It would not have been hard to improve on President George Bush’s normal listless speaking style and, faced with the great challenge of his speech to the joint session of Congress on Thursday night, the President managed the task capably enough. Reduced to its essentials, the speech was a declaration of lawlessness, with the concept of “justice” being reduced to that of the freedom to shoot the other guy on whatever terms America may find convenient. How else are to interpret the much quoted line that “whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.” This is the language of terrorism.
“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make,” Bush declared. “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Thus has the founding charter of the United Nations been finally discarded, even as a fig leaf, and the founding charter of NATO been reduced to a line from a western.
In terms of substance Bush has committed America and its allies to the overthrow of the Afghan Taleban, with occupation of Afghanistan apparently part of the schedule. Here at CounterPunch we have no affection for the Taleban, any more than we have nothing but revulsion for the dreadful terrorist acts of September 11. But Bush and advisers seem to be embarking on a course of folly that will not strike down, may even bolster the Taleban, and that could indeed lead to a coup in Pakistan, installing in power army officers deeply complicit with the Taleban and also in possession of nuclear weapons.
Bush pronounces the forthcoming war as one between freedom and fear, with God most definitely on America’s side. We are now witnessing the opening volleys of an assault on constitutional freedoms in this country by a government in which opposition has been effectively been suspended. More than once, on Thursday night, we heard gleeful use of the ominous phrase, “there is no opposition”. As Bush talked about unified national purpose, the news cameras lingered on Rep Barbara Lee of Berkley, everlastingly to her credit the only member of Congress to vote against authorization of open-ended retaliation. Aside from Lee, there were few independent voices in Congress. Among them was the Texas libertarian Republican, Ron Paul who told his colleagues, “Demanding domestic security in times of war invites carelessness in preserving civil liberties and the right of privacy. Frequently the people are only too anxious for their freedoms to be sacrificed on the altar of authoritarianism thought to be necessary to remain safe and secure.”
We now have the prospect of a new cabinet officer, supervising the new minted Office of Homeland Security (OHS), to be headed by the governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge, a man known to death penalty opponents as the official who has been leading the lynch mob again st Mumia abu Jamal and to anti-globalization protesters as the man who supervised the violent suppression of civil rights at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia last July.
Want a foretaste of the kind of actions Ridge is likely to feel will enhance homeland security? Last July Philadelphia saw coordinated law enforcement involving FBI, local and state police, with covert surveillance, infiltration and disruption of legitimate groups, snooping on email, phonetaps. Protest leaders were arrested early on, under absurd pretexts and in the case of John Sellers (Ruckus Society) and Kate Sorensen (Act Up) held on million-dollar bail. Jailed protesters were brutally handled, denied access to medical care and attorneys. When all was over, the courts threw out 95 per cent of the charges brought against protesters by the Philadelphia police. Ridge presided over an utterly disgraceful and violent denial of freedoms of assembly, free speech and due process. The only comfort we can is that the FBI, CIA, FEMA, Pentagon and Coast Guard will see the Office of Homeland Security as a bureaucratic threat and move swiftly to neutralize it. We have no doubt that these seasoned bureaucratic fighters will soon be leaking information discreditable to Ridge.
Of greater concern is Attorney General John Ashcroft’s agenda, now being rushed to Congress. There are three components to what has been described as “the mother of all anti-terrorism bills”. Immigration; wiretapping and domestic intelligence surveillance; search and seizure. The bill sought by Ashcroft vests virtually unlimited authority in the US Attorney General to target non-citizens with arrest, indefinite incarceration and deportation. The arrests can be made on the basis of secret evidence with little or no opportunity for meaningful judicial review. As the ACLU points out, the upgraded sanctions could mean that if a legal immigrant had in the 1980s contributed to Mandela’s African National Congress, which could be grounds for deportation today.
