How well I remember the first terrifying words in our press. They were terrifying because they did not report, did not analyze, but only incited rage. It was the beginning of the murderous, pointless war in Vietnam, the bloodiest part of a postwar “crusade” against communism, and the headlines and editorials screamed about “Reds” at the gates.
Today, perspective again seems lost in America. The word crusade quickly, and without the lest reflection on its meaning, came to the president’s lips. A “minister” at a national prayer service invoked the image of hurling unspeakable weapons against America’s enemies. The press endlessly repeated the same photographs of destruction as well as the same trite phrases about terrorism. And many Americans have openly said they just want someone killed and something destroyed, regardless of evidence.
Although it lacks sentiment, there is, even for terrible events, a valid accounting of numbers. The death of six thousand Americans has been treated as an event without parallel. American commentators have called September 11 a watershed in human history. This is not only inaccurate, it is foolish and unhelpful.
Just fifty-six years ago, the world fought a war in which fifty million people perished. Entire cities were obliterated, and an effort was made to obliterate a people. Thirty years later, in the war in Vietnam, America’s relentless dumping of millions of tons of bombs, Agent Orange, and land mines had left 3 to 4 million Vietnamese dead.
The resources and attention given to any problem must have some relationship to the actual size of the problem. One spectacular event does not justify a vast change in the nation’s business and priorities. How easily we pass over the simple fact that proper airline security – something many believed we had – would have prevented the attack. No drums and drama, just practical measures like secure cockpit doors. Calling out a show of the National Guard at airports and authorizing generals to shoot down straying airliners are empty, after-the-fact bluster.
The oversight in basic security is all the more stunning, if, as the government claims, it can prove Osama bin Laden is responsible for this and other terrorist attacks in recent years. So simple a measure not taken, when confronted by a relentless, determined foe, borders on irresponsibility since airliners have been the target for a host of people with grievances over the last 30 years.
Stunning, too, is the lack of public curiosity about the motives of the people who did this. Why would a large group of people – some of them intelligent enough to fly a jet airliner – go through immense difficulties to smash themselves into buildings? The label “terrorist,” unlike a diagnosis of “rabid” for an attacking dog, is not a sufficient explanation.
Indeed, the word blurs rather than clarifies. I cannot avoid sometimes being reminded of Stalin’s use of the word “wreckers” just before he was to launch a new bloody purge. The comparison here isn’t between Stalin and American officials but in the use of a vague term that explains nothing as the rationale for violent action.
Americans generally possess the quality of being uncurious and unconcerned about the world. The president, during his election campaign actually bragged about never reading the international section of the paper. He was bragging for the benefit of parts of the country whose representatives in Washington brag about never setting foot outside the United States or holding a passport.
America itself is a big place, and life here, at least for many, is good enough just not to care. But understanding cause is essential to solving problems. Action in the absence of understanding is barbarism.
G.B. Shaw said that America passed from barbarism to decadence without ever passing through civilization. And there is considerable truth in his twinkly-eyed quip, but the truth is more complicated.
We are a violent people, very selective in the application of moral principles. We demonstrate this in many ways, from our unblinking acceptance of having dropped two atomic bombs on civilians to our refusal to recognize and minister to the health and educational needs of millions of our own children.
At the very same time, just the right type of plum-flavored, diet ice tea is important, and we have people who weep over the fate of stem cells.
Missing entirely from the new crusade is a definition of terrorism. We have declared war on something we have not defined, and, as it turns out, a definition is not easy.
Everyone’s effort at definition would likely include attacks on civil society and the killing of non-combatants in the name of political, ideological, or religious belief. Beyond that, things become murky, especially so if you include the phrases “state terrorism” or “states that harbor terrorists” as our State Department regularly does.
Does terrorism apply only to acts by people outside government? It certainly would be inviting to include the internal acts of governments like Stalin’s of Hitler’s. This kind of thinking accords with tendencies exhibited by our government in recent years to interfere heavily in the internal affairs of other countries.
Then does the crusade commit us to perpetual war against all ruthless, authoritarian governments on earth? Including Saudi Arabia?
(Incidentally, this aspect of trying to define terrorism quickly raises the additional topic of international cooperation and the growing need, with the phenomenon of globalization, for international law. Yet, the United States remains the world’s greatest obstacle against progress here.)
Another form of state terrorism might be the subjugation of neighboring peoples. Do we include the Israeli forces that broke every written agreement with the U.S. governing the defensive use of American weapons when they invaded Lebanon, killing thousands of innocent people and precipitating a civil war in which many thousands more died and a beautiful city was virtually destroyed?
Do we include the current prime minister of Israel who was responsible during this invasion for the deaths of about two thousand Palestinians, all non-combatants, at the hands of Christian militia under his control?
I don’t think so. These are our terrorists.
So far as the kind of bloody behavior that usually comes to mind with the word terrorism, that is, by private groups against other states, do we include the violent Cuban refugee groups in Florida that for many years carried out the most appalling acts in Cuba, including (only a few years ago) leaving bombs in hotels? Earlier, these groups shot up Russian ships in Cuban ports, dropped things from airplanes, and set murderous booby traps. No, I don’t think they will be included, because they are our terrorists, and we have safely harbored them for 40 years.
Will the crusade be taken to the IRA which over the last 30 years has caused terrible grief and still refuses to surrender its arms? I don’t think so. They aren’t our terrorists, but there’s a soft spot in the American heart for them. Most of the money for IRA weapons came from Americans – millions of dollars for weapons used to kill the soldiers of our most steadfast NATO ally and blow up office buildings in London – and there is a huge reservoir of sympathy and sentimental attachment in America’s influential Irish community.
