Deconstructing The War On Terror: Race, Gender And History


Since September 11th, 2001 many North Americans are convinced of the necessity of war. They see themselves as victims, or potentials victims, of terrorism. They feel that the bush regime’s bombing of Afghanistan, and Israel’s attacks on the Palestinian people, are justified as part of the “war on terrorism”.

Last November I traveled to Brooklyn. The people I spoke with in New York saw themselves as even more directly affected by the destruction of the World Trade Center than other North Americans. When i argued against bombing Afghanistan, they explained that i couldn’t understand how the attacks had felt to them. Friends who had protested bush’s inauguration now supported his demand for unity. Friends who had demonstrated against the Gulf war now supported bombing Afghanistan.

Those who did oppose the war were isolated. For example, two of my friends went to a rally for peace in Times Square in October. The rally was ignored by most passersby. The rally’s organizers had a small sound system and soon one of them began to speak. He was drowned out by the sudden wail of sirens from a nearby firetruck. He stopped, the sirens stopped and he started speaking again. Then the sirens started again, and it became clear that their purpose was to prevent the speaker from being heard. The firefighters then started yelling at the protesters through their public address system: “losers!”, “go back to Afghanistan!”, and “traitors!” The heroic victims of 9/11 were defending the bombing of Afghan people.

 How do we confront this rhetoric of fear and revenge? How do we challenge a view of the world divided into “us” and “them”? How do we deconstruct the victim status that justifies the “war on terrorism”? 9/11 will not be the last attack targeting civilians in the U.S. And it won’t be the last time the U.S. government takes advantage of its’ citizens fear to mobilize an assault on one of its’ enemies. So if we want to continue building a movement for global justice, we will have to answer these questions.

 First, those who justify war with grief, should be reminded that there are many victims of terrorism. Second, by arguing that the U.S. should not be exempt from international law, we can place constraints on its’ “war on terrorism.” If enforced, international law could serve as a check on U.S. aggression. Third, we can deconstruct the sexist and racist ideas implicit in the war’s justification.

We should be able to make this last point by drawing on history. Attacks on U.S. citizens, real and imagined, have been used to justify many past U.S. wars. In 1964 the U.S. Congress passed the infamous “Tonkin Gulf Resolution” (416 to 0 by the House and 88 to 2 by the Senate) which stated that the President could “take all necessary measures to repel armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Now in the aftermath of an actual attack in which thousands of civilians died, the bush regime has assumed same powers. We should point out that the results will be as devastating, at home and abroad, as the Vietnam War.

September 11th is a unique opportunity for North Americans, too often insulated from the rest of the planet, to reconnect. We also are now victims. If we were shocked by September 11th, it was in part because we thought we were untouchable. Now that that myth has been shattered, we can begin to try to understand the pain that others around the world feel. The tragedy North Americans experienced on 9/11 is what many people all over the world experience every day, often because of the policies of the U.S. govt. We should remember the U.S. Navy’s bombing of Vieques, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Air Force’s bombing of Maehyang-ri, South Korea, and the U.S. sanctions against Iraq, (which have killed 500,000 children since 1991 according to UNICEF). We should remember that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which is a source of daily humiliations and suffering for the Palestinian people, is funded by U.S. tax dollars. Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, getting about $5 billion every year. Too often those of us in the U.S. forget the other people who are suffering in the world. If we understand their suffering, perhaps we will no longer tolerate our role in perpetuating it.

Nearly 3000 died in the World Trade Center towers. 3,767 civilians died during the first eight and a half weeks of the U.S. war on Afghanistan (according to a study by a professor at the University of New Hampshire). When U.S warplanes killed at least 93 people as they strafed the farming village of Chowkar-Karez, 25 miles north of Kandahar on Oct. 23rd, a Pentagon official said, “the people there are dead because we wanted them dead.” (Toronto Globe & Mail, 11/3/01). Aren’t the lives of Afghan people as important as those of New Yorkers?

