In the wake of the horrific attacks of September 11, many people find their feelings of sadness and shock mixed with anger and calls for war. But war would be horribly wrong for at least five reasons.
1. Guilt hasn’t yet been proven.
As the New York Times acknowledged, "Law enforcement officials … appear to have little solid evidence tying Mr. bin Laden’s group to the attacks" (NYT, 20 Sept. 2001). If we believe in law and justice, when crimes are committed we don’t advocate that victims who have a strong hunch about culprits impose punishment. We demand proof. We reject vigilantism. We reject guilt by association. This is elementary and uncontestable, except when fear and the drums of war cloud consciousness. In the case of September 11, though an Islamic or Middle Eastern connection seems clear, there are many extremist groups that might have been responsible. To rush to punitive judgment, much less to war, before responsibility has been determined violates basic principles of justice. Guilt should be proven, not suspected.
2. War would violate International Law.
International law provides a clear recourse in situations of this sort: present the matter to the Security Council, which is empowered under the UN Charter, the fundamental document of contemporary international law, to take appropriate action. The Security Council has met and unanimously denounced the terrorist attacks, passing a strong resolution. But the Security Council resolution did not — despite what Washington might claim — authorize the use of force, and especially not a unilateral use of force. The resolution ends by saying that the Council "remains seized of the matter," which, as former UN correspondent Phyllis Bennis notes, is "UN diplo-speak" meaning that "decision-making remains in the hands of the Council itself, not those of any individual nation." To be sure, the UN Charter allows countries to act in self-defense which would permit the United States to shoot down a terrorist plane, for example. But it has long been clear UN doctrine that self-defense does not allow countries to themselves launch massive reprisal raids — precisely because to allow such reprisals would lead to an endless cycle of unrestrained violence.
3. War would be unlikely to eliminate those responsible for the September 11 attacks.
If bin Laden is indeed the evil genius responsible for the September 11 attacks, is it credible that he and his top aides would be so bumbling as to wait around for the U.S. military to exterminate them? We know they have already abandoned their training camps (NYT, 19 Sept. 2001). They may have relocated themselves to some unknown caves in the Afghan mountains, they may have moved into various Afghan villages, blending in with the population, or they may even have left the country entirely. Are U.S. bombers and cruise-missiles really going to find bin Laden and unknown associates? It’s doubtful that Washington has good intelligence as to their whereabouts; when the U.S. launched cruise missiles at bin Laden in 1998 — with the advantage of surprise — its information was out of date and he was already gone. It’s likely to be even harder to find him and his lieutenants now. War is hardly the most effective way to pursue the perpetrators and they are hardly likely to be its primary victims.
4. Huge numbers of innocent people will die.
It was precisely the fact that the September 11 attacks killed large numbers of civilians that made the attacks terroristic and so horrific. If it is immoral to slaughter thousands of Americans in an effort to disrupt the U.S. economy and force a change in U.S. policy, it is no less immoral to slaughter thousands of Afghans in an effort to force the Taliban to change its policy. The United States is moving large numbers of warplanes and missile-launching vessels into the region, yet there are hardly any military targets in Afghanistan for them to attack. It is inevitable that civilians will bear the brunt of any major campaign — civilians who, in their vast majority, probably are ignorant not only of the recent terrorist assault on the U.S., but probably even of bin Laden himself. Ground forces might be less indiscriminate, but it’s hard to imagine that Washington’s military plans won’t involve the massive application of force, with horrendous human consequences.
While the image of bombers flying over Afghanistan and bombing a people whose average lifespan is about 45 years of age and who are suffering terrible deprivation already — not least due to the Taliban, which the U.S. helped create and empower — is horrifying enough, it is important to realize that death and deprivation come in many forms. Even without widespread bombing, if the threat to attack the civilian population or outright coercion of other countries leads to curtailment of food aid to Afghanistan, the ensuing starvation could kill a million or more Afghans by mid-winter. Is this the appropriate response to terror?
5. War will reduce the security of U.S. citizens.
What drives people to devote — and even sacrifice — their lives to anti-American terrorism? No doubt the causes are complex, but surely deep feelings of anger and frustration at the U.S. role in the Middle East is a significant factor. If the United States goes to war some terrorists will probably be killed, but so too will many innocent people. And each of these innocent victims will have relatives and friends whose anger and frustration at the United States will rise to new heights, and the ranks of the terrorists will be refilled many times over. And the new recruits will not just come from Afghanistan. To many Muslims throughout the Middle East, war will be seen as an attack on Islam — and this is one reason that many of Washington’s Islamic allies are urging caution. Significantly, the New York Times reports that the "drumbeat for war, so loud in the rest of the country, is barely audible on the streets of New York" (NYT, 20 Sept. 2001). Their city suffered unbearable pain, but many New Yorkers know that the retaliatory killing of people in the Middle East will not make them any safer; on the contrary, it is likely to lead to more, not less terror on U.S. soil, and in any event, would inflict the same pain on still more innocent people.
