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[Comments in the Aftermath of 11 September 2001]

Comments in the Aftermath of 11 September 2001

What should the U.S. do?

Is War the Answer?

In my view, the answer to that is a resounding "hell no!". Even though I'm extremely pleased to see the Taliban retreating in Afghanistan, I don't believe that the terror of war will stop terrorism. I'll illustrate this with a little table that compares what the U.S. is currently doing, and an alternative scenario—the U.S. doing nothing.

Factor Scenario Comparison
U.S. Bombing Afghanistan U.S. Doing Nothing
Threat of terrorism against the U.S. Threat of terrorism in retaliation to bombing Afghanistan exists—America's corporate media seems to be overlooking this obvious point. (See the This Modern World comic below for an example of views expressed in more alternative media.) Threat of terrorism exists because terrorist organisations might believe that there are no consequences for committing acts of terrorism against the U.S. No difference.
Lives Lost Globally According to the Taliban, hundreds of civilians have already been killed by U.S. bombing. This is probably true. Thousands of Taliban soldiers have been killed by both the Northern Alliance and U.S. forces, including those who surrendered or were retreating from Mazar-e-Sharif after its occupation by the Northern Alliance. None of those lives would be lost. Better to do nothing.
Afghani Livelihoods Afghani people forced out of their homes by U.S. bombing. Many will die because of the lack of shelter in refugee camps in winter. Oppression against Afghani women reduced, but they are still not truly free. America's rush to eliminate the Taliban makes it unlikely that they will be replaced by rulers that are tolerated by all parties, so further terrorism within Afghanistan is probable. Current oppression and terror against Afghani people by the Taliban continues. Afghani people probably screwed either way.
U.S. Financial Cost The war will probably cost thousands of millions of dollars. The money saved could be used to help the victims of 11 September and their families and the charities that help them. (Currently this money seems to only be coming from ordinary people and some generous corporations.) The money saved could also help bail out those whose jobs have disappeared because they worked at in the World Trade Centre or for an airline—it seems nobody gives a stuff about them. Finally, the money saved could also be used to assist granting aid to people in Afghanistan, and many other parts of the world. Better to do nothing.

As this table illustrates, the U.S. would have been better off if it did nothing, and so would Afghanistan. Of course, doing nothing is an unthinkable option; something needs to be done! But is doing something that makes a situation worse better than doing nothing? Of course not!

[This Modern World comic]

I acknowledge that this table doesn't include all factors. Some people do benefit from the war: those who receive profits from the news media or corporations that supply the military, for example. It's also helped the popularity ratings of some politicians. But even if you're one of the profiteers, or somebody who actually respects those politicians, I hope you don't think that's worth killing thousands of people in Afghanistan and destroying the livelihoods of millions more!

As for women in Afghanistan, it remains to be seen just how liberated they become, and how long that liberation lasts. Afghanistan has had an incredibly turbulent history, and that will probably continue, so any gain in the status of women is not guaranteed to last. And since there isn't a single woman taking part in the new government that's being thrown upon Afghanistan, despite the fact that there's a large majority of women in that country's population (because so many of the men keep getting killed in conflict), I think it's pretty obvious that Afghani women will continue to be oppressed.

So What's the Best Alternative?

In the days after 11 September, I felt like I was the only person in America with any sanity. The reaction of corporate media was disgusting, and the blood-thirsty cries for vengeance by many of the Americans I saw and heard were deeply disturbing. The very next weekend, however, I attended the first peace rally after the event, a gathering of a couple of thousand people in Pricita Park in San Francisco. People were waving peace flags, music from both the East and West was playing, Muslims and the rest of the population were dancing together, and I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. It was clear that I wasn't the only one who felt like I did. Thousands agreed: war is not the answer.

What is the answer is not clear to me, however. I've come up with a few ideas, and I've heard many others, but which would be the best for the world is open to debate.

First alternative: Trial by an International Court

Before the first bombs were dropped, the alternative that I heard about most was to bring Osama bin Laden in front of an international court. Presumably, it would be a United Nations court, similar to the ICTY created to deal with war criminals in the former Yugoslavia.

