The horrible tragedy of Sept. 11 has changed America in ways that will do harm for decades. In some respects it may seal the fate of the Earth itself.
We refer here not to the coming war against bin Laden's terror network, which is set to happen and will hopefully come to a successful conclusion in an undetermined future, but to the war footing mentality that such an effort requires. In real terms, as articulated by U.S. President George W. Bush and every major government official, the present national security mindset of the U.S. is certain to dominate the country's attention and marshal its resources for years.
Osama bin Laden, in his monstrously inane tunnel vision of a world of violence without end, has not only wantonly annihilated the lives of thousands upon thousands of innocent people, he has severely wounded the possibility of reasoned debate and politicized pressure on a large number of issues of substantial importance.
All arguments, on all issues that might have required any kind of a challenge to modern American existence are now being subjugated to national security concerns. These go now to the far back burner. While laser-like focus on national security is clearly necessary in such times as these, nevertheless, it augurs badly for causes crucial to many Indigenous and American Indian peoples.
Access to energy sources is one core concern. As Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., asserted a few days ago, while discussing a variety of amendments to the defense appropriations bill, all agendas in this area now shift to national security. Sen. Inhofe warned that America's nearly 60 percent dependency on foreign oil could hamper its 'ability to make war.' Thus, past concerns about whether to drill on previously protected parts of American soil may no longer hold sway.
While there is no clear evidence thus far to support Sen. Inhofe's assertion, as in fact Afghanistan produces no oil, Iraq has been sanctioned from selling its oil to the West and Saudi Arabia and other oil production nations from the Persian Gulf are on board, it is true that dependency on oil itself weakens American independence. Nevertheless, such assertions are of high importance to Native people, as many of our communities, from the far North to the American Southwest (oil, coal, uranium), and even to the Amazonian rainforest (if we allow ourselves to think hemispherically) revolve around the energy needs and policies of the United States.
In Alaska, the debate around whether to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) takes a radical turn to the right. Serious concerns about the porcupine herd on which the Gwich'in people depend for survival are in danger of being completely discarded. No doubt that a few voices will still speak for this side of the debate, but the exploding jetliners on Manhattan's skyline can easily drown them out. Beyond the horrendous casualty count at ground zero, waves of effect from bin Laden's act of terror will continue to swell.
In the Southwest, the new quest for uranium that would fuel renewed and now emboldened interest in nuclear power threatens to override the concerns of several Navajo generations who still can point to 16 large, abandoned, uranium mines and the more than 1,000 smaller uranium mining sites left behind to contaminate their lands as a result of the last uranium boom. After 50 years, fewer than half of these have been cleaned up and the ensuing health hazards have not been adequately addressed.
Even the overwhelming scientific evidence of a world slowly and dangerously warmed by carbon dioxide emissions ? Global Warming and its resulting climate change ? is now easy to sweep under the mantle of decisions required by war.
Issues of land claims, often dependent on the participation of the U.S. Justice Department, hardly even on the plate before Sept. 11, are much less likely to get any serious attention. Ditto for all appropriations and defenses against encroachments on tribal sovereignty ? all that require a special understanding of the complex legal history of Indian rights.
For all of American Indian concerns, complaints and struggles with the American system, it is completely true that within American democracy, there has been substantial room to discuss, debate and organize around issues of importance to Native peoples. Where corporations and governments have stepped out and committed destructive acts, community leaders and activists, with a lot of hard work and sometimes struggling against huge odds, have been able to stake out room for their concerns. American society has never been perfect, but much has been possible that has not been so in most of the world.
Intelligent, astute and honest leadership on many issues has provided political, legal, economic and sometimes social disobedience strategies that can work. Access to media and to communications resources, even while the large conglomerates have concentrated control over the national channels, has consistently grown for poor and minority communities. Coalitions have been built that have changed laws and pushed back forces destructive to American Indian communities. It was never free or easy, but, in America, it was possible.
The present moment calls into question that more or less positive reality. Bin Laden's crime, beyond the horror of Sept. 11, has hurt many of our causes in serious ways. America is not the same and the change is not over. It is a time for serious reflection, because our issues are important to our generations and we must not falter in the pressing of matters that are crucial to our communities. But full awareness and increased understanding of what the new terrain means for our peoples and communities is very much in order.
In many profound ways this is a time for vigilance.