Build Bridges, Not Bombers

Minnesota Bridge

Foreign policy and bridges are not typically associated with one another, except perhaps in the metaphorical sense, as with President Clinton’s “building a bridge to the twenty-first century” campaign slogan. The recent tragedy in Minneapolis, however, in which the collapse of an interstate highway bridge across the Mississippi River left at least 5 people dead and over 100 injured, raises the prospect of a more material relationship.

At first glance, the multitude of problems confronting the aging U.S. infrastructure has no clear link to topics of war and peace, military occupation, or Washington’s disastrous foreign policies. And yet, as basic domestic needs such as education, health care, and infrastructure maintenance are carelessly sacrificed to feed our government’s imperial urges, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid the connection (however indirect) between the carnage produced by our overseas “adventures” and the twisted steel and concrete rubble now littering our country’s most famous waterway.

As a freshman at the University of Minnesota almost a decade ago, I could see the I-35W bridge from my dorm room window. I’ve crossed the bridge more times than I now care to remember, including with my family as we drove from our home in south Minneapolis to our lake cabin in northern Minnesota. The return trip across the bridge offered a spectacular view of the modern Minneapolis skyline, a pleasant reminder that we lived in one of the safest, cleanest, and most cosmopolitan cities in the country, a place seemingly immune to disaster.

The shock of the photographs from the tragedy of August 1 has already given way to public outrage. As well it should. Within a few days of the bridge’s catastrophic collapse, observers around the country were drawing parallels to Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, one does not have to search online for long to find “I-35W” in the same mention as “Iraq,” quite the improbability just a short time ago.

According to a study carried out by Columbia University economist and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes, the costs of the Iraq war are likely to top $2 trillion all told, a figure which includes the economic costs of higher oil prices and an expanded U.S. budget deficit but excludes the economic costs to Iraq itself (and, of course, the immeasurable human suffering caused by the violence unleashed through Washington’s invasion). Contrast the $2 trillion for war with the $180 billion over 20 years that the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates is needed to “eliminate all bridge deficiencies” in the U.S., and it becomes apparent the degree to which our country’s priorities have grown seriously out of whack.

During anti-war demonstrations on September 24, 2005, Americans of all backgrounds marched around the White House in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to demand that our politicians “make levees, not war.” As President Bush toured the collapsed bridge site in Minneapolis on August 4, groups of local peace activists urged Bush to “build bridges, not bombers.” Carrying signs calling for “investment in infrastructure, not war,” demonstrators tapped into the latent anger most area residents feel towards Bush, even as the Twin Cities prepares to host the Republican convention next summer.

The protests, organized by Peace in the Precincts and Women Against Military Madness (WAMM), two Minnesota-based activist groups, were held in a number of locations in the Twin Cities area, including the Lake Street Bridge, which connects St. Paul and Minneapolis across the Mississippi River. That bridge, home to anti-war protests and vigils for many years dating back to the era of U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s, will now undoubtedly service additional traffic as a result of the I-35W collapse.

Although they received scant attention from the flock of journalists in town to cover the ongoing recovery efforts and Bush’s visit, the protests portend a growing trend – the politicization of things once thought to be mundane, uncontroversial issues, such as the maintenance and safety of bridges and levees and the efficiency and fairness of disaster relief efforts. They also indicate the “critical element” within the U.S. population is, in a sense, growing stronger, mainly through recognition of the important links between peace and justice abroad and safety and security at home.

As the nation’s attention gradually turns away from the latest tragedy, Minnesotans will not be alone in grappling with the harrowing images of the span’s sudden and unexpected failure. Difficult questions and lingering uncertainties will continue to confront the country as a whole. An estimated 160,000 bridges have been judged to be “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete” by the American Society of Civil Engineers, and they are not going to fix themselves. Who knows what other crises will emerge as the country’s national resources are continuously devoted to the occupation of Iraq and the fallacious “Global War Against Terrorism?”

Ultimately, it is not only tens of thousands of U.S. bridges which are “structurally deficient,” it is also our democracy. Our political system, at least in its present state, is seemingly incapable of transforming widespread public opposition to the Iraq war into an actual policy to end it – to change course and bring the troops home. At the same time, politicians and policymakers are unable or unwilling to foster real security for their constituents. A series of events – from New Orleans up the Mississippi to Minneapolis – suggests that U.S. citizens are not nearly as safe as we often assume. Overseas, our soldiers continue to fight and die in Iraq, with no end in sight. At home, we wait for the next collapse.

Rubrick Biegon is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and American University’s School of International Service. He grew up in St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN, and currently resides in Washington, DC, where he works as a consultant. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.