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The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism

Rahul Mahajan is a graduate student in physics at the University of Texas at Austin and an antiwar activist, serving on the national boards of Peace Action and the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. His writings on foreign policy and globalization have been published in newspapers like the Baltimore Sun and Houston Chronicle, and alternative publications like Extra! and the Texas Observer. He is a member of the Nowar Collective www.nowarcollective.com.

This essay was written for Rahul Mahajan’s new book, The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism scheduled for publication in March 2002, by Monthly Review Press.

The world changed on September 11. That’s not just media hype. The way some historians refer to 1914–1991 as the “short twentieth century,” many are now calling September 11, 2001, the real beginning of the twenty-first century. It’s too early to know whether that assessment will be borne out, but it cannot simply be dismissed.

The attacks of September 11 forever ended the idea that the United States could somehow float above the rest of the earth, of it and not of it at the same time. Americans can no longer foster the illusion that what happens to the rest of the world doesn’t affect them. It is more crucial than ever that we understand what kind of world we are living in, and what the United States has done to make it what it is.

It is not enough to say that the attacks were crimes against humanity, though they were, and that terrorism like that must be stopped, though it must. It’s also not enough to say that the hijackers were religious extremists, though they were. One must also understand the role the United States has played in promoting religious extremism, directly, as in the Afghan jihad, and indirectly, by destroying all alternatives through its ceaseless attacks on the left and by pursuing policies that foster resentment and anger.

It is of particular importance to understand its newest policies, the so-called “war on terrorism.” Of the many ways to approach it, perhaps the most straightforward is to examine the official view of the war on terrorism that has emerged and is being pushed on the public, and refuting it point by point. These are some of the main myths about that war:

The attack was like Pearl Harbor, and therefore, as in the Second World War, we had to declare war or risk destruction. The truth is that Pearl Harbor was an attack by a powerful, expansionist state that had the capacity to subjugate all of East Asia. The attacks of September 11 were committed by nineteen men, part of a series of networks that has a few thousand hard-core militants, with access to modest financial resources. Since they were hardly an immediate, all-encompassing threat, options other than war could have been explored.

This was an attack on freedom.Whatever considerations exist in the mind of Osama bin Laden or members of his network, his recently broadcast statements contain no mention of any resentment of American democracy, freedom, or the role of women. They mention specific grievances regarding U.S. policy in the Middle East: the sanctions on Iraq, maintained largely by the United States, which have killed over one million civilians; material and political support for Israel’s military occupation of Palestine and its frequent military attacks, carried out with American weapons, on practically unarmed Palestinians; and U.S. military occupation of the Gulf and support for corrupt regimes that serve the interests of U.S. corporations before those of the people. The terrorists’ own vision for the states of the Middle East is, if imaginable, even more horrific than the current reality, and would presumably involve even greater limits on freedom than are already in place. Their recruiting points, however, the issues that make them potentially relevant as a political force, have to do with U.S. domination of the region, not with the internal organization of American society.

You’re with us or you’re with the terrorists. This polarization, foisted on the world to frighten possible dissenters from America’s course of action, is the logic of tyranny, even of extermination. Anti-war protesters who condemn the terrorist attacks of September 11 along with the criminal acts of the United States in Afghanistan, and countries that do the same, don’t fit into this scheme, and certainly don’t deserve to be tarred with the same brush as the terrorists.

The war on Afghanistan was self-defense. In fact, people in Afghanistan at the time of the attack had no way of menacing the United States from afar since they have no ICBMs or long-range bombers. Someone in Afghanistan intending to attack the United States had to get there first. If there was an imminent threat, it was from terrorists already in the United States or in Europe. Thus, there was enough time to seek Security Council authorization, which is required unless one is attacking the source of an imminent threat. Instead, the U.S. deliberately chose not to seek it. The four weeks between the attack and the war that passed virtually without incident are proof that there was no immediate, overwhelming need for military action, a fundamental requirement of any claim to act in self-defense.

