by David Gilbert, Feb. 2002
Like most people in the U.S., I was horrified by the incineration and collapse of the two towers at the World Trade Center (WTC). Thinking about the thousands of people, mainly civilians, inside, I was completely stunned and anguished. (Even the attack on the Pentagon, certainly a legitimate target of war, felt grim in terms of the loss of so many lives, and of course the sacrifice of civilians on the plane.) In the days and weeks that followed the media, as well they should, made the human faces of the tragedy completely vivid.
At the same time, the affecting pictures of those killed, the poignant interviews with their families, the constant rebroadcast of the moments of destruction all underscore what the media completely fails to present in the host of widescale attacks on civilians perpetrated by the US government. With the pain to 9/11 so palpable, I became almost obsessed with what it must have been like for civilians bombed by the US in Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Yugoslavia – and what it would soon be like for civilians in Afghanistan, already just about the poorest and most devastated country in the world. (While the media very deliberately have downplayed the issue of civilian casualties from the bombings in Afghanistan, they already exceed those at the WTC.)
The US bombing campaigns in Iraq and Yugoslavia not only killed hundreds of thousands of people but also deliberately destroyed civilian survival infrastructure such as electric grids and water supplies. And these are countries that don’t have billions of dollars on hand to pour into relief efforts. The subsequent US economic embargo of Iraq has resulted in, according to UN agencies, over 1 million deaths, more than half of them children.
In addition to bombing campaigns, the US is responsible for a multitude of massacres on the ground. 9/11/01 was the 28th anniversary of the ClA-sponsored coup in Chile that overthrew the democratically-elected president; the military then tortured, “disappeared” and killed thousands in order to impose a dictatorship. The US instigated terrorist bands and trained paramilitary death squads that have rampaged throughout Latin America for decades. In little Guatemala alone (population of 12 million) over 150,000 people have been killed in political violence since the U.S.-engineered coup against democracy in 1954.
Listing all the major examples would go way beyond the length of this essay. (See William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, 457 pp.) But what’s worse is that these bloody actions are taken to enforce the greatest terrorism of all: a political and economic system that kills millions of human beings worldwide every year. To give just one example, 10 million children under the age of 5 die every year due to malnutrition and easily preventable or curable diseases. Talk about anguish: how would you feel as a parent helplessly watching your baby waste away?
Since the early ’60’s, I actively opposed these U.S. terrorist attacks. But without the videos, the personal interviews, the detailed accounts, I never fully experienced the human dimensions. Now, seeing the pain of 9/11/01 presented so powerfully had me trying to picture and relive the totally intolerable suffering rained down on innocent people in these all too many previous and ongoing atrocities.
A Gift to the Right
What made the immediate grim event all the worse was the political reality that these attacks were an incredible gift to the right-wing in power. George W. Bush entered office with the tainted legitimacy of losing the popular vote by half a million. The report on the detailed recount of votes in pivotal Florida was about to come out. (When it did, the post-9/11 spin was that the recount the Supreme Court stopped would have left Bush in the lead. What got less attention was the finding that with a complete recount of all votes cast Bush was the loser.) The economy had started to tank. The Bush administration was making the US in effect a “rogue state” in the world: pulling out of the treaty on global warming, refusing to sign the treaty against biological warfare, preparing to scuttle the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. And the US and Israel had just exposed themselves, badly, by walking out of the World Conference Against Racism.
9/11/01 and its aftermaths became a tidal wave washing away public consideration of the above crucial issues. Not only did the crisis lead people to rally around the president, but it also provided the context and political capital to rush through a host of previously unattainable repressive measures that had long been on the right’s wish list. We’ve also seen an ugly rash of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes and a new-found public support for racial profiling.
I won’t attempt here to summarize all the serious setbacks to civil liberties. One measure that struck closest to home for me was not covered in the mainstream media. Within hours of the first attack, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) moved about 20 of the political prisoners (PPs) – prisoners from the struggles for Black liberation, Puerto Rican independence, Native American and Asian activists, anti-imperialists, and peace advocates – held by the BOP into complete isolation. Most of these PPs weren’t even allowed to communicate with their lawyers – an extremely dangerous precedent. Once established, it clears the way for sensory deprivation and torture to try to break people down.
