2001 : WHAT NOW?

bruce_sterling's picture
Science Fiction Author, Mirrorshades
purportedly a novelist by trade

In addressing the question of "What Now?" I want to speculate freely on what might happen on a large scale in the near term. Here are some rough scenarios, with my even vaguer estimate of their likelihood.

A. Aum Shinry Kyo II. The malefactors of September 11 are rounded up with little effort, because they are not genuine provocateurs of a Clash of Civilizations; they are merely nuts. Only distantly connected to any serious revolutionary terrorist, they are in fact an obscure splinter cult who are mostly dead at their own hands. The suffering of New York City is seen in retrospect, not as a grand battle over any principle worth fighting for, but as a simple aberration that is both tragic and crazy, a loathsome, Jonestown-like phenomenon. No particular lessons are learned, very little changes in the global scene, but there's a lasting blow to general morale and to humanity's assessment of itself. Society is saddened and sickened, and people around the world are often seen to hesitate before setting foot in a subway or airliner. Probability: 15%

B. Gulf War III. After a great deal of angst and sword-sharpening, there's a quick, surprising Coalition victory. Those who promised a ruthless struggle to the death in the Mother of All Battles are revealed as blowhards. Suicide bombing cells turn out to be careless and unprofessional terrorists, who are easily rounded up by street-wise cops. Americans and allies go back to their barracks, leaving a few extra Southwest Asian bases to keep guard on the troublemakers. A war-leader President with the gratitude of a relieved nation loses his re-election due to economic troubles.
Probability: 25%

C. Cold War II. A sustained ideological and economic struggle sets in between the G-8 and the world's poorest and bitterest countries. There are numerous hot-war flare-ups, much narco-terror, a great deal of ruthless, paramilitary spy skullduggery, and considerable civil dissent from dissidents in the West unable to morally stomach this grinding, Balkan-style dirty war. McCarthyism and witch-hunts flare up, while the sentiment of "Viva Osama" moves to a simmering Central America. There is huge, inflationary spending on imaginary, symbolic, and unusable super-weapons. The general American population is put under a level of police surveillance previously available only to American black people. This grinds on for decades, with America gamely bearing-any-burden, on until the opposition loses all heart and begins drinking itself to death. Probability: 15%

D (1). Pearl Harbor Straight to Bretton Woods. Since there really is no military enemy to fight — a few nasty guys with boxcutters — there is a general economic and diplomatic rearrangement, without WWII's ugly bother of bombing and sacking whole continents. The original enemy — a rather vaporous notion of "terrorism" — is quickly lost sight of in a general, very wide-scale, geopolitical emergence into 21st century Modernity. This global New Deal moves Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam and other longterm pariahs into the "Civilized" camp, while the broken nations that are today considered basket-cases are made into blue-helmet protectorates. The Second World vanishes. From now on, there's just two sides: Real People, and some pariahs.

Among the Real People, there is a great deal of general housecleaning: currency reforms, arms reduction, climate treaties, economic rationalization, demolition of trade barriers, labor laws, emigration, all that sort of thing. Everybody else — The People Without Plumbing, basically — have to live off a combination of empty threats and emergency handouts.

Oddly, the one major power least likely to join the Real People is probably the United States, but the USA may have a grudging unilateral role as a kind of Third Way or Loyal Opposition.

D (2) . 1989 Redux. Upset and alarmed by the unnecessary global mayhem so cynically triggering by madmen, civil society takes to the streets worldwide in a touching display of aspiration and political maturity. Democratization sweeps the Moslem world in a second wave of Velvet Revolution. A grateful mankind sees the martyrs of New York as the unwitting harbingers of a better and kinder way of life, which is full of caring, solidarity, human rights and social justice. This scenario is basically the same as D(1), but seen from the other side of the WTO fence and the Genoa barriers. Since Al Qaeda can't distinguish a Western radical from a Western capitalist, they are both in the same boat now and can henceforth work in tandem.
Probability: 20%

E. Greater Afghanistan. The Coalition suffers an outright military defeat at the hands of indomitable armed peasants, in a ruthless, bloody, punjee-stick dirty war, possibly combined with an unconventional use of weapons of mass destruction. NYC 9.11 turns out to be just the first of a series of bloody Tamerlane-style attacks from a growing and increasingly frenzied horde of enemies of the West. Nerve-shattered, the West takes the last copter from the Saudi embassy and sues for peace.

This Qaeda victory scenario has a number of variants, which could exist singly or in combination.

E1. The Empire Formerly Known As NATO. The US bears the blunt of blame for its clumsy handling of the global conflict, which relied so fatally on the so-called strength of America's arrogant and untenable free-market ideology. The defeated Alliance splits up much like its former mirror image, the Warsaw Pact. Without Persian Gulf oil, the American economy and its war machine both collapse. Severe discord and disillusionment ensues, with crime and corruption skyrocketing. Desperate Russian women leave the streets of every capital in the world and are replaced by desperate American women.

E2(A). The Great Terror. A victory by fanatics careless of life becomes a giant Khmer Rouge-style death machine for Islam; the Aztec charisma of a Qaeda cult requires ever-greater human sacrifice, especially of one's own. A 12th-century lifestyle can only sustain a 12th-century population.

E2(B). A Grand Caliphate. With malignant American and Jewish influence finally scorched from the holy lands of the Umma, a new Golden Age of just and tolerant Universal Islam ensues. It's ruled by Sharia law, under a wise and merciful Caliph who re-unites Sunni and Shi'a and outshines Haroun Al Rashid. A grateful mankind erects many grand and glorious mosques in memory of the warrior saints of Islamic fundamentalism; men whose tactics were rather rough, but in the eyes of history, fully justified. Combined probability of any of the E variants: 10%

F. America Goes Bonkers. The globe's worst fears of a paranoid "Cowboy America" come true, as further terror provocations decapitate the American nation. A ferocious nuclear power, eyeballs gone rigid with a crazed lust for vengeance, launches a massive thermonuclear lynching spree. Probability: 2 %

G. Many More Wild Cards. This is neither an "age of terror" nor an "age of freedom". This is an age of random calamities. It's a genuine end of history, in which the passage of time in human affairs no longer has any rules as we previously understood them. There is no great historical narrative at hand, nor is there any grand scheme by which a rational analyst can make useful sense of events. NYC 9.11 is quickly eclipsed by other, biggest factors even more untoward and shocking: perhaps dumber acts of terror by even smaller groups, plus some Greenhouse calamities, an asteroid strike, some brand-new plagues, or even free beer and five cent nano-genetic intelligent cigars. Humankind has lost all control of our destiny and nothing can restore it.
Probability: 3%