The Bush administration turned away from its emerging unilateralism (pulling out of the Kyoto protocols, sabotaging the ABM treaty with Russia, etc.) to a new multilateralism. This assumes that “multilateralism” means first pre-determining one’s agenda, then attempting to browbeat or bribe other countries into agreement or acquiescence. True multilateralism would involve setting up international structures that are democratic, transparent, and accountable to the people, institutions, and governments of the world and abiding by the decisions of these authorities whether favorable or not. The United States has consistently set itself against any such path. In this case, the United States refused even to seek the authority from the appropriate body in this case, the Security Council. This even though the United States could likely have gained its acquiescence by use of its standard methods of threats and bribery. It seems that the United States wishes very firmly and deliberately to claim the right of unilateral aggression.

There were four weeks of restraint as the Bush administration tried a diplomatic solution to the problem. Much of the “restraint” was simply to find time to move troops and materiel into place and to browbeat reluctant countries like Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan into providing staging areas and overflight rights. Also, there was real concern about destabilizing many allied governments in the Islamic world. No diplomatic solution was tried; the administration line was consistently “no negotiations.” They made demands no sovereign country could accept; free access of the U.S. military to sensitive sites, plus the right arbitrarily to demand that an unspecified group of people be “turned over.” They also refused to present the Taliban with evidence. In spite of all this, the Taliban was willing to negotiate delivery to a neutral third party. In fact, a deal had been worked out to have bin Laden tried in Pakistan by a tribunal which would then decide whether or not to turn him over to the United States. The U.S. government didn’t even want that. Its “diplomacy” was deliberately designed to lead to war.

Revenge was the motive for the war. Although many people felt an emotional desire for revenge, the two principal reasons for war cannot be described in these terms. The first reason is that of imperial credibility. The United States is an empire, of a different kind from the Roman or the British, but still one that holds sway over much of the world through a combination of economic and military domination. In order to remain in power, an empire must show no weakness; it must crush any threat to its control. The last half of the Vietnam War, after the U.S. government realized there would be no political victory, was fought for credibility to show other countries the price of defiance. The need was all the greater with such a devastating attack in the center of imperial power. The second reason is leverage over the oil and natural gas of Central Asia. Afghanistan is the one country that the United States could control through which a pipeline can be run from those reserves to the Indian Ocean, for the rapidly growing Asian market. The war would provide an opportunity for that, as well as a chance to set up military bases in the former Soviet republics of the region.

The war was a humanitarian intervention as well as an attempt to get the terrorists. The food drops were mere military propaganda—enough food for 37,500 people a day, if it was distributed, which it couldn’t be—and they accompanied bombing that disrupted aid programs designed to feed millions. The lack of humanitarian intent was shown later by the U.S. government’s ignoring a call by aid agencies and U.N. officials for a bombing halt so enough food could be trucked in. UNICEF estimated that because of the disruption of aid caused by the bombing and earlier the threat of bombing, as many as 100,000 more children might die in the winter. After the withdrawal of the Taliban, as much of the country collapsed into chaos and bandits started looting aid stores, the United States held up for almost a month proposals for a peacekeeping force, and didn’t even pressure the Northern Alliance to restore order and facilitate aid, as aid workers were unable to reach at least one million people in desperate need.

The war was conducted by surgical strikes, minimizing collateral damage. There’s no such thing as a surgical strike—the most precise weapons miss 20–30 percent of the time, and only 60 percent of the ordnance dropped on Afghanistan has been precision-guided. The United States has also used such devastating weapons as cluster bombs and daisy cutters, which by their nature are indiscriminate, so “collateral damage” cannot be controlled. Also, U.S. bombing campaigns generally deliberately target civilian infrastructure. In this case, there are reports of power stations, telephone exchanges, and even a major dam being destroyed, with potentially catastrophic effects. Totaling up all reports, including those from the foreign press, Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire estimated the number of civilians killed directly by bombs and bullets as of December 6, 2001 to be 3,767, a number he feels is, if anything, an underestimation. This is already greater than the number of innocents who died in the attacks on September 11, and it doesn’t include the likely greater number who have died of indirect effects.