Aren’t Palestinians also the victims of terrorism? Because of the Israeli military operations launched in March 2002, 260 governmental and non-governmental health clinics had to close, which meant 73% of Palestinians in rural areas were left without medical care. The Israeli military attacked Palestinian medical teams, ambulances, hospitals and clinics.

Between the beginning of the invasions on the 29th of March and the 26th of April, there were 128 attacks against medical workers, including attacks against governmental and non-governmental health organizations and hospitals, such as the Medical Care Hospital in Ramallah, the Palestinian Red Crescent in Al-Bireh and the Al-Razy Hospital in Nablus, which was shelled by an Israeli tank, killing a female patient. By acknowledging all the victims, we can undermine a key rationale for the “war on terrorism”; that victim status gives the right to retaliate.

Those of us in the U.S. should realize that the Israeli military offensive would not have been possible without Washington’s support and without the weapons paid for by U.S. tax dollars. People around the world know, even if North Americans do not, that the Apache and Cobra attack helicopters used to assassinate Palestinian leaders, the armored pile drivers and armored bulldozers used to destroy Palestinian homes and agricultural land, and the air-to-ground missiles, the shoulder-fired, anti-armor rocket launchers and the anti-personnel cluster bombs used to attack Palestinians are provided by United States.

The U.S. and Israel should not be exempt from international law. For example, the U.S. withdrew from the World Court in 1986 when it condemned the U.S. for attacking Nicaragua, mining its’ harbors and organizing and funding the contras. In that case, the Court rejected U.S. claims that it was acting “in defense of Nicaragua’s neighbors” and found the U.S. guilty of terrorism. If the deaths of the corporate executives, secretaries and busboys who worked in the World Trade Center were tragic, so too were the deaths of the Nicaraguan health workers, farmers and children who were murdered by the contras. If the U.S. had been forced to follow international law, it would have prevented the pain and suffering of hundreds of Nicaraguans.

The U.S. claims to support peace in Palestine, yet the U.S. continues to reject all diplomatic efforts towards peace that do not exempt Israel from international law. In March of 2001, the United States used its’ position on the UN Security Council to veto a resolution in support of international observers in Palestine which had been passed 9 to 0. In September, 2001 the U.S. walked out of the UN sponsored Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, in part to suppress criticism of Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. On Dec. 5th, 2001 the U.S. boycotted international meetings in Geneva which reaffirmed that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to the occupied territories. And on December 15th, 2001 the U.S. vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution calling for steps towards implementing the Mitchell plan and introduction of international monitors to supervise the reduction of violence.

Currently there are two international tribunals investigating war crimes in Kosovo and Rwanda. The United States remains the only western democracy opposed to the creation of a permanent and independent International Criminal Court (ICC). “The American Servicemembers’ Protection Act”(approved by the House on May 10th, 2001, 282 to 137) threatens to cut off military aid to countries that ratify the ICC treaty (except for NATO, Israel and Egypt), and forbids the U.S. military from supporting any UN peacekeeping missions unless they are exempted from ICC prosecution. It would prohibit U.S. co-operation with ICC inspectors even in a case of international terrorism and give the U.S. President “all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release from captivity of U.S. or allied personnel detained or imprisoned against their will by or on behalf of the Court, including military force.”

In other words, if U.S. servicemen were accused of terrorism, the U.S. would not allow them to be tried. How can the U.S. claim to be fighting a “war on terrorism”, and yet claim exemption from an international court to investigate terrorism?

If those of us who live in the U.S. demand that the U.S. obey international law and we are successful, we can limit the violence inflicted by the U.S. on the world. If we are not successful, we can still undermine another justification for the “war on terrorism.”

The next thing we can do is deconstruct the bush regime’s rationale for retaliation by exposing how gender and race are used to mobilize Americans for war.

