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Once a war criminal, once a US senator, now president of the New School, Bob Kerrey joined CNN’s Paula Zahn as for commentary Monday morning. Zahn made chaste reference to Kerrey’s expertise in military affairs. This plunges us straight into the fierce debate about how much of a historical context one is permitted to give the September 11 attacks.
Lest there be any doubt about this, by the way, maybe we should register our own view that these were crimes against humanity. But we also think it’s very necessary to set them in a full historical perspective, not least because one hears, often enough, questions like, “What are we to tell our children?” or “Why does everyone hate us?” being answered in a carefully circumscribed fashion.
Take Nat Hentoff, in a recent column in the Village Voice: “‘How can I explain this horror to them?’ Jessica asks. ‘How can I explain how people can do this?’ What I’d say to my grandchildren is that there are people everywhere in this world who identify themselves totally with a system of belief–whether political, religious, a poisonous fusion of both, or some other overwhelming transcendence that has become their very reason for being. These vigilantes of faith have unequivocally answered the question of Duke Ellington’s song ‘What Am I Here For?’
“Such people can be of any faith, color, and class. Palestinian suicide-bombers; the self-exhilarating murderous fringe of the Weather Underground here in the “revolutionary” 1960s; John Brown, the abolitionist executioner; and the self-betraying pro-lifers who urge the killing of–and sometimes actually assassinate–doctors who perform abortions. How can our American government–and how can we protect ourselves against such ‘holy’ fanatics?”
Surely Hentoff’s grandkids deserve a little more than sneers about the Weather People and the Sixties by way of explanation of what prompted those Muslim kamikazes to their terrible deeds. After all, around the time the Weather folk blew themselves (and only themselves) up in that house on Eleventh St in the Village, the United States government, in the name of freedom’s war on evil, was incinerating Vietnamese peasants with napalm and shooting them in their huts or in ditches. In Kerrey’s unit the techniques included throat-slitting as well as shooting.
Mention of Vietnam or any other of the United States’ less alluring zones of engagement with the enemies of freedom makes Christopher Hitchens seethe with fury, at a level of moral reproof almost surpassing his venom against Clinton the molester of women and bombardier of Khartoum. In a Bomb the Bastards outburst in the latest Nation he takes a swipe at the “masochistic e-mail traffic that might start circulating from the Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein quarter” and decrees that “Loose talk about chickens coming home to roost is the moral equivalent of the hateful garbage emitted by Falwell and Robertson, and exhibits about the same intellectual content.”
We can safely say that the word “loose” is a purely formal device, and what Hitchens means here is that any and all talk about homeward-bound chickens is out of bounds, part of all the things we are not allowed to talk about. In times of crisis, by the way, it’s often liberals who are quickest to set rules about what we should say and how we should say it. “This nation is now at war,” proclaimed Peter Beinart, editor in chief of the New Republic, ” and in such an environment, domestic political dissent is immoral without a prior statement of national solidarity, a choosing of sides.”
We’re in total solidarity against the fanatic terror that doomed just short of 7,000 ordinary people that Tuesday morning, and we’re against the religious and political precepts of those who were reverently described only a few short years ago in our newspapers and in presidential proclamations as the Afghan or Saudi “freedom fighters. But at what point is a fracture in national solidarity permitted by Commissar Beinert? When the B-52s lay waste Afghans some slum on the edge of Kandahar on the supposition that bin Laden was there? Or when Attorney General Ashcroft moves to end all inhibitions on electronic snooping or warrantless arrests?
What moved those kamikaze Muslims to embark, some many months ago on the training that they knew would culminate in their deaths as well of those (they must have hoped) of thousands upon thousands of innocent people? Was it the Koran plus a tape from Osama bin Laden? The dream of a world in which all men wear untrimmed beards and women have to stay at home or go outside only when enveloped in blue tents? I doubt it. If I had to cite what steeled their resolve the list would surely include the exchange on CBS in 1996 between Madeleine Albright and then US ambassador to the United Nations and Lesley Stahl. Albright was maintaining that sanctions had yielded important concessions from Saddam Hussein.
