Indeed, there is nothing so disheartening as the orgies of mindless violence which repeat themselves throughout history: the same tired old causes, the same terrible effects, perhaps only on successively greater scale as the technology of wreaking havoc becomes more and more refined.
The fear I have in the aftermath of New York and the Pentagon is not that similar events will be repeated – they surely will be – but that the remedies chosen by the powers that be will simply spur the perpetrators to even greater acts of desperate devastation.
I am not here to lay a wreath on that massive pile of rubble which marks the grave of so many innocents.
I am certainly not interested in defending those who take the lives of others to make a political statement. I am horrified at those who would do so. But in a certain sense that is the point I want to address, before W and his minions put on their spurs and ride off to pursue the bad guys.
These events are an inevitable outcome of the general international system we are largely responsible for having created, and in particular from a couple of our more misguided ventures in those strange desert countries of whose people we know nothing. And this lesson is in danger of being lost on the public because of the insidious change in the modern news media which has reduced all carnage to a media event, all substance to gloss, and all history to bunk.
Why? The question almost seems almost too silly to ask, yet CNN is full of gray eminences scratching their heads and musing whether the cause is “the anti-globalization movement” or perhaps simply “hatred of freedom”, as W proposed.
One expects simplicity from a simpleton, of course, and we cannot expect W to have the intellectual depth to evaluate September 11 as anything other than Die Hard Collection with him playing Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson all rolled up into one seriously bad motherf*cker.
But even The Economist – hardly a lightweight magazine – wrote “it is difficult to find plausible explanations … except in the envy, hatred, and moral confusion of those who plotted and perpetrated them.”
I personally doubt there for the past five years, thousands of bearded mujahedin have been crouching in caves in the desert wastes of Afghanistan, seething with rage at the thought of impressionable Third World teenagers being hoodwinked by Nike and the Backstreet Boys, while their American counterparts waddle off to buy Slurpies at the nearest mini-mall under the auspices of representative democracy. And depressing as it might be, it is hardly enough to make one want to play jeltiner kamikaze.
The answer, of course, is American policy in the Middle East, and Israel in particular. Israel survives only because of American economic and military support, and this fact is not lost on her neighbors. As Israeli bulldozers rumble over Palestinian refugee camps in the pursuit of lebensraum, as rockets and missles rain down on a divided and humiliated people in the name of security, as hundreds of innocents are cut down in this terribly disproportionate struggle, the wider world is repulsed.
Many Arabs and Muslims are enraged. This rage is only deepened by their sense of powerlessness: open warfare is futile against Israel’s vastly superior military might.
American policy in the Middle East has consistently been to divide and conquer: state from state, Sunni from Shia, government from the people. Thus the bloody war between Iran and Iraq was extended by giving material aid to both sides, Egypt was bought off from the anti-Israel coalition with promises of massive aid, Jordan was torn in half by Israeli irredentism and subsequently flooded with refugees.
A masterpiece of post-Cold War realpolitik came with the Gulf War: Iraq, the only remaining substantial military power in the Gulf besides Israel, was given assurances by local American diplomats that an invasion of Kuwait would not lead to retaliation. Hussein took the bait, giving the United States an opportunity to annhilate his military capability.
As a bonus, the war effectively turned Saudi Arabia and Kuwait into American vassal states. Particularly in Saudi Arabia, the royal family suffered a profound alienation from the people during the invasion of Iraq and subsequent use of Saudi bases for ten years of punishing strikes on a devastated and starving country.
As in Egypt, the result has been a widely despised ruling class which wields only tenuous power over an increasingly hostile and radicalized citizenry. As a political maneuver, the Gulf War and subsequent military activity in the region – continual bombing and blockading of Iraq, de facto occupation of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – were sheer brilliance.
As a humanitarian event, it can only be labeled genocide. UNICEF officially estimates that half a million Iraqi children have died since 1991 as a result of the devastation wreaked on the national infrastructure by the war and subsequent sanctions regime. When Madeleine Albright was asked about this, her response was that it is a “hard choice”, but that “we think it is worth the price”. This price is easier to accept when others are paying it, of course.
