Opinion » Columnists

Terrorism & AIDS & Global Priorities

(Dec.3.2003)
So another World Aids Day comes and goes and one cannot help but wonder what difference did it make anyway.

Like many others (hopefully) I watched the impressive live concert in Cape Town, South Africa as it was broadcast live on CNN International on Saturday morning last. As I did I sent an Instant Message on my computer to a friend of mine in Brooklyn telling her that it was on, as I knew she would be interested to watch it. Ironically, the message I got back was that it was not being shown live then on CNN USA. I could not help but wonder what that said about things.

Today there seems to be one issue of pre-eminence upon everyone’s lips – terrorism. And yet with heading for 27 million people suffering from HIV/AIDS in Africa, a figure that utterly dwarves the level of casualties of any kind from terrorism including and since 9/11 and taking into account Iraq too, then I could not help but wonder where our priorities lie in the world today.

That is by no means to denigrate the deaths of those people or their bravery and sacrifice in countering a major problem in the world today in terrorism, but it does pose a legitimate question as to who is deciding what matters most these days.

Some time back, I recalled how terrorism expert, Peter Bergin was being interviewed for a Q&A section on that very same station, CNN again. In it, one of the questions posed to the panel was when will all this terrorism quieten down to which the reply was that it would probably happen when you stop asking experts like us onto the show to talk about it.

It was dry wit indeed (or seemed like it) although true enough in many respects.

Where did we ever get to the point where our whole lives revolve around terrorism after all?

One of the most ad nauseam endlessly quoted clichйs these days is how everything has changed since 9/11 but has it? Has anyone stopped to ponder if that is even true anyway?

The last time that I looked inside a history book, terrorism has been alive and well and going on now for a very long time indeed.

The British had to put up with it from the IRA throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Then the Spanish had their share with the Basques. Colombia are still combating FARC, the Russians with Chechens, and who knows how many different radical groups are flourishing for thirty years and more now in the Middle East. And that is before we take into account Kashmiri separatists in India and the LRA in Uganda for over two decades and a handful of other rebel groups operating up and down the African continent.

Even this current threat from al-Qaida is a decade old itself with intelligence reports of the organizations activities going back as far as 1992 if not earlier.

Nor is the element of attacks of mass destruction new either as weapons of that potential have been available on the black markets for just as long too.

What is new about terrorism however is that it actually happened in America for once.

No one thought it ever would but it did. And when it did on September 11th, it did so in spectacularly horrific fashion unfortunately.

In truth however, one of the most surprising things about that attack on that day was not the extent of it but the fact that it had not happened a long time before then already. It may sound distasteful to say this but the political reality is that the US was lucky to have gone so long without having been attacked on the mainland as it was.

Terrorism is an unfortunate fact of life for many other countries on their own doorstep and has been for some time now. Sadly, it was almost inevitable that it would catch up with the US on its home soil sooner or later.

By stark contrast however, HIV/AIDS has by no means being on the landscape anywhere near as long as political extremism has and yet, whilst it threatens the lives of innumerably more people and even entire populations and economies in places, it will have approximately $1.9 billion spent on it’s prevention this year according to the Global Health Council as opposed to over $400 billion that the US alone will spend on defense.

That is an equation that simply does not add up by any sense of rational.

Yet if you work on the basis that rational is not the criteria here than it all starts to make more sense.

With only one remaining superpower now globally, what it decides are our priorities now can often be the tune that the rest of the international community must dance to. So it is very much of a case of now that I have to deal with this problem then you are all going to have to deal with it with me too.

Of course implicit in this is the arrogant notion that simply because this plague has now arrived at my home then everybody else must stop what they are doing whilst they come to my aid in fighting it. In the meantime, everything else can take a time out on the back burner. The odd speech in sympathy here and there accompanied by a pledge of money which may never ultimately materialize anyway will just have to suffice as my response to the problem for now evidently.

After all, HIV/AIDS is not anywhere near as big a problem in the mainland US as it is in Africa and paying attention to it domestically will not help the next president of the Unites States get elected.

Legendary Def Jam Records boss, Russell Simmons, used to say that he was fighting the war against poverty and injustice.

Of course he was right, but the sad thing is that the people in power these days either cannot see or do not want to see the connection between one fight and the other.  

John Bourke

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