The bush regime has portrayed the enemy as evil and as less than human. They rely on stereotypes of an irrational, fundamentalist Islam and of primitive terrorists living in caves. They claimed to be freeing Afghan women from oppression by bombing them, obscuring the fact that the U.S. helped to put their oppresors in power. And they relied on stereotypes of the United States as civilized and civilizing.

The United States in this story is racialized as white and gendered as male. All these claims are open to criticism, and if we want to challenge the legitimacy of bush’s “war on terrorism”, we have to challenge these racist and sexist assumptions.

First let’s deal with gender. Kathleen Parker wrote in her syndicated column published October 24, 2001 in the Chicago Tribune, Orlando Sentinel, etc.:

“Hardly anyone is confused about gender anymore. It’s men we’re sending into the alien landscapes of Afghanistan, and we’re praying they’re tough and strong and mean. There’s no confusion about leadership either. It’s George W. Bush and his battle-savvy Cabinet we’re grateful for, and we pray they’re tough, strong and mean enough, too.”

On September 12th, talk radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger explained that the presence of women in the military was partly to blame for the terrorist attacks the day before. She told an active-duty military caller to her radio show:

“Instead you’ve put in women and lowered the standard and nobody can get yelled at to have a backbone and grit because they left their lipstick back at the barracks …. I’ve watched one way or another – by political correctness in politics – the military [having] their stingers pulled out …. That scares me because you guys are not dealing with the full deck.”

The assumption that women are weak and that men are strong is furthered by the depiction of Afghan women as needing to be rescued by U.S. soldiers, who, as Kathleen Parker points out, are gendered as male. Afghan women are portrayed as victims. Their function is not to voice their concerns, set policy, or provide advice. Their function is to legitimize the U.S. war and to justify U.S. intervention. Afghan men, the third world savage, must be removed from power in order to save the victimized third world woman. And this will be accomplished by U.S. men, the standard bearers of world civilization.

We can deconstruct this mythology by pointing out how Afghan women have been struggling, without any support from the U.S., against the Taliban for years. Meanwhile, the United States gave the Taliban regime $120 million in 2001 to fight the “war on drugs”, making the U.S. their biggest financial sponsor.

To what extent is the U.S. responsible for the status of women under the Taliban? Let’s look at history. In 1978, a revolt by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) overthrew the government that had overthrown the monarchy five years earlier. The PDP canceled peasant debts to landlords. They abolished the system by which peasants were forced to borrow money against future crops (and were thus left in perpetual debt to money lenders). Hundreds of schools and medical clinics were built in the countryside, and a substantial land-redistribution program was underway.

The PDP reforms also challenged the subjugation of women by teaching women to read, and by outlawing child marriage and the tradition of fathers marrying off their daughters in exchange for money or commodities.

Before the Taliban came to power, 70 per cent of the teachers in Kabul, 50 per cent of the civil servants and 40 per cent of the physicians were women. The Taliban, reversed this by imposing a ban on women working outside their homes. The loss of income had a direct and devastating impact on health and nutrition levels in many families. Even worse, in September 1997 the government stopped women’s access to health services.

And what was the role of the U.S.? Did the U.S. criticize the Taliban’s assault on women’s rights? No. In fact the U.S. had brought the Taliban to power.

In August 1979, three months before the PDP requested military help from the Soviet Union, a classified State Department Report stated: “the overthrow of the D.R.A. [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan] would show the rest of the world, particularly the Third World, that the Soviets’ view of the socialist course of history as being inevitable is not accurate….despite whatever setbacks this might mean for future social and economic reforms in Afghanistan”

The Carter administration used Soviet assistance to the Afghan government as a reason to halt the delivery of U.S. grain to the Soviet Union and keep the U.S. team out of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. This was not to protest the situation of Afghan women, which had improved under the PDP. In fact, the U.S. had begun to move against the Afghan government before the Soviets arrived. In February 1980, the Washington Post reported that “U.S. covert aid prior to the December invasion” (i.e. the arrival of Soviet troops) included “communications equipment” and “technical advice”.