This, then, is the answer to that “Why?” I see posed tearfully on CNN, with measured rage in the Capitol, and with bumbling incompetence in sanitized Rose Garden press events: we have pursued a decades-long war of aggression on all fronts against the Arab world.
Our policies have led directly to the needless death and displacement of millions of people. They betray the very principles of self-determination on which our own nation was conceived. And they led directly to the events of September 11. As Saddam Hussein aptly pointed out, we have reaped what we have sown.
In The Conversation, Gene Hackman comments “I’m not afraid to die – but I am afraid of murder.” This is the voice of reason; the acceptance of the inevitable, combined with the refusal to contribute to the sum total of misery in the world. Confronted simultaneously with both – with dozens of people committing murder/ suicide with military precision on a horrific scale – the mind is compelled to seek an irrational explanation.
How comforting to find the old bogeyman of Islamic fundamentalism lurking in the background! We almost breathe a sigh of relief at the thought. Bearded fanatics, Kalishnikovs in hand, praying to Allah, driven onward to paroxysms of senseless destruction by implacable and incomprehensible rage – this is a familiar image, terrorism “as seen on TV”.
It is living proof of Camus’ derisory judgement that “God is
maintained only through the negation of human reason.”
More distrurbing is the possibility that September 11 was planned and carried rationally. Perhaps in fear, even terror; perhaps with self-loathing; perhaps simply with detachment; but ultimately as the product of a logical political (or even moral) calculus. In fact it must have been.
The assault clearly involved dozens of people with months or years of training, probably with hundreds others in supporting roles; the planning must have spanned years and multiple continents; the preparation and execution were completed with both flawless military precision and artistic finesse; and the whole thing was carried out under the nose of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement authorities.
Scale alone demands that this not simply be dismissed as blind fanatacism, engineered by men incapable of reason. And indeed, one of the goals of the attack may have been to show precisely that.
What might have been the goal, then? Liberation of one small nation, which has been occupied and brutally repressed by a stronger neighbor? A laudable goal, according to George the Elder, who claimed that “the occupation and overthrow of one small nation is one too many.” Should it matter – from a moral point of view – that that nation’s name is Palestine and not Kuwait?
And if Secretary Albright is correct in saying that this goal is “worth the price” of half a million innocent lives, how shall we judge those who kill one hundredth of that number in pursuit of the same goal? War has been called politics by other means, and terrorism is simply war as it is conducted by the powerless – those who have no weapons save a willingness to kill, and to die. A new kind of war
There has been no shortage of Cabinet-level officials going on the nighttime talk show circuit to impress the grave nature of the new war confronting America. Four items come constitently to the fore, in phrases so simple that even W can master them.
1) It is a new kind of enemy, hard to identify, harder to find, without borders, without infrastructure, and without moral constraints;
2) it will be a long, long war, without quick or even visible wins, one which we may not even be sure when we have won it;
3) it will require new weapons, both at home and abroad; and
4) now is not the time for talking, it’s time to start doing things and get Americans out of danger.
The ramifications of points 1 through 3 – more intelligence and military spending, less public oversight, lifting of the ban on assassinations, suspension of habaeus corpus, dramatic increase of domestic surveillance – are immense and terrifying. The practical impact of point 4 will be to get it all passed without much discussion.
It is hard to imagine anything which could cater more perfectly to the interests of the established Republican elite. Were it not for the ghastly scale of the attack, one would suspect a right-wing coup d’etat.
The script is almost too perfect: an insipid and easily manipulated figurehead President, surrounded by military-industrial complex heavies from the Reagan-era “Evil Empire” days.
The danger – an American totally secure from outside threats, with a technological edge so massive that no foe would dare openly attack; a worldwide information economy dominated by free trade and peaceful relations except in a few isolated trouble spots; and an increasingly liberal population which, if not continually distracted by excitement abroad, might start wondering why in god’s name they are spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually preparing to fight two-front ground wars which will never occur.
Give them too much time and they might even start wondering about urban poverty, and why they have the highest incidence of incarceration in the civilized world.