There’s an irony here. As the writer John Mecklin has recently pointed out in the San Francisco Weekly, among the first investors in Arbusto Energy, George W. Bush’s early adventure in the oil business, was James Bath, a Texas airplane broker. According to Mecklin, Bass invested $50,000 in Arbusto (the word for bush in Spanish), said sum coming from Saudi investors including the bin Laden family. If true, this means that theoretically Bush could be subject to sanction as benefiting indirectly from terror.
Ashcroft is seeking expanded wiretapping power, plus enhanced ability to snoop on e-sites. The bill seeks roving wiretap ability, meaning that the police could tap any phone used by their target, no matter to whom that phone might belong. In Ashcroft’s line of fire is the “probable cause” standard, governing warrants to snoop. Ashcroft’s bill also seeks to vastly widen law enforcement’s ability to conduct secret searches. As the ACLU emphasizes, “this bill would extend the authority of the government to request ‘secret searches’ in every criminal offense.” As usual, emergency is used as the pretext for a far wider assault on basic constitutional rights.
The president’s speech came at the end of a week of ferocious war mongering. The predictable eye-for-an-eye frenzy built up its usual lethal head of steam with predictable rapidity. The outstanding question is: how many eyes for an eye. Count 6,500 dead in the Trade Towers, the four hijacked planes and the Pentagon. How many dead does this require in Kabul, or Baghdad or elsewhere in the hinterlands of terrorist Islam?
The only quick way to achieve killing on this scale would be with a substantial nuclear device on a city. Given this requirement, we may applaud the restraint of Thomas Woodrow in the Washington Times on September 14, though his moderation is salted with the pusillanimous phrase “at a bare minimum”. Woodrow recommends that “at a bare minimum, tactical nuclear capabilities should be used against the bin Laden camps in the desert of Afghanistan. To do less would be rightly seen by the poisoned minds that orchestrated these attacks as cowardice on the part of the United States and the current administration.”
Absent dropping a Big One, how can the necessary revenge be exacted? Cruise missiles, used by Bill Clinton as a way of expressing his displeasure at Sudan, may be useful for destroying pharmaceutical factories, hospitals, even defense ministries, but the body counts are not robust.
But who or what is there to bomb in Afghanistan? The Russians have already done their best. A pathetically poor country in the first place, Afghanistan is only marginally ahead of Mali, in terms of available infrastructure to destroy, with far more challenging terrain.
A land invasion in force, a blitzkrieg sparing nothing and no one? Afghanistan is famously the graveyard of punitive missions embarked upon by the Great Powers, as the British discovered in the nineteenth century and the Soviets in the 1980s. The mere mounting an expeditionary force would take would be a difficult, possibly protracted business, landing the United States in a prodigious number of diplomatic difficulties, given the mutual antagonisms and stresses of adjacent or nearby states such as Pakistan, India, Russia’s dependency Tadzikistan, China.
One familiar way extricating oneself from confrontation an unsuitable foe is to substitute a more satisfactory one. Though it is highly likely that Iran was the sponsor of the downing of Panam Flight 103, in revenge for the downing of the Iranian Airbus by the US carrier Vincennes (whose crew was subsequently decorated for its conduct in shooting down a planeload of civilians) the US preferred to identify Qaddafi’s Libya as the culprit, as a more easily negotiable target for revenge. Already there’s a lobby, the most conspicuous of whom is former CIA chief James Woolsey, pressing Iraq’s case as possible sponsor or co-sponsor of the World Trade Center attacks. So sanctions against Iraq could be strengthened, its cities bombed and perhaps even another invasion attempted.
Obviously aware of the difficulties of surrounding speedy, adequately bloody retribution, Bush’s entourage have been talking in Mao-like terms about “protracted war”, or a “war in the shadows”. The purely nominal ban against US Government-sponsored assassination (there have been numerous CIA-backed against Castro since the mid-1970s ban, if you believer the Cubans) will be lifted, as will the supposed inhibition against the CIA hiring unsavory characters, meaning drug smugglers, many of them also trained in the flying schools of southern Florida.
