We mourn our dead – We stand for peace

September 26, 2001

There have been other terrorist attacks, both in our recent and more distant past, but nothing on this scale or with these consequences. The enormity of the death and destruction is only beginning to sink into people’s consciousness.

Terrorism is morally and politically reprehensible. Under no circumstances can it be justified. Its only outcome is to strengthen the forces of political reaction, racism and militarism in our own country as well as abroad.

The death of more than 5,000 people is an American tragedy. Other countries have experienced equal or worse tragedies, but this took place on our national soil and was so cruel and unexpected.

In politics it is necessary to separate what is momentary and episodic from what is long-term and deep-going. The manifold repercussions of the terrorist attack fall into the latter category. Indeed, people are questioning long-held assumptions that inform how we think about our lives, our families and our nation’s future.

We are all asking, ‘How could it happen here and what can be done to prevent its reoccurrence?’

The progressive movement has to help answer these questions, knowing that convincing and compelling answers may not be easy to come by, particularly given the pressure from our nation’s ruling circles to respond to violence with more violence.

During the past century, as a nation we have felt invulnerable to external threats owing to our military might, unrivaled economic power and geographical location. According to official mythology, we were a shining and secure city on the hill.

Somehow we thought that we were immune and protected from the violence and turmoil experienced by other nations not blessed with our advantages. But no more.

The world is smaller, weapons of mass destruction are in the hands of individuals as well as powerful states and terrorism is a worldwide phenomenon.

No country, not even ours, is an impenetrable fortress able to safeguard people’s livelihoods and lives. This lesson has been brought home with enormous force.

So how do we as a nation respond to terrorist attacks?

There is a clamor for immediate retaliatory strikes even if we don’t know who the enemy is and even if innocent people are the probable casualties, as well as for a more sustained campaign against the terrorists and their state sponsors.

The accent in these quarters, beginning with the Bush administration and the mass media, is on military measures, on projecting American power to far-flung regions of the world and on turning our country into a garrison state, with diminished civil liberties and privacy rights

Of course, the immediate flaw in this strategy is that no one knows who the terrorists are – let alone where they are headquartered or to what extent our democratic rights will be restricted in the name of fighting terrorism.

Another major flaw is that this strategy has brought few successes in the past. Rather, retaliatory strikes have resulted almost invariably in escalating countermeasures by terrorist groups. There is little reason to think that bombing or invading Afghanistan will bring any different outcome.

We might vanquish the Taliban, but it is unlikely such an action will defuse the terrorists. Instead, tensions in the Middle East will probably heighten to the extreme and terrorist counterattacks will inexorably follow.

Still another flaw in this strategy is that it ignores the subsoil from which terrorism and terrorists spring.

Isn’t it naive to think that U.S. government-sponsored sanctions against Iraq that callously kill children and other innocent people, or the brutal suppression of the rights of the Palestinian people, the support for right-wing, anti-democratic Arab regimes, the arrogant projection of U.S. military power around the world, or the crippling poverty, rampant disease, widespread unemployment and social breakdown across huge regions and even whole continents will breed anything but bitter resentment and desperate actions?

We can kill the terrorists and we can tear up the networks and states that sustain them, but like a many-headed hydra, new networks will spring up.

As long as there exists this underbelly of fierce exploitation, grinding poverty, unequal political power and the unrestrained use of military force by the powerful against the weak, terrorism will continue unabated.

To put it differently, terrorism cannot be reduced to a religious phenomenon nor is it specific to a people. Instead its roots are in the contemporary capitalist world.

Retribution in one form or another will come from the dispossessed and disinherited across the globe to the extent that a handful of nations and powerful transnational corporations – especially Big Oil, which figures so heavily in shaping our policies in the Middle East – impose their profit-driven interests on a reluctant world.

A final flaw in this strategy is that it is silent about state-sponsored terror orchestrated by our own and other powerful governments.

Indiscriminate bombing, blockades and sanctions against smaller countries, political assassinations, the arming and training of terrorists, like the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, the contras in Nicaragua and the right-wing death squads in Colombia by U.S. intelligence agencies are a few examples that convince millions of people worldwide that our government is a sponsor of terrorism.

How then can we break the cycle of violence; how can we combat terrorism?

First, the world community has to condemn terrorism in all of its forms. There is absolutely no justification for terrorist action, whether carried out by powerful states or loose networks of individuals.

To be sure, conventional and nuclear warfare between states has been more lethal and deadly up until now.

In the Congo, for instance, three million people, most of them innocent civilians, died in the 1990s in a civil war, while 140,000 men, women and children were immolated almost instantly when our government dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of WWII.

But the size of the death count should not determine our attitude toward this new form of warfare. Terrorism is a new and growing threat to humankind, especially with the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and should be universally condemned.

Second, a successful struggle against terrorism requires the collective voice, participation and wisdom of every country and all humankind. No one nation, and particularly our own, should act alone or assume that it has a unilateral right to lead a world coalition against terrorism.

An emergency international conference under the auspices of the United Nations would seem like a good place to begin a such a world campaign.

In the meantime, mass expressions for peace and against terrorism in all of its forms should be organized in major cities around the world.

Third, political and diplomatic solutions should be favored over military ones. Violence only begets more violence.

The perpetrators of this heinous crime in our country should be held accountable and apprehended to be sure, but what must guide our country’s and the world’s response to this new threat is the rule of law, not vigilantism; reason, not hysteria; justice, not revenge; the protection of peoples of Arab ancestry and Muslim faith, not xenophobic and racist assaults; the preservation of rights and liberties, not the narrowing of the boundaries of political dissent and above all peace, not violence.

In the longer run, building an economically just, peaceful, democratic and tolerant world is the only sure path to isolate and eventually eliminate terrorism and all other forms of warfare. The 20th century was the bloodiest and most violent in the history of humankind.

Rather than fighting the first war of the 21st century, let us find a way to eliminate war in all of its forms and guarantee economic security to all people.

For our children and future generations, let us finally turn our swords into plowshares and study war no more.


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