September 11 And Its Aftermath
Michael Albert and Stephen R. Shalom
We are writing this on
September 17, less than a week after the horrific terrorist attacks against the
United States. We are still dealing with our grief and trauma and we are still
profoundly moved by the many acts of heroism, generosity, and solidarity that
have taken place. Some may find it inappropriate to offer political analysis
this early, but however discordant some may find it, the time for political
analysis should be before actions are taken that may make the situation far
worse. Critics of war across the U.S. and around the world are working hard to
communicate with people who, for the moment, mainly seek retribution. Below we
address some of the many questions that are being asked. We hope the answers we
offer, developed in consultation with many other activists, will assist people
in their daily work.
The identity of the 19
individuals who hijacked the four planes is known, but what is not yet known is
who provided the coordination, the planning, the funding, and the logistical
support, both in the United States and elsewhere. Many indications point to the
involvement of Osama bin Laden, but if his role is confirmed, this is the
beginning, not the end, of the inquiry: Were any other organizations involved
and, if so, which ones? Were any national governments involved and, if so, which
ones? The danger here is that the U.S. government may answer these questions
based on political criteria rather than evidence.
Osama bin Laden?
Osama bin Laden is an
exiled Saudi, who inherited a fortune estimated at $300 million, though it’s not
clear how much remains of it. Fanatically devoted to his intolerant version of
Islam—a version rejected by the vast majority of Muslims—bin Laden volunteered
his services to the Afghan Mujahideen, the religious warriors battling the
invading Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989. The Afghan rebels were bankrolled by
Saudi Arabia and the United States and trained by Pakistani intelligence, with
help from the CIA. The United States provided huge amounts of arms, including
Stingers— one-person anti-aircraft missiles—despite warnings that these could
end up in the hands of terrorists. Washington thus allied itself with bin Laden
and more than 25,000 other Islamic militants from around the world who came to
Afghanistan to join the holy war against the Russians. As long as they were
willing to fight the Soviet Union, the U.S. welcomed them, even though many were
virulently anti-American, some even connected to the 1981 assassination of Anwar
Sadat of Egypt. When Moscow finally withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, some
of these Islamic militants turned their sights on their other enemies, including
Egypt (where they hoped to establish an Islamic state), Saudi Arabia, and the
United States. Bin Laden established an organization of these holy war
veterans—al Qaida. In February 1998, bin Laden issued a statement, endorsed by
several extreme Islamic groups, declaring it the duty of all Muslims to kill
U.S. citizens—civilian or military—and their allies everywhere.
Osama bin Laden?
After some attacks on U.S.
interests in Saudi Arabia, Saudi authorities revoked bin Laden’s citizenship.
Bin Laden went to the Sudan and then on to Afghanistan. His precise location is
unknown, since he frequently moves or goes into hiding. Afghanistan is led by
the Taliban, a group of extreme Islamic fundamentalists, who emerged out of the
Mujahideen. The Taliban does not have full control over the country—there is a
civil war against dissidents who control some 10-20 percent of the country.
Afghanistan is an incredibly poor nation—life expectancy is 46 years of age, 1
out of 7 children die in infancy, and per capita income is about $800 per year.
Huge numbers of people remain refugees. Taliban rule is dictatorial and its
social policy is unusually repressive and sexist: for example, Buddhist statues
have been destroyed, Hindus have been required to wear special identification,
and girls over eight are barred from school. Human rights groups, the United
Nations, and most governments have condemned the policies of the Taliban. Only
Pakistan, and the two leading U.S. allies in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the
United Arab Emirates, recognize the Taliban government.
the terrorists do it?
We don’t entirely know who
did it, at this writing, so we can’t say for sure at this point why they did it.
There are, however some possibilities worth thinking about.
points to a long list of grievances felt by people in the Middle East—U.S.
backing for Israeli repression and dispossession of the Palestinians, U.S.
imposition of sanctions on Iraq, leading to the deaths of huge numbers of
innocents, and U.S. support for autocratic, undemocratic, and highly
inegalitarian regimes. These are real grievances and U.S. policy really does
cause tremendous suffering. But how do these terror attacks mitigate the
suffering? Some may believe that by inflicting pain on civilians, a government
may be overthrown or its policies will change in a favorable direction. This
belief is by no means unique to Middle Easterners—and has in fact been the
standard belief of U.S. and other government officials for years. It was the
belief behind the terror bombings of World War II by the Nazis, the U.S. and
Britain, and behind the pulverizing of North Vietnam and the strikes on civilian
infrastructure during the Kosovo war. It is the same rationale as that offered
for the ongoing economic sanctions against Iraq: starve the people to pressure
the leader. In addition to the deep immorality of targeting civilians as a means
of changing policy, its efficacy is often dubious.
