Consistently Inconsistent: Rhetoric Meets Reality in the War on Terror

Published on ZNet,, 11/15/01

So it appears as though the Taliban have fallen, or are close to a total collapse; and given what we know about their brutal rule in Afghanistan, this is, so far as it goes, a good thing. Furthermore, this is true no matter how we feel about the war being waged that has brought it about. After all, good results can occasionally come from actions that are themselves unjust or likely to aggravate human suffering in the long run.

Just as one might celebrate if all white supremacists were to transform to vapor at noon tomorrow, one could still oppose a plan to hunt down such folks and facilitate the process with neutron bombs. So too, we can condemn the bombing of Afghanistan, and insist there were other ways to help topple the Mullahs — ways that might prove more lasting given the guerilla war of attrition that may be around the bend — while still acknowledging that the immediate collapse of such fascists as these is a joyful event.

Yet we should also give pause and consider the magnitude of the present unknown. As the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan has made clear, the prospects of a marauding band of Northern Alliance fanatics in power is hardly a massive improvement. Their record for rape, murder, and summary execution should give anyone pause, especially those who believe that we have “liberated” the Afghan people. Liberation remains to be seen. A few days of celebrations in the street, punctuated by growing atrocities carried out by Alliance members, hardly indicates what the long-term outcome of Operation Enduring Freedom is likely to be.

Nowhere are the results of said action more in doubt than in the area most Americans consider key: namely, will our month-long bombing of Afghanistan, and whatever remains to be done there, actually have an impact on reducing terrorism the likes of which we experienced on September 11th? After all, the whole point of this war, or so we were told, was to destroy al-Qaeda, and to a lesser extent its leader, Osama bin Laden. That the fall of the Taliban has happened, and that we may rejoice in this occurrence, does not change the fact that such an end is only one small part of a much larger picture. If our actions not only fail to increase security from terrorism, but actually decrease it by inflaming certain segments of the Islamic community, then the verdict on bombing and the destruction it has wrought may yet prove to be an unfavorable one, even in the eyes of those presently overjoyed.

If history tells us anything, it is that security is never finally obtained from the barrel of a gun, for peace is mostly a political, not military issue. Unfortunately, the expertise with which the U.S. drops bombs and breaks things has rarely been matched by a similar talent in political diplomacy, or the development of peaceful and just foreign policies. And even as we celebrate battle victories thusfar, there is little reason to believe that the U.S. has any intention of addressing the fundamental inconsistencies in our “war on terrorism”: inconsistencies that only make it less likely that our cause will be viewed as just, or that a campaign against terrorists can prevail.

To expect the Muslim world to accept the U.S. as a leader in some united front against terrorism is asking a lot; especially when we are known to have bombed thousands of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, and especially as we maintain sanctions on Iraq, which former Secretary of State Albright concedes have contributed to the deaths of perhaps a half-million children; this, on top of the 130,000 civilians whom the Red Cross estimates were killed by American bombing during the Gulf War.

Unless we are prepared to step back and attempt to see ourselves as others do, we will likely never gain the needed insight that would allow us to fashion more rational, ethical, and effective policies than those currently in vogue. Because no matter what one thinks of the extant bombardment, there is simply no denying that to much of the world — and understandably so — the U.S. is supremely hypocritical with regard to the premises we have put forth to justify our recent actions in Central Asia.

Consider first, the obvious premise that it is wrong to kill innocent people, as the terrorists of 9/11 did. And it is wrong, no matter how angry one may be at the actions of the government under which those innocents live. All this is true of course, and the premise valid. But not only for those who carried out the recent atrocities. To be consistent we must accept that the premise is applicable to all, including ourselves. Yet we have never adhered to this premise and have not done so as we bombed Afghans.

The U.S. has regularly killed civilians, and not merely as an accidental happenstance to otherwise valid bombing of military targets. Tokyo and Dresden were firebombed during World War Two, not because they were military installations (they weren’t), but because we thought such killing would help win the war by raising the cost to our enemies. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were more of the same, and since declassified documents indicate the atomic attacks were not needed to end the war (as Japan was ready to surrender and we knew it), they amounted to nothing less than premeditated mass murder, without even the slimmest of historical justification.

In Vietnam, free fire zones were established in which it was known civilians would be killed. But since Vietnamese civilians resembled combatants (they “all look alike,” after all), sparing lives was seen as too risky a proposition.

And now in Afghanistan our planes have been dropping cluster bombs, known for their lack of military precision, but effectiveness at killing and maiming civilians who happen upon dozens of unexploded “bomblets” that are released when they fall to Earth. Despite claims that the U.S. has been trying to avoid civilian casualties, the use of such weapons renders such promises hollow. Even though civilian deaths have not been the deliberate goal of the current bombing — as they were for the attackers of 9/11 — the end result has been a distinction without a difference. Dead is dead, and when one’s actions have entirely foreseeable consequences, it is little more than a precious and empty platitude to argue that those consequences were merely accidental.