The BOP’s ability to move so quickly in prisons around the country means this plan had to have been on the drawing boards already – just waiting for the right excuse. What makes the “terrorist” label placed on these PPs all the more galling is that the Dept. of Justice knows full well that 1) while the CIA had past connections to the 9/11/01 suspects, these PPs certainly never have; and 2) while the perpetrators emulated (albeit on a smaller scale) the US’s cavalier attitude about “collateral damage” these PPs have always placed a high priority on avoiding civilian casualties. Indeed, it was precisely the US’s wanton slaughter of civilians – carpet bombings, napalm & Agent Orange in Vietnam; Cointelpro assassinations of scores of Black Panther & American Indian Movement activists at home – that impelled us to fight the system.
In pushing through the host of repressive measures without serious debate, the government has carried out a giant scam: a perverse redefinition of the dreaded term “terrorism.” Instead of the valid, objective definition of indiscriminate or wholesale violence against civilians (by which measure US-led imperialism is the worst terrorist in the world), the political and legal discourse has twisted the word to mean use of force against or to influence the government. If their “newspeak” goes uncontested, the long run implications for dissent are dire.
More broadly these events have been a tremendous boon to what I believe has been imperialism’s #1 strategic goal since 1973: “Kicking the Vietnam syndrome.” You just can’t maintain a ruthless international extortion racket (to describe the imperial economy bluntly) without a visible ability to fight bloody wars of enforcement. They’ve taken the US public through a series of calibrated steps: from teeny Grenada in 1983, to small Panama in 1989, to mid-sized Iraq in 1991 and Yugoslavia in 1999. But public support for these ventures was only on the basis of short wars with minimal US casualties. Now the real sense of “America under attack” has generated widespread (if still shallow) support for accepting a more protracted war, even with significant US casualties.
Other repressive forces around the world have been quick to capitalize on these events. A key example is Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon. Talk about terrorists … as Defense Minister in September, 1982, he was in charge of Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon when local, Israeli-sponsored militias were given free rein for three days of butchery in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. 1,800 Palestinians were murdered. Now as prime minister, he very deliberately encouraged and provoked Islamic militants opposed to the peace process to attack, and then he immediately cried “terrorism!” (the Palestinians are always labeled as the terrorists even though it is Israel who occupies their lands and Israelis have killed 4 times as may Palestinians as vice versa) to discredit and isolate Chairman Yasir Arafat, who’s taken great risks to try for a peace agreement. Sharon’s strategy, as he continues to tighten the occupation and escalate the violence, seems to be to completely finish off the peace process, either by liquidating the Palestinian Authority or by forcing the Palestinians into a heartbreaking civil war that would bleed their nation to death.
Funding and Fostering Terrorists
The US government played a key role in cultivating and empowering the forces charged with the 9/11/01 terror attacks. It’s not just a question of whom the US supported after the December, 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; CIA aid to guerrilla groups preceded that by over a year, while US interference through it’s client regime (until toppled in 1979), the Shah of Iran, went back at least to 1975. The goal was to destabilize a government friendly to the Soviets and sharing a 1,000-mile border. (See Blum’s Killing Hope – relevant chapter available here ) As the US National Security Adviser of the time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, boasted years later, “The secret operation was an excellent idea. Its effect was to draw the Russians into the Afghan trap.” Brzezinski also justified the harmful side effects from this medicine, “What was more important in the world view of history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire?” (see here for source )
Even though baited, the Soviet’s invasion was inexcusable. The CIA, of course, seized the opportunity with its largest covert action operation ever, aside from Vietnam. It did not, however, simply support existing national resistance forces. Progressive Islamic forces, tolerant of other sects & religions and supportive of education for girls, got no aid and withered. The CIA instead deliberately and directly cultivated the “fundamentalists” who interpreted Islam in the most sectarian and anti-female fashion. (I’m wary of the term “fundamentalist” lest it play into US biases about Islam, although in the same context as the reactionary Christian and Jewish fundamentalisms, it would apply. I prefer Ahmed Rashid’s terminology of “Islamic extremists” for forces who have interpreted, or, as he argues, distorted Islam as hostile to women and generally intolerant.)
