What would be a sensible way for the United States to respond to the attacks of September 11? Though few signs of sense are to be found in the belligerent Beltway, common sense and human decency provide useful guideposts. The U.S. response should be based on the proposition that all human life is equally precious. To bomb Afghanistan and kill innocent people to get Osama bin Laden and the Taliban would be immoral. Strategically, it would be folly. Killing civilians in a retaliatory strike would only stoke the ranks of Islamic fundamentalist extremists across the Muslim world. Our allies understand this and have cautioned against such an indiscriminate response.
Further, bombing Afghanistan would truly escalate the September 11 attacks to the level of a war. Absent such bombing, talk of war is nonsense. We don’t need a war on terrorisma war some pundits have morphed into World War III. Going to war may motivate Americans on the home front and unite the country, but it will elicit the same response from those we attack. Indeed, war (did someone say “crusade”?) ratchets up the conflict, turns criminals into warriors (in this case holy ones) and sets the stage for a never ending series of attacks and counterattacks, for death and more death.
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are more properly described as horrendous criminal acts. With such an understanding we could confront bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization as we would domestic terrorists. Of course, al-Qaeda, with branches in dozens of countries, operates on a worldwide scale. What is needed is a global, unified response to these criminals, and the very real threat they pose, preferably under the umbrella of the United Nations. Such a collective response could deploy the expertise of the world’s military, police and intelligence communities and be guided by seasoned world statesmen.
In formulating a united international strategy to stop al-Qaeda, we could learn lessons from how other nations have coped with homegrown terrorism. Britain doesn’t bomb areas of Belfast to counter terrorist acts by extremist Republicans and Unionists. Spain doesn’t bomb Bilbao to get ETA, the Basque separatists. Progress in these ongoing campaigns against terrorism has come only when the Spanish and British governments have acknowledged and addressed the legitimate grievances of historically oppressed peopleÇÇand reined in out-of-control security forces.
Israel also provides us with a textbook case on how to deal with terrorists. Under Yitzhak Rabin, for a time, peace seemed possible despite the ongoing threat of suicide bombers. The policies of the Ariel Sharon government, endorsed by the United States with its silencepolicies that include the bombardment of Palestinian neighborhoodshave undone what progress was made. Similarly, we can learn what not to do by examining Russia’s brutal suppression of the Chechen rebellion.
Unfortunately, the track record of Bush’s foreign policy team, veterans of the war on communism, does not inspire confidence. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rabidly opposed d»tente with the Soviet Union. The future U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte (his nomination slipped through committee after the attacks), turned a blind eye to state-sponsored death squads trained by the CIA when he was ambassador to Honduras. And Secretary of State Colin Powell (now in the administration’s moderate minority) burned Vietnamese peasants out of their huts, “starting the blaze with Rooson and Zippo lighters,” as he recalled his autobiography.
In this atmosphere of public apprehension and fear, the terrorist threat, like the communist menace of yore, has given the Bush administration carte blanche to do whatever it likes. The war on communism brought with it myriad atrocitiesatrocities that moved Congress to put limitations on U.S. intelligence agencies. In this so-called War on Terrorism, those controls are now heading for the bonfire.
In the enveloping darkness, it’s time for those of us who doubt the wisdom of such actions to speak out.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.