Since Terrorism is a world issue, I like the idea of a world body like the UN dealing with it. Of course, it's too late now; now that the U.S. has started bombing, I think we're about as likely to see Osama bin Laden come forward for a trial as we are Adolf Hitler. But even if U.S. hotheads had decided to use diplomacy instead of bombs, would bin Laden have come forward?

I think not. And as despicable as the man may be, I wouldn't blame him. The main flaw in the idea of bringing bin Laden before a United Nations court is that with the U.S. as the plaintiff, it would be what the Americans call a kangaroo court. As noble as the UN's charter may be, it does not treat all countries equally. Far from it! As its web site shows, the U.S. is one of only five countries with the privilege of having a permanent position on the UN body called the Security Council. As Phyllis Bennis' book, Calling the Shots (ISBN 1-56656-353-4), shows, the U.S. has abused this position throughout the UN's entire history. Swayed by the U.S., the Security Council, the body that deals with matters of peace, would have a heavy influence on the proceedings of any trial. So in short, it would not be a fair court, and bin Laden knows this.

Second alternative: Changing U.S. Foreign Policy

No matter what happens, it is vital for the U.S. to pay more attention to what motivated the attacks. What has the U.S. done to make anybody desperate enough to commit acts of terrorism against it, and suicide terrorism at that?

Soon after the attacks, President Bush said that the attacks were against America as a "beacon of freedom". I've seen e-mail from many Americans who believe that this was the simple motive for the attacks—the terrorists were jealous of America's freedom. Frankly, that argument is stupid. While it's true that Americans live in a relatively free society, there are other countries whose citizens have at least as much freedom, if not more. Americans do not enjoy the privacy laws that many other countries do—the questions in last year's census, and the fact that it's copulatory for Americans to take part in it, prove that. Americans also have very little control over what personal financial information is available to corporations, and laws protecting Americans from corporate whims are weak in general. The American public are not allowed to view governmental sessions: if they went to Washington to view Congress in session, they'd be turned away. Although most Americans feel they have freedom of speech, the Federal Communications Commission mandates censorship on American radio, so even university radio stations, which in international tradition are the most free, are forced to play versions of songs with lyrics dubbed out. The supposed representatives of the American people, their Government, are voted in by elections that are neither preferential nor proportional, so the two-party system runs rampant. Many Americans are denied the right to vote anyway, because of crimes they may have committed in the past, and since elections are always held on Tuesdays, it is more difficult for Americans to go to the polls than for citizens in most other democracies. Many countries don't have any of these restrictions, so if the target was freedom, why pick on America alone?

The real reason for the attacks are probably connected to American foreign policy that supports acts of terror. I'm skeptical about this being quite as extreme as some peace groups claim, but AlterNet, a credible source, discusses some of the more questionable aspects of U.S. foreign policy in its article entitled 10 Things to Know about U.S. Policy in the Middle East. As I type this, I'm listening to independent and non-American news sources detail the killing that occurred in Kabul at the hands of the Northern Alliance today (14 Nov. 2001), which was helped into that city by American military action. (Most of the dead are members of the Taliban, which is an organisation I have no sympathy for, although I can't help feeling sorry for its thousands of members who are teenage boys that were never given the opportunity to think for themselves. But considering the Northern Alliance defied international to stay out of Kabul, and that it has been killing even surrendering Taliban members, it's clear that it is hardly a cooperative or rational group.) Let's not forget that even in this very year, despite its constant abuse of human rights, the Taliban was being supported by the U.S. This is just one example of the U.S. employing terrorist groups; refer to School of the Americas Watch web site for details of even more direct link between the U.S. Government and a terrorist group.

With these facts in mind, it's no wonder that many peace activists are calling for the reversal of foreign policies that support terror. "If they hate us for supporting Israel," a speaker at a pace rally I recently attended said, "let's stop supporting Israel!" "If they hate us for having troops in Iraq, let's take them out!" She listed many other examples, and she has a valid point. Such moves probably would reduce the threat of terrorism against the United States, and in some cases such of that as Iraq, it would bring about an end oppression created by the United States.

But is it as straight-forward as that? Perhaps not. Maybe a 180-degree turn by the U.S. on such policies would come at a price.

