Don’t turn tragedy into war

May 6, 2011

While people around the world were grappling with the devastation and loss of life on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration instead saw as an opportunity to wage war in Afghanistan, and later Iraq. As politicians in the U.S.--Republicans and Democrats--whipped up patriotism, Islamophobia and calls for revenge, Socialist Worker stood up against the onslaught with this editorial statement. This article appeared on the front page of the September 14, 2001, issue of Socialist Worker.

AS PEOPLE around the world were still grappling with the enormity of the human losses in the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., George W. Bush and his government were beating the drum for even more death and destruction.

They're trying to use a horrific tragedy to advance their own agenda--war abroad and a crackdown on civil liberties at home.

The attacks were "an act of war," Bush declared--and he was matched, word for word and threat for threat, by Republicans and Democrats alike. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent a video message to U.S. armed forces around the world. "The task of vanquishing these terrible enemies...falls to you," he announced.

Eliot Cohen, the director of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, told reporters, "We've got to stop talking as if this is a crime--this is war. We're going to have to begin killing people. It's not about bringing people to justice. It's about going after them and killing them."

Meanwhile, the NATO alliance invoked a treaty provision allowing a collective military response--essentially declaring that it would back any U.S. "war on terror."

Marching against the bombing of Afghanistan in San Francisco in 2001
Marching against the bombing of Afghanistan in San Francisco in 2001 (Josh On | SW)

The corporate media fed the war fever. "Revenge. Hold on to that thought," the Philadelphia Daily News shouted. "Go to bed thinking it. Wake up chanting it. Because nothing less than revenge is called for."

Even liberals like New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis called for a military assault. "The United Nations must demand that all countries deny shelter to terrorists, and help to crush them," he wrote. In other words, the U.S. should have the right to attack any country that doesn't go along with its program.

Spirit of candlelight vigils

These calls for war and revenge stood in contrast to the spirit of candlelight vigils held across the U.S. and the sacrifice, heroism and solidarity of those involved in rescue efforts.

People who are outraged by this senseless loss of life will understandably want to find some way to bring those responsible to justice. But justice is the last thing that Bush and the U.S. military have in mind.

They are seizing the opportunity to push through policies they have been unable to win for decades. The International Herald Tribune reported that the Bush administration was considering a "menu of options" that includes:

-- Re-authorization of political assassination as an option for U.S. policy, including the deliberate targeting of individual adversaries with missile strikes.
-- Open U.S. support for foreign surrogate forces to make war on regimes backing international terrorism.
-- Punitive expeditions by U.S. troops, including perhaps airborne forces or landings by the Marines, to seize capitals or other sensitive territory long enough to overthrow terrorist regimes.
-- A new international coalition of Western governments and Russia against the terrorist offensive.

Add to this list the curbing of political and civil rights for U.S. citizens. Within a few hours of the attacks, pundits like former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and former CIA Director Robert Gates were blaming the attacks on the fact that the U.S. is an "open and democratic society."

Their answer? More law enforcement, spying and restrictions on immigration--including a possible national ID card.

Accused of other attacks

To justify all this, the media fixed on Osama bin Laden, the millionaire Saudi businessman who has been accused of other attacks on U.S. targets.

We may never know who or what organization carried out the attacks. But it's worth remembering that the same "terrorism experts" who are pointing the finger at Arabs did the same after the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. After stirring up a racist backlash that led to physical attacks on Arab Americans, these "experts" made no apologies when authorities apprehended white supremacist Timothy McVeigh.

When bombs leveled U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in August 1998, Bill Clinton declared bin Laden the mastermind--and ordered a missile strike on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory that he claimed was connected to bin Laden. Ten months later, the U.S. admitted that it had no evidence linking the factory to bin Laden.

Yet the politicians aren't letting embarrassing facts get in their way. Instead, they're falling over one another to declare their "unity."

But what this really means is that all questions will become subordinate to the drive to war.

The talk about "protecting the Social Security surplus" has gone out the window. Instead, politicians of both parties will push through a tremendous hike in military spending--including the Bush gang's Star Wars missile defense scheme. Money that should be spent on health care, education or any one of a number of areas that would help working people will now be robbed to pay for a military that is already the largest and most powerful in the world by far.

Their rush to assign blame

In their rush to assign blame and demand revenge, no politicians or journalists bothered to ask a simple question: Why would someone target the U.S.?

The answer is the devastation and misery wreaked around the world by the U.S. in its role as the world's biggest superpower. In the last two decades alone, the U.S. has launched military attacks on Grenada, Libya, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia--and this is not even to count wars where the U.S. backed a proxy force.

In the Middle East, U.S. policy has left millions embittered and angry. America's support for Israeli repression of Palestinians is one part of the picture. So is the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq.

The war killed as many as 200,000 Iraqis--most of them civilians--and left the country in a "pre-industrial state," according to the United Nations (UN). Since then, UN sanctions against Iraq--backed most strongly by the U.S.--have killed more than 500,000 Iraqi children.

In a chilling 1995 interview, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright justified these deaths, saying, "We think the price is worth it." We should remember Albright's words when we hear the drumbeat about "terrorists" who "have no regard for human life."

To the Bushes and Albrights of this world, such rhetoric is only an excuse to justify atrocities far worse than the ones committed in New York and Washington, D.C.

If the attacks turn out to have connections to the opponents of U.S. policy in the Middle East--which is by no means proven--then this is disastrously misguided. Far from putting the U.S. on the defensive for its international crimes, it allows the U.S. establishment an opportunity to rally the country around this tragedy--and push through a right-wing agenda, both at home and internationally. That will make the U.S. an even less democratic--and less free--society.

Meanwhile, all the rhetoric from Washington has whipped up a racist backlash against Arab Americans.

We must stand up for basic human and civil rights of all people--and not permit "guilt by association" because of racial or ethnic background. We must also oppose the effort by the U.S. to launch new wars and build up its military machines.

We do have an answer to the horror of September 11--but it begins with making a commitment to rid the world of poverty, hunger, militarism, oppression and inequality. Another world is possible, but only if we stand up for what we believe in.

First published in the September 14, 2001 edition of Socialist Worker.

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