The war in the shadows will be definition be shadowy (hence poor provender for the appetite for revenge), at least until some CIA-backed revenge bombing surfaces into public view like the attempted bombing of Sheikh Fadlallah outside a Beirut mosque, sponsored by CIA chief William Casey, which missed the Sheikh but which killed nearly a hundred bystanders, including many children.
On the morning of September 11 Judge Henry Wood was trying, of all things, an American airline crash damage case in Federal District court in Little Rock, Arkansas. In the wake of the attacks there were orders to close the courthouse. All obeyed, except Judge Wood, aged 83, who insisted that jury and lawyers and attendants remain in place. Turning down a plea for mistrial by the defendant, Wood said, “This looks like an intelligent jury to me and I didn’t want the judicial system interrupted by a terrorist act, no matter how horrible.”
Wood’s was the proper reaction. America could do with more of what used to be called the Roman virtues. A monstrous thing happened in New York, but should this be a cause for a change in national consciousness? Is America so frail? People talk of the trauma of another Pearl Harbor, but truth to say, the trauma in the aftermath of the Day of Infamy in 1941 was far in excess of what the circumstances warranted, and assiduously fanned by the government for reasons of state. Ask the Japanese Americans who were interned.
Why, for that matter, ground all air traffic and semi-paralyze the economy, with further interminable and useless inconveniences promised travelers in the months and possibly years to come? Could any terrorist have hoped not only to bring down the Trade Center towers but also destroy the airline industry? It would have been far better to ask passengers to form popular defense committees on every plane, bring their own food and drink, keep alert for trouble and look after themselves. A properly vigilant democracy of the air. Remember, even if there were no x-ray machines, no searches, no passenger checks, it would still be far more dangerous to drive to the airport than to get on a plane.
Martyrdom is hard to beat. In the first few centuries after Christ the Romans tried it against the Christians, whose martyrdoms were almost entirely sacrificial of themselves, not of others. The lust for heaven of a Muslim intent on suicidal martyrdom was surely never so eloquent as that of St Ignatius in the second century who, under sentence of death, doomed to the Roman amphitheater and a hungry lion, wrote in his Epistle to the Romans, “I bid all men know that of my own free will I die for God, unless ye should hinder me. . . Let me be given to the wild beasts, for through them I can attain unto God. I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the wild beasts that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Entice the wild beasts that they may become my sepulchre. . . Come fire and cross and grapplings with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, hacking of limbs, crushings of my whole body; only be it mine to attain unto Jesus Christ.”
Eventually haughty imperial Rome made its accommodation with Christians, just as Christians amid the furies and martyrdoms and proscriptions of the Reformation, made accommodations with each other. What sort of accommodation should America make right now? How about one with the history of the past hundred years, in an effort to improve the moral world climate of the next hundred years? We use the word accommodation in the sense of an effort to get to grips with history, as inflicted by the powerful upon the weak. We have been miserably failed by our national media here, as Jude Wanniski, political economist and agitator of conventional thinking, remarked in the course of a well-merited attack on “bipartisanship”, which almost always means obdurate determination to pursue a course of collective folly without debate: “It is because of this bipartisanship that our press corps has become blind to the evil acts we commit as a nation.”
America has great enemies circling the campfires and threatening the public good. They were rampant the day before the September 11 attacks, with the prospect of deflation, sated world markets, idled capacity, shrinking social services. Is ranting about Kabul and throwing money at the Pentagon going to solve those national emergencies?
There is no compelling reason to accept that bin Laden is the Master Terror Mind of the World. On some fairly persuasive accounts, his resources have dwindled, both in terms of money and equipment. He lives in a cave without phone or fax or email, hungrily devouring long outdated editions of newspapers brought by visitors. He may an inspirational force to the terrorist cadres, but we strongly doubt that he is the hands-on master of terror portrayed by the Administration, manipulating world financial markets.
A great nation does not respond to a single hour of terrible mayhem in two cities by hog-tying itself with new repressive laws and abuses of constitutional freedoms, like Gulliver doing the work of the Lilliputians and lashing himself to the ground with a thousand cords. CP