JULIUS JACOBSON is the co- editor of New Politics. The views expressed do not reflect the opinions of the entire editorial board.
CANDLES NO LONGER FLICKER ON STOOPS; neighbors no longer gather to mourn and seek solace at silent vigils. In a wide peripheral area, the stench of smoldering fires and death no longer assaults nostrils. Residents have largely returned to homes made uninhabitable for months by thick accumulations of pollutants that covered floors, walls, furnishings, a coating with a grisly gray hue suggesting the presence of human bone reduced to ash. Streets closed to pedestrians and traffic are now open. Mass transit, still a problem, is much improved. Vibrant commercial and cultural neighborhoods battered by 9/11 are showing signs of revival, though some enterprises could not survive the shock.
In nine months, 1.6 million tons of debris had been carted off to Fresh Kills where, in sifting the wreckage, more than 4100 body parts were retrieved. Finally, on May 30th, in a most touching ceremony, the last girder was removed. The fiery, jagged landscape of Armageddon is now a level gaping wound that will eventually be covered by a shrine memorializing the slain while realtors, architects and construction firms will likely make a pretty profit, filling most of the area with commercial structures.
Other changes giving at least a surface appearance of a return to normalcy are less salutary. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 there was a near universal spontaneous display of support and solidarity for the victims and the bereaved; thousands came from near and far, including volunteers for the physically and emotionally exhausting task of clearing the site, searching for possible survivors and recovering human remains. Today, visitors to Ground Zero come more as tourists, some out of morbid curiosity, and the once hallowed ground is now profaned by America's notorious entrepreneurial spirit: a guide leads tours for $15 a head, a guidebook is yours for $12, and toilet paper with images of bin Laden is available at a fair market price. This, too, represents a return (i.e., a backward step) to normalcy.
The spontaneous proliferation of American flags was initially more than a defiant display of patriotism; it also carried a message of respect for the dead and solidarity with their families. Today's flag- waving is saturated with jingoism and révanchism.
DESPITE SURFACE INDICATIONS of life as usual, the nation remains haunted by the ineradicable memory of 9/11, many still suffering psychological distress, and almost all fearful of another terrorist blitzkrieg on the scale of 9/11, perhaps even more deadly.
President Bush's personal declaration of war, coinciding with the threat of a terrorist-induced anthrax epidemic, sustained the level of stress, while the defeat of the Taliban and al Qaeda armies provided little, if any, relief since the Bush administration made it clear from the beginning that a victory in Afghanistan would be only the first stage in a protracted global war; a war that could not be won without American battlefield losses; a war that will last as long as the forces of (anti-American) terrorism exist, which means a war without end. It is hardly a calming prospect.
Anxiety is also fed by the ominous, escalating threat to attack Iraq. The Administration has leaked news that it is contemplating mobilizing 250,000 U.S. troops, which, despite its imposing size, would be more vulnerable than U.S. forces were during the Gulf War, given the likely absence of significant military assistance from shaky allies that look askance on the Bush administration's fixation on forcibly deposing Saddam Hussein and his regime. Vice President Cheney's blunt call to arms on August 26 was not calculated to calm a nation that is nervous despite the customary public display of bravado. (Should the U.S. make good on its threat, the first report of substantial American casualties would have a profoundly unsettling effect on the people.)
The aggressive posture vis-á-vis "the axis of evil," and the threat of using tactical nuclear weapons in a preemptive first strike against nations led by "evildoers" also serve to keep nerves taut.
Then there is the demoralizing loss of confidence in the legendary FBI and CIA. Enough information was available to them so that if they had met their minimal responsibilities, they could have realized that they were not merely looking at a number of floating dots but a virtual diagram of a monstrous plot that could have been prevented. Even FBI Director Robert S. Muller, III admitted as much.
Apprehensiveness is intentionally exacerbated by an Administration that, for reasons of political self-interest, resorts to a form of psychological terrorism by repeatedly frightening the nation with rumors of a possible imminent and massive terrorist attack without any evidence to justify such unsettling alarms. Clearly, Bush, Ashcroft, Cheney, et al, want to keep the nation on edge in order to create a siege mentality where love thy neighbor gives way to watch thy neighbor; an atmosphere is created conducive to winning popular support for an unrelenting assault on basic democratic liberties and to neutralizing opposition to their rightwing agenda on all social questions.
Perhaps most stressful is the realization that the U.S. is no longer an impregnable fortress. For the past century at least, Americans believed that national security was guaranteed by vast bodies of water separating the country from Europe to the east and Asia to the west, friendly Canada to the north and non-threatening Mexico south of the border, and as a powerful deterrent back-up to the advantages of geography was America's military might. That all changed on September 11 when American defenses were breached for the first time in nearly 200 years; not by massive waves of conventional armed forces but by a handful of terrorists manipulated by fundamentalist clerics with a growing mass base who have at their disposal an apparently bottomless reservoir of "martyrs" ready, even eager, to sacrifice their lives for the sake of retribution and for the glory of Islam as they see it.
Who could have imagined before 9/11 that the American colossus could suffer so much human carnage, destruction of property, economic dislocation and social disarray in so short a period of time at the hands of so few?
The new scale, scope and capacity of terrorism acts as a leveling military phenomenon. Consider that the catastrophic toll taken on September 11 required no more than a handful of suicide bombers whose training cost a mere pittance and whose armaments consisted of 19 box cutters and 19 penknives.
In stark contrast, to inflict comparable military and economic damage to a hypothetical enemy by conventional military means, the U.S. military might require weeks of preparation by mechanized units and infantry divisions with air and naval support, all costing huge amounts of money and a heavy price paid in human casualties. And while the Star Wars program was always fanciful it might have provided some comfort to more naïve sections of the public. But 9/11 has reduced the program to an absurdity, a multibillion-dollar boondoggle. The threat from fundamentalist terrorists is not of launching missiles at American targets, but of launching "martyrs" armed with explosives, possibly nuclear devices, perhaps biological means of mass destruction, and last but not least, box cutters and penknives.
Finally, Americans are staggered and angered by their sudden awareness of how fierce, widespread and menacing is the hatred of so many (and not only Muslims) for everything American: its political/social system, its culture, and its inhabitants. Americans cannot understand this and their perplexed President appears no more comprehending of why such a large percentage of the world's population not only does not love Americans but wants to exterminate them. Thus President Bush, with his usual eloquence, whines:
You know, I'm asked all the time -- I ask myself a question: how do I respond -- it's an old trick -- how do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America. I'll tell you how I respond: I'm amazed. I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am, like most Americans, I just can't believe it. Because I know how good we are.
I think it would be giving Bush more credit than is warranted if this amazing confession of ignorance and display of stupidity are just a matter of guile.
TO AN IGNORANT AND UNREFLECTIVE President, the 19 hijackers are "not martyrs, just killers."1 I agree that martyr is hardly a fitting description. But to refer to them as "just killers" is preposterous. "Just killers" are not in the habit of morphing jets into guided missiles for the purpose of destroying what they see as symbols of a hated social system and to indiscriminately kill as many Americans as possible, all as part of a suicidal divine mission.
Perhaps one day a novelist with the psychological insights, social awareness and literary skills of a Dostoevsky will dramatically lay bare the social and psychological impulses of so-called martyrs who apparently found salvation and honor, even bliss, in sacrificing their lives to avenge injustices inflicted on their families and compatriots, and for the glory of Allah. But one need not probe deeply to realize that the demons and furies which tormented and possessed the "martyrs" were fed by their sense of humiliation as victims of arrogant and predatory western powers, above all the United States; by Israel's brutal and unrestrained war against the Palestinian people; by lethal U.S. sanctions on Iraq; and by oppressive and corrupt sheiks and princes who are beneficiaries of American imperialism's largesse, the quid pro quo for serving the economic and strategic interests of the U.S. imperium, a working relationship unaffected by petty questions of democracy, dictatorship, rule by terror.
It is small wonder, then, that in the absence of significant socialist and other progressive secular movements that might have served to channel mass anger into a democratic resistance, millions succumbed to the militant, anti-Western rhetoric of the most bigoted, intolerant, socially and culturally repressive strains in the Islamic world.
There is nothing exculpatory in the fact that the 19 fundamentalist hijackers were fired by deeply rooted hatred of American imperialism. It was a depraved act of ultimate cruelty. It would be morally, politically and ideologically indefensible for any democratic socialist to either pull back from or restrain criticism of Islamic fundamentalism on the grounds, as several in the left have suggested in a post- modernist argot, that such criticism has to be "contextualized." Of course it must be contextualized. That is the case with any serious political or historical discussion; but "contextualization" is not to be used as a methodological device to minimize or rationalize the crimes of fundamentalism. The Bush administration's War on Terror (more accurately, a War on Democracy), which has the support of the overwhelming majority of the American people, must also be reviewed "in the context" of the horrific massacre of 9/11, but it would be inexcusable to use such "contextualization" to minimize or rationalize the reactionary imperialist nature of the U.S. response.
To illustrate my point by way of historical analogy: there were many ideologically committed Nazi torturers and killers, some of whom were ready to sacrifice their lives for their Führer and the Third Reich. Any serious analysis of Nazi brutality would also have had to place the barbarous impulses of Naziism "in context," one that would give appropriate emphasis to, and draw lessons from the fact that many Nazis who became mass murderers were initially attracted to Hitlerism in reaction to the nationally humiliating and economically oppressive terms imposed on the German nation by the Versailles Treaty. It would have been unthinkable for anyone in the German left to suggest that this was cause to show critical restraint in our political and moral judgment of Nazi barbarism.
While the hijackers were neither martyrs nor "just killers," they were highly motivated assassins on an assignment that reflected the genocidal and totalitarian impulses of their al Qaeda manipulators. Although al Qaeda and similar terrorist networks condemn the depredations of Western imperialism there is nothing in that movement that can even remotely be described as "socially progressive" or "anti-imperialist." There is a difference between anti-imperialism and opposition to American imperialism. Although al Qaeda and parallel terrorist movements excoriate American imperialism they are neither anti-imperialist nor a force for national liberation nor do they represent the poor and oppressed in the Islamic world. Not even volumes of fundamentalist demagogy can change the reality of a grotesquely violent totalitarian movement whose ultimate objective is to reduce all of Islam to a bloc of barbaric theocratic states.
It behooves the U.S. and international left to combat fundamentalism ideologically as the social abomination it is; not to ignore the subject or, in effect, to reduce its importance by just devoting a few critical lines about the terrorists, and not to temper the criticisms by "contextualizing" this unrelievedly reactionary phenomenon.
This obligatory commitment to democratic struggle against fundamentalism requires a no less unequivocal rejection of America's mislabeled War on Terror; a war that carries with it no democratic and political alternative that could shatter the dynamic of fundamentalism's mass appeal but proposes a military solution in an endless series of futile wars that would only increase the prestige and influence of fundamentalist terrorism. Uri Avnery, the Israeli peace activist, summed it up:
Not only Israel, but the whole world is now full of gibberish about "fighting terrorism." Politicians, "experts on terrorism" and their likes propose to hit, destroy, annihilate etc., as well as to allocate more billions to the "intelligence community." They make brilliant suggestions.
