Perspective on the War against Terror
by John Chuckman
How well I remember the first terrifying words in our press.
They were terrifying because they did not report, did not
analyze, but only incited rage. It was the beginning of the
murderous, pointless war in Vietnam, the bloodiest part of
a postwar "crusade" against communism, and the headlines and
editorials screamed about "Reds" at the gates.
Today, perspective again seems lost in America. The word
crusade quickly, and without the lest reflection on its meaning,
came to the president's lips. A "minister" at a national prayer
service invoked the image of hurling unspeakable weapons against
America's enemies. The press endlessly repeated the same photographs
of destruction as well as the same trite phrases about terrorism.
And many Americans have openly said they just want someone
killed and something destroyed, regardless of evidence.
Although it lacks sentiment, there is, even for terrible
events, a valid accounting of numbers. The death of six thousand
Americans has been treated as an event without parallel. American
commentators have called September 11 a watershed in human
history. This is not only inaccurate, it is foolish and unhelpful.
Just fifty-six years ago, the world fought a war in which
fifty million people perished. Entire cities were obliterated,
and an effort was made to obliterate a people. Thirty years
later, in the war in Vietnam, America's relentless dumping
of millions of tons of bombs, Agent Orange, and land mines
had left 3 to 4 million Vietnamese dead.
The resources and attention given to any problem must have
some relationship to the actual size of the problem. One spectacular
event does not justify a vast change in the nation's business
and priorities. How easily we pass over the simple fact that
proper airline security - something many believed we had -
would have prevented the attack. No drums and drama, just
practical measures like secure cockpit doors. Calling out
a show of the National Guard at airports and authorizing generals
to shoot down straying airliners are empty, after-the-fact
The oversight in basic security is all the more stunning,
if, as the government claims, it can prove Osama bin Laden
is responsible for this and other terrorist attacks in recent
years. So simple a measure not taken, when confronted by a
relentless, determined foe, borders on irresponsibility since
airliners have been the target for a host of people with grievances
over the last 30 years.
Stunning, too, is the lack of public curiosity about the
motives of the people who did this. Why would a large group
of people - some of them intelligent enough to fly a jet airliner
- go through immense difficulties to smash themselves into
buildings? The label "terrorist," unlike a diagnosis of "rabid"
for an attacking dog, is not a sufficient explanation.
Indeed, the word blurs rather than clarifies. I cannot avoid
sometimes being reminded of Stalin's use of the word "wreckers"
just before he was to launch a new bloody purge. The comparison
here isn't between Stalin and American officials but in the
use of a vague term that explains nothing as the rationale
for violent action.
Americans generally possess the quality of being uncurious
and unconcerned about the world. The president, during his
election campaign actually bragged about never reading the
international section of the paper. He was bragging for the
benefit of parts of the country whose representatives in Washington
brag about never setting foot outside the United States or
holding a passport.
America itself is a big place, and life here, at least for
many, is good enough just not to care. But understanding cause
is essential to solving problems. Action in the absence of
understanding is barbarism.
G.B. Shaw said that America passed from barbarism to decadence
without ever passing through civilization. And there is considerable
truth in his twinkly-eyed quip, but the truth is more complicated.
We are a violent people, very selective in the application
of moral principles. We demonstrate this in many ways, from
our unblinking acceptance of having dropped two atomic bombs
on civilians to our refusal to recognize and minister to the
health and educational needs of millions of our own children.
At the very same time, just the right type of plum-flavored,
diet ice tea is important, and we have people who weep over
the fate of stem cells.
Missing entirely from the new crusade is a definition of
terrorism. We have declared war on something we have not defined,
and, as it turns out, a definition is not easy.
Everyone's effort at definition would likely include attacks
on civil society and the killing of noncombatants in the name
of political, ideological, or religious belief. Beyond that,
things become murky, especially so if you include the phrases
"state terrorism" or "states that harbor terrorists" as our
State Department regularly does.
Does terrorism apply only to acts by people outside government?
