What's Going On?
The U.S. response to September 11 seeks to benefit elites in the U.S., and, to a lesser degree, around the world. There are various goals.
--> Destroy the bin Laden network --> Topple the Taliban --> Build a coalition fighting selected terrorists internationally in exchange for trade and foreign aid benefits and the right of coalition partners to pursue their own dissidents locally --> Channel fear and anger to cut education, social services, health care, and other socially desirable expenditures --> Expand military spending --> Enlarge police and surveillance budgets --> Curb civil rights --> Deny and even aggravate just grievances around the world when doing so serves corporate interests even if it also fuels the despair that breeds terrorism --> Ignore international legality to curb notions that the U.S. ought to obey international law --> Avoid defining terrorism as any attack on civilians for political ends, to avoid indicting the U.S. and its allies.
But if you are Bush, how do you juggle so many goals simultaneously? How do you neutralize bin Laden, topple the Taliban, and strengthen regimes supportive of U.S. interests, yet avoid destabilizing others we want to maintain? How do you create a domestic dynamic that expands police and military powers and that redistributes wealth upward by gutting social programs and enhancing regressive taxes, yet retain popular support? And what about dissent...how does that impact your choices?
The good news is that I don't think it can all be done, supposing dissidents react with sufficient vigor and clarity. The campaign to elaborate an anti-terrorism war into national policy is ill-conceived. That last little proviso -- that they must avoid clearly defining terrorism -- is the Achilles heal of the entire undertaking. With sufficient resistance, the campaign will succumb to its own obvious hypocrisy. U.S. policy makers are terrorists too. There are numerous indicators that activists will have the room to mount the needed resistance and help communicate the towering hypocrisy. In the past thirty years I have rarely addressed an audience too big to fit in a large auditorium - but in the last two days I was on a national radio call-in with two million listeners for two hours, and I was on NPR, again nationally, for an hour. Demonstrations and gatherings are occurring locally all over the country, with education and solidarity resulting. Many feel this is the worst of times for leftists.but while it is certainly a time of great grief and fear, and a time of immense danger, and while it is certainly a time of widespread confusion and nationalism, nonetheless, regarding communicating with previously apolitical people, there are many more openings than closings of opportunity occurring, both on the local and on the national scale.
So, again, if you were Bush, what would be your preferred agenda, if you could have your way? Here is my best guess...at the moment, with admittedly little information available.
First, you would elicit fear and nationalism. Second, you would convince populaces worldwide that there is a long-term war we must fight (the same war that was at the core of Reagan's foreign policy twenty years ago), which requires a massive allotment of resources and energy, plus lock-step patriotism. Third, after saber-rattling sufficiently to arouse fear and passion, you would ratchet down the rhetoric in accord with the necessity to avoid actual military losses or risking destabilizing friendly regimes, and to avoid appearing to want to punish civilians. Fourth, to have a good shot at getting rid of the Taliban, you would close the borders of Afghanistan, starve the country, and hope that Taliban members start to defect and that the country rises up in anguish and despair. Fifth, to fill the ensuing power vacuum, you would support Afghanistan's Northern alliance. Most important, sixth, to diminish the groundswell of anti-war opposition to your combating terror with even greater terror, you would send food to Afghanistan's borders, and perhaps even drop food from planes inland. But, if you could have your way, not too much food, of course. Indeed, if you remained free to do so, you would provide only a pittance compared to the need generated by closing the borders in the first place and by removing larger sources of aid. Your goal would be to induce starvation sufficient to topple the Taliban. It would not deter you that such behavior is precisely the definition of terrorism -- attacking civilians for political aims - because seventh, you would blame the ensuing starvation, caused by your closing the borders, on the Taliban itself. Finally, you would claim, eighth, that we are humanely seeking to avoid innocent suffering, even as the starved bodies pile up.