But nothing of this kind will help the threatened nations, much as nothing of this kind has helped Israel. There is no patent remedy for terrorism. The only remedy is to remove its causes. One can kill a million mosquitoes, and millions more will take their place. In order to get rid of them, one has to dry the swamp that breeds them. And the swamp is always political.
No matter how smart the bombs dropped by American bombers in Afghanistan today or Iraq tomorrow, they will never dry the swamp but only roil the muddied waters and Avnery's metaphorical mosquitoes will multiply exponentially.
IT WAS THE RESPONSIBILITY of what there is of an American left, in response to the war in Afghanistan, to wage its own political war on two fronts. First, to reveal all that is unjust and self-defeating in Washington's war without end. At the same time, the left was under a no less firm moral and political obligation to be uncompromising in its opposition to both the terrorist means and anti-social ends of religious fundamentalism. Such a war on two fronts is not only morally and politically mandatory, but is the only approach that can have a positive influence on a public grown embittered and anxious by 9/11 and whose support for military retaliation can never be shaken by anti-war propaganda that does not simultaneously condemn, in the strongest terms, fundamentalism's theocratic ambitions.
Unfortunately, much of the left has failed miserably; some, reeling and disoriented by the horror of 9/11, joined pro-war liberals in contributing their intellectual skills to justifying the war in Afghanistan. On the other hand, many resisted a war of imperial design but failed to meet their elementary moral and political obligations to resoundingly condemn the hijackers and their fundamentalist mentors and trainers, to prove to the nation that they, too, mourn the victims and are in solidarity with the bereaved.
Below, I detail my grievances against a flawed section of the anti-war left. It is certainly not intended as a sweeping disparagement of the anti-war movement of which I am a part.2 I have no similar argument with organizations such as the War Resisters League and Peace Action, whose opposition to the war in Afghanistan did not inhibit them from writing movingly about the massacre and did not mince words in their repudiation of terrorism. My critical focus is on individuals who are influential in the left and whose disgraceful response has done considerable harm to the left and to the anti-war movement. In its failure to unambiguously repudiate Islamic fundamentalism and to respond sensitively and compassionately to that horrific day, they have provided ammunition to liberal and conservative supporters of the war who have been able to point to those I criticize to smear the anti-war movement as a whole. Thus, my criticism of Alexander Cockburn, Ed Herman and others, from a socialist and anti-war perspective is, I hope, a modest political contribution to building an effective opposition to an imperialist war. This is followed by a more detailed criticism of liberals in the pro-war camp.
TO SET THE STAGE FOR MY CRITICISM, just a brief review of the surreal, grotesque spectacle of 9/11 when two hijacked jets, tanks filled with highly combustible fuel, plunged into two of New York City's most imposing skyscrapers. Within an hour, both structures crumbled, thousands crushed, dismembered, immolated in the collapsing crematoria that had been the fabled Twin Towers. Of 2,800 killed, 1,700 vanished as if vaporized. Approximately 16 acres were laid waste, but not leveled, as mounds of molten and twisted girders stood one hundred feet high. A third hijacked jet plowed into the Pentagon: 184 dead; a fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania killing all aboard.
Under clouds of smoke covering much of lower Manhattan, families of the missing were lining up in the streets circling Ground Zero with photos of children or parents, hoping against hope that their loved ones would be recognized by someone as having escaped the inferno.
Despite this background of surreal horror, a number of left journalists responded dispassionately and evasively in a more or less uniform pattern: an opening sentence decrying September 11th as a tragedy and, then, rushed headlong into a vigorous denunciation of American imperialism for having committed an even greater number of crimes against humanity; providing readers with a detailed review of how the U.S. collaborated with, sponsored, even trained terrorists in all parts of the globe, reminding the left that the U.S. ruling class has been complicitous, directly or surreptitiously, in the massacre of millions of oppressed peoples, above all in the Third World.
Alexander Cockburn, an icon to many leftists, did not follow this political format. He did react with shock and outrage in an article co-authored by Jeffrey St. Clair that appeared the following day in the online publication Counterpunch, with a rewritten version appearing a short time later in Cockburn's bi-weekly column in The Nation. The problem here is that his fury is not vent on the mass assassins -- about whom there is not a critical word in his column -- but is directed at President George Bush! Why is Cockburn furious? It turns out that our "mini- President," as Cockburn calls him, on learning of the catastrophe, denounced the hijackers as "faceless cowards." Cockburn would have none of this! "Faceless," perhaps, but "cowards"? Most certainly not. Alex counters Dubya with a rhetorical question: "Were the Japanese aviators who surprised on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941 cowards? I don't think so, and they at least had the hope of returning to their aircraft carriers." They were most certainly not cowards, but men of "courage," a term invoked by Cockburn (and St. Clair) to describe the hijackers.
What an appalling response to the horror of 9/11! Innocent people who arrived at work just an hour earlier were jumping out of windows, others engulfed by flames; the whole gruesome spectacle could have been viewed from the building in downtown Manhattan housing the Nation offices and yet here is our passionate Alex slicing up a mini-President for having the gall to call the hijackers cowards. Of what possible relevance is the question of whether or not the hijackers were men of courage? Given the circumstances, why should Cockburn or anyone else care? Courage in and of itself is not a moral virtue. Surely, there were Nazi fanatics who would have sacrificed their lives on behalf of the Führer and the Third Reich. Courageous? Possibly. Therefore, what?
Not only does Cockburn feel strongly about acknowledging their courage but he wants it to be known that: "From the point of view of the assailants, the attacks were miracles of logistical calculation, timing, audacity in execution, devastation, inflicted on the targets." The lesser problem I have with this is that the first half of the assessment is not true: the attacks, far from being logistical miracles, were most unprofessional and slipshod. The only reason for its success is that U.S. intelligence agencies were even more inept than the hijackers. (If they were in fact logistical miracles, it could not be only from the point-of-view of the hijackers, but of anyone who looks at it objectively.)
But again, my major problem is with Cockburn's moral and political indecency, his cold-blooded objectivity, saying, in effect: "let's give credit where credit is due for a job well done."
Midway in his column, I am struck by his complaint that:
Tuesday's eyewitness reports of the collapse of the two Trade Center buildings were not inspired, at least for those who have heard the famous eyewitness radio reportage of the crash of the Hindenburg zeppelin in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. Radio and T.V. reporters these days seem incapable of narrating an ongoing event with any sense of vivid language or dramatic emotive power.
What is one to make of this? Against the background of a terrorist attack, when six or seven thousand were believed murdered (a number that Cockburn accepted), with the fires still burning, and the city and nation in mourning, Cockburn does not lose his cool, and finds it quite appropriate to score points against today's professional commentators who, in his considered opinion, are not up to the standard set by the media in reporting the crash of the Hindenburg in 1937. It is like zeroing in on a journalist's lack of skill in revealing the Holocaust for the first time without taking notice of the horror exposed.3
In his penultimate paragraph -- still not even an obscure reference to the mass slaughter of innocents and still no condemnation of the assassins -- we are reminded of America's immoral sanctions against Iraq and the cruise missile destruction of Sudanese factories.
Perhaps Cockburn was reserving his feelings of compassion for the slain for a final emotive paragraph, a powerful grand finalé that vividly sums up the pathos of September 11. It is not to be. Instead, there is a continuing exposé of George Bush and the Defense Department, and a self-satisfied concluding sentence: "That about sums it up, three planes are successfully steered into three of America's most conspicuous buildings and the U.S. response is to put more money into missile defense as a way of bolstering the economy."
WHERE ALEXANDER COCKBURN MANAGES to write an initial response to 9/11 without discussing the specific events or their human consequences, the equally prolific Edward Herman cannot be faulted for overlooking the carnage; he simply dilutes the horror. His basic argument is that, while 9/11 was tragic, it pales in comparison to the crimes of U.S. imperialism. In an early response, an exegesis with the subtitle "Retail vs. Wholesale Terror," he writes: "Really large-scale killing and torture to terrorize -- ‘wholesale' terrorism -- has been implemented by states, not by non-state terrorists." State terrorism is "serious terrorism," as exemplified by the sanctions against Iraq which are responsible for "killing more children per month than the total casualty figure for the September 11th terrorist attacks...."
My argument is less with the accuracy of the distinction he makes between state-organized terrorism, and "retail" terrorism of non-governmental, illegal and secretive organizations, than its tone and timing. From a human and political point of view, what possible purpose can it serve to place special emphasis on the obvious, that the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were infinitely more destructive than 9/11, at a time when the acrid smoke was still belching from the ruins of the WTC?
It would have been helpful if Herman provided at least an approximation of the number of casualties that divide "wholesale" terrorism from its minor league "retail" species. Remember that, initially, Herman, along with others, accepted the figure of 7,000 deaths. Obviously, then, to qualify as wholesale terrorism 7,000 is not yet the benchmark. Had the Twin Towers fallen horizontally, thousands more would have been killed. It is clear from Herman's argument that even this would not have qualified as wholesale terrorism.
Herman insists the "real danger to world peace and security arising out of the events of September 11th lies in responsive wholesale terrorism that will result -- and already is resulting [where?] -- from the insurgent aggressiveness of the United States..."
Does this mean that destroying the World Trade Center was not a threat to world peace and security, and intended as such? Don't the powerful forces of fundamentalism, operating in many countries, and as an international network with a mass base, also endanger global peace? Was the recent nuclear brinkmanship in Kashmir solely the result of the "insurgent aggressiveness of the United States," or does one have to examine the role of conflicting fundamentalisms? The fact is that the United States, for reasons that have nothing to do with pacific intent, sought to reduce tensions between India and Pakistan while the fundamentalists sought to inflame them.
If Herman is absorbed with basic distinctions between serious, wholesale mayhem, and it's more modest, retail version, should he not also be concerned about the great disparity within the wholesale category? Why not make a similar distinction between the terrorism under Chile's Pinochet and the Argentine generals, where perhaps ten thousand lives were destroyed, and the terrorism of the Khmer Rouge, which destroyed a minimum of one million Cambodians (estimates generally run higher)?4 Why not compare, and compartmentalize, the different levels of terrorism under U.S. auspices, and that of Stalinist Russia? The U.S. is to be condemned for its direct and indirect involvement in global terrorism and the death toll that adds up to millions, but still does not nearly measure up to the tens of millions killed off by a Stalinist terrorist state, by way of forced famine, the gulag, and executions.
Moreover, state organized terrorism is defined not only by murder rates, but also by the internal methods of class domination. In the United States, we have a "bourgeois" democracy and it would require a special kind of wackiness to describe the social domination of the U.S. ruling class, domestically, as terrorism, just as it would require a certain type of apologetics to deny that in Stalinist Russia, the Communist party-state maintained its power by terrorizing the entire Soviet population of over 200 million.