In this case, one
would have a totally inaccurate view of the United States if one thought that
the events of September 11 would cause U.S. officials to suddenly see the
injustice of their policies toward the Palestinians, etc. On the contrary, the
likely result of the attacks will be to allow U.S. leaders to mobilize the
population behind a more uncompromising pursuit of their previous policies. The
actions will set back the causes of the weak and the poor, while empowering the
most aggressive and reactionary elements around the globe.
There is a second
possible explanation for the September 11 attacks. Why commit a grotesquely
provocative act against a power so large and so armed as the United States?
Perhaps provoking the United States was precisely the intent. By provoking a
massive military assault on one or more Islamic nations, the perpetrators may
hope to set off a cycle of terror and counter-terror, precipitating a holy war
between the Islamic world and the West, a war that they may hope will result in
the overthrow of all insufficiently Islamic regimes and the unraveling of the
United States, just as the Afghan war contributed to the demise of the Soviet
Union. Needless to say, this scenario is insane on every count one can assess.
But even if
provocation rather than grievances is what motivated the planners of the terror
strikes against the U.S., this still wouldn’t mean grievances are irrelevant.
Whatever the planners’ motives, they still needed to attract capable, organized,
and skilled people, not only to participate, but to give their lives to a
suicidal agenda. Deeply-felt grievances provide a social environment from which
fanatics can recruit and gain support.
guilt be determined and how should the punishment be carried out?
The answers to these
questions are all important. In our world, the only alternative to vigilantism
is that guilt should be determined by an amassing of evidence that is then
assessed in accordance with international law by the United Nations Security
Council or other appropriate international agencies.
be determined by the UN as well, and likewise the means of implementation. The
UN may arrive at determinations that one or another party likes or not, as with
any court, and may also be subject to political pressures that call into
question its results or not, as with any court. But that the UN is the place for
determinations about international conflict is obvious, at least according to
solemn treaties signed by the nations of the world. Most governments, however,
don’t take seriously their obligations under international law. Certainly,
history has shown that to U.S. policy makers international law is for everyone
else to follow, and for Washington to manipulate when possible or to otherwise
ignore. Thus, when the World Court told the U.S. to cease its contra war against
Nicaragua and pay reparations, U.S. officials simply declared they did not
consider themselves bound by the ruling.
Why the U.S.?
The terrorists wreaked
their havoc on New York and Washington, not on Mexico City or Stockholm. Why?
George W. Bush
has claimed that the United States was targeted because of its commitment to
freedom and democracy. Bush says people are jealous of our wealth. The truth is
that anti-Americanism rests on feelings that the U.S. obstructs freedom and
democracy as well as material well being for others. In the Middle East, for
example, the United States supports Israeli oppression of Palestinians,
providing the military, economic, and diplomatic backing that makes that
oppression possible. It condemns conquest when it is done by Iraq, but not when
done by Israel. It has bolstered authoritarian regimes (such as Saudi Arabia)
that have provided U.S. companies with mammoth oil profits and has helped
overthrow regimes (such as Iran in the early 1950s) that challenged those
profits. When terrorist acts were committed by U.S. friends such as the
Israeli-supervised massacres in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon,
no U.S. sanctions were imposed. But about the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iraq,
leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent children, Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright could only say that she thought it was worth it.
When the U.S. went to war against Iraq, it targeted civilian infrastructure.
When Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war, the United States surreptitiously aided
On top of
specific Middle Eastern concerns, anti-Americanism is also spawned by more
general grievances. The United States is the leading status-quo power in the
world. It promotes a global economic system of vast inequality and incredible
poverty. It displays its arrogance of power when it rejects and blocks
international consensus on issues ranging from the environment, to the rights of
children, to landmines, to an international criminal court, to national missile
grievances may have nothing to do with the motives of those who masterminded the
terror strikes of September 11. But they certainly help create an environment
conducive to recruitment.
callous to talk about U.S. crimes at a time when the U.S. is mourning its dead?
It would be callous if the
people talking about U.S. crimes weren’t also horrified at the terror in New
York and if the U.S. wasn’t talking about mounting a war against whole
countries, removing governments from power, engaging in massive assaults, and
evidencing no concern to discriminate terrorists from civilian bystanders.
But since critics
are feeling the pain and the U.S. is already formulating its notions of justice
in precisely those unconstructive terms, for critics to carefully point out the
hypocrisy, and the likely consequences even as we also mourn the dead, feel
outrage at the carnage, and help relief efforts, is essential. It is how we help
avoid piling catastrophe on top of catastrophe.