Apparently that advice was similar to what the C.I.A. was giving the contras in Nicaragua. The U.S. backed rebels in Afghanistan, the Mujahedin (or “holy warriors”), also destroyed government-built schools and clinics and murdered literacy teachers. They exploded car bombs and launched rockets into residential areas of Kabul. In other words, they were terrorists. And they were funded by U.S. tax dollars. During the 1980s, in what became the largest covert operation ever to be funded by the U.S., the C.I.A. sent an average of $600 million a year worth of arms and cash to support the Mujahedin.

The war continued until the spring of 1992, three years after the last Soviet troops had gone. In the end more than a million Afghans died, three million were disabled, and five million were made refugees, totaling almost half the population. The bush regime’s claim that the “war on terrorism” is motivated by a concern for women’s rights is contradicted by the reality of U.S. intervention.

And the best way to point out that the bush regime’s recent concern for women’s rights is a hollow facade is to continue to build a movement based on feminist values. We need to always ask, as the political scientist Dr. Cynthia McEnloe suggests, “Where are the women?” We need to look at how U.S. militarism affects women all over the world. If the bush regime is concerned about the rights of women, what about the women who service the servicemen at U.S. bases in South Korea, the Philippines, and Okinawa? What about the rights of the women who serve in the U.S. military? What about the women who are endangered by the U.S. Navy’s bombing of Vieques, Puerto Rico? What about the women who are endangered by the U.S. Air Force’s bombing of Maehyang-ri, South Korea?

Now let’s deal with race. In portraying the U.S. as the blameless victim of terrorism, the bush regime is able to draw on a long tradition of racism. Malcolm X once said, “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.” If we look at U.S. history we can see that the idea of the “civilized white man” defending himself against barbaric attacks is not a new excuse for making war. We need to confront that racism, which values European and European settler lives over the lives of Afghans, Palestinians and people of color.

But let’s keep in mind something about racism. Malcolm also used to say that racism is like a Cadillac. There’s a new model every year. Racism is dynamic, it’s not static. Racism adapts to new conditions. That’s why it’s so powerful and so persistent. For example, before the Civil Rights Movement the U.S. armed forces were strictly segregated. Now the U.S. army is an integrated, multi-ethnic force. African Americans, like Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice, are prominent leaders. Yet, those on the front lines are disproportionately people of color. The enemy is still considered morally inferior. U.S. deaths justify any retaliation, while those who die in U.S. attacks are “collateral damage.” The line between “us and “them” has shifted, but it is still there.

The recent arrival of hundreds of U.S. troops in the Philippines, supposedly to help Filipinos fight the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, brings to mind another period in Philippine history. U.S. troops also arrived in the Philippines just before the turn of the 20th century, purportedly to help Filipinos fight Spanish colonizers. But after the Spanish surrendered the U.S. occupied Manila. When U.S. soldiers stationed in Manila were sent out into territory controlled by Filipinos, and fired on them, President McKinley told reporters, “that the insurgents had attacked Manila.” This was a blatant lie, but it justified a U.S. war on the Filipinos who had fought Spain. Filipinos declared independence from Spain in 1899, but their war for independence from the U.S. officially lasted until 1902, and skirmishes and local rebellions continued for another ten years. At least 600,000 Filipinos died in the Philippine-American War.

U.S. forces ordered the concentration of Filipino civilians into “protected zones” as part of their counterinsurgency plan to isolate the Filipino army from its civilian base of support. Poor conditions in these camps led to the deaths of as many as 11,000 Filipinos. At the time, the war was described by Senator Albert Beveridge as “the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world.” Dean C. Worcester, U.S. Secretary of the Interior for the Philippines (1901-1913) described, in 1914, “the regime of civilization and improvement which started with American occupation and resulted in developing naked savages into cultivated and educated men.” Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers wrote home about fighting the savage “dagos”, “niggers” and “natives.”