The dynamic of terror and counter-terror is a familiar one: it leads not to peace but to more violence. Israel’s response to terrorism hasn’t brought Israelis more security. Nor has retaliatory terrorism made people more secure elsewhere. Indeed, it is quite likely that the perpetrators of the terror attack on the United States would like nothing more than to induce a massive U.S. military response which might destabilize the whole region, leading to the creation of millions of holy warriors and the overthrow of governments throughout the Islamic world. Whether bin Laden’s al-Qaeda or some other extremist group or groups is responsible, war might play right into their hands, reducing the security of us all.
Composite Interview 2
By Noam Chomsky
1. How do you see the media coverage of this event? Is there a parallel to the Gulf War in "manufacturing consent?"
Media coverage is not quite as uniform as Europeans seem to believe, perhaps because they are keeping to the NYT, NPR, TV, and so on. Even the NYT conceded, this morning, that attitudes in New York are quite unlike those they have been conveying. It’s a good story, also hinting at the fact that the mainstream media have not been reporting this, which is not entirely true, though it has been true, pretty much, of the NYT. But it is entirely typical for the major media, and the intellectual classes generally, to line up in support of power at a time of crisis and to try to mobilize the population for the same cause. That was true, with almost hysterical intensity, at the time of the bombing of Serbia. The Gulf war was not at all unusual. To take an example that is remote enough so that we should be able to look at it dispassionately, how did the intellectuals of Europe and North America react to World War I — across the political spectrum? Exceptions are so few that we can virtually list them, and most of the most prominent ended up in jail: Rosa Luxemburg, Bertrand Russell, Eugene Debs,…
2. Assuming that the terrorists chose the World Trade Center as a symbolic target, how does globalization and cultural hegemony help create hatred towards America.
This is an extremely convenient belief for Western intellectuals. It absolves them of responsibility for the actions that actually do lie behind the choice of the WTC. Was it bombed in 1993 because of concern over globalization and cultural hegemony? A few days ago the Wall Street Journal reported attitudes of rich and privileged Egyptians at a McDonald’s restaurant wearing stylish American clothes, etc., and bitterly critical of the US for objective reasons of policy, which are well-known to those who wish to know: they had a report a few days earlier on attitudes of bankers, professionals, businessmen in the region, all pro-American, and harshly critical of US policies. Is that concern over "globalization", McDonald’s, and jeans? Attitudes in the street are similar, but far more intense, and have nothing at all to do with these fashionable excuses.
As for the bin Laden network, they have as little concern for globalization and cultural hegemony as they do for the poor and oppressed people of the Middle East who they have been severely harming for years. They tell us what their concerns are loud and clear: they are fighting a Holy War against the corrupt, repressive, and "un-Islamist" regimes of the region, and their supporters, just as they fought a Holy War against the Russians in the 1980s (and are now doing in Chechnya, Western China, Egypt (in this case since 1981, when they assassinated Sadat), and elsewhere. Bin Laden himself probably never even heard of "globalization." Those who have interviewed him in depth, like Robert Fisk, report that he knows virtually nothing of the world, and doesn’t care to. We can choose to ignore all the facts and indulge in self-indulgent fantasies if we like, but at considerable risk to ourselves, among others. Among other things, we can also ignore, if we choose, the roots of the "Afghanis" such as bin Laden and his associates, also not a secret.
3. Are the American people educated to see this? Is there an awareness of cause and effect?
Unfortunately not, just as the European people are not. What is crucially important for privileged elements in the Middle East region (and even more so, on the streets) is scarcely understood here, particularly the most striking example: the contrasting US policies towards Iraq and Israel’s military occupation. About the latter, the most important facts are scarcely even reported, and are almost universally unknown, to elite intellectuals in particular. Very easy to give examples. Can easily refer you to material in print for many years, if you like, including right now.
4. How do you see the reaction of the American Government? Who’s will are they representing?
The US government, like others, primarily responds to centers of concentrated domestic power. That should be a truism. Of course, there are other influences, including popular currents — that is true of all societies, even brutal totalitarian systems, surely more democratic ones. Insofar as we have information, the US government is now trying to exploit the opportunity to ram through its own agenda: militarization, including "missile defense," a code word for militarization of space; undermining social democratic programs and concerns over the harsh effects of corporate "globalization," or environmental issues, or health insurance, and so on; instituting measures that will intensify the transfer of wealth to very narrow sectors (e.g., eliminating the capital gains tax); regimenting the society so as to eliminate discussion and protest. All normal, and entirely natural. As for a response, they are, I presume, listening to the foreign leaders, specialists on the Middle East, and I suppose their own intelligence agencies, who are warning them that a massive military response will answer bin Laden’s prayers. But there are hawkish elements who want to use the occasion to strike out at their enemies, with extreme violence, no matter how many innocent people suffer, including people here and in Europe who will be victims of the escalating cycle of violence. All again in a very familiar dynamic. There are plenty of bin Ladens on both sides, as usual.
5. Economic globalization has spread the western model all over, and the USA in primis have supported it, sometimes with questionable means, often humiliating local cultures. Are we facing the consequences of the last decades of american strategic policy? Is America an innocent victim?
