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Who Cares for Human Rights? It’s a Just War

by Ilija Trojanow And Ranjit Hoskote

The events of September 11, 2001, have been widely described as a tragedy, and so they were, for the victims and their families. But, as we all know, one person’s tragedy can be another person’s windfall. The greatest beneficiary of these attacks, and of the perception of national threat they produced, is the military-industrial establishment that dominates the USA, and by extension, the world. It is ironic that the Pentagon, a key target of the operation, has since risen to a position of unchallenged global supremacy, an achievement signalled shortly after September 11, when the most gargantuan defence budget in history was rushed through legislation without occasioning even a ripple of dissent.

Since then, no one in the US establishment has challenged the view that the best way to deal with terrorists is to out-gun, out-bomb, and out-massacre them–along with any non-combatants who happen to get in the way. And the few voices that were heard after the attacks, which drew attention to the underlying conditions of oppression and injustice that breed terrorism, have been quickly sidelined and silenced.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the American government and mainstream media have spent the last year working spin-offs from the perceived threat. Right after September 11, there were doomsday prophecies of further terrorist attacks, followed by the mass hysteria over the anthrax letters. The former never materialised; the latter were traced back to US Army biological warfare facilities, which, by the way, have never been visited by UN inspectors.

The interested parties will surely do all that is necessary to ensure that the American public continues to feel besieged and under threat. The public discussion concerning the future of the WTC site in New York, for instance, reveals a strong impulse towards building a memorial shrine to the feeling of injustice, the sense of having been wronged. As is customary with patriotic monuments, which serve to declare one’s own innocence and essential virtue, while emphasising the irrationality and essential evil of the enemy: they foreground a combination of martyrdom, triumphalism, and ritualised grief.

Interestingly and not so paradoxically, the Pentagon, although it has grown exponentially in power, has become completely invisible in the patriotic iconography of the September 11 events. As the headquarters of the US Army, the Pentagon cannot afford exposure in the dramatic and by-now globally televised demonstration of American vulnerability. Instead, it is the civilian target, the World Trade Center, which has been fixed as the iconic reminder of the attacks. The twin towers, ablaze and collapsing, are a contemporary version of the burning ships keeling over in Pearl Harbor: they symbolise the American identity, the self-image of a people always ready to do good in the world, but who are often misunderstood, and once in an epic while, subjected to treacherous attack.

But the global scenario today is light-years away from that of 1941. In the aftermath of September 11, the US has programmatically swept aside the model of equity among nations. US unilateralism becomes more entrenched with every successive operation. The bombing of Afghanistan was justified, however thinly, by invoking Article 51 of the UN Charter and UN Security Council Resolution 1373: the US deliberately misread both as authorising nation-states to launch military action in self-defence against international terrorism. But this year, the US establishment has skipped even that flimsy and dubious sanction in proposing an invasion of Iraq: high US officials have repeatedly declared that they can and will attack Iraq simply because they wish to do so.

This unilateralism is in line with a corresponding strategy of withdrawal, by which the US has stepped back from most of the mutual obligations that commit it to collaboration with other nations. It has reneged on the SALT and START agreements that it signed with the erstwhile USSR and continued with the CIS successor states, and which mandate the signatories to limit their ballistic-missile capabilities. The US has also failed to ratify all the major treaties of recent years, including the Kyoto Agreement. In May, it withdrew from the proposed International Criminal Court; Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned his NATO partners against contemplating any future action against US defence personnel, proclaiming that his country “will regard as illegitimate any attempt by the court, or state parties to the treaty, to assert the ICC’s jurisdiction over American citizens.”

And in the international groupings of which it continues to be a member, the US plays the bully. This April, it ousted the director general of the UN Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, Jose Bustani, who refused, as he testified, “to take orders from the US delegation”. Again, in July, the US forced UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson to resign, for her vocal criticism of US human-rights violations during the ‘war against terror’.

No nation in the world has signalled its support for the US plan to attack Iraq. For one, there is not a shred of evidence that Saddam Hussein has managed to re-stock his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, in the teeth of a drastic international embargo that prevents even pediatric medicines from entering his country. For another, the Iraqi ruler has been notably quiescent. There were many occasions during his long reign when he could have been deposed on humanitarian grounds–such as when he used poison gas against Iranian troops and Kurdish rebels. But then, in those palmy days, he was the US establishment’s trusted point man against Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution, not the leader of a ‘rogue state’.

In the post-September 11 world order, the US propaganda machine no longer deems it necessary to convince the world of the validity of American actions. For, after all: “When Caesar says ‘Do this’, it is perform’d.” And so, with or without the support of its allies, the US will move towards brutally establishing its control over the second largest oil reserve in the world. Already, through their man in Kabul, the former oil-company executive Hamid Karzai, US political interests have highjacked the fragile democratic process embodied by the Loya Jirga, re-empowering the warlords at the cost of progressive civil-society groups, so as to lock their hold on the Central Asian oil pipelines.

The God-fearing George W. Bush has not deigned, so far, to offer any moral justification for US military aggression. To find a philosophical basis for it, we turn to the statement, “What We Are Fighting For”, signed by a group of 60 US intellectuals and widely publicised this February. The signatories include reigning gurus and media pundits like Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama and Michael Walzer. Defining ‘radical Islam’ as the global enemy and summarily dealing with concepts like pacifism, realism and holy war, they establish the universal moral principle of a ‘just war’, arguing for a limited and specific use of military aggression when all other means have been exhausted. One of the pillars of morality is the principle of commensurate justice. Attacking a group of German intellectuals who have criticised their position, the US intellectuals offer specious acrobatics instead: “It is moral blindness to compare the unintentional killing of civilians in a war that is morally justified, and in which it is every soldier’s aim to minimise civilian casualties, with the premeditated murder of civilians in an office building by terrorists whose prime aim is to maximise the number of civilian casualties.”

Evidently, this grotesque nonsense is the best that the intellectual elite of the Free World can come up with, to justify the slaughter of Afghans. Perhaps the Afghans gathered at an open-air wedding celebration in Kakarak on July 1 should have been working quietly in office buildings; they might then have qualified as legitimate civilians in the eyes of Huntington, Fukuyama, Walzer and their fellow luminaries. Instead, they suffered a two-hour US Air Force bombardment. A UN team investigating this casualty of the ‘just war’ reported that 80 people had been killed and 200 injured in this maniacal attack. Later, US ground forces bound the women’s hands (standard practice, apparently) and denied the injured medical treatment for several hours, while ‘sanitising’ the site by removing shrapnel and other image-damaging evidence.

The only justification offered for the bombing of Afghanistan was the capture of the alleged perpetrators of September 11. That aim has not been achieved. The act of killing nearly 10,000 people, fighters and civilians, only so as to fail to capture a few CIA acolytes-turned-terrorist masterminds, hardly meets the criterion of commensurate justice. Instead, it is evidence of an extraordinary cynicism, and testifies to the horrifying US penchant for unleashing Beelzebub to drive out the Devil.

Ilija Trojanow is a German novelist, and Special Correspondent for the Suddeutsche Zeitung, and currently lives in Bombay (India).

Ranjit Hoskote is an Indian cultural theorist. He is also Assistant Editor, The Hindu, Bombay (India).

They can be reached at:


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