Colonel Funston, of the Twentieth Kansas Volunteers wrote in 1899: “The boys go for the enemy as if they were chasing jack-rabbits…I, for one, hope that Uncle Sam will apply the chastening rod, good, hard, and plenty, and lay it on until they come into the reservation and promise to be good Injuns.” The racism of the Philippine-American War should be obvious today. The fact that the U.S. provoked the war and lied about a Filipino attack on occupied Manila has been historically verified. The parallels to the Vietnam War, where the U.S. manufactured the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” to justify military involvement, forced Vietnamese into “strategic hamlets”, and fought a long war against an indigenous, nationalist guerilla army, have been frequently pointed out.

We should make sure this history is remembered as the U.S. once again begins a military campaign in the Philippines. Like the “war on terrorism”, the Spanish-American War started as a way to avenge U.S. deaths. On February 15th, 1898, 254 seamen on board the U.S.S. Maine died when their ship sank in Havana harbor. Despite the fact that the cause of the explosion which sank the Maine was never determined, the U.S. took advantage of the outrage over the incident to declare war on Spain, which controlled Cuba at the time. Hundreds of editorials demanded that U.S. honor be avenged. “Remember the Maine!” became a battle cry. Soon U.S. army units which had been fighting the “Indian wars” in the west were headed to Cuba and U.S. Navy ships were headed for Manila.

Remember the Alamo? The battle of the Alamo has been replayed continually, in John Wayne’s 1960 movie “The Alamo”, and at the Imax Theater where “Alamo: The Price of Freedom” shows every day in San Antonio. But the story has not been about the U.S. seizing the northern half of Mexico. It has been about the white heros of the Alamo defending themselves against the Mexican army. But what they were really fighting for was the right to own slaves.

 To prevent growing immigration from the United States, the Mexican government had passed an emancipation proclamation in 1829 forbidding slavery. Slavery was not common in Mexico. This law was instead aimed at the growing number of U.S. slave holders settling in the Mexican province of Texas. The Texas rebels fought for the restoration of the 1824 Mexican constitution which did not outlaw slavery.

Those who died at the Alamo and those who died on the U.S.S. Maine were used as a justification for U.S. aggression, just as those who died on 9/11 justify the bombing of Afghanistan and victims of suicide bombings in Israel justify the U.S. funded war on the Palestinians.

The United States, and the European settlers who founded the United States, have always claimed victim status to justify the unjustifiable. During the European conquest of North America there were stories of “primitive” and “wild” Indians attacking European settlers and kidnapping “their” women.

These stories obscured the reality that the settlers were stealing Indian land. The “captive narratives” of kidnapped settler women hid the fact that some European women chose to live with the Indians. The famous example is Mary Jemison who lived with the Seneca. Many settlements, such as Jamestown, had specific laws to prevent settlers from escaping and joining Indian nations. Throughout the European settler conquest a mythology was constructed to portray the conquerors as the victims. What is the most famous massacre of the “wild west”? Some might remember the massacre at Wounded Knee creek on December 29, 1890 when over 300 Sioux men, women and children were murdered by the U.S. army under Colonel James Forsyth. Some might remember November 29, 1864, when an Indian village on the banks of Sand Creek, in what is now Colorado, was attacked by the U.S. Cavalry under Colonel John Chivington and more than 150 Cheyennes and Arapahos, mostly women, children and elderly men, were murdered. But many more remember “Custer’s last stand.”

What we don’t remember is that Lieutenant-Colonel George Custer was responsible for another massacre, the murder of Chief Black Kettle of the Southern Cheyenne, his wife and at least a hundred others. The Cheyenne had been ceded territory in western Kansas and eastern Colorado under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. But the 1859 Pikes Peak gold rush sparked an enormous onslaught of setters onto Cheyenne land and the Southern Cheyenne were eventually forced onto two small reservations in what is now Oklahoma. This is where Black Kettle was murdered without provocation by the Seventh Cavalry commanded by Custer on November 27, 1868. “Custer’s last stand”, or the battle of the Little Bighorn, in 1876 was the result of Indian resistance to continued intrusions of settlers into the Black Hills, the sacred lands of the Sioux and Cheyenne. It became legendary through reenactments, beginning in 1883, as the climax of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show”, and continuing today with the “Custer’s Last Stand Reenactment” performed every June six miles west of Hardin, Montana. It has become symbolic of the “courageous white victim.” It is a story we tell ourselves to justify the genocidal war European settlers fought against the indigenous peoples of the Americas. In the process, Native Americans, the victims of genocide, become the aggressors. The relationship between perpetrator and victim becomes inverted.

