I am calling it “our” war on terrorism because I want to distinguish it from Bush’s war on terrorism, and from Sharon’s, and from Putin’s. What their wars have in common is that they are based on an enormous deception: persuading the people of their countries that you can deal with terrorism by war. These rulers say you can end our fear of terrorism–of sudden, deadly, vicious attacks, a fear new to Americans–by drawing an enormous circle around an area of the world where terrorists come from (Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya) or can be claimed to be connected with (Iraq), and by sending in tanks and planes to bomb and terrorize whoever lives within that circle.
Since war is itself the most extreme form of terrorism, a war on terrorism is profoundly self-contradictory. Is it strange, or normal, that no major political figure has pointed this out?
Even within their limited definition of terrorism, they–the governments of the United States, Israel, Russia–are clearly failing. As I write this, three years after the events of September 11, the death toll for American servicemen has surpassed 1,000, more than 150 Russian children have died in a terrorist takeover of a school, Afghanistan is in chaos, and the number of significant terrorist attacks rose to a twenty-one-year high in 2003, according to official State Department figures. The highly respected International Institute for Strategic Studies in London has reported that “over 18,000 potential terrorists are at large with recruitment accelerating on account of Iraq.”
With the failure so obvious, and the President tripping over his words trying to pretend otherwise (August 30: “I don’t think you can win” and the next day: “Make no mistake about it, we are winning”), it astonishes us that the polls show a majority of Americans believing the President has done “a good job” in the war on terrorism.
I can think of two reasons for this.
First, the press and television have not played the role of gadflies, of whistleblowers, the role that the press should play in a society whose fundamental doctrine of democracy (see the Declaration of Independence) is that you must not give blind trust to the government. They have not made clear to the public–I mean vividly, dramatically clear–what have been the human consequences of the war in Iraq.
I am speaking not only of the deaths and mutilations of American youth, but the deaths and mutilations of Iraqi children. (I am reading at this moment of an American bombing of houses in the city of Fallujah, leaving four children dead, with the U.S. military saying this was part of a “precision strike” on “a building frequently used by terrorists.”) I believe that the American people’s natural compassion would come to the fore if they truly understood that we are terrorizing other people by our “war on terror.”
A second reason that so many people accept Bush’s leadership is that no counterargument has come from the opposition party. John Kerry has not challenged Bush’s definition of terrorism. He has not been forthright. He has dodged and feinted, saying that Bush has waged “the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” Is there a right war, a right place, a right time? Kerry has not spoken clearly, boldly, in such a way as to appeal to the common sense of the American people, at least half of whom have turned against the war, with many more looking for the wise words that a true leader provides. He has not clearly challenged the fundamental premise of the Bush Administration: that the massive violence of war is the proper response to the kind of terrorist attack that took place on September 11, 2001.
Let us begin by recognizing that terrorist acts–the killing of innocent people to achieve some desired goal–are morally unacceptable and must be repudiated and opposed by anyone claiming to care about human rights. The September 11 attacks, the suicide bombings in Israel, the taking of hostages by Chechen nationalists–all are outside the bounds of any ethical principles.
This must be emphasized, because as soon as you suggest that it is important, to consider something other than violent retaliation, you are accused of sympathizing with the terrorists. It is a cheap way of ending a discussion without examining intelligent alternatives to present policy.
Then the question becomes: What is the appropriate way to respond to such awful acts? The answer so far, given by Bush, Sharon, and Putin, is military action. We have enough evidence now to tell us that this does not stop terrorism, may indeed provoke more terrorism, and at the same time leads to the deaths of hundreds, even thousands, of innocent people who happen to live in the vicinity of suspected terrorists.
What can account for the fact that these obviously ineffective, even counterproductive, responses have been supported by the people of Russia, Israel, the United States? It’s not hard to figure that out. It is fear, a deep, paralyzing fear, a dread so profound that one’s normal rational faculties are distorted, and so people rush to embrace policies that have only one thing in their favor: They make you feel that something is being done. In the absence of an alternative, in the presence of a policy vacuum, filling that vacuum with a decisive act becomes acceptable.
And when the opposition party, the opposition Presidential candidate, can offer nothing to fill that policy vacuum, the public feels it has no choice but to go along with what is being done. It is emotionally satisfying, even if rational thought suggests it does not work and cannot work.
If John Kerry cannot offer an alternative to war, then it is the responsibility of citizens, with every possible resource they can muster, to present such an alternative to the American public.
Yes, we can try to guard in every possible way against future attacks, by trying to secure airports, seaports, railroads, other centers of transportation. Yes, we can try to capture known terrorists. But neither of those actions can bring an end to terrorism, which comes from the fact that millions of people in the Middle East and elsewhere are angered by American policies, and out of these millions come those who will carry their anger to fanatic extremes.
The CIA senior terrorism analyst who has written a book signed “Anonymous” has said bluntly that U.S. policies–supporting Sharon, making war on Afghanistan and Iraq–“are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world.”
Unless we reexamine our policies–our quartering of soldiers in a hundred countries (the quartering of foreign soldiers, remember, was one of the grievances of the American revolutionaries), our support of the occupation of Palestinian lands, our insistence on controlling the oil of the Middle East–we will always live in fear. If we were to announce that we will reconsider those policies, and began to change them, we might start to dry up the huge reservoir of hatred where terrorists are hatched.
Whoever the next President will be, it is up to the American people to demand that he begin a bold reconsideration of the role our country should play in the world. That is the only possible solution to a future of never-ending, pervasive fear. That would be “our” war on terrorism.
Published in The Progressive • November 1, 2004