by Michael Novick
How do we respond to the ferocious and unjustifiable acts of terror on September 11? Some people — starting with the president and the media — are whooping and hollering for “war,” but I don’t buy the polls that claim virtual unanimity for seeking military revenge and retribution. What the pollsters are really asking is, “Do you think the people who did this should get away with murder?” and of course 99.9 percent of people say “No!” But look into your own heart. In addition to anger, we are experiencing pain, grief, loss, bewilderment, denial — all the stages of contradictory emotions that you go through when somebody you care for dies, written 10,000 times larger. It’s only natural that we want to pull together for support and comfort, to deal with strong and disturbing feelings of powerlessness that came out in response to the shocking attacks, death and destruction. But George Bush and his plans for war are a slim reed on which to hang our desire for unity and security. It is up to us, the people ourselves, to put forward a positive, humane, and effective vision at a moment of anguish and danger. Military force will feed terror, not defeat it, and in the process it will grind up and destroy the last of the freedom, creativity and hope for a better world that we rightly value. The politicians and pundits want to hype up our anger, frustration and feelings of vulnerability into a war fever and a police state. I am just one person, a teacher and union member, a parent, who cannot command the attention of the media or the battalions of the largest military machine on the planet. But I know the average person has a much more complicated and really more profound set of reactions to what has happened. I know that as I and others have gone out in these days since the attack with a message of peace, justice and solidarity, against war and racism, we have drawn a great deal of support and interest. For each of us, in dealing with our feelings, with our ideas, or with questions about how to combat terror, there is a lot of sorting out to do. If we are each divided within ourselves, what part of ourselves should we unite with? What should we reconsider? The contradictory feelings and ideas we are experiencing are manifestations of deeper contradictions within our society and our selves, contradictions between privilege and oppression, between aspirations and reality. We must begin to resolve these to deal with the situation that we now find ourselves in, and we must begin by abandoning the illusions and self-deceptions that died with the thousands on September 11. We have refused to confront the terrorism that we have harbored in our own midst; we have depended on the trappings of imperial might for security, and they have failed us. We can no longer refuse to face the contradictions in our history and society. It is these contradictions which account for the warring emotions we have experienced in the wake of the attacks. For example, we felt an enormous, heartfelt upwelling of identification with those who died, of pride in those who sought heroically to deal with the catastrophe. We want to support the victims, the families, to mend what was torn. This grief, the sense that “it could have been me,” is the basis for a positive and human feeling of solidarity and identification with those who are suffering more directly. This is not a trait of just the American character, but of the human personality. We need to extend that feeling, to open our hearts not just around the city of New York or across the United States, but really to people everywhere on this small planet. We are one human family. We understand the suffering of the people blown out of or jumping off those flaming towers, of the parents and spouses who exchanged a last word by cell phone with loved ones about to die. Can we then be less sensitive to the devastation experienced by the victims of death squads, “collateral damage,” US military hardware or direct intervention in Iraq or Colombia, Palestine or Puerto Rico? There’s a disconnect between our feelings of solidarity and the desire to strike back or lash out. Take a moment to reflect, and we must see that we can’t lament the deaths of innocents and in the next breath propose that we bomb whole societies “back to the Stone Age.” We would be doing exactly what we condemn, giving others another taste of what we just experienced. The grievances, hurt and rage of the hijackers — whoever they may have been — could never justify the attacks they carried out on innocent civilians, and neither would our feelings justify the same kinds of attacks by the U.S. To attack in kind would really concede to the perpetrators the ‘right’ to do what they did, and to escalate in return. What would be next? Germ warfare or nuclear weapons? Cheney and Bush have already talked about using the “totality of our resources,” about a “long war.” They are chasing the perpetrators into the briar patch, and they are taking us with them unless we resist. In response to the September 11 attack, many of us feel very unsettled and powerless. This is