Will it include the Kurds who were encouraged and supported by Mr. Kissinger to create instability in selected parts of the Mideast? Later, we dropped them, along with their dreams of a Kurdish state, in face of an altered political situation, but today they still cause a lot of grief in Turkey and other places.
Not all the old torturers and secret policemen of Chile, El Salvador, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam and a dozen other places who enjoyed our blessing and support in their unspeakable work are yet laid to rest. We could go after them, but I suspect they are pretty safe.
Is an American “evangelist,” with his prayerful reference to using weapons of mass destruction on America’s enemies, a terrorist? This is no mere sarcasm, for we have tried and convicted a Muslim cleric and accuse Bin Laden of essentially doing the same thing, insisting such instigation to violence be called terrorism.
And what about the consequences of a new crusade? We might reflect on still another American crusade, the War on Drugs. One effect of that decades-old campaign has been the alienation of people all over the world who see America as blaming others for its own weakness.
We make cute jokes in movies about drugs while we insist peasants’ fields in other countries be sprayed with poison. The American street-corner price of drugs, in real terms, has actually fallen during much of this crusade – the clearest possible evidence of its failure. The fact that we do not treat drugs for what they are, a problem of our own way of life that needs remedy, only advertises us to the world as self-righteous, self-indulgent bullies.
The new crusade will likely instigate more violence by newly-alienated groups. This is especially true if the character of the effort is seen as anti-Muslim, which to this point it most clearly is, despite feeble, photo-op efforts to reassure the world that we believe most Muslims are good people.
Of course, the Middle East is never far from instability. Authoritarian government or closed oligarchy, often out of step with local public sentiment, characterizes our best friends in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, and Egypt. Stir up enough hostility with a campaign that focuses on Muslims and Arabs, and it is impossible to predict the long-term, destabilizing results.
Pakistan, a state we have strongly pressured to support us despite its support of the Taliban and its many Muslims sympathetic to Bin Laden, is an atomic power with significant stockpiles of fissile material. Does anyone in his right mind want this up for grabs in a region that includes Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran?
Already, just our rhetoric has produced along the Afghan-Pakistan border, the beginnings of a massive refugee problem for which the UN is seeking half a billion dollars. It has also inflamed passions in the large and important nation of Indonesia.
There is an odd disconnect in America between the people and their government in Washington, one with huge implications for foreign policy, that perhaps few people outside the country appreciate. Hostility and suspicion of the federal government are virtually American birthrights with origins in the days of rum-running and smuggling under British colonial government and the virtual chaos of the national government which followed in the revolutionary and Confederation periods.
This near-paranoia about national government often prevents Americans from taking the best and most rational measures even for their internal affairs (as for example, our remaining the only advanced country without some form of national health care), let alone foreign affairs. Despite our being a fairly democratic society, our foreign policies often do not truly reflect the informed consent of our people.
Not only do the American people by and large take little interest in foreign affairs so long as things at the local level are going well, but 18th-century, rather undemocratic measures embedded in our Constitution, especially those governing the nature of the Senate, mean that, more often than not, quite provincial politicians have a disproportionate influence in foreign policy. And provincial politicians are only too ready to play upon the electorate’s fears and suspicions for their own benefit. Add to this our corrupt campaign-financing practices, which do seriously affect who is elected in this country, and it is easy to understand that what we do abroad often is not what ordinary Americans would embrace were it accurately explained. The best qualities of the American people are simply often not reflected in many of our actions abroad.
But Americans are proud. Not only is theirs an extraordinary successful nation in economic terms, many Americans display the disproportionate pride of a young people, and young people who have been given a great deal.
So, regardless of the lack of interest in foreign affairs, when there is a sense of the country’s being attacked, support for the national government will be strong until what is felt to be an appropriate response is made. People will then lapse into indifference, leaving interest in foreign affairs to a relatively small number of people in Washington again.
This dynamic makes the notion of an “attack on America” rather than an attack on parts of our foreign policy that destroy others an easy one to sell. Equally, it makes any redress of imbalances difficult to achieve.
But our policies in the Middle East have been unbalanced for years, and the tremendous frustration and anger this breeds are almost unknown to Americans who see themselves as essentially fair-minded people. Palestinians have lived for decades with occupation, torture, and assassination, and see what little land remains to them being eaten away by “settlers,” while American foreign policy seems to have almost limitless tolerance for Israeli excesses.
In this country, we cannot even discuss the problem accurately. Our press endlessly uses the Orwellian term, the “peace process,” a term which has no substance and serves to avoid the actual problem which is that the Palestinians must either be granted an independent state or be absorbed into Israel, or some combination of the two.
For half a century, Israeli prime ministers have insisted that the Palestinians’ homeland can only be Jordan, and many of them have openly advocated annexing the West Bank to Israel. The closest Israel has ever come to allowing anything vaguely resembling a Palestinian state was Mr. Barak’s proposals at Camp David, proposals which would have created an absurd Bantustan-style state, which did not come close to satisfying the U.N.’s Resolution 242, and which, by all accounts, were offered with considerable arrogance and anger.
The good intentions of the present government of Israel may be judged by Mr. Sharon’s actions in the weeks following September 11. Mr. Sharon exploited the confusion by refusing, as he had previously agreed, to meet with Mr. Arafat, he furthermore publicly compared Arafat to Bin Laden (which is quite interesting in light of Arafat’s donating blood for American victims), and the Israeli army reportedly was preparing, according to Mr. Peres, to murder Arafat. Surely, this cannot be the way to peace and justice.
Yes, by all means, let us bring anyone truly responsible for the destruction in New York to justice, but the notion of another American crusade, a crusade against terror, is a terrible mistake. It is disproportionate, it is poorly defined, and it is fraught with uncertainty. And as it takes on a large and violent scope, it will certainly let Israel off the hook from doing what justice demands she do. CP
John Chuckman lives in Portland, Maine.