Like many Americans, I’ve been trying to find occasional respite from the horrors of Sept. 11. And like many Americans, I found it through the video rental store. My wife and I watched a delightful Australian movie called `The Dish.’ Having seen part of it two months ago on an aeroplane, I thought it would be just what the situation called for: an absorbing, benevolent and inspiring story that would remind me that evil doesn’t dominate. And it worked… for a while.
The title refers to the radio-telegraph dish in a small Australia town that provided the television pictures of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. The plot involves the struggle of the local crew to keep the dish operational. It is an innocent movie, not in the sense that it is naéve, but in the sense that the people are untouched by evil or even cynicism. With the exception of an unsympathetic, politically correct, cliché-spouting teenager, the cast of characters admires the space programme and the human efficacy it represents.
I found myself thinking of the crew and townspeople as personifying the traits that are quintessentially American and that represent the best in people of any nationality: optimism, common sense, independence, self-confidence. I was carried off into this benevolent world – until the dish’s supervisor, reprimanding a complaining employee, said: “We are in the middle of the greatest feat ever attempted.” Ironically, this beautiful insight brought me back to current events, because a horrible contrast suddenly struck me and stayed with me throughout the rest of the film. For the individuals involved in the moon landing, their greatest feat was an unprecedented scientific/technological achievement; but for the terrorists, their greatest feat was… pure destruction.
The men and women of the space programme, and their legions of scientific antecedents, spent countless hours acquiring the knowledge and developing the moral values that led to the moon landing. Not many years later, Osama Ben Laden and his fellow terrorists also spent many hours of planning, sitting not in laboratories and libraries, but in tents and caves, with one goal: not to create, but to annihilate human creations. The scientists measured their success by how much they could produce. The terrorists measure their success by how much they can destroy. The space programme represents life, Ben Laden represents death. That is the philosophic choice the two sides represent – and the choice we all have to make.
Many commentators, in and out of the government, note that the World Trade Centre was targeted because it represented the American way of life. It did indeed represent the American way of life – more accurately, the Western way of life, a way of life found in individuals in various places, across the globe. And what does that mean? Like the space programme, the Trade Centre stood for the essential values of Western civilisation: reason, science, production, self-esteem, freedom, success.
Underlying our technological achievements is the conviction that success is possible, that if you put your mind to the task, you can accomplish great things, that through your own efforts you can forge a human way of life out of the wilderness. You are not the victim of chance or genetic makeup; you are not the plaything of the stars or some ineffable deity. You are a human being, able to think, act and produce on your own, able and worthy of living a joyous life here on earth. And that is precisely what the terrorists want to destroy. That is precisely why they hate us.
There are too many terrorists worldwide for their actions to be explained as psychotic. Whether they are Osama Ben Ladens or Ted Kaczynskis, they take their philosophy seriously. For them, evil lives in the form of Western man, in a capitalist society, using his own mind to reshape the world to achieve his own happiness. The terrorists want to destroy that.
Their ideal world, the Eden envisioned by these nihilists, is a negation – a world absent of things: no skyscrapers, no space programme, no science, no technology. It is a world devoid of the products of the rational, independent human mind. It is a world of self-abnegation, submission and subservience. It is a world of living death.
The fundamental battle we face today consists not of bombs and rockets, but of ideas – the ideas of those who value human life on earth versus the ideas of those who oppose it.
The writer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Ayn Rand Institute in Marina del Rey, California. The institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of `Atlas Shrugged’ and `The Fountainhead.’ He contributed this article to the Jordan Times.