One reason for this US preference was apparently the belief that the best way to mobilize people against a pro-Soviet regime that had offered land reform and education for girls was on the basis of religious opposition to such policies. Another reason was that most US aid was channeled through Pakistan’s Interservice Intelligence (ISI), which had close ties with these extremist factions. A prime example is Gulbuddin Hikmetyar who started with virtually no political base but became a major power thanks to US arms and funds. US aid breathed life into numerous reactionary and power-hungry warlords. It’s no wonder, then, that a devastating civil war raged in Afghanistan long after the Soviet’s 1989 withdrawal. In short, the US didn’t have the slightest concern for Afghans’ rights and lives; they were simply canon fodder in the Cold War. When this chaos gave rise to the Taliban, they were backed by the US and Pakistan as a counterweight to neighboring Iran, based on Taliban antipathy for Shia Islam. Also the US made an early bet in 1994 on the Taliban as the force that could bring the unified control and stability needed by the US company Unocal to build its projected multi-billion-dollar oil and gas pipelines through Afghanistan. This hope unraveled by 1998 but now has become quite realizable with the US military victory there. Bush’s new special envoy to Afghanistan, who will spearhead US efforts to put together a post-Taliban government, is Zalmay Khalilzad. This Afghan-born US citizen was, in the late ’90’s, a highly paid consultant to Unocal on how to achieve their Afghan pipeline.
The jihad against the Soviets in the 1980’s attracted Muslim militants from around the world, including Osama bin Laden. In 1986, he helped build the Khost tunnel complex, which the CIA was funding. As he later stated, “I set up my first camp where these volunteers were trained by Pakistani and American officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis.” From 1982 to 1992, 35,000 Muslim radicals from 43 different countries participated in the war in Afghanistan, many training at ClA-supported camps. Tens of thousands more were involved in education and support work. Now, the US demonizes one individual, but it is very unlikely that one man or one organization controls the range of groups that spun off from that baptism of fire … and therefore very unlikely that “neutralizing” bin Laden will at all contain the current cycle of violence.
The results of 20 years of US-abetted wars – even before the Taliban came to power – were 2 million deaths, 6 million refugees, and millions facing starvation in that nation of 26 million people. Infant mortality is the highest in the world, as 163 babies die out of every 1,000 live births, and a staggering 1,700 out of every 100,000 mothers giving birth die in the process. (Most of the background and data in the above section comes from Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.) What a bitter irony that the US, which did so much to foster the most anti-female forces and to fuel the ferocious civil war, now justifies bombing that devastated country in part as a defense of women’s rights. (See Naomi Jaffe, “Bush, Recent Convert to Feminism,” in Sojourner: The Women’s Forum, November 2001.)
While the direct aid to the now demonized groups is sordid, the US has had a much more major role in breeding such terrorism. Imperialism’s top priority has been to destroy progressive national liberation movements, which sought to unite the oppressed and end the economic rape of the third world. Since 1989, the US has achieved major strides against national liberation with a counter-revolutionary offensive that uses both relentless brutality (such as sponsoring various terrorist “contra” guerrillas) and sophisticated guile (a key tactic is to divide people by fanning tribal, ethnic, and religious antagonisms). But the conditions of extreme poverty and despair for billions of people have only gotten worse. Thus, the very successes against national liberation have left a giant vacuum.… now being filled by real terrorists indeed.
The Emperor Has No Clothes
The dominant power has discredited as unspeakable some truths essential to an intelligent response to the crisis. 1. The horrible poverty and cruel disenfranchisement of the majority of humankind constitute the most fundamental violence and are also the wellspring for violent responses. 2. The reasons given for the 9/11/01 attacks don’t at all justify the slaughter of civilians, but they do in fact have some substance: US military presence and bolstering of corrupt regimes in Muslim countries (not to mention throughout the third world); the brutal occupation of Palestine; the large-scale, ongoing killing of civilians in Iraq; 3. The Pentagon and the WTC are key headquarters for massive global oppression.
The system’s massive terror does not at all mean that anything goes in response. As the Panthers used to say, ‘You don’t fight fire with fire; you fight it with water.’ Ghastly examples from Mussolini to Pol Pot have proven, at great human cost, that articulating real grievances against the system does not automatically equal having a humane direction and program. True revolutionaries spring up out of love for the people, and that’s also expressed by having the highest standards for minimizing civilian casualties. In the wake of 9/11/01 the example of the Vietnamese has become even more inspiring. They suffered the worst bombardment in history but always pushed for a distinction between the US government and the people, who could come to oppose it.
As painful and frustrating as US dominance is, the simplistic thinking that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ does not advance the struggle. All-too-many battles in the world are between competing oppressive forces. US embassies may be legitimate targets, but blowing up hundreds of Kenyan and Tanzanian workers and shoppers is unconscionable. And even within the belly of the beast, groups that would cavalierly kill so many civilians and who would hand such potent ammunition to the right-wing are not forces for liberation. At the same time, we can’t let our human commitments be blinded by floodlights that shine solely on this one tragedy. By any objective standard based on concern for human life, US-led imperialism is – by several orders of magnitude – the biggest and bloodiest terrorist in the world. We can not let the immediate horror, which the US did so much to engender, then be used to strengthen its stranglehold on humankind. Our first and foremost human responsibility is to oppose US-led imperialism.