Suppose bin Laden
is the mastermind of the recent horror. Imagine he had gone before the Afghan
population a week or two earlier and told them of the U.S. government’s
responsibility for so much tragedy and mayhem around the world, particularly to
Arab populations as in Iraq and Palestine. Imagine that he further told them
that Americans have different values and that they cheered when bombs were
rained on people in Libya and Iraq. Suppose bin Laden had proposed the bombing
of U.S. civilians to force their government to change its ways. In that
hypothetical event, what would we want the Afghan people to have replied?
We would want
them to have told bin Laden that he was demented and possessed. We would want
them to have pointed out that the fact that the U.S. government has levied
massive violence against Iraq’s civilians and others does not warrant attacks on
U.S. civilians, and the fact of different values doesn’t warrant attacks of any
sort at all.
So isn’t this
what we ought to also want the U.S. public to say to George Bush? The fact of
bin Laden’s violence, assuming it proves to be the case, or that of the Taliban,
or whatever other government may be implicated, does not warrant reciprocal
terror attacks on innocent civilians.
about U.S. crimes abroad, aren’t we excusing terrorist acts?
To express remorse and
pain, and to also seek to avoid comparable and worse pain being inflicted on
further innocents (including Americans) is not to evidence a lack of feeling for
the impact of crimes against humanity, but instead indicates feelings that
extend further than what the media or the government tells us are the limits of
permissible sympathy. We not only feel for those innocents who have already
died, and their families, but also for those who might be killed shortly, for
those we may be able to help save.
U.S. crimes in no
way justify or excuse the attacks of September 11. Terror is an absolutely
unacceptable response to U.S. crimes. But at the same time, we need to stress as
well that terror—targeting civilians—is an absolutely unacceptable response by
the United States to the genuine crimes of others.
The reason it is
relevant to bring up U.S. crimes is not to justify terrorism, but to understand
the terrain that breeds terrorism and terrorists. Terrorism is a morally
despicable and strategically suicidal reaction to injustice. But reducing
injustice can certainly help eliminate the seeds of pain and suffering that
nurture terrorist impulses and support for them.
said that the “war on terrorism” needs to confront all countries that aid or
abet terrorism. Which countries qualify?
The current thinking on
this topic, promulgated by Bush and spreading rapidly beyond, is that anyone who
plans, carries out, or abets terrorism, including knowingly harboring
terrorists, is culpable for terrorist actions and their results—where terrorism
is understood as the attacking of innocent civilians in order to coerce policy
makers. Some people might argue with some aspect of this formulation, but from
where we sit, the formulation is reasonable enough. It is the application that
The U.S. State
Department has a list of states that support terrorism, but it is—as one would
expect—an extremely political document. The latest listing consisted of Iran,
Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, and Sudan—significantly omitting
Afghanistan. Cuba is included, one suspects, less because of any actual
connection to terrorism, than because of longstanding U.S. hostility to the
Cuban government and the long record of U.S. terrorism against Cuba. If we are
talking about terrorism of the sort exemplified by car and other hand-delivered
bombs, kidnappings, plane hijackings, or suicide assaults, we can reasonably
guess that most of the countries on the State Department list, along with
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and some other poor nations would qualify with varying
degrees of culpability.
On the other
hand, if we are talking about terrorism of the sort exemplified by military
bombing and invasion, by food or medical embargoes affecting civilians rather
than solely or even primarily official and military targets, by hitting “soft
targets” such as health clinics or agricultural cooperatives, or by funding and
training death squads, then we would have a rather different list of culpable
nations, including such professed opponents of terrorism as the United States,
Britain, France, Russia, and Israel.
At times the
parties engaged in either list point to the actions perpetrated by those on the
other list as justification for their behavior. But, of course, terror does not
justify subsequent terror, nor does reciprocal terror diminish terror from the
Palestinians support the attacks, and, if so, what is the implication?
There have been reports of
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza cheering the attacks, and similar reports
regarding Palestinians in the United States. Fox News has played over and over
the same clip of some Palestinians in the occupied territories celebrating. But
the media fails to explain that they are showing only a small minority of
Palestinians and that official Palestinian sentiment has expressed its
condemnation of the attacks and sympathy for the victims. The media have been
especially remiss in not reporting such things as the statement issued by the
Palestinian village of Beit Sahour movingly denouncing the terror, or the
candlelight vigil in Arab East Jerusalem in memory of the victims.