One of the fundamental political lessons of September 11th that Herman conveniently overlooks is the extent to which the distinction between retail and wholesale forms of terrorism is narrowing the ability of non-state terrorists to shrink the gap between the scale of violence that they can inflict, and the scale of violence that the world's most powerful states can generate.
JAMES PETRAS IS ANOTHER EXPONENT of the notion that American capitalism is the root of all evil. His excesses are truly formidable but are shared by a minority of the anti-war left. In his article "A Nation of Informers: The Friendly Face of Fascism," that appeared in the on-line publication Rebeliòn (11/27/01), he tells his readers right off the bat:
In the U.S. signs of a police state are evident everywhere. The country has become a nation of informers. Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens of Middle Eastern descent have been arrested without charges, and the exercise of their right to criticize U.S. policy in the Middle East has been branded as support of terrorism.
Signs of a police state everywhere? A nation of informers? Tens of thousands arrested without charges? (Isn't 1,500 bad enough?)
Petras is relentless in his recklessness and his outrage peaks with his revelation of "the current period of friendly fascism" in the United States. To speak of "friendly fascism" makes as much sense as speaking of "painless torture." In developing the theme of friendly fascism, Petras suggests that U.S. "civil society has turned into a network of secret police and informers." Elsewhere: "People refrain from the mildest criticisms of the war or even the government for fear that they will be labeled as terrorist sympathizers, be reported to the government and lose their jobs." Does Petras truly believe all this?
Stalinist-type ranting permeates his articles, as when he pummels "New York intellectuals" as
cultural totalitarians who listen to Bach and praise the B-52s, who edited glossy cultural journals and smirked at Kabul in rubble, who praise the Israeli Symphony Orchestra and ignored the 6000 Palestinian children maimed in this most recent year of repression. Their vision is and will always be a cultural totalitarianism.
Where the Taliban regime is concerned, we have Petras's word that it
...has never been proven to have been involved in a terrorist incident in the U.S. and has been willing to consider a judicial resolution of the suspect in its territory. The Bush administration's use of state terror is immoral. The Taliban's proposal of diplomatic negotiations over judicial evidence was a civilized and humane approach to inter-state conflicts.
Again from Rebeliòn, his article, "September 11th, Beyond the Human Tragedy: The Other World Trade Center/Pentagon," (11/4/01) is the closest I have seen to not merely rationalizing, but justifying, the hijackers and their al Qaeda trainers.
What can one say? It is truly to weep.
WHERE PETRAS BELIEVES THAT 9/11 provided the impetus for turning the United States almost overnight from a bourgeois democracy into a state of friendly fascism, Michael Parenti believes that "very little has changed." Of the approximately 280 million people who inhabit the United States, I suspect that Parenti is only one of a handful who claims that post-9/11 "feels very much like September 10th to me." As he sees it:
What the terrorist attacks of September 11th gave the opinion makers is an issue of compelling centrality, equal to any of the ones they have suppressed, but one that could be selectively treated with conservative effect, an issue that rallies everyone around the flag and points a finger at a fanatical Islamic sect rather than at corporate America or the U.S. National Security State.
It is as if Parenti does not realize or cannot admit that people have 10 fingers, including a second index finger with which to point at the responsibility of Islamic fundamentalism as an autonomous and retrograde force without for a moment relaxing the other finger that points at the criminal policies of U.S. imperialism which have been grist to the terrorist propaganda mill.
"To be sure," Parenti writes, "we must not dismiss or make light of individual acts of terror." But that is precisely what he does. By suggesting that the huge massacre belongs to the category of "individual [!] acts of terror" he is indeed making light of 9/11.
TARIQ ALI, WHO LIVES IN BRITAIN but is widely published in the United States, has also analyzed 9/11 from a yankophobe perspective. He was offended, for example, by Christopher Hitchens' description of the Muslim fundamentalists as being "fascist with an Islamic face." Ali objects that this phraseology can only "help whip up a war frenzy but it solves nothing apart from being a wrongheaded analogy." But even if the analogy is misused by Hitchens and others to support an unjust war in Afghanistan that does not mean it is wrong.
Ali also insists that prewar fascism was based on "both mass and corporate support." Presumably this is in contrast to modern-day theocratic fundamentalism. On the issue of mass support, Ali is factually wrong, since the fundamentalists do have a large and expanding popular base. There is, indeed, a sociological distinction that would have to be made in a historical and theoretical essay on the nature of fascism, but in the context of our discussion of 9/11, this is more of academic interest and should not interfere with making political comparisons. At the very least, in terms of rule by terror, suppression of all democratic, human and civil rights, there is at least a parallel between the fundamentalist and fascist regimes, a parallel that is more exact with the Nazi variety of fascist dictatorship.
As Tariq Ali certainly knows, Leon Trotsky also drew a parallel between fascism and what he called the "totalitarian abomination" of Stalinism even though he believed (wrongly, in my opinion) that the Soviet Union was a "workers' state," albeit a degenerated one. Not only did he find parallels in the rule by terror of two contradictory social systems, but, if memory serves me correctly, he judged Stalinism to have been even more brutal than its fascist counterparts. Obviously, in the world of Stalinism or its apologists this could only confirm that Trotsky and his ilk were feeding the flames of "anti-Sovietism." In authentic socialist circles no one was distressed by Trotsky's parallel and neither, today, should any socialist or democrat reflexively recoil from the parallels made between the totalitarian abominations of Islamic fundamentalism and fascism, or that even to link them is to "whip up a war frenzy."
Needless to say, we never hear from the same sources a similar concern that one should show restraint in exposing the crimes of U.S. foreign policy because that might help whip up a "war frenzy" against the U.S. Ali notwithstanding, it is the responsibility of socialists to speak the truth and not allow themselves to be blackmailed by demagogic cries that to do so is helping the enemy.
Ali writes that those who carried out the attacks on September 11th remind him of another tradition: "They are propagandists of the deed." This formulation is extremely misleading. The phrase "propaganda of the deed" is most often associated with the advocacy of individual terror by the Bakuninite wing of the anarchist movement, as well as the individual violence advocated by the peasant-based Russian Populists in 19th and early 20th century Russia. Ali's formulation adds a gloss to the Islamic fundamentalist movement by linking it with movements that were socially progressive and had much in common with the socialist movement. And it is wrong in fact because the anarchist and revolutionary propagandists of the deed believed in the efficacy of individual terror, not indiscriminate mass murder. They assassinated kings and princes, politicians and demagogues, aristocratic nobles and corporate barons. They were morally and politically incapable of setting aflame a large public gathering or torching a peasant village or any other equivalent of turning skyscrapers into crematoria.
THE SIMPLISTIC NOTION that all the world's evils, above all in the Islamic world, have their malignant source in the piranha-like global appetite of American imperialism is to view Islam condescendingly. In effect, it denies that the nations and peoples of Islam have a unique culture and a long history of internal political and social struggles. The abuse of women under Islamic regimes, for example, has little if anything to do with the crimes of U.S. imperialism.5 American sanctions against Iraq and Israeli terrorist attacks on the Palestinian people were not responsible for the slaughter of thousands of religious and political dissidents in Syria in 1982. The medievalist Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928, years before American imperialism was a significant factor in the region. And Saudi Arabia was a fiercely repressive feudalistic theocracy, long before Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought an economic and political beachhead there. More generally, the economic and political underdevelopment that is almost universal in Islam reflects the failures of democratic and secular movements and revolutions earlier in the last century.
It is refreshing to sample the writings of Israeli and Arab militant socialists who were published in an extraordinary volume, Forbidden Agendas: Intolerance and Defiance in the Middle East (Al Saqi Books, London, 1984).
In his essay, "Why the Reversion to Islamic Archaism?," Lafif Lakhdar notes that:
For lack of a bourgeois revolution, the Arab state, although bourgeois in its social and anti- proletarian role, has not been able to attain its true development into a self-sufficient modern state which does not need to lean on the crutches of Islam. Its denominational character, since Islam is proclaimed the state religion, has so far prevented it from creating a true national cohesion. This could only be carried out in a non-denominational state that would result from a fusion and recasting of all the present components of its national bourgeoisie. Since they have not succeeded in this respect, each Arab state is a mosaic of particularisms of all sorts, whose creeds, ethnic loyalties, dialects, and mental outlooks are different and contradictory. Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon are dramatic examples of this. This explains why at times of crisis regional, tribal, ethnic, or confessional bonds often blunt the edge of social interests and the horizontal division of Arab- Islamic society, which is unconsciously experienced as a juxtaposition of clannish partisanships (asabiyat) rather than as a society of open class struggle.... The present leaders of the Arab bourgeoisie are in this respect faithful to their predecessors. Qadhafi recently stated that ‘Arab nationalism is part of Islam.... It is not normal that there be in the Arab homeland an Arab who is not a Muslim. The Christian Arab has no right to belong to the Arab nation, whose religion is not his own.' Just as the fully-fledged subject in medieval Europe was a Christian, the true ‘citizen' in the Arab world is a Muslim. (279-280)
Further on, Lakhdar writes of:
The double failure of the first rising of the modern Egyptian bourgeoisie in 1919, which achieved neither independence nor a constitutional government; Atatürk's abolition of the Islamic caliphate in 1923; the rise of fascism in Italy, which impressed the majority of the average traditionalist Muslim intelligentsia; the rise of Stalinist intellectuals, who were also fascinated by the impotent cult of power; finally the grimness of the inter-war period, dominated by the general feeling of defeat of Western civilization, with its basis in that favoured the irruption of the irrational into the contemporary history.
These excerpts are models of an analysis required today as an antidote to the facile and untenable assumption that American imperialism has not only been a major factor but the sole source of the world's ills.
This reticence to fully recognize and critically review the extent to which the defeat of democracy and secularism were developments within the Arab world is a continuation of the Third Worldism which afflicted and hobbled so much of the left in the sixties and seventies when any criticism of underdeveloped nations, no matter how savagely repressive, was frowned upon as ethnocentric moralizing that gave aid and comfort to Western imperialism.
IN THE POST-WAR DECADES, the anti-Stalinist left was attacked from within by a political virus, Stalinophobia, that reached epidemic proportions in the sixties. In the thirties, awareness of Stalinism's crimes did not lead us to understate or weaken our resistance to the crimes of the West. We were reasonably confident that militant democratic movements would emerge in opposition to both Stalinism and capitalism. But as it became increasingly apparent that large organized manifestations of what we called a Third Camp was not on the immediate horizon, substantial numbers of anti-Stalinist socialists grew demoralized, their commitment to socialism weakened and they looked with increasing favor on existing bourgeois institutions. As prospects for socialism grew ever dimmer, democratic capitalism evolved from a lesser evil to a positive good. Any number decided to "choose the West," and a few became advisers to right wing politicians.