psychologically disturbing on a very deep level, and we sometimes want quick fixes. But we have to acknowledge that powerlessness before we can assert a more positive kind of power. Bush’s war will deepen such feelings, not resolve them. I ask myself, did that sense of futility and helplessness come only from the acts of terror? Or are we powerless because the impersonal forces of economic and political domination within our own country and society have eaten away at our rights and civic participation? Could our sense of futility have as much to do with the outcome of the last election, which put Bush in power through racist disenfranchisement, intimidation and legal and electoral manipulation, as it does with the attacks? Is our powerlessness due perhaps to the dawning realization that in the world of NAFTA and the WTO we have to dance to the tune of global corporations? We need to gain the liberating power to shape our own lives. Power to destroy or dominate others is no substitute. In our grief, our frustration and even in our anger, what is really happening is a painful breakdown in our identification with the oppressor, and a growing if unnamed recognition of what it means to be oppressed. The September 11 attacks drove home clearly that we live in an empire, and in an empire, colonizers and colonized alike, no matter how privileged, are all subjects, not citizens. The attacks were a manifestation of the growing interpenetration and seamlessness between the global and the continental empire. This blurring between the imperial center and the colonized people is a process which is irreversible, short of dismantling the empire entirely. Did Bush’s proposal for a cabinet secretary for “Homeland Security” really make you feel more secure, or did it raise the hairs on the back of your neck with its fascist scent of the “Fatherland”? Bringing the dictatorial methods of rule of colonialism into the colonizing society is the true definition of fascism. Bush’s long war and his militarization of life within the U.S. will only deepen and hasten this process. Who will be made more ‘powerful’ if the U.S. military and counter-insurgency machine wages war and buys ‘security’ by means of invading and subjugating other nations while infiltrating and regimenting U.S. society itself? Nobody except the politicians and corporations that have too much power already. We are all looking for answers amid the confusion. This, too, can be a good thing, a recognition that we have left ourselves in the dark about what’s going on in the world. Some of us have been glued to the tube or the PC monitor for days, afraid we will “miss something.” Of course, we have already “missed something;” we let the dangling fruit and distractions of material striving and temptation blind us to the darkening forest of thorns growing in the soil of America. The failure of “intelligence” was not only on the intelligence agencies. Our media have screened out information and opinions that might make people uneasy. As more and more power and wealth has accumulated in fewer and fewer hands in this country, the acceptable spectrum of opinion or dissent has narrowed so much that we the people have been closed out of the political process along with any ideas and challenges that are considered subversive of the established order. So to find answers, we must examine the facts and ideas which have been forbidden, or hidden by self-imposed blinders. History did not begin on September 11 any more than it had ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The U.S. was involved in wars to build and maintain an empire long before the Cold War. It has remained involved in such wars for the decade-plus since the Cold War ended and the communist bloc vanished. In fact, the U.S. has been at war, with Iraq, over that latter period, and few of us took any notice as our government went about destroying Iraq’s potable water system, bombing that country regularly, maintaining an area of military overflights over Iraqi territory while simultaneously enforcing that as a zone in which the Iraqis cannot fly over their own territory, and or course enforcing an embargo which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. We could ignore or deny that war (as Bush did in calling his declaration the “first war of the 21st Century”); but we cannot deny this one. Yet we must oppose it and refuse to allow George W. Bush to wage it in our name. We must recognize that the U.S. government has other fish to fry beyond the war against terror it has proclaimed. From the moment the old Soviet Russian empire collapsed, the U.S., as the world’s only super-power, has had its eyes set on filling the power vacuum and advancing its military power to control the oil wealth of the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. This is the same script we followed as a rising imperial power 100 years ago, supplanting the decaying Spanish Empire. Then, we fomented a war with Spain over a mysterious explosion on a US warship in Havana harbor. We proceeded to colonize Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines and simultaneously