As we write this, little more than two weeks have passed since the tragic events of 11 September in New York City, Washington DC and Pennsylvania. The toxic dust in the air over the southern tip of Manhattan has settled but the full extent of the carnage is still unknown. The dead are being counted and the body parts collected from the twisted steel and melted glass of the World Trade Center: 5,000, 6,000, 7,000 - the exact tally may never be clear. The rubble is being probed and cleared and the citizens of New York have begun again the simple routines and familiar rhythms of daily life.
In our newspapers and magazines heart-wrenching photographs of brutal destruction and the buoyant resilience of the human spirit attempt to communicate the suffering and the loss. Stark, haunting images convey the selfless energy of thousands of rescue workers. Commemorative services and vigils of shared pain and solidarity have been held around the globe. Amidst the swirling emotions of grief and deep unease we struggle to understand this tragedy, to process the macabre enormity of an unspeakable crime. For that’s what it was: a mass public execution, a criminal act of callous disregard for human life.
Four civilian aircraft hijacked and turned into fiery bombs, aimed at the citadels of US financial and military power. The World Trade Center (WTC) in ruins. The Pentagon (the Pentagon!) that ultimate symbol of American military might, scarred with a gaping hole. And a fourth jetliner crashed short of its target, possibly the White House or the Capitol, in rural Pennsylvania. When a group of people can suspend their humanity to the point of being able to slam 767s full of people into office towers filled with thousands of others, many of us are left doubting the moral compass and sanity of this world. In the aftermath of 11 September, US Secretary of State Colin Powell called terrorism ‘part of the dark side of globalization’ - a valid insight. The twin towers of the World Trade Center were filled not just with WASP mutual-fund managers. There were Puerto Rican secretaries, Sri Lankan cleaners, Indian clerks and Filipino restaurant workers as well as Japanese corporate executives and Italian-American bond traders. The WTC was not only a symbol of the global economy, it was a microcosm of our increasingly globalized world. Fifteen hundred Muslims came to pray in the building’s mosque every Friday.
For that's what it was: a mass public execution, a criminal act of callous disregard for human life
So much we know, so much we feel. But how to respond, how to react, what to do?
The American Government and much of the mainstream media immediately denounced the terrorist attack as an act of war. In the days following, President George W Bush revved up the propaganda machine by describing the incident as an all-out assault on the ‘American way of life’. This was a war on ‘freedom and democracy’, he trumpeted. Opinion leaders like the New York Times joined in; the terrorists were motivated by hatred of cherished Western values like ‘freedom, tolerance, prosperity, religious pluralism and universal suffrage.’
Quickly the assault was turned into ideology - instead of an act carried out against the unsuspecting and the innocent, it became an ‘Attack on America’ in the phrase of CNN. The flesh-and-blood victims have been transformed by President Bush’s words into faceless pawns in a simplistic struggle between good and evil.
But the world is far more complex and the global reality far more frightening.
This was not a mindless rampage of death and destruction. These were calculated acts of symbolic terror, meticulously planned and coolly executed with serious thought about the political consequences. It was not simply terror for terror’s sake.
At this point the weight of evidence, whether directly or indirectly, points to Saudi millionaire and declared foe of the US, Osama bin Laden. The goal of religious extremists like bin Laden is clear. His aim is to provoke the Americans into an all-out conflict with the Islamic world. Will the US take the bait?
Critics of US foreign policy hold out the vain hope that the dilemma may get the country to reconsider its role as the world’s only superpower. Part of the terrorists’ hope was for a US response that would explode into a kind of tribal bloodlust, a lashing out at enemies seen and unseen. Thankfully there has been no kneejerk response. But as the gigantic US war machine encircles the ruins of Afghanistan the dangers remain. Are we heading for years of bloody reprisals and counter-reprisals?
The signs are not good. Pakistan is caught in an impossible position. Under intense US pressure the country’s leader, General Pervez Musharraf, has agreed to work with the Bush administration. But Pakistani supporters of both Afghanistan’s Taliban and bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network may make the General regret his decision. If a civil war erupts and fundamentalists gain control in that nation of 140 million how much closer to a nuclear nightmare might we all be?
There is no ethical dilemma here. The terrorists are criminals and need to be brought to justice speedily. That is the first priority. The UN Security Council has demanded bin Laden’s surrender precisely because he is considered a threat to global peace and security. But this is not an old-fashioned war where ignorant armies clash on behalf of perceived national interests. Here there are no armies and there are no states. Instead there are thousands of disgruntled militants in isolated cells scattered across dozens of countries. Some of the alleged terrorists from the recent attacks in the US (dubbed ‘sleepers’ by counter-intelligence spooks) had lived quietly and unnoticed in the US for months and years.