There is no
reason to doubt, however, that some Palestinians—both in the U.S. and in the
Middle East—cheered the attacks. This is wrong, but it is also understandable.
The United States has been the most important international backer of Israeli
oppression of Palestinians. Politically immature Palestinians, like the
Americans who cheered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or many lesser bombings
such as that of Libya in 1986, ignore the human meaning of destroying an “enemy”
But that some
Palestinians have reacted in this way, while disappointing, should have no
bearing on our understanding of their oppression and the need to remedy it. In
fact, given that Israel seems to be using the September 11 attacks as an excuse
and a cover for increasing assaults on Palestinians, we need to press all the
more vigorously for a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
the likely impact of the attacks within the U.S. policy-making establishment?
The catastrophic character
of these events provides a perfect excuse for reactionary elements to pursue
every agenda item that they can connect to “the war against terrorism” and that
they can fuel by fanning fears in the population. This obviously includes
expanding military expenditures that have nothing whatever to do with legitimate
security concerns and everything to do with profit-seeking and militarism. For
example, even though the events of September 11 should have shown that “national
missile defense” is no defense at all against the most likely threats we face,
already the Democrats are beginning to drop their opposition to that
destabilizing boondoggle. Amazingly, certain elements will even extrapolate to
social issues. For example, our own home grown fundamentalists—like Jerry
Falwell—have actually declared (though retracted after wide criticism) that
abortion, homosexuality, feminism, and the ACLU are at fault. Others hope to use
the attacks as a rationale for eliminating the capital gains tax, a long-time
right-wing objective. But the main focus will be military policy. In coming
weeks, we will see a celebration in America of military power, of a massive arms
build-up, and perhaps assassinations, all touted as if the terror victims will
be honored rather than defiled by our preparing to entomb still more innocent
people around the world.
So what is
the likely U.S. response?
regarding international relations (and domestic relations as well) is a juggling
act. On one side, the goal is enhancing the privilege, power, and wealth of U.S.
elites. On the other side, the constraint is keeping at bay less powerful and
wealthy constituencies who might have different agendas, both at home and
Since the end of
the Cold War, the U.S. has had a problem—how to get the public to ratify
policies that don’t benefit the public, but that serve corporate and elite
political interests. The fear of a Soviet menace, duly exaggerated, served that
purpose admirably for decades. The ideal response to the current situation, from
the elite standpoint, will be to replace the Cold War with the Anti-Terror War.
With this accomplished, they will again have a vehicle to instill fear, arguably
more credible than the former Soviet menace. Again they will have an enemy,
terrorists, whom they can blame for anything and everything, trying as well to
smear all dissidents as traveling a path leading inexorably toward the horrors
So their response
to these recent events is to intone that we must have a long war, a difficult
struggle, against an implacable, immense, and even ubiquitous enemy. They will
declare that we must channel our energies to this cause, we must sacrifice
butter for guns, we must renounce liberty for security, we must succumb, in
short, to the rule of the right, and forget about pursuing the defense and
enlargement of rights. Their preferred response will be to use the military,
particularly against countries that are defenseless, perhaps even to occupy one
and to broadly act in ways that will not so much reduce the threat of terror and
diminish its causes, as to induce conflict that is serviceable to power
regardless of the enlargement of terror that results.
has been asked to give the president a blank check for military action, which
means further removing U.S. military action from democratic control. Only Rep.
Barbara Lee had the courage to vote “no” on Congress’s joint resolution,
authorizing the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against
those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized,
committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001,
or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts
of international terrorism against the United States by such nations,
organizations or persons.”
response should the U.S. take instead?
The best way to deal with
terrorism is to address its root causes. Perhaps some terrorism would exist even
if the grievances of the people of the Third World were dealt with—grievances
that lead to anger, despair, frustration, feelings of powerlessness, and
hatred—but certainly the ability of those who would commit terror, without
grievances to recruit others, would be tremendously reduced. As a second step,
we might help establish a real international consensus against terrorism by
putting on trial U.S. officials responsible for some of the atrocities noted
Of course, these
are long-term solutions and we face the horror of terrorism today. So we must
consider what we want the United States government to do internationally right
government’s guiding principle ought to be to assure the security, safety, and
well-being of U.S. citizens without detracting from the security, safety, and
well-being of others. A number of points follow from this principle.