It was a war of civilization against barbarism. As if the above weren’t enough, at the siege of Kunduz, where thousands of foreign fighters were trapped along with many thousands of Afghan Taliban fighters, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did everything short of calling for the foreigners to be killed. Later, a group of foreigners imprisoned in a fort and convinced they were going to be killed staged a rebellion. The fort was bombed and strafed by U.S. planes, even though later reports indicate that perhaps hundreds of the prisoners had their hands bound—this is almost certainly a war crime. At the same time, government officials and media pundits began calling for Osama bin Laden to be killed even if he surrendered.

It was a war against terrorism. The Northern Alliance, which the United States has put in power over most of Afghanistan, is a bunch of terrorists, known for torture, killing civilians, and raping women. The United States harbors many terrorists, like Emanuel Constant of Haiti, a number of Cubans, and Henry Kissinger. It still runs its own terrorist training camp, the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. It still supports Israeli state terrorism against the Palestinians. And it is committing state terrorism itself, by recklessly endangering civilians for its political goals.

The administration’s primary motive has been to ensure the security of Americans. The war has greatly increased the risks to Americans. By creating a tremendous pool of anger in the Muslim world, it is the ultimate recruiting vehicle for bin Laden, who is seen as a hero by many now, though he was ignored before. It was not even the best way to catch bin Laden, as pointed out above. Other measures decrease security as well. Calls to increase the scope of CIA operations and involve them more with criminals and terrorists seem to ignore the fact that it was just such CIA meddling that helped create the international Islamic extremist movement. Bush administration calls to sell weapons to countries that violate human rights destabilize the world. And missile defense, which would not have helped at all with an attack like this even if it was technically feasible, threatens to set off a new arms race. On the homefront, corporate profits and the ideology of free enterprise were more important to the administration than increasing security through the nationalization of airport security personnel, even though corporations have been found to be using convicted felons and paying barely over minimum wage, thus ensuring low motivation and incompetence. The profits of Bayer, the maker of Cipro, used to treat anthrax, were more important than ensuring a reasonably-priced supply of Cipro for people in case of a large-scale anthrax attack.

The attacks of September 11 united us together in a noble enterprise. Although many people did come together, the Bush administration tried to use that idea of unity to subvert democracy, even calling for Congress to give the president trade promotion authority (the right to present trade agreements “as is,” so Congress can approve or disapprove but not amend) as part of the “war on terrorism.” In the end, there was no unity; airline corporations were bailed out, while laid-off airline employees got nothing; the Republicans tried to give corporations a huge tax break in their economic stimulus package, while no provision was made to counter surging unemployment; and legislative aides on Capitol Hill got vastly better treatment during the anthrax scare than did postal workers.

This whole enterprise has also shed light on some longer-standing myths we hold about ourselves:

All sectors of society have an abiding commitment to civil liberties and due process of law. The USA PATRIOT Act allows law enforcement far greater power, including the right to search your house without notification. It can effectively deprive noncitizens of basic rights like habeas corpus. Attorney-client privilege has been breached in some cases. Many people have been held incommunicado for months in the ongoing investigation. Bush has even authorized the use of military tribunals, which can use secret evidence, convict on very low standards of evidence, and deny a defendant the right to choose a lawyer. The FBI has even considered sending detainees to other countries to be tortured. Although there is significant opposition to these threats to civil liberties and due process, it is not as yet very widespread.

We’ve made tremendous progress on racism. A majority of Americans now approve of racial profiling. There was a huge upsurge in hate crimes after September 11. And many people have openly expressed appallingly racist and even genocidal sentiments. Calls to nuke entire countries have been made. Although there is now a small group of (mostly younger) people largely free of racist sentiments, for the majority, the progress has mainly been in learning how to hide their racism.

We honor dissent and the right to free speech. Public discourse was characterized by an extreme overreaction to the small number of people who spoke against war. Several journalists have been fired, and many people subjected to death threats and other harassment. A right-wing foundation has brought out a report criticizing academia for not rallying round the flag even though the number of dissenters in academia were few and far between. With the constant demonization of dissent and misrepresentation of dissenters by elite institutions, it’s not surprising that much of the populace has gone the same way—a recent CBS/NYT poll found 38 percent saying anti-war “marches and rallies” should not be allowed.