In many places where U.S. oppression could disappear, oppression from other countries would replace it. Conflicts exist in may parts of the world that are older than the U.S. itself, and if these are allowed to flare up again, the violence may be worse than with the U.S.'s presence.

Repercussions would also exist in the USA. I'm convinced that the survival of some American corporations depends on U.S. foreign policy, and that if the U.S. removed it hated sanctions, new international competition would cause those companies to have to downsize or even fold altogether. Many would agree that this is a good thing, but it would have negative spin-offs for ordinary Americans who depend on those corporations for a living. America's pathetic welfare system is unable to support them, and the blow to the already struggling U.S. economy could mean long periods of unemployment. Such hardships may pale in comparison to what ordinary Afghanis are going through today, but the facts remind us that this is a simplistic solution, and if it were to be applied carelessly, it might not make the world a better place.

Third alternative: Killing them with Kindness

One of the more original suggestions I've heard is to send massive amounts of aid to Afghanistan, so much that the people would be able to rebuild their country, stand up against their oppressive leaders, and become U.S. allies. This would be similar to what happened in Germany after World War II, only hopefully there wouldn't be a Cold War in this scenario. The idea is vaguely plausible—after all, it would be cheaper than keeping the American military alive. It's so crazy, it just might work!

But it probably wouldn't. Unlike the population of Germany, most of the Taliban's followers are loyal to them for religious reasons, and such loyalty would be difficult to win over. Americans need only visit their nearest women's health clinic to see examples of terrorist action occurring in the name of religion, and Americans only need to look at the back of one of their one dollar notes to see how deeply religion can root itself in even a supposedly free society.

When considering ideas as far-fetched ideas as this, it makes sense to consider far-fetched consequences. It's conceivable that terrorists in other poor countries will start attacking the U.S. in the hope of having their homeland dragged out of the doldrums by U.S. aid as well. "Attack my country and receive a free sandwhich!"

So at this stage at least, I don't support this idea. But hey, at least people are thinking!

Fourth alternative: Allowing the United Nations to Function

I think our best hope for a more peaceful world lies within the United Nations. Maybe not the UN as it is today, but the UN as it should be. For the UN to work, there needs to be change.

For starters, the five permanent members of the Security Council, the U.S, U.K, China, France and Russia, need to stop manipulating the entire organisation for their own personal benefit. Why, for example, are these countries still supporting the U.S, when it is still well behind in UN dues and chooses to attack another member state instead of negotiating with it according to the UN charter?

I question the need for any permanent members on the Security Council. There certainly needs to be some guidelines about what kind of countries control the peace-keeping Security Council, but having it run by the same five countries and countries they fancy is nothing more than an old boy's club. Wouldn't it make more sense for peaceful nations to run the Security Council? That is, countries that have not attacked other countries in recent history?

A United Nations that was respected by the U.S. and its allies would allow it to do what it's supposed to do: provide a venue for nations to overcome their differences diplomatically. But this can only happen if every nation, even a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, is given a voice. If this was happening today, there would be less of a need for radicals to resort to acts of terrorism to get the world's attention.

Let's Talk!

I said above that the best action for the U.S. to take is open to debate. Unfortunately, that debate isn't happening! From my own observation, most Americans are either trying to ignore the whole issue, or are clutching to blatant nationalism in a hope that the problem will go away. The anti-war movement is gaining momentum, but I fear that it won't be very persuasive if it can't present a clear, plausible alternative to war. So I think it's time to start discussing those alternatives. Let's explore these ideas, and other ideas, a little more deeply, and try to find out which ones would really work.

What am I doing?

I'm attending rallies

When the American Government first started talking about war, I took to the streets to voice my opposition to it. The relief I felt when thousands joined me was overwhelming, since if you believed the rhetoric, there wasn't a single American who was against the idea of throwing bombs all over the place.

Anti-war demonstrations were largely ignored by corporate media. Major newspapers either overlooked protests, glossed over them, or understated their size. But the same thing apparently happened when the first anti-Vietnam war protests happened, so I wasn't discouraged. It was important to me to remind the that the bulk of Americans that not everybody agreed with them, and prompt them to think a little more before supporting the war.

