Growing up on a farm near Toronto I learned a curious fact about population density among goats - that if you cram too many animals into a restricted living space, these normally mild creatures will become fiercely aggressive, develop physical illnesses and quite often die.
This knowledge was not the result of book learning but of a miserable fortnight I spent, aged 16, when my parents left me to look after the farm while they took a vacation. They had added five new goats to our herd of 120 shortly before they departed, and in the days that followed the barn became the scene of bitter fights and painful, mysterious deaths. I buried four animals in the vegetable garden, and felt anguish as I trundled each new carcass in a wheelbarrow through the rain. Anguish born of my inability to either explain or prevent the deaths of animals I had become very fond of.
It's a long way from a crowded goat barn in southern Canada to a collapsed skyscraper in New York. But since no one seems to have a clue why terrorists would kill so many thousand people, when the political or strategic gains from such an act seem obscure, lessons learned from animals may provide as much insight as any put forward on CNN.
The aimless acts of aggression we all watched on September 11 may well have roots in the population density of human animals, in that as the world shrinks we seem to be stepping on each other's toes at every turn. It's not so much that the planet can't feed and house us, as that in our own mental space we are constantly being jostled by other civilisations, religions, political beliefs, corporate philosophies and personal credos. Many people deal with such psychic overcrowding by switching off, tuning out the incessant media and advertising babble and tending their own gardens. Others, like many readers of this newspaper, move to foreign countries and thereby reduce life to its essentials - learning to communicate, finding work and accommodation. A tiny fraction seem to lash out against the 'invaders', preaching genocide and hurling airliners at defenceless civilians.
It wasn't until years after my experience on the farm that I realised I might have erected new barriers in the paddock, separating the aggressors from the rest, or perhaps more importantly uniting the healthy community against the ill. In a similar vein, if there is a danger in how the United States responds to the recent attacks it is that the wounded animal will withdraw into isolation. Few people may now be thinking of the possible impact that the events of September 11 may have on the Nato expansion planned for next year, but it is crucial that Washington, and Brussels, try to expand the alliance of countries which support Nato's security aims and the democratic principles on which it is based.
In parliament September 12, Slovak politicians expressed scepticism about how the US would now respond to Nato enlargement. Deputy PM Ivan Mikloš said he felt the US would put off expansion while the country focused on its own security needs. František Šebej, head of the parliamentary committee for integration, felt Nato would henceforth be far more choosy in selecting new members, given the perceived risks of adopting countries whose citizens did not unequivocally accept the responsibilities entailed.
But the iron is now white hot, as people around the world are speechless at pictures from the US, and no better time will arrive to strike a new agreement on security against aggression. Not since the beginning of the second world war have countries been so ready to set aside ideological discord in defence against a common threat.
That said, expanding Nato will require some courageous statesmanship. I haven't had time to canvass opinion here, but I did have to sit through a taxi ride last night with a driver who felt the US had got no more than it deserved for its imperialist ways. A Slovak journalist told me how shocked he had been by the opinions expressed at an opera performance where there seemed to be as many people nodding in grim satisfaction to see the US hung with its own petard as there were spectators decrying the savagery of the attack. If such opinions turn out to be representative of many people here, Nato expansion backers will have to do some smooth talking in Washington.
And even if their tongues are gilded, their audience may not be ready to listen. As a group of foreign journalists met in a pub Tuesday night, most of us felt a longing to go home, to be with our families and friends. As if what we saw on television had suddenly revealed the hollowness of the bargain we had made in moving here - foregoing blood ties for adventure, sacrificing childhood farms for wanderlust. This need to huddle and to seek comfort in the familiar, in its visceral power may ultimately cost us all a historic opportunity to reach out for new allies.
17. Sep 2001 at 0:00