This is the first part in a series (of unknown length) on the role of information in the 21st century. Obviously this is a very broad topic, and it is likely that I will go off on tangents from time to time, but it is one that I've been giving some thought to of late. So please bear with me and forgive the loosely-structured nature of this discussion.
Many members of Western societies take the flow of information for granted. We have unfettered access to the internet, 24-hour news networks, and YouTube. In the US, we have the freedom of speech guaranteed to us in the 1st Amendment. However, a huge portion of the world lives without the flow of information we enjoy. I would like to spend some time on how a state which constricts its citizens' access to information can alter the future of a society, and indeed the world.
Imagine living in a society where you have NO access to the internet, NO news channels, and NO phone lines. Further, imagine living under the rule of a government which actively seeks to cut of all ties to the outside world. There is no rule of law, no access to education, and pervasive fear that expressing one's opinion could result in execution. This was life for the Afghan people for generations, living under one repressive regime after another, largely the result of the Russian and British Empires battling for control over Central Asia in what is known as The Great Game. In fact, the state of Afghanistan was CREATED by the British and ruled through puppet governments for quite some time.
The result of this history is a population who have had little to no exposure to the outside world and whom have been victim of one repressive regime after another. When the Taliban emerged with control of the country following the Soviet withdrawal, it used Islam as a means to control the Afghan people. Of course, this version of Islam was so extreme and so far from the mainstream that it could barely be identified as the same religion practiced by over a billion people in the world. In some capacity or another, Islam was used as a political tool to gain power and create a population of people who were utterly resistant to outside influence.
Now, you might be thinking that it is impossible for the restriction of information and the teaching of extremist ideology by a government to have that much of an influence on a population. A good example is in some former Soviet states in the region - Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan - the Soviet union was so successful at erasing the history of these societies, that people living today cannot tell you an accurate history of their past because all recorded knowledge has been purged, and all first-hand information went away as previous generations passed on. This was all part of the USSR's plans to "Sovietize" the Central Asia region.
When the movie Titanic illegally made its way into Afghanistan (3-4 years after it came out), many Afghan men began styling a haircut they referred to as "The Leo," obviously after Leonardo DiCaprio's haircut from the movie. The Taliban immediately BANNED this haircut because it represented an outside influence to Afghan society. The Taliban was so repressive that people were actually put in jail if they were seen sporting this haircut!
So, why should we care about all of this? The short answer is what happened on September 11th. It is no secret that the biggest cause of terrorism is NOT a hatred for the West or free societies. Rather, it is the product of extremely repressed, extremely poor people who have in essence been brainwashed as a result of their living conditions. It is easy to generate hatred for America when the people who supposedly hate us hear only the information their government wants them to hear.
Al Qaeda will not succeed in their goal simply because more and more people are gaining access to information about the outside world and are being exposed to the real America. We did not win the Cold War because of tanks, machine guns, or the existence of a nuclear arsenal capable of cracking our planet in half. Rather, we won because our country won the ideological battle in the eyes of the world. Communism failed as an ideology because the people living under the Soviet regime saw the freedom and prosperity enjoyed by the average American.
I have always been a proponent of the "lead by example" approach; it is what ultimately won the Cold War and it is why we will ultimately win the ideological battle with extreme Islam. Indeed, the strongest asset we have as a nation is our ability to set an example and generate respect among people of the world. It is therefore absolutely CRUCIAL that we maintain this asset as we move into the future. We must ensure that the "American dream" is alive and well; that EVERY person in this country has the opportunity to make a better life for themselves.