This thesis is commonly in advanced. I don’t agree. One reason is that the western model — notably, the US model — is based on vast state intervention into the economy. The "neoliberal rules" are like those of earlier eras. They are double-edged: market discipline is good for you, but not for me, except for temporary advantage, when I am in a good position to win the competition.
Secondly, what happened on Sept. 11 has virtually nothing to do with economic globalization, in my opinion. The reasons lie elsewhere. Nothing can justify crimes such as those of Sept. 11, but we can think of the US as an "innocent victim" only if we adopt the convenient path of ignoring the actions of the US and its allies, which are, after all, hardly a secret.
6. Everybody agrees that nothing will be the same after 11th september, form daily life with a restriction of rights up to global strategy with new alliances and enemies. What is your opinion about this?
The horrendous terrorist attacks on Tuesday are something quite new in world affairs, not in their scale and character, but in the target. For the US, this is the first time since the War of 1812 that its national territory has been under attack, even threat. Its colonies have been attacked, but not the national territory itself. During these years the US virtually exterminated the indigenous population, conquered half of Mexico, intervened violently in the surrounding region, conquered Hawaii and the Philippines (killing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos), and in the past half century particularly, extended its resort to force throughout much of the world. The number of victims is colossal. For the first time, the guns have been directed the other way. The same is true, even more dramatically, of Europe. Europe has suffered murderous destruction, but from internal wars, meanwhile conquering much of the world with extreme brutality. But India did not attack England, or the Congo Belgium, or the East Indies the Netherlands. One can think of marginal exceptions, but this is truly novel in several centuries of history — not in scale, regrettably, but in the choice of target.
I do not think it will lead to a long-term restriction of rights internally in any serious sense. The cultural and institutional barriers to that are too firmly rooted, I believe. If the US chooses to respond by escalating the cycle of violence, answering the prayers of bin Laden and his associates, then the consequences could be awesome. There are, of course, other ways, lawful and constructive ones. And there are ample precedents for them. An aroused public within the more free and democratic societies can direct policies towards a much more humane and honorable course.
7. World-wide intelligence services and the international systems of control (Echelon, for example) could not forsee what was going to happen, even if the international islamic terrorism network was not unknown. How is it possible that the Big Brother s eyes were shut? Do we have to fear, now a Bigger Big Brother?
I frankly have never been overly impressed with concerns widely voiced in Europe over Echelon as a system of control. As for world-wide intelligence systems, their failures over the years have been colossal, a matter I and others have written about, and that I cannot pursue here. That is true even when the targets of concern are far easier to deal with than the bin Laden network, presumed to be responsible for the Sept. 11 crimes. Surely one would expect the network to be reasonably well understood by the CIA, French intelligence, and others who participated in establishing it and nurtured it as long as it was useful to them for a Holy War against the Russian enemy, but even then they did not understand it well enough to prevent such events as the assassination of President Sadat in 1981, the suicide bombing that effectively drove the US military out of Lebanon in 1983, and many other examples of what is called "blowback" in the literature on these topics.
By now the network is no doubt so decentralized, so lacking in hierarchical structure, and so dispersed throughout much of the world as to have become largely impenetrable. The intelligence services will no doubt be given resources to try harder. But a serious effort to reduce the threat of this kind of terrorism, as in innumerable other cases, requires an effort to understand and to address the causes.
When a Federal Building was blown up in Oklahoma City, there were immediate cries to bomb the Middle East. These terminated when it was discovered that the perpetrator was from the US ultra-right militia movement. The reaction was not to destroy Montana and Idaho, where the movements are based, but to seek and capture the perpetrator, bring him to trial, and — crucially — explore the grievances that lie behind such crimes and to address the problems. Just about every crime — whether a robbery in the streets or colossal atrocities — has reasons, and commonly we find that some of them are serious and should be addressed. Matters are no different in this case — at least, for those who are concerned to reduce the threat of terrorist violence rather than to escalate it.
8. Bin Laden, the devil: is this an enemy or rather a brand, a sort of logo which identifies and personalizes the evil?
Bin Laden may or may not be directly implicated in these acts, but it is likely that the network in which he was a prime figure is — that is, the network established by the US and its allies for their own purposes and supported as long as it served those purposes. It is much easier to personalize the enemy, identified as the symbol of ultimate evil, than to seek to understand what lies behind major atrocities. And there are, naturally, very strong temptations to ignore one’s own role — which in this case, is not difficult to unearth, and indeed is familiar to everyone who has any familiarity with the region and its recent history.
9. Doesn’t this war risk to become a new Vietnam? That trauma is still alive.
That is an analogy that is often raised. It reveals, in my opinion, the profound impact of several hundred years of imperial violence on the intellectual and moral culture of the West. The war in Vietnam began as a US attack against South Vietnam, which was always the main target of the US wars, which ended by devastating much of Indochina. Unless we are willing to face that elementary fact, we cannot talk seriously about the Vietnam wars. It is true that the war proved costly to the US, though the impact on Indochina was incomparably more awful. The invasion of Afghanistan also proved costly to the USSR, but that is not the problem that comes to the fore when we consider that crime.