We live in terrifying times. But into what context can we Americans place the terrorism we’ve recently experienced? Until 9/11 Americans could pretend that we were different, that God or something had truly blessed us. Yes, Al Qaeda tormentors tried to use an explosive-laden truck to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993. But after 9/11/01, Americans woke up from their collective nightmare. We now share the common experience, as Edward Said put it, of “violence and terrorism dominating consciousness.”
The world reached out in sympathy. Good will poured forth for the American people — from friends and purported enemies — as if people understood that the innocent Americans have finally lost their ingenuousness. Even Cuba and other so-called “rogue states” expressed their commitment to fight against this kind of terrorism.
But President Bush, who cowered in fear after the foul deeds had been done instead of being at ground zero where the leader belonged, soon turned his cowardice into arrogance: the rest of the world is with us or against us on our terms. Instead of discussing in Congress and other informal bodies the nature of the threat and the best means of combating it, Bush bombed Afghanistan to take out the training centers Al-Qaeda used to prepare the terrorist bombers.
As for the terrorists’ motives, the great psychologist George W. Bush simply pronounced: “They hate because we’re free.” Then, he rammed through Congress bills — like the Patriot Act — that make us less free. Flag waving replaced discussion in Congress and much of the media. “They are out to destroy us” became the leitmotif for the Bush political opera.
They? I asked myself. The Muslims I know love America, despite the actions of the US government. Jealous of our wealth or freedom? They adore our way of life. Educated Arab leaders ask why the US government acts so heartlessly when dealing with the third world people who love the United States.
Obviously, the bin Laden and Wahabi sects who have organized terror cells feel differently, but in just over a year the US government has reversed the outpouring of international good will. Now, when I travel to Europe, Latin America or the Middle East, I find anti-Americanism — not toward people, but directed against the Bush government.
“It is as if,” a Spanish writer related, “Americans have finally experienced the terror that most of the world has known. But before 9/11 Americans could not relate to the terrorized feelings that people in the rest of the world have long since internalized. I’m not sure they can today. Except, of course, for the terror felt by Israelis.”
The media does dramatize Israeli suffering, but if one looks at history one sees that at almost any given time in the past much of the world’s population has lived in terror — of nature’s power, plague, famine, war.
World War II cost some 50 million lives. It ended when the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japanese cities. Then came the carnage to Americans in Korea (1950-53) and Vietnam (1960-75). Multiply by one hundred or more to get the figures of Asian casualties in those wars. Think of the horrors perpetrated by the French in colonized Algeria in the late 1950s, by the British over centuries in subduing their colonized people. Then, in recent decades, Muslim fanatics in independent Algeria have slain thousands of their own “heathen” brothers and sisters.
Think of the countless wars in colonial and post-colonial Africa, some instigated by the CIA, others by Europeans and Africans themselves. Thanks to war technology, terrorism — which began with the 1793 Reign of Terror after the French revolution in the name of Reason — has now become universal and completely unreasonable. Until recently, only Americans on their home soil had escaped from the daily fear and pain that Europeans knew when daily bomb blasts in the name of Irish, Basque or Corsican movements killed those who happened to be near the bomb.
Then on April 19, 1995 came the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal building, by 100% American Timothy McVeigh and his army buddy Terry Nichols, from very middle America and trained by the US military. They hated us also supposedly because the US government (FBI) had massacred the Branch Davidian sect in 1993. From then on, Americans sensed that mad bombers could wear a “made in the US” label as well, and that US military training could serve the cause of any and all terrorists.
Right and left terminology made little sense in the post Cold War era. What label would one place on the IRA or Basque ETA or, for that matter, on Timothy McVeigh? “Terrorist” became the official nomenclature to those — with exceptions, like anti-Castro Cubans who remain “Cuban patriots” — who practice violence against the state, any state. Anti-terrorism would then apply to all military and police actions carried out supposedly against terrorists.
