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Howard Zinn’s Terrorism and War, a review

War, terrorism and violence have been around since the dawn of written history. Since 9/11, terrorism has been a topic of renewed, widespread and vigorous discussion in the United States and in the Western countries. Yet the lack of intensive, balanced, and fair discussion incorporating both retail and wholesale terrorism is rare in the annals of Western intellectuals.

Most high-paid pundits of mainstream newspapers, such as Thomas Friedman, William Safire, and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, and avant-garde chic radicals such as Christopher Hitchens of the Nation refuse to look at the underlying causes of terrorism or consider the devastating effects of Western state terrorism. Terrorism and War, a collection of interviews with Howard Zinn by Anthony Arnove, is an honourable and rare exception. It is a part of a series of publication that includes 9/11 by Noam Chomsky, Bin Laden, Islam, and America’s new war on terrorism by As’ad Abu Khalil, and Terrorism: theirs and ours by Eqbal Ahmad. There is now clearly a public demand for an alternative perspective on war and terrorism. Seven Stories Press is to be lauded for trying to fill a critical gap.

The atrocities of 9/11, which was a massive terrorist attack against American civilians, must be condemned, and its perpetrators should be brought to justice and be punished in accordance with national and international law. It is a pity that instead of undertaking a lengthy and painstaking investigation and searching for the culprits, the US authorities chose the option of war. The Taliban’s demand for evidence as a precondition for handing over Osama bin Laden was not an unreasonable request. Whether the Taliban regime’s offer was a serious one or merely a ruse, one will never know because the US authorities refused to even pursue negotiations and instead chose to fight that increased the scale of violence and suffering and did little to reduce the risk of war and terrorism.

This book will benefit those readers who seek to understand the situation rather than resort to jingoist polemics. Arnove successfully follows David Barsamian who has established a literary tradition of probing, through indepth interviews, the thinking of progressive intellectuals from the left. Zinn’s writings remain refreshingly clear and <poignant.Arnove>’s questions allow Zinn to elaborate on his views. The book starts with Zinn’s analysis of the events of September 11. As a historian, he provides an overview of United States’ long record of war and state terrorism. He rejects the notion of lining up behind the president and calls for dissent.

By reading establishment newspapers such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Business Week one can gain a good understanding of the events of the world if one reads between the lines and the inside pages of these papers. As always a critical eye and a skeptical mind if what one needs to uncover the truth. Zinn agrees with the historian Gabriel Kolko that war increasingly is war on civilians despite the talk about precision bombing and high technology. He recalls America’s long history of anti-war activism and opposition to war.

There are seven interviews in the book. Zinn’s conversations with Arnove are lucid and vibrant. Appendix A of the book lists the key passages from the Geneva Convention which explicitly states that civilians should not be objects of attack and that acts that are designed to promote terror among civilians are prohibited. All the evidence gathered so far suggest that the United States war in Afghanistan and Israel’s military assault on the West Bank have been in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Several suggestions can be made to enhance the value of the book. It contains two useful maps of Afghanistan, but an additional map showing the country’s location in Asia would help readers who may be unfamiliar with Afghanistan’s location on the globe since geography is not yet taught as a subject in many schools in the US.

If the publisher plans to bring out a second edition of the same book, Arnove and Zinn may find it worth while to discuss in details the wars of terrorism in Colombia and Palestine. Having edited an excellent study of the US sanctions against Iraq, Arnove is particularly well placed to analyze the devastating effects and after-effects of wars on civilians.

Moreover, Arnove and Zinn can explore the practical issues of broad-based anti-war coalition in the United States. Interestingly in the US not only progressive people and the admittedly marginal left political groups are opposed to the war but also many anti-state right libertarians and old-style conservatives, such as those at antiwar.com, have voiced strong, consistent and honourable opposition to the war, much to their credit, albeit for somewhat different reasons that of the left. It is hoped, however, new alliances surmounting the traditional divisions between left and right can be formed on the anti-war issue. Broad-based opposition to war of terrorism is much needed in our times.

The struggle for peace is likely to be long and arduous. In times of war, most “intellectuals” support state power and the social sciences’ and humanities’ establishment is devoted to serving power interests even in relatively free and open societies such as the United States.

Hence, books from alternative perspective, such as Terrorism and War, become indispensable because they provide a glimpse of truth and aid in deciphering the news in the leading journals of our times and the distortions of governments and corporations.

Tanweer Akram lives in Alexandria, Virginia and can be reached at: ta63@columbia.edu

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