After all, imagine that the 9/11 terrorists had not hijacked commercial airliners and flown them into crowded buildings, but instead had rigged up powerful explosives to bring the Trade Towers and Pentagon down. Furthermore, let’s imagine they set these bombs to go off at 10 p.m., precisely to avoid unnecessary loss of innocent life, while still making the point that they could reach any target. Let us further imagine that unbeknownst to the terrorists, there were hundreds of people still in the buildings that night, perhaps for office parties. Would we really be inclined to cut the bombers slack, just because they had tried to minimize casualties, and because the innocent deaths were in many ways “accidental?” Of course not, nor should we.

Or consider a second premise behind our current actions: namely, that it is wrong to harbor terrorists, train them, give them aid and comfort, or knowingly accept their presence in your country. Furthermore, any nation that does these things deserves to be attacked.

Once again the U.S. hardly believes this in practice. Many of our allies are known to harbor terrorists; indeed the very same al-Qaeda forces we say we must destroy. Yet we aren’t going to attack Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Pakistan. We attack Afghanistan because we can, and because they can’t fight back to any real degree, and because everyone rightly hates the Taliban anyway. So it’s easy and satisfies the public need to “do something,” but it has little to do with adhering to the principle articulated above. If evidence emerged tomorrow that the Saudi princes were the primary funders of al-Qaeda, and had been offering their leadership safe harbor for years, there is simply no possibility that the U.S. would bomb Saudi Arabia or go to war with a nation upon whom we are so dependent for oil.

And to the rest of the world, the U.S. itself has harbored terrorists, trained them, and accepted their presence in our land. At the School of the Americas, at Fort Benning, Georgia, we have trained those who we had every reason to know were guilty of human rights abuses in their home countries: terroristic death squad leaders, encouraged by U.S. government manuals to engage in torture and kidnapping to achieve their political goals.

Yet it is doubtful that Americans would extend to those nations harmed by the thugs we have trained, the right to attack us in retaliation. It is doubtful that we would extend to Cuba the right to attack the U.S. despite the fact that we have protected anti-Castro extremists like Orlando Bosch, implicated in the bombing of a Cuban airline, resulting in the deaths of dozens of innocent people.

In the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration was waging its covert war on Nicaragua, arming the contras and contributing to the deaths of over 30,000 civilians, the brother of contra leader Adolfo Calero raised money for the covert army from his home in Gretna, Louisiana. And the CIA developed assassination manuals for the contras, advising them on how to kill political enemies and any civilians seen as too friendly to the Sandinistas. Although we may view these as different from the terrorist-training guides distributed by bin Laden and al-Qaeda, it is doubtful the rest of the world would agree.

And finally, war supporters insist that nations have the right to launch strikes against those governments that have sponsored terrorism, as a way to prevent future attacks. This notion of “preventive warfare” has become especially prescient with the claims made by President Bush that bin Laden and his associates seek weapons of mass destruction.

Perhaps it would be too much to point out that millions of people the world over find it hard to understand why they can’t have weapons of mass destruction, but superpowers like the U.S., or our allies like Israel can. Especially when we, more so than any other nation have made use of said weapons: atomic bombs, fuel-air explosives, and chemicals.

That Americans consider our government to be trustworthy with such munitions, unlike the “madmen” elsewhere who might wish to obtain them is of little consequence. To others, it is American policy and use of force that indicates madness. They see not only that we have these weapons but that we are prepared to use them and have. Lecturing them at this point about the impropriety of possessing such devices, while we insist on our right to retain them seems unlikely to prove persuasive.

More to the point, if we really believed in preventive war as valid then we would have to accept such attacks by other nations, either against us, or rival nations with whom they have disputes, and from whom they fear assault. Iraq could attack us under this principle, by claiming that they have reason to fear ongoing bombing and crippling sanctions imposed by Washington. Likewise, Pakistan could attack India, or vice-versa; so too with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. War to prevent war is not only inherently contradictory and indeed a concept more suited to Orwellian fiction, but indeed, it is a recipe for constant bloodshed.

Of course some claim there is still a difference between the attacks led by the U.S. and those perpetrated by terrorists. Namely, they argue that whereas our actions have only come about because we are at war, and trying to respond, the terrorists who carried out the attacks of 9/11 initiated hostilities, and thus are more ethically suspect when they kill civilians. But such an argument can only make sense to those who accept as gospel the Western version of history. To those who carried out the September attacks, they were not initiating hostilities, and did not begin the war. To them, the war began long ago, and was initiated by the West by way of its actions in the Middle East. To them, 9/11 was merely the first time that those who had been losing the war successfully struck back.

So, contrary to the claims of many — that the left seeks to justify attacks on America because of our foreign policy history — the truth is quite the opposite. If anything, it is the supporters of the war whose position leads to a justification of the events of 9/11. To support “Operation Enduring Freedom” one must accept that killing civilians is acceptable, and that preventive war is a positive thing, and that harboring terrorists is justification for attack. And these notions actually lend validity to terrorist attacks on the U.S: not only those of recent months, but more in the future.

Only be taking an uncompromising stand against killing innocent civilians, and against preventive war, and against blind retaliation can we truly condemn the actions of 9/11 without exposing ourselves as hypocrites. And unless we begin to consider the effects of that hypocrisy, it is safe to say that we will continue to be at risk of attack, no matter which group of fundamentalists is running Afghanistan.

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