The problem was not that anti-Stalinist ex-revolutionaries grew too intense in their opposition to Stalinism -- no one with a democratic consciousness could be excessive in her or his hatred for the gulag or Nazi death camps -- but that all of politics was viewed through the prism of anti- Stalinism.
But Stalinophobia always had its counterpart: Americaphobia, whereby opposition to American imperialism became the prism through which all politics were viewed, leading many in the left to accept as a guiding principle for making political and moral choices the pernicious doctrine that the enemy of my enemy is my friend (even if the phrase itself was not widely used). This translated into apologias and sometimes overt support for the imperialist Soviet Union and to look with favor on almost any movement or country in the Third World, no matter how brutal and reactionary, as long as it resisted Western capitalism. With the collapse of the Communist world, historical apologias for Communism and Third World dictators abated but have not disappeared. There is at least a residue of this notion that my enemy's enemy is my friend. This contributes to the failure of many on the left to recognize that the struggle against all forms of imperialism does not oblige us to minimize our opposition to anti-democratic tendencies and forces in the Third World. The extent to which this Third Worldism, so alien to democracy and to socialism, still exists can be measured by the political irresponsibility shown by some of the left's most prolific authors, whose instinctive reaction to 9/11 was to strike the assassins with no more than a glancing blow (in Cockburn's case, no blow at all, and with Petras, an apologia) and directing virtually all their firepower on American imperialism.
SECTARIANISM IS GENERALLY DIAGNOSED by purveyors of liberal realpolitik (tr. accommodation) as a political disorder endemic to the left. But in my admittedly biased view, dogmatic indifference to political realities has been far more characteristic of liberalism than of the maligned left. This is certainly the case with many liberals who fantasized about the initial Afghan phase of the War on Terror. As if quartered in an Ivory Tower, far removed from the real world, they constructed apologias for the war and dashed off fierce polemics reproving and ridiculing those on the left who opposed it.
The following scenario was scripted: on September 11, the forces of medieval barbarism, organized by terrorist networks, with their strongest base in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, struck a hideous and devastating blow against the U.S., and all humanity. Since every nation has a right to defend itself, the U.S. was justified in initiating its war in Afghanistan on October 7, with a large-scale aerial assault. In just a matter of months, the armies of both al Qaeda and its cruel governing host, the Taliban, were defeated. End of war. Now, the indispensable rebuilding of the Afghan's battered infrastructure and creating a civil society, all requiring the protection, technical and financial assistance from the U.S., must begin. End of script.
However, this war was an invention of a liberal imagination and had little to do with the war that President Bush had in mind, and initiated. And, for better or worse, Bush is the Commander-in-Chief. In the real war, the President, from the very beginning, leveled with the American people: an attack on Afghanistan would be just the first phase of a war against global terror, a war without a predictable end. In his speech to Congress and the country-at-large on September 20, nearly three weeks before he personally declared war on the Taliban regime, he put the entire world on notice: "From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the U.S. as a hostile regime." And once terrorist forces in Afghanistan are routed, the war will continue, "...until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated." In effect then, utopian liberals notwithstanding, what Bush promised us was not a large-scale police action followed by nation-building in Afghanistan, but a global war in permanence.
PERHAPS THE PRESIDENT'S VOICE could not reach the upper levels of the Ivory Tower where Marc Cooper, a respected liberal journalist and contributing editor of The Nation, insisted on his version of a war that he enthusiastically endorsed. Thus, he rebukes those in the anti-war left who allegedly failed to
...recognize that these forces [the "atavistic, religious fascists"] cannot be neutralized by nonviolent moral suasion or international law alone. As some on the left have argued, the WTC attacks demand a "just response." That includes limited, targeted and effective military action aimed at lessening the threat of future terrorist attacks and restoring a sense of domestic security. For those who are squeamish about taking out Osama bin Laden's network and its Taliban defenders, let them reflect on just how much further American politics will slide to the right if there are half a dozen more major terrorist attacks here at home. (emphasis added)
Unfortunately for humanity, Cooper's war was never of a "limited" nature and as should have been clear at the time, and is well established by all that has happened since his article appeared in the October 14 issue of In These Times. Neither has there been a "lessening threat of future terrorist attacks," nor is there evidence of "restoring a sense of domestic security." On the contrary, al Qaeda, even if weakened by the war, has by no means been destroyed, but still has pockets of resistance in Afghanistan, and remains a potent force in Pakistan and elsewhere, and Osama bin Laden has achieved the status of a folk hero in much of the Islamic world, and beyond.
Even though the Taliban has been "taken out" and Osama bin Laden's terrorist legions defeated in Afghanistan, U.S. military successes increased the extent and intensity of anti-American sentiment, the global threat of terrorism has multiplied several-fold, and the human condition on planet Earth made meaner and more miserable. And a dramatic shift to the right in America does not have to wait for "a half dozen more major terrorist attacks at home"; that shift began the day after 9/11, was accelerated by the war in Afghanistan and, as this is written almost a year later, the shift to the right has reached frightening dimensions.
On behalf of his war in Afghanistan, Cooper zeroed in on an anti-war demonstration: it was "a self-caricature of the American left that has struggled unsuccessfully since the attacks to find its proper national voice and posture." The protest rally is ridiculed because, in his opinion, nothing concrete was said about what America should do after 9/11, "other than to flagellate itself for a sordid list of foreign policy sins and transgressions. It was a great missed opportunity." I am not sure that I can decipher the precise meaning of this, and I doubt that Cooper can. Why should his self-flagellating left inflict painful welts on itself? It would be modestly interesting to learn from Cooper the reasons for this exotic and neurotic behavior by a masochistic left.
Cooper sarcastically downplays the "sordid list of foreign policy sins and transgressions" of an American establishment that the left despises. Does Cooper believe that these "sins and transgressions," past and ongoing, are either exaggerated or irrelevant to an analysis of current foreign policy, and provides no clue on the nature of the War on Terror (Bush's War remember, not Cooper's fictional Military Mission of Mercy)? Neither am I sure what he finds was a "great missed opportunity," although he does suggest what the anti-war demonstrators might have done if they were really serious about building "an effective and mature political left":
Watching that march and rally, it occurred to me how powerful an image could have been created if each demonstrator carried an American flag and, perhaps, a black cardboard silhouette representing those who had perished in the attacks.
Now there's an off-the-wall image! Each demonstrator would have had his or her hands full given that you need one hand to hold Cooper's cherished flag and the second to carry the symbolic black cardboard silhouette. Since evolution stopped short of providing Homo sapiens with a third hand, Cooper would deprive demonstrators the opportunity to hold aloft a placard revealing its distinctive message. Perhaps Cooper would have been touched by a live performance of his proposed patriotic spectacular. I suspect that most onlookers would have found the sea of flags and black silhouettes bizarre, and taken, by some, as a march of right-wing loonies.
TODD GITLIN IS ONE of the better-known and more capable left-leaning intellectuals who enthusiastically embraced the initial Afghan phase of Bush's fraudulent War on Terrorism, enthusiastically and without qualms. The emotional force of 9/11 generated an exuberant and cloyingly sentimental tribute to all that is presumably noble in America, past and present. In the worst of the maudlin super-patriotism of the basically reactionary Popular Front philistinism that afflicted so many "progressives" in the thirties and forties, Gitlin has wrapped himself in the American flag, finding it an emblem of so much that is positive and beautiful in American life, transforming a symbol of class domination and imperialism into that of freedom and true patriotism. The American Legion has a far better historical appreciation than Professor Gitlin of what the fluttering stars and stripes stand for.
For the sake of his newfound patriotism Gitlin understates the historical lessons of U.S. imperial and military involvement in foreign affairs during most of the 20th Century; no meaningful lessons to be drawn from America's direct or covert intervention in Guatemala, Vietnam, Iran, Indonesia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Angola, in most of Africa and throughout the Middle East. For Gitlin, this history is dismissed as an "old story." He faults today's anti-war activists because as he sees it:
Faced with the uniquely murderous challenge of Al Qaeda, they see the old story of Vietnam, of Nicaragua, of Guatemalan peasants seeking higher pay in the coffee fields. The United States represents a frozen imperialism that values only unbridled power in the service of untrammeled capital. It is congenitally, genocidally, irremediably racist. Why complicate matters by facing up to America's self contradictions, its on-again, off-again interest in extending rights. It's clumsy egalitarianism coupled with ignorant arrogance. (Mother Jones, Jan-Feb 2002)
Such pompous claptrap: "America's self contradictions," "on again, off again interest in extending rights," "clumsy egalitarianism coupled with ignorant arrogance." There are, indeed, many contradictions (not "self contradictions") in American history: contradictions between workers and capitalists; between social activists and sweatshop owners using child labor; between suffragists and those who would have denied women the right to vote; between those who struggled for black liberation and those who fought tooth and nail against it; between those who demonstrated against the dirty war in Vietnam and those who organized it; between civil libertarians and the FDR administration that set up concentration camps for 120,000 Japanese Americans; between progressive social movements from below that fought for elementary bourgeois democratic rights and the ruling class that resisted it ... the list of such economic, social and political contradictions could go on for pages, but only one more need be mentioned here and that is the contradiction between anti-imperialists and those who seek to minimize the crimes of the American imperium.
The lessons of history then, undoubtedly an "old story" to Gitlin, is that extending rights and what there is of egalitarianism were not the benefits of some abstract America but were invariably achieved in long, bitter and often violent struggles from below against the social and political and economic forces which dominate American society.
Note also the indiscriminate condemnation of the left that, in Gitlin's judgment, considers the United States to be, "congenitally, genocidally, irremediably racist." I am sure that there are some on the left who really believe this to be the case but why condemn the entire anti-war left for the sectarian madness of a few?
Most offensive is his callous dismissal as an "old story" of the tragic plight of "Guatemalan peasants seeking higher pay in the coffee fields." Gitlin knows better than most that the "old story" is not merely of a struggle for higher pay in the coffee fields (though it is certainly that, too) but of the cold- blooded slaughter of tens of thousands of Guatemalan peasants and workers, students and intellectuals, by uniformed cutthroats armed, financed, and manipulated by the U.S. This may be discounted as an "old story" by new liberal accommodationists but for the left it is a horror tale not to be forgotten and with profound lessons that provide considerable insight into the capacity of America, for all it's "self contradictions," to conduct a socially progressive and just war. And what Gitlin describes as an "old story" is actually an ongoing saga of imperialist interventionism as in Colombia, Venezuela and elsewhere.
One further point: if the sordid history of America's role in Guatemala and in dozens of other countries on all continents is now an "old story" with little to teach us, does Gitlin and his many similars believe that studying and sustaining the memory of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and the Stalinist gulags are academic exercises, details of an "old story."
Gitlin scolds some recalcitrant liberals because, "If American policy is -- in their minds -- forever motivated by nothing but imperial overreach, forever guilty of napalm and death squads, then all American wars must be opposed with an absolute ‘No.'" How many wars and military interventions and violent coups masterminded by the CIA did Gitlin find to support with an absolute or tentative "Yes"? Even the support that Gitlin gave to the war in Bosnia was hardly enthusiastic since he recognizes that it had "dreadful consequences." It would be nice to know which of them enthused Gitlin.