We have the freest and most independent media in the world. From the first hours, the mass media outdid any other sector of society in calling for blood. They showed, as they always do in wartime, a tremendous subservience to the government, with almost no dissenting points of view expressed. When they did criticize government officials, it was almost always for not bombing enough. Most seriously, there was tremendous self-censorship. Numerous critical issues were covered hardly at all: the fact that a deal for extradition of bin Laden had been worked out; the fact that the United States had planned war against Afghanistan since before the attacks; the connection of oil with the war; and more. Worst was the persistent lack of attention to civilian casualties. Only a few incidents were even reported, and those were dismissed by constant repetition of Pentagon claims that they were “propaganda.” As a result, many think that a handful of civilians were killed, whereas the truth is that thousands were. The government, not satisfied with this level of subservience, imposed unprecedented restrictions, not allowing any press pools until the end of November, allowing virtually no interviews with soldiers, and keeping the press from reporting even well known information. Some of the foreign press, whose reportage could not be controlled by such means, was treated more harshly. The U.S. government asked Qatar to censor al-Jazeera and later bombed its office in Kabul, as well as bombing civilian Afghan radio repeatedly, a war crime. The U.S. press also ridiculed and misrepresented the anti-war movement, insinuating that it had only slogans, not analysis; that it did not condemn the terrorist attacks; and, worst, that its solution was to “do nothing.”

In fact, that was perhaps the biggest myth of the whole enterprise—that there was no other alternative, so we must either wreak destruction on Afghanistan or do nothing. Repeated efforts by the anti-war movement to indicate the foundations of a real solution—a genuine international investigation based on cooperation with not just governments but people, based on a dramatic change in U.S. policy in the Middle East to win over the “hearts and minds” of people there—were to little avail.

These myths made a real difference. Although the majority of Americans have supported the supposed war on terrorism, their support has been based on a misunderstanding of how the war was being conducted, how much “collateral damage” there was, and what alternatives were possible.

To have any chance of dealing with the problem of international terrorism, we must change the role of the United States in the world. In an essay entitled “The War Comes Home,” published on the Web the day after the attacks, I wrote, “The main practitioner of attacks that either deliberately target civilians, or are so indiscriminate that it makes no difference, is no shadowy Middle Eastern terrorist, but our own government.” These attacks run the gamut from direct bombing, as the United States has done in Iraq (on numerous occasions), Serbia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and other countries in the past ten years alone, to denying people access to the basic necessities of life. From the sanctions on Iraq, which have for years involved denying basic medical care to millions, to efforts to keep South Africa from providing affordable AIDS drugs to its citizens, the United States has killed countless civilians.

There is always a justification, as there is for any killing anywhere; for the sanctions on Iraq, it is the security of Iraq’s neighbors, and for denying AIDS drugs, it is the need to maintain corporate profits. For the terrorists who attacked on September 11, it was the need to oppose U.S.-sanctioned murder and oppression in their part of the world. If “terrorism” is to be given an unbiased definition, it must involve the killing of noncombatants for political purposes, no matter who does it or what noble goals they proclaim.

When Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State, went on 60 Minutes on May 12, 1996, Lesley Stahl said, referring to the sanctions on Iraq, “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright, not contesting the figure, replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.” That is the philosophy of terrorism. The people who crashed planes into the World Trade Center killed almost four thousand people because they resented U.S. domination of the Middle East. The U.S. government helped to kill a half million children in Iraq in order to preserve that domination.

It is the common fashion to dismiss such juxtapositions as claims of “moral equivalence.” In fact, that concept is irrelevant. Whether or not the U.S. government is “morally equivalent” to the terrorists, whatever that might mean, the point is that citizens of the United States have an obligation to oppose its crimes even before they would oppose the crimes of others over whom they have less control.

This does not mean efforts should not be made to stop terrorists of the ilk of Osama bin Laden. It simply means that terrorist efforts to stop them should not be made. The war on Afghanistan has been even worse—terrorist in its methods and designed primarily to project U.S. imperial power, not to stop the terrorists.

If Albright appears on 60 Minutes again, this time she should be asked whether she thinks U.S. policy goals in the Middle East were also worth the deaths of thousands of Americans.