Stahl: “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And you know, is the price worth it?”
Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price ? we think the price is worth it.”
They read that exchange in the Middle East. It was infamous all over the Arab world. I’ll bet the September 11 kamikazes knew it well enough, just as they could tell you the crimes wrought against the Palestinians. So would it be unfair today to take Madeleine Albright down to the ruins of the Trade Towers, remind her of that exchange, and point out that the price turned out also to include that awful mortuary. Was that price worth it too, Mrs. Albright?
Mere nit-picking among the ruins and the dust of the 6,500? I don’t think so. America has led a charmed life amid its wars on people. The wars mostly didn’t come home and the press made as sure as it could that folks including the ordinary workers in the Trade Towers weren’t really up to speed on what was been wrought in Freedom’s name. In freedom’s name America made sure that any possibility of secular democratic reform in the Middle East was shut off. Mount a coup against Mossadegh in the mid-1950s, as the CIA did and you end up with the Ayatollah Khomeini 25 years later. Mount a coup against Kassim in Iraq, as the CIA did, and you get the Agency’s man, Saddam Hussein.
What about Afghanistan? In April of 1978 an indigenous populist coup overthrew the government of Mohammed Daoud, who had formed an alliance with the man the US had installed in Iran, Reza Pahlevi, aka the Shah. The new Afghan government was led by Noor Mohammed Taraki, and the Taraki administration embarked, albeit with a good deal of urban intellectual arrogance on land reform, hence an attack on the opium-growing feudal estates. Taraki went to the UN where he managed to raise loans for crop substitution for the poppy fields.
Taraki also tried to bear down on opium production in the border areas held by fundamentalists, since the latter were using opium revenues to finance attacks on Afghanistan’s central government, which they regarded as an unwholesome incarnation of modernity that allowed women to go to school and outlawed arranged marriages and the bride price. Accounts began to appear in the western press along the lines of this from the Washington Post, to the effect that the mujahiddeen liked to “torture their victims by first cutting off their noses, ears and genitals, then removing one slice of skin after another.”
At that time the mujahiddeen was not only getting money from the CIA but from Libya’s Moammar Q’addaffi who sent them $250,000. In the summer of 1979 the US State Department produced a memo making it clear how the US government saw the stakes, no matter how modern minded Taraki might be or how feudal the Muj. It’s another passage Nat might read to the grandkids: “The United States’ larger interest would be served by the demise of the Taraki-Amin regime, despite whatever set backs this might mean for future social and economic reforms in Afghanistan. The overthrow of the DRA [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan] would show the rest of the world, particularly the Third World, that the Soviets’ view of the socialist course of history being inevitable is not accurate.”
Taraki was killed by Afghan army officers in September 1979. Hafizullah Amin, educated in the US, took over and began meeting regularly with US embassy officials at a time when the US was arming Islamic rebels in Pakistan. Fearing a fundamentalist, US-backed regime in Afghanistan, the Soviets invaded in force in December 1979. The stage was set for Dan Rather to array himself in flowing burnous and head for the Hindu Kush to proclaim the glories of the Muj in their fight against the Soviet jackboot. Maybe I missed it, but has Dan offered any reflections on that phase of his reportorial career?
Well, the typists and messenger boys and back-office staffs throughout the Trade Center didn’t know that history. There’s a lot of other relevant history they probably didn’t know but which those men on the attack planes did. How could those people in the Towers have known, when US political and journalistic culture is a conspiracy to perpetuate their ignorance? Those people on the Towers were innocent portions of the price that Albright insisted, in just one of its applications, as being worth it. It would honor their memory to insist that in future our press offers a better accounting of how America’s wars for Freedom are fought and what the actual price might include. CP