Assuming Bush and his advisors can overcome some internal opposition from their right and reign in the momentum to shoot someone that all the troop and missile movements have unleashed, I think they will pursue more or less the above agenda. This is not the worst set of policies the U.S. government could adopt -- that would be nukes and the like -- but it would be horrendous in its cynical exploitation of pain and suffering, and in its expansion of each, and it must therefore be opposed with as much energy as people of good will can muster. If we do our job well enough and fast enough here in the U.S., and if others throughout the world do so too, then the pressure on Bush may be great enough that the borders will reopen, the food shipments will become more than opportunistic and marginal, and massive new tragedy will be largely averted. If we are slower, more people will suffer. The same holds for the more long-term aims of revamping laws, budgets, and alliances on behalf of militarism, profit-seeking, and right-wing repression. The degree these are limited or reversed will reflect the extent of our organizing and opposition.
On September 11, I wrote:
"In coming weeks we may suffer a kind of celebration in America, a celebration of security and of power, a celebration of surreptitious information retrieval, a celebration of arms growth, and perhaps of assassination, all described as virtuous goals rather than uncivil abominations, all touted as if the terror victims will be honored rather than defiled by our preparing to entomb still more innocent people around the world. Normal good-hearted Americans will weep for the suffering that today's events exacted and hope to create a world in which such hate and callousness disappears. But I fear that America's leaders will cynically bulk up their ammo belts while seeking to make ubiquitous their listening devices-trying to relegate public freedoms to an incinerator. In this environment, people of good will must explain as often as necessary that terrorism is horrific and insane, but so to is capitalist business as usual. And we must not step back from dissent, but must instead work harder to oppose all kinds of injustice with massive public demonstrations and civil disobedience."
Events are unfolding as indicated, and my view is essentially unchanged.
For the government, the answer to terrorism shouldn't be reciprocal terrorism - whether by bombing or by starving civilians. The answer to fundamentalism shouldn't be to mount a military crusade abroad and to curb civil liberties at home. The answer to hypocritical inhumanity shouldn't be to opportunistically exploit fear. The government should not use the excuse of a battered economy to enrich the rich and empower the powerful while gutting social programs to hurt the poor and weak.
And for the left, the answer to entreaties that we should forgo dissent shouldn't be passive obedience, but, active disobedience. We should mount our peace movement against the terror war, organize our humanitarian opposition to starvation tactics, renew our resistance to the embargo of Iraq, intensify our rejection of Israeli and U.S. rejectionism regarding Palestinian rights, and finally enlarge our anti-globalization movement to not only demand just and equitable institutional successors to the IMF, World Bank and WTO, but also improved adherence to international law and binding General Assembly adjudication of disputes among nations.
Some will call us un-American. Some will call us callous. Some will cry treason. Some will threaten us. So?
At the same time as many opponents of change are very angry and vocal, millions upon millions of far less noisy Americans are trying to understand recent events and the broader context in which they have occurred and are approaching the matter with considerable openness. This is not a time to hunker down in subdued silence. It is a time to go out and organize. To talk, talk, and talk.to demonstrate, to activate, to use the knowledge and access that we have.
Forget about hating Bush and Powell and the rest. Yes, these people give the orders. They hand out the bombs. They withhold the food. But institutions create the pressures that mold them. Those institutions and associated policies must be our focus.
But what to do?
Handing out leaflets, arguing against war with a co-worker, urging a relative to think twice about our own role in international terrorism, going to a demonstration, sitting in, doing civil disobedience, or even building movements to do all these things collectively, may all seem momentarily insignificant in light of the calamity that could befall Afghanistan and the world in coming weeks. But the fact is, these are the acts that can accumulate into a firestorm of informed protest that curtails Afghani starvation, that derails the war on terrorism, and that even raises the cost of profiteering so high that the institutions breeding such behavior start to buckle.
War, whether it is waged with kamikaze planes, fleets of missiles and bombers, or starvation food policies, is a horrendous crime against humanity. It invariably rends apart life and justice and civility. It benefits no one other than the Masters of War. War in all its forms is an orchestrated atrocity that mandates our militant, unswerving opposition. But we should also remember that even after we curb Bush's rush to violence and forestall his starvation scenarios, the on-going day-to day grievances and injustices of our world will still need attention. Ultimately, our opposition must transcend current events. Alienation, poverty, disease, starvation, death squads, and terror-these and other atrocities stem from basic institutions. The institutions must become our lasting target.