In a globalized world there is no longer any ‘out there’. Just as the Real IRA brings its grievances to the streets of London, others seeking political change through violent means can strike with knives and box cutters turning commercial aircraft into deadly missiles. There is no military solution to this problem. You can bomb the hell out of Afghanistan, take out Saddam Hussein and lob cruise missiles into Syria. But this will do nothing to wipe out terrorism. The bleak refugee camps, the hopeless squalid slums and the corrupt rulers backed by the US and other Western nations will still be in place. Thousands more ‘bin Ladens’ will be waiting in the wings - there is an inexhaustible supply. Violence leads, inevitably, to more violence.
If it is true that ‘an eye-for-an-eye makes us all blind’ then now is the time to see clearly. There is growing diplomatic and public pressure on the US to wind down its war machine and treat the 11 September outrage not as an act of war, but as a crime against humanity. Instead of launching a prolonged military assault with the likelihood of thousands more innocent civilian casualties, the US should look to the rule of law. To do otherwise, to strike back with F-16 jet fighters and Tomahawk cruise missiles, would give the terrorists what they want. Thus proving the efficacy of their act and justifying more terror. As informed observers in the Middle East have noted, a US attack on Muslim states, with thousands of ordinary people likely to die, would only confirm the suspicion of many Muslims that America’s aim is to crush and humiliate Islam.
Treating these terrorist acts as a crime against humanity means all nations must co-operate to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. This will be more difficult than pushing the war button. It will take time and it will not satisfy the all-too-human lust for blood revenge. But it is a path which requires patience and steely determination - and one which will surely bring more satisfying results.
This means a concerted international police action in which all nations must participate. Bin Laden and other co-conspirators must be brought to trial before an international court of justice. If the Taliban were pressured to turn over bin Laden it would establish that his kind of terrorism is unacceptable even to the most militant of Islamic states.
As the American analyst Michael Klare has written: ‘It will be much harder for Islamic governments to ignore our requests for assistance in tracking down and arresting bin Laden’s associates if we indict them for multiple murders and portray this as a criminal matter. The deliberate murder of innocents is a crime and an abomination in all societies - Islamic ones no less than others.’ This could actually take some of the heat out of the confrontation between the US and militant Islam.
As we pursue these criminals we in the West must search behind the hatred to the sources of this twisted fanaticism. Terrorism is not spun out of air. Fury and despair are rooted in the soil of discrimination, racism and poverty. The source of this deadly rage is political powerlessness, thwarted patriotism and visible injustice. Those of us yearning for a world of justice, peace and equality - especially Americans - need to recognize the squalid history of the Middle East and the deep-seated grievances of the majority of people who live there. American foreign-policy critic Noam Chomsky suggests there is a wilful blindness in the US public’s perception of its role in the region. If there is widespread hatred of the US, there are legitimate reasons.
We can begin to tote up some of them. It is no longer a secret that the US itself created Osama bin Laden as a weapon in its ‘cold war’ battle against the Soviets. The US provided buckets of cash and training via the CIA in an effort to help oust the Russians from Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of that country in the 1980s. Bin Laden’s base in Pakistan was the Binoori Mosque in Karachi where the mullah who leads the Taliban, Mohammed Omar, was in charge. America and Britain backed the Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq and the Pakistani army backed the Taliban.
It was the same in Iraq where Washington propped up one of America’s current bogeymen, Saddam Hussein, as a counterbalance to Ayatollah Khomeini’s anti-American regime in Iran. Saddam could do no wrong in the eyes of his Western supporters - until he invaded oil-rich Kuwait. He even gassed whole villages of Kurds and still managed to keep on the right side of the United States and allies like Britain. After the Gulf War, US-led economic sanctions against Iraq triggered mass starvation and the death of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, many of them children.
Then there is the four-decade-long US support for Israel’s bloody military occupation of Palestine, a festering sore for Muslims worldwide. The persistent plight of more than two million stateless Palestinians continues to poison relations between the West and the Islamic world. The Americans are seen to be firmly in the pocket of the Israelis and supremely indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians.
As journalist Robert Fisk asks: ‘Who now cares to remember the 1982 invasion of Lebanon when, with then US Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s approval, Israel attempted to drive the PLO out of Lebanon?’ More than 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians were killed, most of them innocent civilians. How can resentment and hatred not grow in those conditions?
