Our own feeling of safety collapsed with the Twin Towers

By Jaana Kanninen

My son has just entered the life of a young adult. To his satisfaction, he has been able to start studying his favourite subjects; he is starting his own home and is deep into his dreams of the future. On the evening of 11th of September he rang me and said in a shocked voice: "When I saw the WTC tower collapse, I had a feeling that I was collapsing."

Many other people have rung me in the weeks after the event, expressing alarm. Some have felt the need to go through their own and their relatives' past trips to New York, some friends have told me their experiences of visiting the World Trade Centre. Someone else was just anguished and said she feared the worst: the threat of a world war is present here amongst us.

Time has stopped. We are living in moment zero, because right now, these days, we don't know what turn events will take. Is there going to be a spiral of mad revenges, violence begetting violence? Will there be a show of force from the powerful which will make the weak even weaker? Is the world going to divide into two even more pronounced camps than before? Will the divide between South and North be even more overpowering? Or is a wall between East and West being built? For heaven's sake, we are located on the border between East and West.

Or could the end result of all this horror and terror, after all, be a self-exploration of the Western countries which would help to understand what led to these horrifying deeds? And in the long run, is there a possibility of changing the unjust structures in the world which have created this much of hatred and bitterness? Is there an opening for eliminating the sicknesses of our time: greed, selfishness and arrogance?

Right now we don't know.

Neither East nor West

Finland is a small country on the periphery of Europe and has as its neighbour the big and mighty Russia. The Finns like to think of themselves as a very European nation and especially a Western European one. However, in reality Finland is located at a point where West turns into East, East into West. Finland is neither East nor West, but somewhere in between. There is no way of changing this fact.

Because of its geographical location Finland has had to manoeuvre in world politics in a way different to that of some other small and sparsley populated countries. During the Cold War the tool in this balancing act was the policy of neutrality which was supposed to protect Finland from big power confrontations (although with the threat of a nuclear war at its worst, no one felt very safe even under the umbrella of neutrality). However, occasionally there was much bitter criticism of Finland's policy of neutrality and consequent closing of eyes to human rights violations in the great neighbour-state. The concept of "Finlandisation" became part of the vocabulary of the Western world.

However, with its policy of neutrality, Finland could indeed stay outside the Cold War conflicts.

The situation changed when the Soviet Union collapsed and the bi-polar world became a uni-polar one. Finland's giant neighbour remained a giant, but Russia's political power was only a fraction of that of the Soviet Union. This made it possible for Finland to join the European Union in the middle of the 90s. During the Cold War, this would have been considered a flagrant violation of neutrality. Joining the EU was made easier by the fact that at least officially, Finland didn't need to make any new security policy choices, and was thus not forced to give up its neutrality. However, the word used now was "non-alignment" instead of the old neutrality. But even as a member of the EU, Finland has been emphasising member countries' independence in defence questions. In this way, Finland gave up its independent foreign policy but retained the right to decide on questions of war and peace. The question of joining NATO at that stage was almost taboo, even if it did feature in discussions every now and then.

Now, the dreaded alliance has come nearer. Even before the terrorist strikes against the United States, President Tarja Halonen said that she considered it self-evident that the Baltic countries south of Finland would eventually join NATO. It is inevitable that an open debate about Finland's possible NATO membership will take place sooner or later. Whether the terror attacks in the United States will speed up this discussion and which direction this discussion will take, remains to be seen. Arguments from both sides are heard all the time. Those who want NATO membership think it makes even more sense now. Those who have opposed it, interpret the recent events as a clear warning to stay outside.


Foreign Ministers' courage

Finnish politicians have reacted quite calmly to the terror strikes against the United States. During the last two weeks the President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister have repeatedly said that Finland is not at war, and Finland will not start using the war-like language which the United States has adopted when describing the current situation. Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja has been especially careful. He has emphasised that Finland will under no circumstances send soldiers after terrorists. He has also said that the present situation is a good opportunity to strengthen the international system of justice. As a matter of fact, Finland wanted a stronger wording in this respect in the EU summit than the one agreed.

The obligatory rhetoric announces, however, that Finland "shows solidarity and gives psychological, moral and political support to the United States' fight against terrorism". Of course, there is not much else Finland as a member of the EU can say, since independent foreign policy was given away with the EU membership. In spite of our moderation, we are participating in a machinery of violence, whether we want to or not. Aligning oneself with countries chasing terrorists does not seem to go against the holy principle of non-alignment.

The Foreign Minister has shown admirable political courage by recommending some soul-searching to the United States. He has reminded people of the fact that during the Cold War, the United States itself supported Taliban as well as bin Laden. Those who have thought that the old culture of Finlandisation lives on, only now towards the West, have not found evidence for their fears.

The one organisation which hasn't had much to say about the world situation is Finland's peace movement. It has remained as quiet as a mouse during these troublesome days, as if paralysed by the threat of war.

Finns are wondering — probably as are people in most countries which are participating in the campaign against terrorism — whether recent events will increase racism and intolerance towards foreigners and especially towards Muslims. Finland's Muslim population is very small but a few isolated unpleasant incidents have taken place. Concern has also been expressed that the tightening of European security policy will have an effect on ordinary citizens and limit their freedom. What will happen to demonstrators — if anyone any more dares to appear in the streets to demonstrate? Does my son, who has grown up in an open atmosphere, which encourages social activity, still want to use his own brain and express opinions even if they go against the trend? The general atmosphere of fear is tangible.

Only when we know how, where and when the United States strikes against terrorism, can we see how deep a wound these events will leave in Finnish society. Until then we just have to live this life of ours, accepting our own anxiety. In a globalised world, not even Finland is safe.

Helsinki, 25 September 2001

Jaana Kanninen is a broadcaster and journalist working for the Radio News of the Finnish Broadcasting Company. She specialises in environmental issues, economic development and human rights.

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