September 11 will ensure that defense and intelligence budgets rise, when otherwise they would have been in danger of falling precipitously. The beauty of it is in the open-endedness: as W said, “the war on terror … will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated. ” Thus the war will be endless.
As Israel has shown so well, air strikes and assassinations are not particularly effective at convincing terrorists of the error of their ways. Terrorism generally results when the powerful declare open war on the powerless, and it does not stop until either the former declare a ceasefire, or the latter are eliminated altogether. It will be interesting to watch the logic play itself out – a lack of attacks will be interpreted as success, therefore the war will be seen to be ‘working’, while further, possibly more violent attacks will show that more tools and resources are needed to win the war.
A similar argumentation will be used with regard to infringements on civil liberties – the thousands rotting in detention without being charged will be touted as signs of effectiveness, much as overcrowded prisons and privately run concentration camps in the Nevada desert are today held up as evidence that we are winning the war on drugs.
The ever-diminishing military threat was an explicit concern before the Gulf War, and certainly has been since. Colin Powell said ruefully in an interview in 1991, “I’m out of demons. I’m out of villains. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung.” Dick Cheney agreed in 1992, “The threats have become remote, so remote that they are difficult to discern”. But now, at last there is a clear and present danger to American security. And we will fight it with every means at our disposal. Let there be no doubt about that. History and its victims
Bertolt Brecht once wrote that “a society dominated by the rule of force can produce nothing but criminals”. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States created a state of gangland warfare in international relations which lasted for over forty years. In that time, you were either with us or against us – anyone trying to occupy a middle ground was considered to be in the enemy camp.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, only one gang was left, and it quickly proclaimed ownership of the whole neighborhood. With cruise missles raining down on Baghdad as a backdrop, George the Elder pronounced that the rule of law had been replaced by “What We Say Goes”. Always under the facade of an “allied coalition”, of course.
Our policy in areas of strategic importance has historically been very simple – find one or two local, reliable bullies to keep the region in line, and be prepared to come in with massive backup force if necessary. The bully gets the freedom to push his neighbors around as he likes in exchange for toeing the general line and doing some of the dirty work when necessary. Historically in the Middle East the bullies were Iran, Israel, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia.
The fall of the Shah in 1978 complicated the situation immensely: it removed one of the anchors of regional security, added a potentially dangerous enemy to the equation, and raised questions about the stability of one of the other anchors (Saudi Arabia). Thus, the onus for regional policeman fell squarely on Israel. The result is history: a blank check for military hardware, carte blanche for repression in the Occupied Territories, and unflinching United States support in the face of worldwide condemnation.
A more subtle result has been the enshrinement of our alliance with Israel in the lexicon o
f American politics – it is the holy grail of Middle East policy, the key to regional security and by extension to the economic well-being of the world. Mssrs Cheney and Powell have taken the liberty of comparing our current situation to that faced by Chamberlain at Munich in 1938.
Sadly, it bears more resemblance to the Reichstag fire of 1936, which the Nazis staged in order to drum up nationalist sentiment in Germany. The first analogy suggests that war is inevitable. The second suggests that – with a little bit of luck – an informed population might be able to keep a reactionary government from beginning a war which no one will win.
Behind the pretence of intervention in the defence of democracy is the terrible truth of human tradgedy which is its inevitable and indefensible result.
The hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, the victims of death squads of Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala, the Palestinian refugees cowering under a hail of Israeli bullets, the millions of dead and maimed Vietnamese, the nameless victims of the Suhartos and the Pinochets of the last century – these are debts to history which one day will be paid in full, and with interest, as we have only now begun to see.
We can turn war into a gigantic video game, played vicariously by our citizens via CNN, but we cannot erase the carnage in those far-off lands of which we know nothing. And finally, we can no longer pretend that it will never happen to us.
This should be our wake-up call to abandon war as politics by other means, not to lurch into a state of perpetual war with people around the world whose goals a Jefferson, a Wilson, or a Roosevelt might admire: political self-determination, combined with economic independence and development. The reasons for carrying on with this massively militarized version of realpolitik simply no longer exist, if they ever did, and it surely must be clear that it now does more harm than good.