annexed Hawaii. Then, the U.S. Anti-Imperialist League, led by notables like Mark Twain, failed to stop the war because they could not face the reality that we were already an empire within the continent. This time we must do better about facing, and reshaping, reality. People ask “why?” about September 11, and the honest explanation is one that Bush can never provide. The answer really is simple — the perpetrators have learned the ugly lesson of “might makes right” that the US and other imperial powers have used as a guide to their behavior in the world. The wars of the last century were wars on civilians, from Kristallnacht, Stalingrad and the German V-2, through Hiroshima, No Gun Ri and My Lai. Long before that, the wars of settlement in this country decimated and uprooted the indigenous people and took an enormous toll in Native non-combatant casualties. What happened on September 11 is ultimately no more complicated than a network of people willing to give their own lives in order to dish out that same type of treatment to the U.S., in pursuit of their “policy objectives.” Their relative powerlessness does not justify it, any more than the relative power of the U.S. justifies its acts of terror in Iraq or Yugoslavia. There has been wild speculation in response to Bush’s undocumented insistence that Bin Laden is responsible — maybe it was really militias, Israelis, rogue elements in our own military or intelligence — but ultimately, it doesn’t matter who did it. The motivation and the potential outcome is the same — to strike fear into our hearts, to cloud our thinking and to draw the U.S. into a protracted war — whether it was carried out by Bin Laden’s followers to provoke a war with Islam, or by some secret cabal in this country determined to use a war to salvage the global economy and squelch dissent. I’ve heard a lot of claptrap both from the right and left about this. The right wants to look for scapegoats. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed the disaster on gays, feminists and the ACLU for bringing down the wrath of god on the U.S. A lot of other people immediately took it into their heads to find an Arab or a Muslim to threaten, harass or even kill. In their ignorance, they have gone after Egyptian Christians, Hindu Sikhs from India. I have no doubt that some will begin attacking Jews, just like during the Gulf War. Freedom and solidarity are indivisible. If we want to protect civilians from indiscriminate attack or communities from racial or religious prejudice, we have to extend it to everyone. The “golden rule” used to be “love your neighbor as yourself” — until it became “he who has the gold makes the rules.” Some on the left offer half-baked explanations of their own. I’ve heard a lot of people saying, “terrorism is the war of the poor and weak against the rich and powerful.” When you think about it for a second, that’s the same b.s. Bush is putting out. If it was Bin Laden, he had no interest in the downtrodden and no program for liberation. Terror is terror, whether by the state, the racists or whoever carried out the September 11 atrocity. I have been involved with “People Against Racist Terror” for 15 years, because I know that the strong use terror against the weak all the time. That’s the bully mentality. The Ku Klux Klan is historically a terrorist organization. The US waged a war of terror in Vietnam. Slave overseers and slave patrols terrorized slaves to control them and the fruits of their labor. Anti-abortion groups use terror to try to deny women their reproductive rights. Andrew Jackson terrorized the Cherokee Nation and other indigenous people out of the east coast. Germany used terror against England, against the Jews, against the Slavs and against its own people during World War II. The dividing line on terror is not between governments and groups that don’t have state power. It’s not between Christians, Muslims or Jews; nor between so-called civilized nations and alleged barbarians. The dividing line is whether or not deadly force gets used against civilians for the purpose of amassing and imposing power over them. George Bush wants to draw a line between Bin Laden and himself. If the dividing line is terror, in fact they both end up on the same, wrong side of the line. Who taught all these “demonic, terroristic” opponents of ours how to wage their campaigns? Manuel Noriega, creature of the CIA, part of the Iran-Contra drugs for guns deal; the Ayatollah Khomeini, ushered in to Iran to replace the Shah who had become too weak to suppress the Iranian revolution; Saddam Hussein, worked with the CIA, armed by the U.S. to use poison gas on his own people; Slobodan Milosevic, useful to the CIA plan to break up the old Yugoslavia through ethnic rivalries; Osama bin Laden, part of the CIA plan to tie down the Soviets in Afghanistan, on the US backed side in Bosnia and Kosovo; Timothy McVeigh, trained to kill in the Gulf War; the Taliban, recipients of a massive aid package from George W. Bush for “drug interdiction” even while ‘harboring’ Bin Laden and terrorizing the Afghani population, particularly