When it comes to civil liberties, Gitlin is a hardnosed realist:
To claim moral authority and political trustworthiness now, we liberals must break up our frozen, encrusted dogmas. When civil liberties concerns confront security concerns, both have to be taken seriously.
"To be taken seriously," implies that the country should make some adjustment to the Bush administration's war against civil liberties presumably for the sake of protecting America against terrorist attacks. To write as Gitlin does of a principled commitment to civil liberties as one of liberalism's "frozen and crusted dogmas" suggests that Gitlin was prepared to sacrifice much that has been won over the decades.
EARLIER IN THE YEAR, Cooper's and Gitlin's ardor for the first phase of the war, in Afghanistan, clearly cooled. Each grew increasingly critical of the attack on civil liberties and from their current writings it is not crystal clear whether they would support a war to depose the Hussein regime. But they have a moral and political responsibility to let their readers know whether their current critical stance is indicative of a felt need in the light of all that is happening to reconsider their support of the war. It is unclear why they should be so upset by anti-democratic positions and actions today when this assault on civil liberties was set in place immediately after 9/11, e.g., the U.S.A. Patriot Act, the call for military tribunals, the illegal rounding up of 1,200-1,500 foreigners and immigrants, etc.
In an op-ed in the New York Times (September 5, 2002), all the ambiguities in Gitlin's position today are revealed. He is still very big with the American flag as he embraces a "liberal patriotism that is unapologetic and uncowed." But he is terribly disappointed by what he finds to be an aggressive and jingoist turn by President Bush who also disappoints Gitlin by his apparent readiness to go it alone. But, as I have shown above, there was no turn on Bush's part, but amazing consistency, having made it clear from the beginning that countries not with him are against him and that he is willing to go it alone.
Gitlin is also disturbed by the "administration's push toward a war in Iraq," but this push, too, was evident from the time the war in Afghan began. Of course, there are many politicians in both parties who also disapprove of a preemptive strike against Iraq. However, we all know that if and when the war is actually underway all these politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, will do their patriotic duty, giving unqualified support to an imperialist adventure. What will be Gitlin's position, and that of his liberal co-thinkers in the event of a preemptive strike? Will he support the war or protest it? He studiously avoids the question but I would give odds that his patriotism would get the better of his liberalism.
IN ONE OF HIS Nation columns (December 17, 2001), Christopher Hitchens, with his typical polemical bite and sense of irony, brings his readers the extraordinarily good news that:
The United States of America has just succeeded in bombing a country back out of the Stone Age. This deserves to be recognized as an achievement, even by those who want to hasten past the moment and resume their customary tasks (worrying about the spotty human rights record of the Northern Alliance is the latest thing).
Just one of the problems here is that we are told what Afghanistan was bombed out of, but not what it was bombed into. One would never gather, in spite of his glad tidings, that in post-Stone Age Afghanistan, whenever the Neanderthals were driven from power, the pre-Taliban warlords immediately moved in and just as quickly returned to their old habits: looting, stealing, and, as yet on a small scale, killing. Perhaps life was even more difficult under the terrorist rule of the Taliban, but that is little consolation to starving Afghans who have food stolen from them by marauding militias of the re-entrenched warlords.
Hitchens mocks those on the left who insist on "...worrying about the spotty human rights record of the Northern Alliance...." He dismisses this concern as if it were just another example of left chic, what he sneeringly refers to as "the latest thing." In the reams of articles I have read in the liberal and left (and conventional) press, I cannot recall anything more disgusting than referring to the incredibly brutal history of the Northern Alliance as a "spotty human rights record." Hitchens' cynicism is monumental since he knows as well as I and the vast majority of Afghans that the spots marring the history of the Northern Alliance in power (and even out of power) were deep and wide pools of blood. The Northern Alliance's "spotty record" is a history of torture, savaging women, assassination, and massacres. It leveled much of Kabul, killing roughly 30,000 people. The populace had such a "thing" about the Northern Alliance that many welcomed what soon proved to be the even more pathologically cruel Taliban.
While Hitchens was having a hell of a good time ridiculing the left for making an issue of the Northern Alliance's "spotty human rights record" the Northern Alliance was having an even better time massacring large, but as yet an undetermined number of Taliban soldiers taken captive. After one battle alone more than 7,500 prisoners were taken (in November 2001) of whom only half could later be accounted for. The number of prisoners killed by way of suffocation and thirst when packed into airless vans and by torture and execution varies from 1,000-4,000 and buried in mass graves. The massacre was reportedly carried out in the presence of at least 30-40 U.S. soldiers.
But why quibble with Hitchens, who is an old socialist, about a few more spots that can always be covered up by an apologist's clever use of irony?
In the same spirit as his touched-up snapshot of the Northern Alliance is his commendation to the American liberators for destroying the Taliban "accomplished with no serious loss of human life and with an almost pedantic policy of avoiding ‘collateral damage'."
As I understand the term, a "pedant" is a stickler for the rules and to be pedantic is to be rigorously rule abiding. This means that to be almost pedantic is to be almost overly concerned with avoiding collateral damage. The truth of the matter, as I discuss below in my comments on Michael Walzer, is that far from being almost too careful the military was only too indifferent to the welfare of civilians living near selected targets, and not pedantic enough to check out whether the sites marked for obliteration were actually military targets or weddings or friendly convoys, civilian homes or enemy compounds. The number of those killed and wounded by our almost pedants is in dispute. But, as of this writing, there is solid evidence that at least a thousand civilians have been killed, and many more injured, leaving tens of thousands bereaved and entire villages "disappeared" by our almost pedantically cautious bombardiers.
Elsewhere, Hitchens ridicules the left for its
...toxic version of an old story [sic] whereby former clients like Noriega and Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic and the Taliban cease to be our monsters and become monstrous in their own right. At such a point, a moral and political crisis occurs. Do "our " past crimes and sins make it impossible to expiate the offense by determined action? Those of us who were not consulted about, and are not bound by, the previous covert compromises have a special responsibility to say a decisive "no" to this.
Hitchens' use of the pronoun "our" (the quotation marks are his) is misleading. Former U.S. clients such as Noriega, Hussein, and the Taliban never received my endorsement and never met with Hitchens' approval. So neither of us shares any guilt for past crimes and sins of supporting such tyrants and terrorists and, therefore, have committed no offense to "expiate." The sins Hitchens refers to have all been committed by the U.S. ruling class and its two political parties that supported such dictators, shoring up their brutal regimes with financial, political and military assistance. What Hitchens is (or should be) asking, then, is not whether an editorial "we" can atone for "our" past crimes but whether the Bush administration and the class it represents and the Democratic Party "opposition," no less culpable than the Republican right, have the capacity "to expiate the offense" of having supported particular dictators in the past. The notion is absurd on the face of it. That this arch-reactionary Administration with a Neolithic President as its commander-in-chief who courts the support of the world's most oppressive and corrupt regimes, has even a theoretical capacity to atone for past sins of the ruling class (and "by determined action," no less) is hardly to be taken seriously.
I don't want to pull the bow too far. Above all, women have received a degree of freedom unthinkable under the Taliban. They are allowed schooling and no longer legally bound by state law to wear the veil. But this improvement must not be exaggerated. Life remains particularly harsh for women. In many provinces the old dress code is enforced, women are subjected to violence, and in some areas mistreatment of Afghan and foreign women working in various assistance programs has been so widespread and brutal that a number of humanitarian agencies have closed their operations, and more are expected to do so.
Politically, life is less oppressive than under the Taliban. The loya jirga is a phenomenon that could not have occurred during Taliban rule. But it is essential to note that the government is extremely fragile, even in Kabul, and with little power beyond the capitol. The regime is actually dominated by powerful warlords, and President Hamid Karzai so isolated and fearful for his life that he has appealed to and received a substantial contingent of American Special Forces to replace unreliable Afghan bodyguards. (These Special Forces bodyguards are to be replaced by other American security guards wearing less conspicuous uniforms.)
MICHAEL WALZER IS THE WELL-RESPECTED co- editor of Dissent that recently published two of his articles relevant to our discussion: "Five Questions on Terrorism" (Winter, 2002), followed by "Can There Be a Decent Left?", (Spring, 2002), each giving support to the War on Terror, castigating the American left for opposition he finds so egregious that it might have foreclosed the possibilities of transforming the American left, driven by "self-hate," into "a decent left."
Perhaps it is because Walzer supported the war and his opposition and criticism of all those he finds indecent on the left are so intense that his internal censor fails him as he flails away at the left with accusations that are irrational and politically libelous. In his "Five Questions on Terrorism," he attributes the following as the anti-war left's response to 9/11:
The September 11 attacks were wrong; they ought to be condemned; but -- a very big "but" -- after all we deserved it; we had it coming.
The response of many in the left was terribly weak, in some instances shameful. But nowhere in my extensive reading of the left-wing press did I find anything approaching the attitude that "We deserved it; we had it coming." Several months later, in his holier-than-thou polemic, he escalates the charges: now, it seems that the indecent elements in the left reacted to 9/11 with "Barely concealed glee that the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved." No documentation, no quotations, not a scintilla of evidence to support this extraordinary, libelous charge that the slaughter of more than 3,000 innocents was greeted with "glee," that America got its just lumps.
Walzer's two articles tell us nothing about the political and social landscape in the wake of the defeat of the Taliban government and the more limited victory over the al Qaeda militia. He tells us nothing about the political and social consequences of the war in the United States, and the same must be noted of his failure to take into account the war's effect on the moods, consciousness and physical well-being of peoples in the Muslim world or in Western Europe for that matter. There is no assessment of what our President hails as the "coalition of civilized nations."
Walzer is pleased to announce that:
Leftist opposition to the war in Afghanistan faded in November and December of last year, not only because of the success of the war but also because of the enthusiasm with which so many Afghans greeted that success. The pictures of women showing their smiling faces to the world, of men shaving their beards, of girls in school, of boys playing soccer in shorts: all this was no doubt a slap in the face to leftist theories of American imperialism, but also politically disarming. There was (and is) still a lot to worry about: refugees, hunger, minimal law and order.
I am not as confident as Walzer of fading opposition to the war in the left. And neither am I as confident as Walzer about the "success" of the war; its success was of a military nature, and even here not total, but politically, I would hardly call it a success. And while it is true that many Afghans greeted that success, as Walzer sees it, with enthusiasm, there were many, also opponents of the Taliban and al Qaeda, who did not share the celebration in November and December. By the time Walzer dashed off his polemic, it was clear to anyone who really wanted to look at reality that enthusiasm among all strata of Afghan society was rapidly waning and resentment rapidly increasing. A poll taken in early July of this year also indicates that most Americans do not believe the war in Afghanistan has been a success.
