unattended by enmity, and where there was such an absence of any desire to inflict wanton injury upon the enemy.

The Reverend Dr. Kirby told a rally of Methodist ministers in San Francisco that "The Lord Jesus Christ is behind the bayonets."

Most important, Americans were repeatedly told that their country, unlike any other, had been inoculated by its founding ideals from error or evil, and those such as Mark Twain were just plain wrong if not downright seditious. As the war in the Philippines dragged on, Professor Bernard Moses — founder of the Department of Political Science at the U.C. — assured doubters that

The patriotism of the American people is to make impossible the realization of the dreams of the prophets of evil; and, backed by the morality and manhood of this nation, it is to lead us in the way that is right.

All of this before movies: imagine the certainties that could be implanted in people's minds by a Jimmy Stewart, a John Wayne, or a Wolf Blitzer, or a Thomas Friedman.