women. The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. Saddam Hussein, Milosevic or Bin Laden are no friends of oppressed people, and their program and tactics, like those of Bush, are shaped by their desire to consolidate power and impose their will. Another contradictory set of feelings many people are gripped by is the sense that “everything has changed” and the opposite desire to get “back to normal.” The latter is a deadly tendency within us to slip back into denial and complacent arrogance. Normal is what got us into this situation. It will take an extraordinary effort — far greater than that of the rescuers — to get us out. Simply turning away from war, repudiating terror, is not enough. We need more fundamental change. The world did not change on September 11, but our view of the world and our place in it did. The acts of September 11 were spectacular, perhaps designed particularly for a nation numbed by Hollywood depictions of terror. But US policies in Iraq alone have taken more lives, month after month for a decade — just one of many forms of terror carried out by our government to protect “the American way of life.” Even more than U.S. policy in the Middle East or Central Asia, it is the contradictions within that way of life that fuel the crisis facing us. That way of life is going to change; the only question is, how? Bush intends to make this a garrison state. Do we have other plans, and how can we implement them under the current circumstances? How can we transform this society so it is more sustainable and less vulnerable? We could make a start by turning the site of the now destroyed twin towers into an international peace park dedicated to the memories of the people who lost their lives. Our spirits could soar higher than the tallest building under a few trees and the open sky amid the concrete canyons. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to do the same with the Pentagon. Yet to talk of turning the Pentagon into a monument to peace is to demonstrate how basic militarism is in the U.S. Endless war and terror are the inevitable byproducts of a system based on empire. Many of us have woken up from a fantasy of invulnerability and the illusion that one can wage a one-sided war, and have begun to see the consequences of empire. Remember that Pentagon war-fighting doctrine is still predicated on fighting 2.5 wars at a time. Congress may have back-burnered medical insurance reform; but U.S. involvement in the war in Colombia continues to escalate on a daily basis even while fleets and fighter planes steam to the Gulf. There was nothing revolutionary about the September 11 attacks, but ultimately we need a revolution if we are to avoid an endless vicious cycle of attack and counter-attack. We need to de-colonize our own society and economy. Consider the repeated comments about “acts of terror on U.S. soil.” Prior to this attack, the U.S. had reserved to itself the “right” to carry out terror in these territories — terror against African slaves, against Native people, against Mexicans, against immigrants, against organized labor, against women. If we want to build unity, dismantling that continental empire is a place to start. We need to oppose the militarization of police, prisons, schools and the border. They do not secure us, only the wealth and power of our exploiters. Simultaneously, we need to think about non-state solutions to our problems. We need to develop civilian-based defense against terror or invasion. It was civilians, for example, who stopped one of the hijacked planes from carrying out the terrorist mission while the Pentagon was stymied, itself under attack. Prevention, security measures at airports are all well and good, but the surest guarantee that no such attacks can take place again is the knowledge that every passenger on every plane in the sky understands quite clearly the fatal consequences of the next attempt, and will act accordingly. What threat could hijackers possibly make now that would deter the passengers and crew, who know that death is inevitable in any case, from overwhelming them at any cost? The globalization movement provides a model for the kind of direct, person-to-person and movement-to-movement international relations we need to build, in place of the imperial war machine. We need to develop interconnected communities of resistance that can sustain themselves through war and repression. If people are panicky about terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants, perhaps it is past time to think about renewable, sustainable, non-toxic forms of energy, about reducing energy consumption and dependency on fossil fuels, not just foreign ones. Every nuclear plant in the U.S. should be shut down, immediately and permanently. Transforming the economic system of the U.S. from one based on expansion and penetration of other societies into one based on cooperative, environmentally sound enterprise is vital. Eliminating U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East (read, “oil”) would allow Arab societies to slip off the stifling yoke of reactionary regimes