This is eerily similar to the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan and the recent Israeli military offensive against the Palestinian people. i don’t mean to suggest that those who died on September 11th were not victims or that those who die in suicide bombings in Israel are not victims. Their deaths are tragic. But we need to point out that using their deaths to justify more killing is not justice. We need to explain the larger context, which includes the crimes committed against the Palestinian people and the people of the global South in general.

It may be difficult for many North Americans to see that the Israeli settlers, most of whom emigrate from the U.S. and Europe, are stealing Palestinian land. Republican leader Dick Armey (speaking on MSNBC’s “Hardball”, 5/2/02) explained, “most of the people who now populate Israel were transported from all over the world to that land and they made it their home.” Yet, like many in the U.S., he failed to understand what this influx of European and European American settlers means to be Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. It means living under the control of a foreign and hostile government which makes everyday life into a series of ritual humiliations. Even under “normal” circumstances Palestinians have to seek the permission of the Israelis as they go about their daily lives. Their land can be taken from them by force and given to settlers from Europe or North America simply because they are Jewish. Those Palestinians driven from their homes in 1948 and their descendents, the roughly 4 million Palestinians living around the world, are denied their right to return to their homeland, but a Jewish person from anywhere in the world can have Israeli citizenship for the asking.

By now North Americans should understand that the theft of land from the American Indians by European settlers was wrong. That has been well established. But what we need to remember is that to the participants at the time it was justified. The European settlers saw themselves as bringing “civilization,” and defending themselves against “savage attacks.” They were instruments of “manifest destiny.” These justifications have collapsed under the weight of history. But the justifications of our current “war on terrorism” are just as illegitimate. The U.S. “war on terrorism” is no more justified than any of its’ previous wars of conquest. Israeli settlers from Brooklyn have no more “historical” or “god-given” right to Palestinian land than settlers from London had to Iroquois lands.

On April 20th, 75,000 people marched in Washington D.C. and 35,000 marched in San Francisco in solidarity with the Palestinian people. In D.C. and in a thousand smaller events across North America, these activists continue to demonstrate that the bush regime’s rhetoric of fear, retribution and militarism has not won over everyone. We need to continue to build a mass movement of North Americans who are willing to stand with the victims of U.S. terrorism. We need a movement which is explicitly anti-racist and which is focused on women’s rights. History will recognize these activists as those who stood up for justice against one of the most powerful empires in history.

This won’t be easy. Despite the U.S. empire’s new, multicultural facade (represented at the top by Powell and Rice), many European Americans are still emotionally invested in the myth of the “heroic white victim.” Last Winter New York real estate tycoon Bruce Ratner paid for a memorial to the 343 firefighters who died on 9/11 for the New York Fire Department headquarters. The proposed bronze statue was based on a photograph of three firefighters raising an American flag amid the World Trade Center rubble. But when firefighters found out that the sculptor planned one African American, one Latino and one European American fireman, they accused their bosses of caving in to “political correctness” and abandoning “historical accuracy.” Despite years of struggle, the New York Fire Department is still the reserve of white men. In a city which is 26.6 percent African American and 27 percent Latino, the department is 94.1 percent white. Opponents of the statue collected the signatures from more than 1,000 firefighters and stopped the plans for the memorial.

We don’t need heroes like these. We need to make sure that the grief felt by North Americans after 9/11 does not become a monument to white supremacy and patriarchy.

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