It's been several weeks since I've attended a protest, however. I feel that the war images on television speak for themselves, and the kind of people who think the current atrocity in Afghanistan is acceptable aren't the type who are going to be persuaded by protest rallies. (Well, maybe a few more people will be persuaded by the positive spin that CNN has instructed reporters to give on death and destruction caused by the American military, but they can't be thinking very hard either.)

I'm not saying that I won't attend rallies at all anymore, I just think that I can make more of a difference by expressing my point of view online.

I'm promoting discussion

I've been expressing my point of view wherever it's open to discussion. This web page is part that. Of course, I don't expect the average web surfer to end up reading this page, but I intend to refer people to it when discussing the issue online.

A lot of people seem disinterested in discussing it, though. I suppose it might be possible that supporters of the war aren't capable of intelligent discussion, I hardly think that's a realistic reason. I imagine that most of them simply haven't bothered to give the issue any serious thought. It's not hard to see why; I've heard several visitors from overseas express how overwhelmed they are by all the pro-war propaganda here in the USA. If you can bare to watch commercial television here, you'll be bombarded with the one-sided, oversimplified view that the Pentagon feeds the media and gets pooped onto America's television screens and into America's newspapers like diarrhoea. I won't go into my opinion of commercial news media here, however; I'll save that for another rant.

I will take this opportunity to say, however, that the hypocrisy of the U.S. government, along with the media's willingness to overlook it, almost drives me crazy. They talk about the 11 September attacks bringing to death thousands of innocent Americans, as if U.S. forces have never killed a single innocent person. They talk about the Taliban as an evil force, as if the U.S. has never associated with it. They talk about Osama bin Laden as if he is a pawn of Satan, and not of the CIA and American military during the 1980s war against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. These are sorts of facts that I'd like to see mainstream America wake up to. If America is ever to be free of terrorism, it needs to realise and discuss these facts.

I'm Helping the Victims

In the week that followed the attacks, millions of Americans donated blood in the hope of helping the victims of the 11 September attacks. Good on them. The Red Cross doesn't want my blood, so I've donated money to organisations that are helping people who have lost their loved ones, their homes or their workplaces get their lives back in order.

On the other side of the coin, I'm looking at organisations who are setting out to help the victims of America's attacks on Afghanistan. My daily click at The Rainforest Site and sites that are connected to it alerted me to the existence of Mercy Corps, who claim to be helping these people. I've been trying to find some kind of independent review of this organisation, to see if they really live up to their claims. I wonder how they plan to get into Afghanistan anyhow—as far as I know, all the borders are closed! I haven't had much luck, so I'll probably end up throwing caution to the wind and send them a donation anyhow.

I'm Trying Not to Be Discouraged

Other than that, I admit I'm at a loss when trying to work out what to do. What does one do when they're against so many powerful people, and the masses don't want to take the issue seriously? I try to take it in my stride, and not lose sight of other battles that I can help make a difference in.

Comments about Flag Waving

It seems that there are several times as many American flags waving today as there were before 11 September. This is being seen as a sign of hostility by many progressives, but I'm not sure that this is always true.

The American flag was first connected to the 11 September atrocity when it was raised on a limp flag pole amongst the rubble at the World Trade Centre site. This was highly publicised, and its meaning was clear: America was determined to overcome this crisis. In that spirit, millions of Americans, along with supporters all over the world, pulled together and did whatever they could to help the victims. There was a strong feeling of comradery, similar to what we feel in Australia after events such as the Ash Wednesday fires or the Granville disaster.

This spirit of solidarity was quickly hijacked by the war movement, however. To some extent this probably would've happened anyhow, but it became a guarantee after President G.W. Bush's now-famous "you're either with us, or you're with the terrorists" rhetoric. The strong feeling of support for the victims turned nasty; the cries for overcoming adversity turned into cries for blood.

For many, the meaning of the American flag changed along with it. Within the peace movement, people have started referring to communities with a strong pro-war movement as communities with "a lot of flag waving". But is that what the flags necessarily mean?