Walzer's "pictures of women showing their smiling faces, of men shaving their beards, of girls in school, of boys playing soccer in shorts..." is a bit much. There is, of course, a kernel of truth to this, but only a kernel, and even that is drying out. What comes across is a relatively idyllic picture that belies the pervasive, nasty and dangerous realities of life in post-Taliban Afghanistan. That conditions are more relaxed is not questioned, but the limits of that relaxation and the social misery of life in that beleaguered country seems lost on Walzer. He recognizes that there remains an ongoing problem of "minimal law and order" but this is only a minimal acknowledgement of how miserable life remains, even for smiling women, men shorn of beards, children at play.
A far more accurate picture would have to review life under the warlords who have not only returned, but are as powerful as they ever were in the pre-Taliban era. They are estimated to have 175,000 armed men in their local armies and militias. And with their return, it needs to be repeated, there is widespread looting, extortion, beatings, even killings, and far fewer smiling women than Walzer discovers. Instead, mistreatment of women remains widespread, frequent victims of physical violence, including rape. The most prominent women's spokesperson, Dr. Sima Samar, slated for the post of Minister of Women's Affairs, was forced to withdraw her candidacy in the face of threats from Northern Alliance fundamentalists that if she took the position, she would be treated as an Afghan Salman Rushdie i.e., placed on a death list. How can one talk about a just war without at least taking all this into account? Yet, for all this, the smiling faces, schoolgirls, etc. are, for Walzer, "no doubt a slap in the face to leftist theories of American imperialism, but also politically disarming...." I can't fathom why he believes that the defeat of the Taliban torpedoes "leftist theories of American imperialism" any more than a defeat of American forces would have vindicated whatever leftist theories Walzer might have in mind.
Walzer is so carried away by his imaginary success story that America's "just war" is promoted to "(almost) like a war of liberation, a humanitarian intervention." In the wake of this almost successful war of liberation, one cabinet member of the first interim government was murdered, and the same fate befell the recently elected (in a manner of speaking) Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir, a warlord and businessman (also in a manner of speaking) cut down on July 6th, after one day at his new job. And on September 5th, President Karzai narrowly missed death at the hands of an assassin.
The results of the war against global terrorism, nearly one year later, are hardly a success story. In the last ten months, the social base of terrorist networks in the Islamic world has grown stronger and the ability of the terrorists to strike has been tragically demonstrated in India, Pakistan, Kashmir, Tunisia; and that they retain the capabilities to inflict massive damage comparable to 9/11, even more horrific, is also recognized and advertised by the Bush administration.
WALZER MAKES THE SWEEPING CHARGE that most leftists "were prepared to oppose it [the war] without regard to its causes or character and without any visible concern about preventing future terrorist attacks." Not true. Of course the left, all of it, is deeply concerned with the causes and character of the war and preventing future terrorist attacks. One might not agree with what they have to say on these questions, but to accuse most leftists of ignoring them is far-fetched. What is ironical is that the indifference to these causes and concerns that he attributes to most of the left can fairly be attributed to Walzer himself; at least in this shallow polemic under review in which there is no probing of root causes of the war or its character and no prescription is offered about preventing future terrorist attacks.
He sees "in the realities of terrorism itself and the idea of a Holy War against the Infidel" a religious dimension to the Jihad. However, terrorist networks require a mass base and that support cannot be achieved on the basis of religious dogma, but by growth opportunities provided to terrorist organizations by America's negative foreign policies, its pitiless sanctions on Iraq and its support of Israel's bloody war against the Palestinian people which so enrages the vast majority of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims.
WALZER DERIDES, "left academics [who] have tried to figure out how many civilians actually died in Afghanistan." He is convinced that "most of the numbers are propaganda" and that "there is no reliable accounting." But he is offended by the notion that the number of civilians killed should influence the left's characterization of the war. It is worth quoting him more fully:
It denies one of the most basic and best understood moral distinctions between premeditated murder and unintended killing. And the denial isn't accidental as if the people making it just forgot about, or didn't know about the everyday moral world. The denial is willful: unintended killing by Americans in Afghanistan counts as murder. This can't be true anywhere else, for anybody else.
Given the absence of empirical evidence for any arguments in either of his two articles, I doubt that Walzer is qualified to hand down the verdict that "most of the numbers are propaganda." Most outrageous is his misuse of the legitimate moral distinction he makes between "premeditated murder" and "unintended killing," in order to deny the criminal nature of the "unintended killing" in Afghanistan. The distinction between murder and collateral killing is not the issue. What is criminal about the "unintended killing" of Afghan citizens is that the specific circumstances of so much of the killing reveals a cruel and criminal indifference to human life.
Of course there is a moral distinction between "premeditated murder" and "unintended killing." I don't think many people on the left deny that. And I don't believe that most on the left hold to the view that the American military were under orders to knowingly target civilian quarters, hospitals, or wedding parties. The distinction between "premeditated murder" and "unintended killing" is not the issue. If Walzer bothered to examine the circumstances of these terrible tragedies, he might realize that in most cases it was not a matter of collateral damage, but of a reckless disregard for human life. The whole modus operandi of the bombings has been that if you suspect that Taliban or al Qaeda forces are holed up in a particular compound, you don't investigate first; instead, it is shoot now, double-check later. If you think a convoy en route to Kabul includes terrorist enemies, don't bother checking out your suspicions, but kill them all and if it turns out that the convoy was carrying anti-Taliban Afghans to Kabul to honor President Karzai, that, too, is covered up as unintended collateral damage.
If a small group is spotted behaving peculiarly, and one of them is tall and gaunt as is Osama bin Laden, and perhaps a million other Afghan men, then you don't take a chance, you kill them all, and when it turns out that they were poor farmers, including the Osama bin Laden look-alike, then that, too, is treated as collateral damage by the military and, I am afraid, by the distinguished editor of Dissent. And when rumor has it that Taliban supporters are storing arms in a depot, don't try to confirm the rumor -- that would be too pedantic -- but kill first, take survivors prisoner and, for good measure, beat them. When it turns out that the so-called Taliban enemy were mostly anti-Taliban fighters, no apologies are made for not having bothered to investigate the misinformation that provided the excuse for the attack. Instead, American soldiers who carried out the lethal and criminal raid were commended for their efficiency and discipline.
When shots are fired in the air by celebrants at a wedding party, as is the custom, it is taken as anti-aircraft fire -- at least it was so explained -- and within minutes and without any further checking, the wedding party was exterminated, surrounding villages bombed, leaving at the latest count 54 killed and 120 wounded.
No one to my knowledge accused American soldiers of wiping out the wedding party for the sheer pleasure of killing. It was not premeditated murder, but the failure to check out the possible targets was criminal.
If I see someone going through my trashcan and I fear that he might be an armed prowler, and rather than take any chances, I blow him to pieces with a grenade, I hardly think that a court of law would allow me to escape punishment on the ground that I didn't intend to kill an innocent person. Yet that is precisely what Walzer implies with his category, "unintended killing." It may not be murder in the first degree, but clearly enough we are dealing with manslaughter at the very least.
WALZER'S GRIEVANCES ARE AT TIMES mean- spirited and silly as when he derides the anti-war left for raising the slogan, "Stop the Bombing." This, he complains, "wasn't a slogan that summarized a coherent view of the bombing -- or of the alternatives to it."
By definition, a slogan is a tightly stated demand intended to have a positive political and psychological impact on bystanders and the public. What more can a slogan do? When we demonstrated for racial justice, and held placards aloft with the slogan, "Stop Jim Crow," were the demonstrators to be faulted for not presenting a coherent summary of the origins or evils of racism, not to mention the shortcomings of a slogan that fails to summarize what an "alternative" society, freed of racism, would look like?
Perhaps, if Walzer publishes a sequel or epilogue to his polemic on behalf of building "a decent left," he will provide his audience with a slogan that is not only punchy, as any good slogan must be, but will give a coherent summary of why we should support the war, why it was wrong to call for an end to the bombing, at the same time as his slogan of choice will provide us with insights into a coherent alternative.
IN THE ISSUE OF Dissent that carries Walzer's polemic, there are a number of comments, some critical, followed by Walzer's reply. One such letter by John Sanbonmatsu was particularly effective and Walzer's (non) response was particularly flippant. For example, Walzer asks, aggressively, why Sanbonmatsu believes "that the war in Afghanistan is sure to breed more terrorists." And a few lines later, with a sleight of hand, he again asks of his critic, "How can he be so sure that we are ‘breeding' Afghan terrorists now? This is ideology, not knowledge."
I'm afraid that Walzer's (non)response is ideology, certainly not knowledge. Note that at first Walzer correctly attributes to his critic the view that the war in Afghanistan will breed more terrorists, but then he misinterprets this to make it appear that his critic's position is that the war has been breeding Afghan terrorists. Sanbonmatsu's claim about the war breeding more terrorists cannot be fairly challenged. Anyone who reads the newspapers, even casually, knows that the war has served to strengthen the appeal of fundamentalism among the masses of every nation in Islam, expanding and deepening the reservoir of terrorist recruits. If it were possible (which it is not) to hold a truly democratic election in Pakistan, a country of critical importance in Bush's coalition, a slate of Islamic fundamentalists (who revere Osama bin Laden) would make a powerful showing. This is true as well of Egypt.
Incidentally, there is reason to believe that Afghan terrorism might revive, much of it directed against American forces, and not necessarily under the auspices of the remnants of the Taliban or al Qaeda.
A LENGTHY QUOTE FROM WALZER is again in order:
Blaming America first.Not everything that goes badly in the world goes badly because of us. The United States is not omnipotent, and its leaders should not be taken as co-conspirators in every human disaster. The left has little difficulty understanding the need for distributive justice with regard to resources, but we have been practically clueless about the just distribution of praise and blame. To take the obvious example: in the second half of the twentieth century, the United States fought both just and unjust wars, undertook both just and unjust interventions. It would be a useful exercise to work through the lists and test our capacity to make distinctions -- to recognize, say, that the U.S. was wrong in Guatemala in 1954 and right in Kosovo in 1999. Why can't we accept an ambivalent relation to American power, acknowledging that it has had good and bad effects in the world? But shouldn't an internationalist left demand a more egalitarian distribution of power? Well, yes, in principle; but any actual redistribution will have to be judged by the quality of the states that would be empowered by it. Faced with states like, say, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, I don't think we have to support a global redistribution of political power.
It all sounds so reasonable, does it not? Why blame America for all the world's ills? No fair person could believe that the United States is omnipotent and certainly "its leaders should not be taken as co- conspirators in every human disaster." Fair enough, not co-conspirators in every human disaster, but in an awful lot of them, more than Walzer wants to remember. His plea is for "the just distribution of praise and blame"; to recognize that in the last half of the past century, "the United States fought both just and unjust wars." He suggests that a useful assignment would be to check the lists of wars and interventions that in some cases our country was wrong and other times right. Thus, it "was wrong in Guatemala in 1954 and right in Kosovo in 1999."
