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Dr Bill Durodié


The Final Frontier: America, Science, and Terror, by Dominick Jenkins

The sun rose today on a city whose tallest tower lay scattered in crumbled bits of stone." No, not a reference to the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, but a line from the New York Herald for July 30 1921, relating to a hypothetical air raid on the city using bombs and poison gas.

Dominick Jenkins, an acolyte of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, sets out to identify some striking parallels between America's reaction to the first world war and to the terrorist attacks of the 21st century. His book argues that in seeking to secure themselves against war's horror, Americans of the time contributed to the creation of a world in which the use and fear of terror became more likely. He suggests that in doing so, democracy was compromised through "a diabolical deal" with industry and concludes that to restore liberty, new rights are needed to "enable citizens to intervene in decisions about the direction of scientific research and technological development".

This conclusion was no doubt known to him a priori, yet it appears as the culmination of a chain of strikes against his hit-list of bogeymen, which includes "patrician reformers, military progressives, big business, pure scientists and organised researchers". Such caricatures, along with a cumbersome obsession with "audiences", "labels" and "narratives", will distract those who do not like history being Foucault-ed about with, and may put off the general readership. Nevertheless, his book presents some interesting ideas and evidence.

I agree with him that projecting our worst fears on to existing situations can make matters worse, and that this should be taken to heart by all those currently planning mass information and inoculation campaigns against chemical and biological weapons. Unfortunately, the latter pre-emptive or precautionary approach is one that has a long pedigree, especially among the environmentalist and pacifist groups to which Jenkins adheres. Whether he would be willing to recognise his role in shaping this approach is an interesting question.

Another strong point is his identification of the way in which external threats may be used to induce mass coherence. He records how in May 1921 US citizens became victims of an air attack using dynamite bombs, when a white mob dropped bombs on a black ghetto in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There was predictably little media coverage. A wartime US cartoon depicted the racial situation as an outraged Uncle Sam observing war in Europe through a telescope while behind him lynch law ran rampant through the South.

Jenkins argues that African-Americans were in effect sold out by their own leadership in the form of the black activist and intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, who urged them "to set aside 'special grievances' and give total support to the war". Yet he is forced to admit that officer training gave some African-Americans "leadership experience". Indeed, it was the use of colonial subjects as troops, especially by the French on the basis of democratic principle, that produced pressure for decolonisation in the postwar period; the experience of witnessing white men fighting each other in a barbaric conflict helped to explode the myth of white supremacy.

This double-edged sword exposes the book's main weakness: a tendency to one-sidedness. The notion that particular forms of scientific research or technological development, such as those associated with the chemical industry, necessarily lend themselves to future abuse, smacks of technological determinism. And while America can be used to expose many of the ills of humanity, it can also epitomise some of its greatest achievements. Enlightenment beliefs were not as fixed as Jenkins suggests, either. They led as much to the liberty and equality that he favours, as to the abuses of democracy and power he decries.

In the current war on terror, the parallels between 80 years ago and now appear quite striking, but it is even more important in understanding the present situation to identify the differences. Like the search for a "new frontier" at that time, today's western leaders seem to seek an opportunity to make society cohere around a new sense of purpose. But the absence of common values and beliefs today has revealed our societies to be riven by fissures. Among the military, as in science, there is an aversion to risk, a reluctance to lead and innovate, and a denial by the experts of their own expertise and responsibilities. In such a climate, asking for science to become more democratic, as Jenkins does, inverts our true requirement: to recreate confident, combative individuals before we can aspire to having peaceful, progressive communities.

Published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 28 March 2003