The way out of it is a difficult one, but it is at least clearly marked. Rather than using our political weight to suppress censure of Israel in the Security Council, we should employ it to force them back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians. It should be made clear to them that it is their responsibility to bring peace to the region, even if that means withdrawing to pre- 1967 borders.
The sanctions on Iraq should be lifted immediately and unconditionally, and assistance should be provided both for immediate humanitarian relief and the rebuilding of its shattered infrastructure. While obviously this has to be done over time, and in phases, the end goal should be a demilitarized, politically stable and economically viable Middle East.
I am not naive enough to believe that this will happen, certainly not while that cowboy buffoon and his Cold Warrior relics are puttering around the War Room, envisaging their role in the history books as the saviors of democracy.
Napalm strikes on Afghan villages, free-fire zones in Kabul, and military detention camps for suspected terrorists will doubtless seem like a surer road to glory than the difficult work of constructing a workable international system. A slavish CNN, whose executives pray every night for war, will not cast a critical eye on the root causes of September 11.
What can – and must – happen is a grass-roots campaign to build awareness of how the basic American foreign policy inevitably engenders this sort of violent reaction, and which aspects are particularly critical in the flashpoints of world politics today. The acute problems of the day – Iraq and Israel – can be addressed to some extent by grassroots lobbying.
There are extensive NGO networks dedicated to ameliorating the condition of the Palestinians and the Iraquis, but they are desperately in need of popular backing. The longer-term project of transforming the nature of how American conducts her foreign affairs sounds like a pipe dream. Nevertheless, both historical precedent and modern reality indicate that it might very well be feasible.
Historically, Americans foreign policy has shown itself to respond, albeit slowly, to the pull of popular priorities. The devastation we wreaked in the Philipines during its conquest and subsequent occupation weakened the public appetite for imperialist adventures: immediately afterward, the First World War showed the ultimate folly of simple territorial aggrandizement as a national goal. Kennedy was unwilling to risk a direct invasion of Cuba, and sought proxies to carry out the botched Bay of Pigs assault.
Nixon was willing to commit mass murder on an unprecedented scale in Vietnam in order to force a deal at the bargaining table, but he did so because he recognized that the public was no longer willing to fight the war. The hand of friendship which Reagan so gladly extended to dozens of brutal Third World despots had to be withdrawn after the spectacular hypocrisy of the Iran-Contra affair. George the Elder claimed that we had “beaten the Vietnam syndrome”, but it is worth noting that America only dares intervene militarily now when the risk of casualties is basically zero. So there is progress, though at times the scale seems nearly geologic.
More importantly, perhaps, is that power politics is simply outdated and impractical. In a realistic economic analysis, the hundreds of billions spent on military hardware simply have a recessionary and inflationary impact on the American economy, crowding out otherwise productive investment.
Like agricultural subsidies and industry trade protections which ultimately harm consumers, military spending is simply kept in place by a network of powerful business interests which have become entrenched in Washington over the past sixty years. But the fact remains that most of this gargantuan war machine serves no practical purpose. It is irrefutable that keeping ‘rogue states’ in line costs many, many times the benefits which accrue from doing so.
The heartless logic of cost-benefit analysis will one day catch up with our carrier battle groups and the NSA, and their obsolescence will become clear.
But in the meantime, it is our duty as responsible citizens to remember that it is in our names that cluster bombs will shower down on the Third World bogeyman du jou, whoever it happens to be; that foreign activists will be assassinated in the name of our freedom; that paramilitary thugs will soon be raiding homes without warrants in the name of our security.
And when the inevitable response to this state-sanctioned terror comes, the price may even be more terrible than what we have already paid. I hesitate to think where the cycle may end. We are on a slippery slope which could easily become a cliff. As Rousseau said, “man must be forced to be free”: and perhaps the shock of September 11 was necessary to make us as citizens reclaim the right to make these decisions about what a human life is worth, and what are acceptable prices to pay in pursuit of our national interests.
This is a debt we owe to our own national heritage, and one which we must accept. History, and its victims, will not absolve us if we fail.