Writing this on September 11, it would be difficult to think of a topic other than the five-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks. The morning in New Jersey is sunny and crisp, with a clear view of Manhattan, just as it had been five years ago. How could anyone set out to turn such a perfect gift of a day into one of chaos, destruction, and death?
As a country, we responded with patriotism, anger, fear, and disbelief. As engineers, you responded as you do to all crises, devising inventions to help solve our problems.
We've poured billions into airport screening, border control, environmental monitoring, and first-responder communications. Then there's the government's rollout of hardware and software for monitoring and data-mining programs, sifting through a sea of electronic commerce and conversation.
We've also spent billions on a war that has split the country and fueled debate on how to define security. We expected "shock and awe," the quick, technologically guided, remote warfare we had seen in the first Gulf War. Instead, our soldiers conduct door-to-door combat, where technology can't relieve their agonizing judgement calls. No sensor can positively identify a jihadist. (To get a taste of the controversy surrounding military electronics, take a look at the online reader feedback to "Picatinny Arsenal: R&D Home Of America's Lethal Firepower" at www.electronicdesign.com, ED Online 13276.)
THE MELTING POT
But despite the lives lost and billions spent, do we have any better understanding of why we were attacked or whether we are truly any more secure? There has been much speculation around the anniversary: Have we avoided additional attacks because of these preventive measures, or does our good fortune stem from the easy assimilation of ethnic groups in the U.S., meaning less internal anger fomenting here as opposed to other parts of the globe?
The New York Times reports that last year, 96,000 people from Muslim countries became permanent residents of the U.S. That's more than in any year in the previous two decades. Religious tolerance is one of the cores of U.S. culture. We should be proud of our "failure of imagination" when it comes to imagining violence and martyrdom in the name of religion. True, we have a legacy of racial divisiveness. But when it comes to religious tolerance, we have a remarkably united society. After five or even 50 years, we will never have an understanding of the motives behind religious warfare.
The story of immigrant assimilation is the story of the United States, but Lady Liberty's beacon shines particularly brightly now, as U.S. society is more diverse than it ever has been. The electronic engineering community is also in the middle of a major diversification, with the best and brightest continuing to come to the U.S. from all over the globe. (Be sure and watch for next month's special YOUR issue, which examines the changing face of the U.S. electronics engineering community.)
Five years after the attacks, despite fear and xenophobia, we're more globally connected than ever. The power of instantaneous, free worldwide communications creates an inexorable rush to a more open planetary society.
A GLOBAL AUDIENCE
I write this column for 150,000 North American print readers. But it's also posted on the Internet, where it can reach a worldwide audience of hundreds of thousands more. You readers look to Electronic Design to stay on the leading edge of technology, but the whole planet has access to our content in real time. This accessibility spurs competition and speeds technology development.
In the world of electronic engineering, global collaboration jumpstarts new technologies that can improve lives around the world in healthcare, communications, security, and in myriad other ways. The collaboration also helps to unify us as a society. I enjoy corresponding with friendly readers who e-mail from all over the Earth.
The last five years have seen the explosion of global communications coupled with the current boom in digital media. With Web 2.0, everyone is posting their profiles, blogs, photos, and videos, sharing their stories with the world. These unifying forces are much greater than the divisive and destructive ones that ripped into us five years ago. Perhaps the power of global communications is the greatest deterrent to terrorism in the long run.