After all, the American flag simply represents the United States of America. It's something Americans can identify with, in the same way that I identify with the Australian flag as an Australian. The only difference is that the American flag is uniquely American; I wish I could say the same about the Australian flag, which is still marred with the Union Jack. Still, for us expat Aussies, the Federation Star and Southern Cross are still a welcome symbol, and no doubt Americans feel the same say about the Stars and Stripes.

On the other hand, the dramatic increase of American flags in their home country suggests other meanings. In many cases, the flags appear on bumper stickers, and the produces of some of those stickers were thoughtful enough to clarify their meaning with words. Here are some examples, and my comments:

    [Photo: Mik at the Anti-War Anti-Hate Rally at Dolores Park, San Francisco, 29 September 2001, which had about 10,000 participants]
  • "Solidarity"—okay, maybe this was a bad one to start with because the meaning isn't that clear. Is this solidarity as a people overcoming the attacks, or is it the inane "you're either with us or you're against us" solidarity? If it's the former, great, I stand alongside you. If it's the latter, then wake up and see above.

  • "Proud to be an American"—I'm uneasy about this one, because I recently realised that I am no longer proud to be Australian. As great a country as Australia is, the shame I feel for my country's treatment of its indigenous people, the shame I feel for our government's treatment of refugees, and the fact that Australia's population just voted in an oppressive government for the third consecutive term means that I can no longer feel proud as an Australian.

    In that light, I'm wary of people who are proud to be America. Sure, America has a lot to be proud of—it had the first real stab at democracy, it at least formally put an end to slavery, and it built up the largest collection of relatively free people in the world. Even in modern times, America has its positives: I've yet to see any country whose Internet infrastructure is so good, or a society that provides for people with disabilities as well.

    But America has way too many things to be ashamed of for people to justifiably be proud to be American. Even though there are plenty of aspects of Australia that I am proud of, I don't hold my head up high as an Australian because I care about the negative things I mentioned above. If Australia turns around and starts progressing on these issues again, and if we adopt a flag that better represents our nation, I will wave it proudly. In the same respect, when America as a nation stops being so painfully ignorant of the rest of the world, stops being a bully in the realm of international politics, starts moving towards making America truly represent freedom and not just a dream about it, and starts giving a fuck about the environment, I'll stand and support Americans when proudly wave their flag. But not before then.

  • "Don't Fuck with Us"—yes, I've seen stickers like this. They're large and obnoxious, like the vehicles they're stuck to and the people that drive them. It's a good thing that, after they've had a bit of a think, the majority of Americans don't feel this way. Otherwise, America would end up like the high school bully, with no real friends. But given that America has to resort to sticks and carrots to get its way more and more these days, maybe that's already happening.

  • "We will remember September 11, 2001"—even though one could question exactly what they're remembering, I like to think they're remembering that day to help avoid anything like that ever happening again, anywhere.

I recently asked a close friend of mine why she has an American flag in her window. She's opposed to the war, but says she flies the flag as an acknowledgement of the positive aspects of what America has done for her. She is happy with her life, and notes that in many other parts of the world, she would not have had the opportunities she's had. I found that to be good food for thought, and the thoughts I had prompted me to post this discussion.

The bottom line for me is, it's not always clear why people fly the flag. It's important to remember that it doesn't necessarily mean that they're pro-war, or that they're supportive of their government's policies. So although I feel a bit uncomfortable when I walk through a neighbourhood that has a flag in every window, I remind myself that it doesn't mean that I'm walking through a neighbourhood populated exclusively by rednecks.

Peace Movement Web Resources

  • 9/11 Peace Network—a peace movement information site (the name "9/11" comes from the American format for the date of the event; "September 11")

  • Global Exchange—a movement to help the USA become a little more aware of the rest of the world (and by crikey, do they need it!!)

  • KPFA List of Bay Area Marches, Rallies, Vigils and Other Events—KPFA is the only radio station that I've heard give a respectable, realistic coverage of this crisis

  • If you are playing an active role in the anti-war movement, or any controversial movement, then good on you! Make sure you know your legal rights, though. If you're in the U.S.A, consider printing out this PDF

 

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Mik Scheper, 15 November 2001
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