It certainly would be inviting to include the internal acts
of governments like Stalin's of Hitler's. This kind of thinking
accords with tendencies exhibited by our government in recent
years to interfere heavily in the internal affairs of other
Then does the crusade commit us to perpetual war against
all ruthless, authoritarian governments on earth? Including
(Incidentally, this aspect of trying to define terrorism
quickly raises the additional topic of international cooperation
and the growing need, with the phenomenon of globalization,
for international law. Yet, the United States remains the
world's greatest obstacle against progress here.)
Another form of state terrorism might be the subjugation
of neighboring peoples. Do we include the Israeli forces that
broke every written agreement with the U.S. governing the
defensive use of American weapons when they invaded Lebanon,
killing thousands of innocent people and precipitating a civil
war in which many thousands more died and a beautiful city
was virtually destroyed?
Do we include the current prime minister of Israel who was
responsible during this invasion for the deaths of about two
thousand Palestinians, all noncombatants, at the hands of
Christian militia under his control?
I don't think so. These are our terrorists.
So far as the kind of bloody behavior that usually comes
to mind with the word terrorism, that is, by private groups
against other states, do we include the violent Cuban refugee
groups in Florida that for many years carried out the most
appalling acts in Cuba, including (only a few years ago) leaving
bombs in hotels? Earlier, these groups shot up Russian ships
in Cuban ports, dropped things from airplanes, and set murderous
booby traps. No, I don't think they will be included, because
they are our terrorists, and we have safely harbored them
for 40 years.
Will the crusade be taken to the IRA which over the last
30 years has caused terrible grief and still refuses to surrender
its arms? I don't think so. They aren't our terrorists, but
there's a soft spot in the American heart for them. Most of
the money for IRA weapons came from Americans - millions of
dollars for weapons used to kill the soldiers of our most
steadfast NATO ally and blow up office buildings in London
- and there is a huge reservoir of sympathy and sentimental
attachment in America's influential Irish community.
Will it include the Kurds who were encouraged and supported
by Mr. Kissinger to create instability in selected parts of
the Mideast? Later, we dropped them, along with their dreams
of a Kurdish state, in face of an altered political situation,
but today they still cause a lot of grief in Turkey and other
Not all the old torturers and secret policemen of Chile,
El Salvador, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam and a dozen other places
who enjoyed our blessing and support in their unspeakable
work are yet laid to rest. We could go after them, but I suspect
they are pretty safe.
Is an American "evangelist," with his prayerful reference
to using weapons of mass destruction on America's enemies,
a terrorist? This is no mere sarcasm, for we have tried and
convicted a Muslim cleric and accuse Bin Laden of essentially
doing the same thing, insisting such instigation to violence
be called terrorism.
And what about the consequences of a new crusade? We might
reflect on still another American crusade, the War on Drugs.
One effect of that decades-old campaign has been the alienation
of people all over the world who see America as blaming others
for its own weakness.
We make cute jokes in movies about drugs while we insist
peasants' fields in other countries be sprayed with poison.
The American street-corner price of drugs, in real terms,
has actually fallen during much of this crusade - the clearest
possible evidence of its failure. The fact that we do not
treat drugs for what they are, a problem of our own way of
life that needs remedy, only advertises us to the world as
self-righteous, self-indulgent bullies.
The new crusade will likely instigate more violence by newly-alienated
groups. This is especially true if the character of the effort
is seen as anti-Muslim, which to this point it most clearly
is, despite feeble, photo-op efforts to reassure the world
that we believe most Muslims are good people.
Of course, the Middle East is never far from instability.
Authoritarian government or closed oligarchy, often out of
step with local public sentiment, characterizes our best friends
in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, and
Egypt. Stir up enough hostility with a campaign that focuses
on Muslims and Arabs, and it is impossible to predict the
long-term, destabilizing results.