- We must insist that any
response refrain from targeting civilians. It must refrain as well from
attacking so-called dual-use targets, those that have some military purpose
but substantially impact civilians. The United States did not adhere to this
principle in World War II (where the direct intention was often to kill
civilians) and it still does not adhere to it, as when it hit the civilian
infrastructure in Iraq or Serbia, knowing that the result would be civilian
deaths (from lack of electricity in hospitals, lack of drinking water, sewage
treatment plants, and so on), while the military benefits would be slight. We
would obviously reject as grotesque the claim that the World Trade Center was
a legitimate target because its destruction makes it harder for the U.S.
government to function (and hence to carry out its military policies). We need
to be as sensitive to the human costs of striking dual-use facilities in other
countries as we are of those in our own country.
- We must insist as well that
any response to the terror be carried out according to the UN Charter. The
Charter provides a clear remedy for events like those of September 11: present
the case to the Security Council and let the Council determine the appropriate
response. The Charter permits the Council to choose responses up to and
including the use of military force. No military action should be carried out
without Security Council authorization. To bypass the Security Council is to
weaken international law that provides security to all nations, especially the
- Security Council approval
is not always determinative. During the Gulf War, the U.S. obtained such
approval by exercising its wealth and power to gain votes. So we should insist
on a freely offered Security Council authorization. Moreover, we should insist
that the UN retain control of any response; that is, we should oppose the
usual practice whereby the United States demands that the Council give it a
blank check to conduct a war any way it wants. In the case of the Gulf War,
although the Council authorized the war, the war was run out of Washington,
not the UN. To give the United States a free hand to run a military operation
as it chooses removes a crucial check.
- We should insist that no
action and no Security Council vote be taken without a full presentation of
the evidence assigning culpability. We don’t want Washington announcing that
we should just take its word for it—as occurred in 1998, when the U.S. bombed
a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, asserting that it was a chemical warfare
facility, only to acknowledge some time later that it had been mistaken.
If—and it’s a
big if—all these conditions are met, then we should no more object to seizing
the perpetrators than we object to having the domestic police seize a rapist
or a murderer to bring the culprit to justice. And what if a state is also
found to be culpable or if a state determines to use military means to protect
the terrorists? The dangers of harm to civilians are much greater in the case
of a war against a state. Military action would be justified only insofar as
it did not cause substantial harm to civilians.
In addition, if
the goal of a proposed military action is to enhance U.S. security rather than
to wreak vengeance, such envisioned benefits would have to be weighed against
the prospects of driving thousands of others in the Islamic world into the
hands of terrorism. In other words, military action needs to be the smallest
part of the international response. More important are diplomatic pressures,
cutting off funding for terrorist organizations, reducing the grievances that
feed frustration, and so on.
critically important to also note, however, that even non-military actions can
cause immense civilian suffering and that such options too must be rejected.
Calling for Pakistan to cut off food aid to Afghanistan, for example, as the
United States has already done, would likely lead to starvation on a huge
scale. Its implications could be far worse than those of bombing or other
seemingly more aggressive choices.
should we do to protect ourselves from these sorts of attacks?
Beyond pursuing the
implementation of international law through appropriate international channels
and beyond trying to rectify unjust conditions that breed hopelessness and
despair that can become the nurturing ground of terror, it is also necessary
to reduce vulnerability and risk.
Some things are
far easier than the media would have us believe. If we don’t want to ever see
a commercial airliner turned into a missile and used to destroy people and
property, we can disconnect the pilots’ cabin and the body of the plane,
making entry to the former from the latter impossible. Likewise, it is
significant that the U.S. airline industry has, up until now, handled airport
security through private enterprise, which means low-paid, unskilled security
personnel with high turn-over. In Europe, on the other hand, airport security
is a government function and the workers are relatively well-paid, and hence
much more highly motivated and competent.
will be harder. What we should not do, however, is curtail basic freedoms and
militarize daily life. That response doesn’t ward off terror, but makes terror
we respond to what seems like militaristic flag-waving?
To harshly judge the way
some show their feelings for the U.S. in times of crisis can be callous and
unconstructive. The image of firefighters running up stairs to help those
above is heroic and deserves profound respect. The vision of hundreds and
thousands of people helping at the scene, working to save lives, donating,
supporting, is similarly worthy and positive. Even the flag waving, which can
at times be jingoistic, should not be assumed to be such.The important thing
is to increase awareness of the relevant facts and values at stake, the
policies that may follow and their implications, and what people of good will
can do to influence all these.
should progressives do?
Change depends on
organized resistance that raises awareness and commitment. It depends on
pressuring decision makers to respect the will of a public with dissident and
critical views. Our immediate task is to communicate accurate information, to
counter misconceptions and illogic, to empathize and be on the wavelength of
the public, to talk and listen, to offer information, analysis, and humane