Responding to the 9/11 attacks, the US military bombed Afghanistan to destroy the terrorist training camps of Al-Qaeda, to make us less vulnerable to trained terrorists. It bombed and missiled Afghanistan, killing thousands of civilians in order to get — unsuccessfully — Osama bin Laden and his coterie of terrorists.
What might have been principally a police action to find and destroy organizations bent on wreaking horror on western societies, and pro-Western governments in their own areas of the world, became a military operation.
After more than 13 months, Congress and the media still do not ask: Did we hit the right target? Did we use the right methods? Are we safer from terrorism today or have we mis-focused our efforts? Will one of the government’s dire predictions about imminent terrorist attacks from Al-Qaeda actually take place or will Attorney General John Ashcroft become the little boy who cried wolf?
Since 9/11 only two terrorist attacks occurred on US soil. The anthrax-letter fiend remains at large, although the FBI has destroyed one scientist’s career when it hinted, without evidence, that he might be the perpetrator. In any case, the FBI now assumes that the anthrax killer worked out of a US lab and was trained and educated in the USA, not in Afghanistan.
Then came the DC area sniper, now identified as possibly two men, the older being John Allen Williams, who adopted the new last name “Muhammad.” Police arrested Williams and his sidekick, John Lee Malvo, on October 26 in connection with the sniper shootings that had terrorized the residents of the Washington metropolitan area over the previous three week period.
Ten of their victims have died, three remain in critical condition. Some of the area schools closed, others kept the kids inside, people prayed and hid inside their cars as they pumped gas since the sniper seemed to favor fueling stations for his attack zone. For a few weeks the people of the area forgot about Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush’s threats to change his regime.
Area theorists had predicted without fear, or fact, that the sniper might be linked to Al-Qaeda. A police profiler had him as an angry, rejected white man who probably didn’t learn his ambushing skills in the military, because military snipers go for head shots and this mysterious killer had shot some of his victims in the body.
But an October 24 UPI story, based on a Defense Department source, reported that Williams-Muhammad qualified as an expert marksman in the U.S. Army with the M-16. “Expert” meaning the highest level of Army marksmanship. The shooter must “knock down” at least 36 targets with 40 rounds, from distances of up to 300 meters.
Williams also had expert status in throwing hand grenades. He had served in the Persian Gulf War and prior to that was on active duty in the Army from Nov. 6, 1985 to April 26, 1994, when he was discharged as a sergeant at Ft. Lewis, Washington, with decorations on his chest: the Southwest Asia Service Medal and the Kuwait Liberation Medal for his participation in the Persian Gulf War, the Army Achievement Medal, the Army Service Ribbon, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Non-Commission Officer Professional Development Ribbon.
In addition, the accused sniper also served in the Louisiana National Guard from 1978 to 1985, and in the Oregon guard from 1994 to 1995. The army trained him as a combat engineer, a field that includes mine laying, removal, demolition and combat construction. The army also taught him metal working.
Ironically, the Washington Post, in contrast, called him “a mediocre soldier who was once convicted of striking a sergeant in the head.” Did the Post not investigate his army record? They quoted a former platoon leader saying that he wasn’t “anything special,” but didn’t check his record.
The sniper, like Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, did not receive his killer training in Afghanistan or Iraq. The US military trained him to kill, like millions before and after him. The military’s job is to take non-killers and train them to kill — with advanced weaponry.
We know little about Williams-Muhammad’s motivation or the role of his teenage sidekick. But we do know that the sniper follows a long line of serial killers that seem to grow in our fertile and lethal soil. We have lots of angry, depressed, and downright crazy people in this country who have easy access to weapons and know how to use them.
When police revealed the sniper’s identity and the origins of his violence training, I thought again of John Quincy Adams’ warning about not going abroad “in search of foreign monsters to destroy.” Did he have premonitions about Afghanistan and Iraq? He certainly knew that we had enough monsters at home to keep us occupied for a long time.
SAUL LANDAU’s new film Iraq: Voices from the Streets is available through The Cinema Guild in New York City. He is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Visit his website at http://www.saullandau.net. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.