The Challenges Ahead
It was encouraging that the anti-war movement here didn’t just collapse under the deafening roar of jingoism. But with the public’s attention on the US juggernaut in Afghanistan, it’s been hard to maintain the momentum of the anti-war, anti-globalization, and anti-racist movements. In many ways, it feels like a bleak time in the US because of the dramatic lurch to the right and the public support for many “anti-terrorist” measures that can be used in the future against dissenters. Nevertheless, even if the US completes this phase without a hitch, we are likely to be in for a protracted, if irregular, war as US action escalates the cycle of violence. While the situation is scary, it would only be scarier to give up because that would clear the way for continuing this highly dangerous skid into war and repression.
Even the most formidable fortresses of domination develop cracks over time. Contradictions in the war on terrorism as well as stresses in the economy and social fabric are likely to develop. Our task is to keep a voice alive for humane alternatives rather than let every setback add fuel to the imperial fire. We are not as isolated as in 1964, when it was completely unheard of to publicly challenge such interventions. However, in other ways our task will be more difficult than the decade-long struggle to end the war in Vietnam. This time, people in the US do feel directly attacked and those now labeled as the “enemy” are not a progressive national liberation movement.
To me, the most apt, if somewhat gloomy, analogy is to the “War on Drugs.” In both cases: 1. the CIA actively fostered some of the worst initial perpetrators. 2. The “war” response only makes the problem worse. (Making drugs illegal makes them much more expensive, which is the main factor promoting crime and violence; waging a “crusade” against Afghanistan and “Muslim fundamentalists” and backing Israel’s suppression of Palestine are likely to result in many more terrorists.) 3. Both wars pit unsavory foes against each other whose respective actions justify and animate the opposing side. 4. While each war is a colossal failure in terms of its stated aim, each is a smashing success in building public support for greater police/ military powers and in diverting people’s attention from the fundamental social issues. 5. Finally, sky high barriers have been erected to challenging these insane wars. You can’t raise the question of decriminalizing drugs or of addressing the roots of terrorism without getting hooted off the public stage. One difference, unfortunately, is that the war on terrorism is likely to become bigger, more violent, and lead to an even worse loss of civil liberties. A difference from facing the McCarthyism of the 1950’s is that, hopefully, recent currents of organizing and activism provide a basis to begin challenging such reaction from its onset.
Building an Anti-War Movement
The starting point is a love for and identification with other people. We don’t have to become callous about the lives lost at the WTC, even though the government has used them so cynically. Instead we have the job of getting those who’ve awakened to this pain to feel the injustice and suffering of the many other atrocities that have been perpetrated by the US. As hard as that may seem, many Americans were asking, “Why do ‘they’ hate us so much?” While the government and media have done their best to shut down public discussion of this pivotal issue, we can offer genuine and substantive responses, which resonate with the widely-held value of fairness. We have to break through the colossal double standard and insist fully on stopping all violence – whether bombings or hunger – against civilians and to be very clear on all the major examples. There’s a related specific need to puncture the dangerous misdefinition of “terrorism.”
In the discussion I’ve seen about building an anti-war movement, I wholeheartedly agree with those who insist that it must be anti-racist at its core. White supremacy is the bedrock for all that is reactionary in the US; in addition, the current gallop toward a police state will be used first and foremost against people of color. To be real about this, white activists have to go beyond the necessary process issues for making people of color feel welcomed at meetings and events. We also need to ally with and learn from their organizations and to develop a strong anti-racist program and set of demands.
It also seems crucial to develop strong synergy with the promising “anti-globalization” movement – not only because that’s where many young people have become active but even more importantly because the only long-term alternative to “the War on Terrorism” is to fully address the fundamental issues of global social and economic justice.
We face an extremely difficult period, without much prospect for the exhilaration or quick successes. But we don’t have the luxury of despair and defeatism – that only hands an easy victory to the oppressors. To draw a lesson from the past, we now celebrate the many slave rebellions, going back centuries before abolition became realizable, because they weakened that intolerable institution and kept resistance and future possibilities alive. History, as we’ve seen, goes through many unpredictable twists and turns. Principled resistance not only puts us in touch with our own humanity but also keeps hope and vision alive – like spring sunshine and rain – for when new possibilities sprout through the once frozen ground.