and colonialism. We need to take this same approach of non-state action to the issue of terror. Counter-terrorism that uses terror will only increase the amount and level of terror in the world and in this country. If guns and bombs will only feed terror, if our own government has been guilty of terror at Wounded Knee and Hiroshima, then how do we defeat terror? By the same weapons we must use against the impulse to terror that we ourselves have just experienced. Terror is fought in a battle for hearts and minds, in a struggle against oppressive power. Terror is fought by building solidarity. Terror must be dried out from below. Israel and the U.S. actually promoted the Muslim fundamentalist groups that turned to terror, as part of an imperialist strategy to divide oppressed people and to blunt the dynamic of social revolutionary forces. Only by building such forces in our own society, opposing the terror of our own government, struggling for economic justice and equality, can we develop the capacity to unite with similar movements in other countries that could eliminate the sources of terror within their people as we must within ours. I shared these thoughts with a Canadian friend, Sunday Harrison with Anti-Racist Action in Toronto, and she replied, “I have been thinking about the solidarity you mention, and I think you put it well as far as what we should be encouraging people to do at home. But what about internationally? My idea (and I hope others might be thinking along these lines) is to support a broad-based fundraising campaign for an activist group of Afghan women, such as RAWA. Why not support the Afghani victims of the Taliban and Jehadis, who after all have the most interest in rebuilding their country as a secular democracy? If the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, which is operating clinics and schools, going into Afghanistan and documenting Taliban atrocities (with men who also risk their lives providing escort), at the same time as feeding their families and surviving assassination attempts, had even a fraction of the U.S. money that will be spent on armaments, money extracted from the U.S. people whether they want it or not, the Taliban and bin Laden would be in for serious trouble. In any case, if the US goes in shooting, RAWA will still need all the help they can get. Solidarity is the antithesis of U.S. interventionism: the U.S. people (and other progressives) can take active measures to counter clerical fascism beyond your own borders, by providing such material aid.” She is right. It is only by rebuilding the solidarity and revolutionary capacity and unity of oppressed people that terror can be uprooted. Such a process of rebuilding must be self-critical. Oppressed people are not saints. Experiencing Hitler’s genocide, for example, did not prevent many Jews from embracing Zionism and colonialism. Within the imperialist system, everyone experiences a mix of oppression and privilege, whether in the form of white skin privilege or neo-colonialism. The system offers people options to surrender and incorporate into the imperialist structure by stepping on somebody else’s neck. The great strength of this system, the reason it is now a global superpower, has been its capacity to capture our consent. It uses the privileges of participation in empire and settler colonialism to generate within us an identification with our own oppressors and an internalization of our own oppression. But those privileges in the form of white supremacy or neo-colonialism blind us and bind us to our own exploitation and oppression, along with that of others. The wealth and power we see around us is extracted from us and from millions around the globe. To counter the tendencies toward either collaboration or terror, we need to emphasize the creative power of resistance. We need to develop the understanding that all the power and wealth of the oppressor’s system is derived from the oppressed and exploited, used against us by virtue of our own participation in that system. Yet the days of this system are numbered. War may defer but cannot eliminate its insoluble economic contradictions. Every globalized factory, every worker bled and sweated, every acre of stolen land, generates a productive capacity whose output can never be profitably accommodated. Every empire in history has crumbled into dust, and this empire is no exception. That understanding, coupled with the realization that we have the capacity to create something much better in its place, will give people the hope and courage to persevere. The working, oppressed and colonized people of the world can and will unite. No condescending saviors, no unity with our rulers! We are our own liberators!
Michael Novick is editor of Turning the Tide: Journal of Anti-Racist Action, Research & Education, available on the web at www.antiracist.org. He is the author of White Lies White Power-The Fight Against White Supremacy and Reactionary Violence, from Common Courage Press. You can reach Michael at email@example.com. This article originally appeared in Turning the Tide, Vol. 14, #3, Fall 2001.