The real question is how often wrong and how often right? I, for one, do not believe that the U.S. was right in Kosovo in 1999, but let's say it was. That means one for the U.S. But in the more than half century since the end of World War II, without checking it out in the stacks, I would make a fast calculation of 30 or 40 wars and interventions involving direct military engagements, training, equipping and financing foreign armies, directly or surreptitiously. But Walzer makes it very easy for himself by just giving us two examples, one war (Kosovo, in his opinion) belonging in Column A, Good; the other war (in Guatemala) in Column B, Bad. But it would not have been too much to ask that he take the two minutes required--no more than that--to give us a more meaningful sampling. Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Guatemala, El Salvador, Cuba, Panama, Grenada, Indonesia, Libya, Nicaragua. Now there's a statistically meaningful sampling, and it only took about 10 seconds to do. Another 90 seconds and I could probably come up with another dozen or so examples. It would be nice to learn from Michael Walzer and his co-thinkers what the "proper distribution of praise and blame" should be in my short random sampling. How many in Column A, how many in B? The question deserves to be taken as rhetorical since it is clear enough, at least to myself, that the American role in foreign affairs in the past 50 years has been a pattern of systematic imperialism, support to dictators, terrorists, corrupt, cynical and sinister movements and personalities, nothing even close to what Walzer suggests with his two-country sampling. There is certainly nothing in the past that gives even an ounce of credibility to Walzer's notion that in Afghanistan the U.S. has been fighting an (almost) war of liberation, or humanitarian intervention.
Walzer concedes that "[T]here is much to criticize in the policies of every U.S. government since World War II," but is aghast, however, at the excesses of, "a pervasive leftist view of the United States as a global bully, rich, privileged, selfish, hedonistic, and corrupt beyond remedy." For Walzer this is overly strident opposition to American capitalism, evidence that "[T]he left has lost its bearings." If anything the phrases he finds to be agitational epithets are understatements. To call the United States a "global bully" is all too mild; anyone with the faintest familiarity of U.S. foreign policy since the time of the Spanish American War, and the crude manner in which it continues to threaten, penalize and sometimes undermine sovereign nations to achieve a foreign policy goal knows that we are not only confronted by a bully, but an imperialist and dangerous bully. How can anyone find it offensive to refer to the U.S. as "rich" and "privileged"? And if Walzer doesn't agree that those forces which control our lives are selfish then he might want to give some examples of the more charitable preoccupations of American capitalism. Whether or not the American ruling class is "hedonistic" I'll leave others to decide. That corporate America is "corrupt beyond remedy" is in my opinion correct beyond doubt.
IN THE SAME SPIRIT OF MINIMIZING the evil of America's past wars and interventions, and apparently shy about evaluating our evil coalition partners, he points to the obligation of the anti-war left to denounce "the authoritarianism of third world governments." "It is only when we do that we will find our true comrades -- the local opponents of the maximal leaders and military juntas, who are often waiting for our recognition and support." Which maximal leaders and military juntas are the left advised to denounce? Is it only Maximum Leader Castro and the anti-American military juntas that are to be repudiated or does it also include dictators and terrorists in the American war camp?
Walzer argues that "there are no terrorists coming from Vietnam, Latin America, and Iraq." This suggests to him that:
Misery and inequality just don't work for the explanation of any of the nationalist terrorist movements and certainly not for Islamic terror.
Several problems here. First of all, his argument falsely assumes that those he is criticizing believe that "misery and inequality" are sufficient to explain the growing support for fundamentalist terrorism in the Islamic world. There are other political, historical, social and religious factors which must be taken into consideration in order to explain fundamentalist terrorism, and its growing support in the Islamic world.
Second, Walzer's argument reveals that he is not aware that Vietnam has normalized relations with Washington, making it foolish to even ask why Vietnam is not organizing terrorist attacks; Iraq does engage in terrorism, against its own population, and by its political support of Hamas and substantial financial aid to families left behind by Palestinian suicide bombers, but Hussein would have to be an idiot to sponsor a terrorist assault on the U.S. that would provoke an immediate and overwhelming military response; in a number of countries in Latin America, there have been (and are) many insurgencies which do operate as terrorist networks even if they lack the incentive or capabilities of assaulting the U.S. on the scale of 9/11.
Walzer does not deny that misery and inequality are used to promote terrorist networks, but that at least in the case of Islam they are relatively minor considerations. He believes that it is, "...theological radicalism that inspires the terrorist networks. Jihad is a response not only to modernity, but also to the radical failure of the Islamic world to modernize itself." This exaggerated emphasis on religion and culture as the sources of terrorism is reminiscent of the notorious notion that terrorism reflects a "clash of civilizations," a theory that lends itself to apologias for American imperialism since it understates, at best, the fury of the Islamic masses toward the U.S. because of its vital support of Israel's brutal repression of Palestinians, their outrage over sanctions against Iraq that have taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, mainly children. And not to recognize the extent to which hatred for the U.S. is generated by its support of retrograde, corrupt and cruel regimes in the Islamic world is to ignore reality for the sake of an apologia.
If it is true that it is theological radicalism that inspires terrorists who are enraged by modernity, then why is America singled out for attack? There are millions of infidels in modern Western Europe far more vulnerable than the U.S. to terrorist attacks by fundamentalists driven by theological and cultural bigotry. This suggests that when the distant U.S. is selected as the main target, the great Satan, it is less a matter of theological radicalism than a deadly response to America's secular foreign policies.
MANY LIBERALS WHO ENDORSED THE WAR have been disillusioned by the Administration's relentless assault on basic democratic rights. As a result, some have muted their support of the War on Terror. Not Michael Walzer. He is a more consistent apologist for American imperialism than, say, someone like Todd Gitlin or Marc Cooper. Here is what he has to say on the question:
Police work is the first priority, and that raises questions, not about justice, but about civil liberties. Liberals and libertarians leap to the defense of liberty, and they are right to leap; but when they (we) do that, we have to accept the new burden of proof: we have to be able to make the case that the necessary police work can be done, and can be done effectively, within whatever constraints we think are required for the sake of American freedom. If we can't make that case, then we have to be ready to consider modifying the constraints. It isn't a betrayal of liberal or American values to do that; it is in fact the right thing to do, because the first obligation of the state is to protect the lives of its citizens (that's what states are for), and American lives are now visibly and certainly at risk. Again, prevention is crucial. Think of what will happen to our civil liberties if there are more successful terrorist attacks.
If we cannot protect liberty properly within the constraints imposed by civil rights, then "we have to be ready to consider modifying the constraints." What we really have to consider, and what Walzer disingenuously refuses to do, is to evaluate the "modifications" of the constraints that might tie the hands of the police doing their duty and interfere with the "first obligation of the state ... to protect the lives of its citizens."
"Modifications," of course, is a euphemism for a frontal assault on democratic rights, more extreme than anything we have witnessed during peacetime or in time of war. Walzer may not be as familiar as he should be, given his judgmental self-assurance about what is happening in Afghanistan or the Islamic world, but he can hardly be unaware of the specific acts and proposals of the Bush administration which threaten to destroy the most basic rights of bourgeois democracy. Yet, he barely comments about them; and that, in my opinion, is not merely an oversight. He ends his evasive ruminations with the rhetorical question, "What will happen to our civil liberties if there are more successful terrorist attacks"? I interpret this only as a scare tactic designed to soften resistance to the Administration's non-hypothetical attack on civil liberties even before a second terrorist attack.
But I do not want to be unfair. At one point, Walzer does seem to pat the anti-war left on the back for its "spirited defense of civil liberties," however, it is made immediately clear that this is less a pat on the back than a blow with a fist as Walzer immediately denounces the anti-war left because
this defense [of civil liberties] displayed a certain willful irresponsibility and ineffectiveness, because so many leftists rush to the defense of civil liberties while refusing to acknowledge that the country faced real dangers -- as if there was no need at all to balance security and freedom.
WALZER GETS DOWN TO BASIC VALUES
[The] encounter with Islamic radicalism, and with other versions of politicized religion, should help us understand that high among our interests are our values: secular enlightenment, human rights, and democratic government. Left politics starts with the defense of these three." (Emphasis added.)
It is a pleasure to find something in Walzer's polemic that I wholeheartedly agree with. But it does raise a contentious problem: if Left politics starts with a defense of these three values, then how can he possibly support the Administration's War on Terror when the direct consequences of the war has predictably been a series of crushing blows to enlightenment values, to secularism, to human rights, and to democracy?
Since Walzer relates his defense of the War on Terror to his commitment to the three basic values, lets take a little closer look at the war itself: who is leading it, who are its beneficiaries, and above all, what are its predictable political and social consequences?
One of the great hoaxes of the war, largely perpetrated by the media, is that our President who, before September 11th, was notorious for mauling the English language and, as a man of a few dozen words, perennially stumbling for an elusive, appropriate word or phrase when circumstances demanded a spontaneous comment, was transformed by the tragedy on 9/11. On September 20, the day after Bush delivered his scripted and well-rehearsed address to a Joint Session of Congress, the editorialists breathed a sigh of relief that Bush did not trip over his lines. Never mind that the talk was both banal and menacing; that the text he recited was suggestive of a sheriff organizing a posse to hunt down varmints "until there is no place to run or hide or rest." For all that, Bush was lauded in the press as meeting his new historic responsibilities maturely, revealing previously hidden talents not evidenced in the early shaky months of his tenure. An editorial in the Times editorial reassured a troubled nation that its president and commander-in-chief had proved his mettle:
He seemed more confident, determined and sure of his purpose and was in full command of a complex array of political and military challenges that he faces in the wake of the terrible terrorist attacks of September 11th ... he seemed to be a leader whom the nation could follow in these difficult times.
Anyone who has followed Bush's speeches and the ineptitude of his performances at press conferences, particularly in foreign countries, knows that this is a media and public relations-created myth, though a more candid portrait occasionally appears such as the revelation by a Times analyst that, "People at the White House say that focusing on a single topic plays to his [Bush's] strength, because he is not especially adept at juggling several issues at a time." (How can the lack of an intellectual capacity to concentrate on more than one issue at a time be a show of "strength"?)
But if Bush is short on intellect and knowledge, it is not to say that he doesn't know what he likes and dislikes. On the contrary, he has unshakable commitments: he is committed to guard family values while being, of course, more solicitous of the welfare of an unwanted fetus than of a destitute and desperate pregnant woman; he is determined to bloat the military budget, to protect corporate America from the scourge of muckrakers. He is dedicated to slashing social programs and despoiling the environment at home and globally. As a born-again Christian, he is devoted to undermining the secular doctrine of separation of church and state. He is firmly committed to the death penalty (for four years he was the Lord High Executioner of the State of Texas). He is both a Robin Hood in-reverse and a philanthropist, cutting down on aid for the poor and donating billions to the very wealthy, even when they don't press for it. Of course, he loves the bomb.