Fisk goes on to say, ‘America’s failure to act with honour in the Middle East, its promiscuous sale of missiles to those who use them against civilians, its blithe disregard for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children under sanctions of which Washington is the principal supporter - all these are intimately related to the society that produced the Arabs who plunged America into an apocalypse of fire…’
What civilization worthy of the name can anchor vengeance at the core of its identity?
And the list does not stop there. Was it a coincidence that the terrorist attack occurred on the anniversary of the 1973 coup in Chile, engineered by the CIA in which thousands were arrested, tortured and murdered by the Chilean military and secret police? Perhaps. But America has for decades spread its gospel of ‘democracy and liberty’ by means of both violence and coercion. The US assisted right-wing death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador during the 1980s helped oust democratically elected progressive regimes in the Dominican Republic and Iran in the 1950s, backed brutal dictators from Marcos in the Philippines to Mobutu in Zaire (now DR Congo) during the 1960s and 1970s. In the Arab world, the US has consistently supported corrupt and repressive despots who sit on the world’s largest oil reserves. These include the Saudi regime which rivals the Taliban in its brand of fundamentalist Islam. In fact, the Taliban version of Islam is a spin-off from the ultra-sectarian Wahhabi sect that rules Saudi Arabia. The presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia since the end of the Gulf War is seen as an unforgivable desecration of the Islamic holy land by bin Laden and countless other Muslim splinter groups.
As the United States must reassess its role in world affairs, so too must all of us look at the implications of this earth-shaking event. Image by Mohammed Bushara This image by the distinguished abstract artist Mohammed Bushara expresses his response to the terrorist atrocities in the US and the growing threat of war between the West and Islam. An old friend of the New Internationalist, Mohammed is in exile from Sudan and has sought asylum in Britain.
The one thing that everyone keeps assuring everyone else is that ‘things will never be the same’ and superficially that seems self-evident. There is no question that the attack will have negative and far-reaching repercussions. We’re already seeing those in the racist assaults on Muslims and other Asians in the US, Canada, Australia, Britain and elsewhere - and in the heightened security around airports and across international borders.
But there are other fears too. Already the space for democratic discussion has begun to shrink. Dissent from the ‘official’ anti-terrorist line is demonized. To talk peace and suggest non-violent solutions to the crisis is to risk censure. Fear and paranoia are being mined by the usual array of right-wing militants, ‘security experts’, knee-jerk patriots and academic hacks from corporate-funded think-tanks. They wilfully refuse to recognize that pouring scarce resources into an elaborate security apparatus will in the end make us all not more secure, but less. How many heads of state have been assassinated by their own security forces? The irony may be that real security will only emerge when the US finds ways to share the disproportionate amount of power and wealth it already possesses.
This polarization of debate puts at risk the enormous gains of one of the most hopeful signs of political change in recent years - the anti-globalization movement which has won enormous credibility and political influence over the past three years. There is now a real fear that this movement for a more secure, more equal world will suffer major setbacks as the political space narrows. We cannot allow this momentum to be wasted. But at the same time it is critical that anti-globalization campaigners recognize the gravity of this historical moment and clearly identify murder as murder - no matter who commits it. We can ill afford to allow the movement to be dismissed as pro-terrorist and anti-American. That way lies a political dead-end.
So some aspects of our world have indeed changed, perhaps forever. These are the outward trappings of power, the machinery of security which curbs our democratic aspirations and keeps us from wrestling with the deeper problems of inequality and powerlessness. But little has changed fundamentally - and that sums up the bleak futility of these deadly symbolic acts. Terrorism and counter-terrorism end up shadow-boxing in a theatre of cruelty which by its nature reduces active citizens to fearful, anxious spectators. Meanwhile the underlying lines of power and control remain undisturbed.
The visceral reaction to such breathtaking brutality is to strike back - violently and vengefully. To up the ante in suffering and pain. Those who bray for blood claim that the issue is unambiguous, that the morality of civilized society and the pride of a wounded nation calls for no less. To paraphrase George W Bush: ‘you’re either on our side or you’re on the side of the terrorists.’ This is a facile polarization which demonizes dissent and muzzles critical debate.
Certainly justice needs to be done - and needs to be seen to be done. But what civilization worthy of the name can anchor vengeance at the core of its identity?
And how can true security be based on missiles and militarization? There are no walls high enough and no weapons powerful enough to keep out terrorism. Recent events are proof enough of that. In the long run real security can only grow from mutual respect, understanding and honest dialogue. The grossly skewed inequalities which fracture our world need urgent attention. Justice and equity - the two are bound together.
Let’s honour the innocent victims of 11 September by bringing their murderers to account. But let’s not add more innocents to the body count.
This special report appeared in the twin terrors: the world holds its breath issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.