Pakistan, a state we have strongly pressured to support us
despite its support of the Taliban and its many Muslims sympathetic
to Bin Laden, is an atomic power with significant stockpiles
of fissile material. Does anyone in his right mind want this
up for grabs in a region that includes Afghanistan, Iraq,
Already, just our rhetoric has produced along the Afghan-Pakistan
border, the beginnings of a massive refugee problem for which
the UN is seeking half a billion dollars. It has also inflamed
passions in the large and important nation of Indonesia.
There is an odd disconnect in America between the people
and their government in Washington, one with huge implications
for foreign policy, that perhaps few people outside the country
appreciate. Hostility and suspicion of the federal government
are virtually American birthrights with origins in the days
of rum-running and smuggling under British colonial government
and the virtual chaos of the national government which followed
in the revolutionary and Confederation periods.
This near-paranoia about national government often prevents
Americans from taking the best and most rational measures
even for their internal affairs (as for example, our remaining
the only advanced country without some form of national health
care), let alone foreign affairs. Despite our being a fairly
democratic society, our foreign policies often do not truly
reflect the informed consent of our people.
Not only do the American people by and large take little
interest in foreign affairs so long as things at the local
level are going well, but 18th-century, rather undemocratic
measures embedded in our Constitution, especially those governing
the nature of the Senate, mean that, more often than not,
quite provincial politicians have a disproportionate influence
in foreign policy. And provincial politicians are only too
ready to play upon the electorate's fears and suspicions for
their own benefit. Add to this our corrupt campaign-financing
practices, which do seriously affect who is elected in this
country, and it is easy to understand that what we do abroad
often is not what ordinary Americans would embrace were it
accurately explained. The best qualities of the American people
are simply often not reflected in many of our actions abroad.
But Americans are proud. Not only is theirs an extraordinary
successful nation in economic terms, many Americans display
the disproportionate pride of a young people, and young people
who have been given a great deal.
So, regardless of the lack of interest in foreign affairs,
when there is a sense of the country's being attacked, support
for the national government will be strong until what is felt
to be an appropriate response is made. People will then lapse
into indifference, leaving interest in foreign affairs to
a relatively small number of people in Washington again.
This dynamic makes the notion of an "attack on America" rather
than an attack on parts of our foreign policy that destroy
others an easy one to sell. Equally, it makes any redress
of imbalances difficult to achieve.
But our policies in the Middle East have been unbalanced
for years, and the tremendous frustration and anger this breeds
are almost unknown to Americans who see themselves as essentially
fair-minded people. Palestinians have lived for decades with
occupation, torture, and assassination, and see what little
land remains to them being eaten away by "settlers," while
American foreign policy seems to have almost limitless tolerance
for Israeli excesses.
In this country, we cannot even discuss the problem accurately.
Our press endlessly uses the Orwellian term, the "peace process,"
a term which has no substance and serves to avoid the actual
problem which is that the Palestinians must either be granted
an independent state or be absorbed into Israel, or some combination
of the two.
For half a century, Israeli prime ministers have insisted
that the Palestinians' homeland can only be Jordan, and many
of them have openly advocated annexing the West Bank to Israel.
The closest Israel has ever come to allowing anything vaguely
resembling a Palestinian state was Mr. Barak's proposals at
Camp David, proposals which would have created an absurd Bantustan-style
state, which did not come close to satisfying the U.N.'s Resolution
242, and which, by all accounts, were offered with considerable
arrogance and anger.
The good intentions of the present government of Israel may
be judged by Mr. Sharon's actions in the weeks following September
11. Mr. Sharon exploited the confusion by refusing, as he
had previously agreed, to meet with Mr. Arafat, he furthermore
publicly compared Arafat to Bin Laden (which is quite interesting
in light of Arafat's donating blood for American victims),
and the Israeli army reportedly was preparing, according to
Mr. Peres, to murder Arafat. Surely, this cannot be the way
to peace and justice.
Yes, by all means, let us bring anyone truly responsible
for the destruction in New York to justice, but the notion
of another American crusade, a crusade against terror, is
a terrible mistake. It is disproportionate, it is poorly defined,
and it is fraught with uncertainty. And as it takes on a large
and violent scope, it will certainly let Israel off the hook
from doing what justice demands she do.