President Bush also knows who and what he scorns. A small sampling would include environmentalists, feminists, unions, affirmative action, regulations protecting workers on the job, and he decidedly doesn't appreciate people who contradict him.
Our President is as vain and arrogant as he is shallow and ignorant. With September 11th providing the opportunity to make his mark in history, his arrogance has swollen to messianic proportions as he repeatedly tells the world what I will do and that he "expects" other nations to follow his lead. In one particularly megalomaniacal moment, he replied to critics of his proposal to create special military tribunals that would give him the right (among other powers) to make life and death decisions concerning foreigners accused of terrorism that in a war "against the most evil kinds of people, I need to have an extraordinary option at my fingertips."
Bush is not alone. He has a cabinet and advisors. For one, there is our reclusive Vice President, Dick Cheney, whose occasional public appearance is to present a super-hawkish line more coherently and forcefully, in a manner beyond his boss's capabilities. (Enmeshed in corporate scandal, he may yet appear on television pleading to the nation that "I am not a crook.") The Bush cabinet includes Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, mean-spirited, officious and unflinchingly reactionary, who cannot disguise his preference for killing rather than capturing the enemy. (As a friend of mine observes, give Rumsfeld a monocle and he could audition for a Hollywood role as an S.S. General.) There is Attorney General John Ashcroft, a born-again bigot, who comes as close to being a fascist as any cabinet member of any administration I can think of. Theoretically and laughably, he is supposed to protect our constitutional and legislative assurances of civil liberties and civil rights. The nation is saddled with the Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O'Neill, whose perverse sense of economic justice is reflected in his summary of the Enron debacle: "Companies come and go. It's part of the genius of capitalism." Larry Lindsey, Bush's leading economist, echoed the same sentiment: the Enron scandal is a "tribute to American capitalism;" the Secretary of the Army, Thomas E. White, who is even more deeply embroiled in crooked but most profitable shenanigans in Enron. Not to be overlooked are such notorious flame-throwers as Paul D. Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and advisor Richard Pearl. And the list could continue, but there is no need to. There is not a single member of Bush's cabinet or his advisors of whom it could be said, "Here is someone who is supportive of even one progressive social program, be it the environment, gender equality, racial justice, social welfare, positive educational reform." There is not even a faint voice to be heard from within the Bush camp in defense of civil liberties and democratic rights. Yet there are pro-war liberals who would have us believe that these men and women of power, to whom democracy and social justice are so alien, have even a theoretical capacity to lead a just war in Afghanistan, and to destroy the "evildoers" internationally on behalf of freedom.
The unrelenting assault on social programs, social movements and democratic liberties is intrinsic to what is called the War on Terror. The war is used as a pretext to justify the war against the poor, the environment, etc., but the point I am most anxious to underscore here is the war against democracy at home is a function of the "War on Terrorism." And since this is a war in permanence, the ever-intensifying war against democracy becomes a permanent feature of American life. Therefore, a consistent struggle to defend democracy implies unqualified opposition to the war.
THE DRIVE AGAINST CIVIL LIBERTIES is often compared to the McCarthyist plague that took a terrible human toll on American society after World War II. McCarthyism devastated the personal lives and careers of tens of thousands, victimizing primarily real and alleged Communists and fellow travelers, but its net was spread wide enough to trap a broader political spectrum of radicals, non-conformists, and liberals. There are obvious similarities between McCarthyism and the current cabal spearheaded by the Attorney General; there are also significant differences that are instructive and unnerving.
Thus far, the Bush administration's drive to undermine democracy has not equaled the personal damage inflicted by McCarthyism. Today, the rights of several thousand immigrants and aliens have been grossly violated; many illegally detained, held incommunicado and made to endure abuses based on unsubstantiated accusations. On the other hand, while the personal pain is not yet as extensive as in the 50s, the current War on Democracy is more ominous than McCarthyism. At the epicenter of McCarthyism, there was the Wisconsin Senator, a number of bizarre hired-hands, a network of informers and, of course, Congressional inquisitors cashing in on the witch hunt atmosphere. But when McCarthy decided to take on the Army, he overreached, and President (and General) Eisenhower made short shrift of the man from Wisconsin. In contrast, today's offensive is under the auspices of a President and his entire administration, supported by men and women of great wealth and power, and in the background there is a Democratic Party that has been more collaborative than critical, that voted overwhelmingly in support for some of the ugliest, anti-democratic legislation introduced by the Republican administration. Thus, unlike the 1950s witch-hunt, the War on Democracy is recognizably a war by the ruling class and its State.
Another difference: McCarthyism was not concerned with social programs and never sought the permanent status of a social movement. This is in sharp contrast with the current War on Democracy, it is indeed an ideological movement with a strong Right-Wing orientation on all social questions, with close spiritual (if that's the right word) and political ties to the Christian Right.
Then there is the relentless drive of the Administration, the Executive Branch in our government, to encroach on traditional areas of authority of the Legislature and the Judiciary. When the Courts make decisions conflicting with the political interests of the Bush administration, Court orders are often defied, its authority denied as being illegitimate.
All in all, this unremitting campaign to undermine democracy pollutes the social atmosphere with the pungent and odious whiff of fascism.
If my analysis is essentially on target, it demands that a "decent Left" dedicated to secular enlightenment values, to human rights, and to democratic government, repudiate a war that Walzer justifies.
WE TURN OUR ATTENTION BRIEFLY to what President Bush hails as "the grand Coalition of civilized nations." We need not argue at any length the absurdity of this Coalition being either civilized or enraged by terrorist networks. To expose the fraud we need only mention a representative handful: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Israel, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen ... the list could go on, but why bother? Now, I do not know how Michael Walzer feels about this Coalition, but the list I have just rattled off is just a partial roll call of the world's most notorious violent, and terroristic dictatorships (Israel of course can not be described accurately as a dictatorship internally, but it is engaged in a savage terrorist use of force against the Palestinian people, with no end in sight. Neither can Russia be labeled a dictatorship, but its use of state terror in what appears to be a war of annihilation against the Chechnyan people is unsurpassed in its cruelty.) And, at the risk of upsetting pro-war liberals bored with an "old story," it is essential to recognize America's historic and ongoing role in aiding and abetting terrorism on a massive scale and on all continents.
Reminder to the reader: President Bush even expressed interest in recruiting Syria to this terrorist conglomerate of civilized nations. Syria did not accept the invitation. That country's status reverted to that of a dangerous ally of the "axis of evil" and candidate for a preemptive military strike.
How is it possible for the United States to lead a war on terrorism when the majority of the world's dictatorial and terrorist societies are our allies? The answer is really quite simple: it is not possible at all.
The very act of welcoming the dictatorships and societies relying on terror into the Coalition of civilized nations means that the Bush administration is abetting terrorism in Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, Palestine, Indonesia, Malaysia, China and in other countries of this grand Coalition. And since the war on terrorism cannot be won and can only be fought in a manner that will rouse ever-greater hatred for the U.S. in the Islamic world and elsewhere, Bush's war can only stimulate fundamentalist terrorism.
WALZER'S ARTICLES REFLECT a more general and profound retreat from even the most modest expressions of a radical temperament and politics. He actually admits to this:
Why shouldn't the American story be like these two, with long years of healthy oppositionist politics, and only episodic resentment? Wasn't America a beacon of light to the old world, a city on a hill, an unprecedented experiment in democratic politics? I grew up with the Americanism of the Popular Front in the 1930s and 1940s; I look back on it now and think that the Communist Party's effort to create a leftist pop culture, in an instant, as the party line turned, was kitchy and manipulative--and also politically very smart. Paul Robeson's "Ballad for Americans," whatever the quality of the music, provides at least a sense of what an unalienated American radicalism might be like. The days after September 11 would not have been a bad time for a Popular Front. What had happened that made anything like that unthinkable?
Walzer is not alone in this nostalgic look on the alleged glory days of the Popular Front; nostalgia for what was a front for unsavory sources and indeed popular with liberals and progressives despite its basically conservative politics covered with a transparent veneer of pseudo-patriotic, pseudo-populist, and tawdry sentimentalism; paying tribute, above all, to the instinctive wisdom and inherent nobility of the People. Ironically, the liberal love affair was with the Popular Front that did not even have its origins in America. (For that we would have to get into "the Russian question.") More to the point here is that the Popular Front was specifically designed to short-circuit any possibility of the militant class struggles that racked the country in the early-to-mid-30s from maturing into mass movements of political and social protest. It aimed to reign in and conservatize the working class, and this it did to the satisfaction of its chief native promoters and, most important, to its foreign architects (predictably the Popular Front ground to a halt in September 1939 and was instantly revived on June 22, 1941). But for Walzer and so many others, the class collaborationism and conservatism was "politically very smart." But smart for whom and for what?
And the wartime version of the Popular Front (revived only after Hitler broke his pact with Stalin) sank to a level of conservatism and chauvinism that was both obscene and comical.
Then there was Paul Robeson's famous "Ballad for Americans," insufferable for its fraudulent, saccharin sentimentality and dishonesty about America the Beautiful that made Popular Fronters misty-eyed and, sad to admit, still does.
What does Walzer have in mind when he pleads for an "unalienated American radicalism," an oxymoron since radical organizations and militant social movements are, by definition, alienated from the nation's dominant social, political and economic forces; no less true than for cultural modernism confronted by pervasive forces of traditionalism and intellectual conservatism. But to realize that American radicalism cannot but be alienated from American society does not mean that there is no radical tradition and culture in America with which the left can identify; a tradition and culture that existed in but was not of a society dominated by an alien and hostile ruling class. It was based on enlightened dissent, resistance, social class and struggle. We can find spiritual sustenance in the history of Transcendentalism and the failed Utopias, and inspiration in the abolitionist movement; we look with pride on the early socialist, anarchist and trade union movements; we identify with all the historic struggles of the working class, of the suffragists, of those who resisted America's entry into the First World War, of those who fought the establishment in the 60s and 70s in the battle for racial justice and against the war in Vietnam ... the list of the component elements of a long, fascinating and instructive tradition and culture completely at odds with the syrupy lyrics and spiritual emptiness of the "Ballad for Americans" that might better serve as doggerel for ex-leftists beating a hasty retreat from radical traditions and politics as they wave the American flag, write briefs extolling the virtues of their newly discovered patriotism and diligently devote their intellectual energies to the patriotic mission of convincing as many who will listen that an imperialist war is a just war.
Martyrs were not necessarily pacifists. During the French resistance, for example, some risked and lost their lives on special assignments that involved assassinating civilian collaborators or military functionaries in the occupying Nazi army. However, their assignment was not to work their way through enemy lines in order to blow up German beer halls filled with civilians, and their permanent mission in life was not to liquidate the German population. return
On the other hand, al Qaeda did not send out press releases informing the press and the world of its plans for 9/11. There were not and could not have eyewitness accounts of the catastrophe by an absent media. However, Cockburn notwithstanding, there were many powerful press accounts. return
Contents of No. 33
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