In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans raised a remarkable $1.2 billion for the victims and their families. President Bush and the media have rightly emphasized the magnitude of private giving, as well as the heroic efforts of tens of thousands of volunteers. This spontaneous outpouring of assistance shows America at her best.
The relief effort is also a sign of our resolution. This image of neighbor helping neighbor, countryman helping countryman, tells the world that America is united and unbowed in the face of terror. It’s a message to Osama bin Laden and his accomplices: You may have destroyed our buildings, you may have grievously injured our families, but you cannot destroy or injure our spirit. The contributions to the Red Cross, United Way, and other September 11 relief funds will not only ease the distress of many of the victims’ families; they are also an important psychological preparation for the nation as it girds for war against a new evil empire.
Once short-term needs are met, philanthropists may want to consider how they can most effectively contribute to the war on terrorism—in what could well be a protracted conflict of ten years or more. The central challenge is not just how to aid the victims. It is to use philanthropic resources to prevent acts of terrorism from occurring at all. There are three great opportunities for philanthropists to make a difference: promoting the generation and exchange of ideas in foreign policy and national security; fostering emergency preparedness; and supporting freedom-loving organizations in the Islamic world.
Ideas with Consequences
The federal government will take the lead, of course, on the national security front, with state and local governments playing an important supporting role in homeland defense. This is as it should be: The single most important function of our national government is to protect American citizens from foreign enemies who threaten our lives, our liberty, and our pursuit of happiness. Victory over terrorism will depend more on the military and diplomatic actions of presidents than the philanthropic decisions of foundations and individual donors.
But in a number of areas, philanthropy has a comparative advantage and could usefully complement government efforts.
Victory over terrorism may require sustained mobilization and vigilance over several decades. Some presidents may not act sufficiently forcefully or may be hampered by a flagging public distressed by casualties or ceaseless conflict. New private institutions may be necessary to fortify the political and intellectual case for the War on Terror at home and abroad.
Independent thinking is one of the great benefits of private funding. As America wages war against one supporter of terrorism at a time, it may have to make prudential alliances of convenience with some awfully unsavory regimes, some of which support terrorism themselves. Our government will not be able to speak honestly about these regimes or make the case for future military or diplomatic action against them— but independently funded scholars can.
Over the past decade, the fields of national security, international relations, and geographic area studies (North African studies, Central Asian studies, and the like) have attracted few young scholars with a serious interest in the defense of freedom and the West. While funding from the military and intelligence agencies might jeopardize a scholar’s reputation for independence, private funders can replenish intellectual capital in these fields by sponsoring graduate fellowships, research grants, conferences, and academic chairs. Especially important is first-rate scholarship about Islam.
President Bush has said that the case for missile defense is even more compelling after September 11, but he is likely to be opposed by congressional Democrats and European Social Democrats who still think arms control treaties can protect us against Osama bin Ladens with missiles. Privately funded research institutions and outreach campaigns can educate the public and key opinion leaders in America, Europe, and Asia about why missile defense is central to homeland defense.
Protecting the Public
As in national security, government will take the lead in public health and emergency preparedness, but private donors can play a significant complementary role. To protect against biological and chemical warfare, America desperately needs crash research programs for the development of vaccines; the detection, diagnosis, and treatment of infectious diseases; and the development of antidotes to toxic chemicals. While federal health agencies will supply most of the money, private funding is frequently the best route for experimenting with original ideas and unfashionable scientific approaches.
This is a great opportunity for foundations with expertise in medical research and health care. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, works to improve treatment for diseases affecting Third World countries. Perhaps we need two or three multi-billion-dollar foundations specializing in protection against bioterrorism.
Community foundations and individual donors may want to consider public health measures for their own communities, including demonstration projects and experiments in the distribution of antibiotics and vaccines, training programs for doctors and rescue squads, and the expansion of neighborhood watch programs to report suspicious activity.
Freedom and Islam
Just as Ronald Reagan stressed that America was the enemy of Communism but the friend of the Russian people, President Bush has eloquently argued that America is the enemy of terrorism but the friend of Islam. Victory over bin Laden and his ilk will require driving a sharp wedge between nihilistic terrorists and the political, cultural, and religious mainstream of the Islamic world. This is primarily the task of statecraft, but private philanthropists can work independently in several important areas.
Most vital will be helping freedom-loving organizations and intellectuals in the Islamic world build connections among themselves and with similar organizations in the West. If the Muslim world is to live in peace with Christians and Jews, and hence with America, it is critical to support Islamic leadership groups dedicated to religious freedom and pluralism.
Donors can also support serious scholarship on the great traditions of Islam that teach respect for law and human life and religious tolerance. They can broadcast through the Muslim world serious studies of the close similarity among Christianity, Judaism, and Islam on many of the modern world’s great moral issues. They can also support and publicize studies of Islam in America—especially those showing that devout Muslim life is flourishing here in harmony with liberal democracy.
Finally, foundations can help to shine a spotlight on the vile rhetoric about America and Israel that is all too common in many Muslim countries, and even in some Muslim circles in the United States. The strategic goal is to discredit this rhetoric publicly and thoroughly, forcing Muslim leaders to disavow it.
A Cruel Illusion
For donors, as for all Americans, the most important lesson of September 11 is that we ignore foreign policy and national security at our peril. During the last decade, the United States has been the world’s undisputed superpower, and many Americans thought we could insulate ourselves from external threats. That has proved to be a cruel illusion.
Among donors committed to freedom, there has been a sharp decline in funding for defense and foreign policy work since the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. That trend is likely to be reversed with the crumbling of the World Trade towers. And the Islamic world is not the only threat to American liberties: China, Latin America, and other regions deserve the careful attention of philanthropists.
Many donors, of course, will not jump on the national security bandwagon. They will stick to their historic missions and focus on education, religion, the arts, and other domestic needs. This is as it should be. America’s broken families, neighborhoods, and schools need rebuilding as much as lower Manhattan.
But donors who want to pitch in and aid the War on Terror should consider the valuable contributions they can make without usurping the public sector’s rightful role as guardian of national security. In the end, what could be more philanthropic than working for the peace and security of the inhabitants of this troubled and anxious world?