Confronting Terrorism and War

Stephen R. Shalom1

[from New Politics, vol. 8, no. 4 (new series),
whole no. 32, Winter 2002]

STEPHEN R. SHALOM is a member of the NEW POLITICS Editorial Board.


THANKFULLY AND ASTONISHINGLY, it now appears that the original death estimates for the World Trade Center attacks were too high; the actual toll may turn out to be in the neighborhood of three thousand rather than six thousand. But such is the enormity of what happened on September 11 that even if the original count is reduced by half, this was an atrocity of horrific proportions.

In terms of immediate deaths, September 11 was the worst terrorist attack ever to take place in peacetime anywhere in the world. It was the most devastating attack ever -- in war or peace -- on the U.S. national homeland. More lives were lost than in such disasters as the sinking of the Titanic or the Johnstown flood or the San Francisco earthquake or the great Chicago fire -- and this time great tragedy was combined with deeply malicious intent.

Obviously, everyone will want to make sure that this sort of thing never occurs again.

How do we do that? And is war in Afghanistan -- winding down as I write -- the solution?

One place to start this inquiry is by asking ourselves, "Why did it happen?" Some, however, object to this sort of question, claiming that by trying to explain we are inevitably justifying what happened. Just because a murderer had a rough childhood, or saw too much violence on TV -- they argue -- should not excuse murder. And they're right that we need to protect ourselves from cold-blooded murderers, whatever the underlying source of their evil ways. Likewise, there is no doubt that nothing can excuse the mass murder that took place on September 11, that those who collaborated in planning it deserve punishment and should be brought to justice, as is true of all terrorists, and that the international community must take steps to protect itself from any recurrence. But understanding what happened is the first step to designing an appropriate response.

Consider an analogy. When two students killed some of their classmates at Columbine High School, we tried to understand what it was that had led to a spate of school violence. That didn't mean we excused the killings or justified the killings. Far from it. But we hoped that by understanding what happened we could take steps to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence -- perhaps designing programs to reduce alienation among teenagers or to make students more tolerant of those who don't fit in, or making it more difficult for kids to obtain guns.

Sometimes when we examine terrorist acts -- whether small-scale, like Columbine, or large- scale, like September 11 -- we will find that the terror breeds on legitimate grievances. When this is the case, addressing those grievances will be the most sensible way to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence of the terrorism. Sometimes, of course, we will find that there are illegitimate grievances involved. In Columbine, the killers apparently targeted students of color, perhaps thinking there were too many of them in the school. Obviously, this is not a legitimate grievance, but it still requires our attention. In this case, we need to take steps to reduce racism -- in schools and in the larger society -- in order to stem racist killings.

So why did September 11 occur?

Sources of Terrorism

WE NEED TO DISTINGUISH BETWEEN TWO GROUPS OF PEOPLE: (1) the immediate perpetrators -- the hijackers and the terrorist network of which they are a part; and (2) the broader environment within which fanatic groups like al Qaeda thrive and from which they recruit members and supporters.

Let us assume that Osama bin Laden was responsible for orchestrating or setting in motion the September 11 attacks (a point to which I will return below). What were his motives? These are probably better discerned by a psychopathologist than a political analyst. His misogyny and anti-Semitism are evident, as is his megalomania. We can presume he is sincere in wanting to eject U.S. troops from the "holy lands" of Saudi Arabia. Does he care about Palestinians, Iraqis, and the poor and downtrodden more generally? Who knows? But given the pretty consistent historical pattern that terrorism provokes counter-terrorism rather than justice, he may well be totally indifferent to the well-being of oppressed or suffering people, Muslim or otherwise. In some of his interviews bin Laden seemed to be eager to provoke a major war between Islam and the West; if a massive U.S. over-reaction could set off a holy war across the Muslim world, this might lead to the collapse of all the illegitimate governments in the region and their replacement by governments like the Taliban. Even if one thought that Taliban-style regimes were desirable, to expect any human betterment to emerge from the rubble of such an all-consuming war is utterly depraved.

But for the broader Arab and Muslim populace -- most of whom have little sympathy for bin Laden's tactics or even for his brand of Islamic fanaticism -- there is a deep hostility to the policies of the West and especially the United States. Where George Bush declares that terrorists "hate our freedom," millions in the Middle East instead see a U.S. government that -- despite its democratic rhetoric -- backs deeply undemocratic regimes, like those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Likewise, despite Washington's professed commitment to human rights, it is the leading supporter of the Israeli government which oppresses Palestinians. And the U.S. bears primary responsibility for economic sanctions against Iraq that have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Even among Middle Easterners who despise Saddam Hussein (like the Shiites of southern Iraq), anger against the United States is intense.

In July 2001, an al Qaeda recruiting video was circulated in the Middle East, featuring footage of Israeli atrocities and accusing Washington of starving a million Iraqi children. On October 7, the day the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan began, bin Laden released a videotape to the media. David Hirst, who covered the Middle East for the Guardian for nearly four decades, noted, "What appealed to his Arab and Muslim audience was not his catechism -- insofar as there was one -- of the original, pristine Islam he claims to represent, but his enumeration of the injustices to which all Muslims, be they secular or devout, feel they have been subjected at western hands in modern times." Regardless of whether these issues mean anything to bin Laden himself, there is no denying that he has a keen knowledge of which issues resonate in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and can be used to rationalize terror.

If we want to dry up the reservoir of support that sustains terrorism and provides it with a constant supply of recruits, the United States has to change its foreign policy. Christopher Hitchens has argued that the case for changing U.S. policy is no stronger after September 11 than it was before. That's true. It was a moral imperative then; it's a moral imperative now. It's wrong to oppress Palestinians, whether or not Americans die as a result. But, when people ask us what can be done to stop terrorism -- as they have been asking -- we need to tell them the truth: terrorism feeds off anger and frustration, and a lot of that anger is directed at the United States for its unjust policies. Reducing the anger by addressing legitimate grievances is the most effective and appropriate way to reduce the incidence of terrorism.

Consider another analogy. Some people brought up in grueling poverty become anti-social criminals. Such criminals need to be brought to justice. But Leftists need to also point out that poverty continually breeds crime. That doesn't mean that criminals should be permitted to continue their crime sprees or that somehow they were justified in slitting the throat of this or that innocent victim. And, of course, poverty would be important to eradicate for reasons of basic justice, even if it had no connection to crime. But when our fellow citizens ask what we can do about the crime problem, and when pundits come up with all sorts of explanations that ignore the real underlying causes -- inexplicable evil, random resentment of people who are happy, etc. -- Leftists need to tell them the uncomfortable truth.

To be sure, not all the anger directed against the United States is the result of legitimate grievances. Anti-Semitism of the European variety has been spreading in the Middle East and many want to drive Israeli Jews into the sea. (Bin Laden's denunciation of "Jews" in his public statements suggests that he doesn't expect anti-Semitism to lose him a lot of popular support in the region.) Clearly, we should not endorse any call for the destruction of Israel. We must support the equal recognition of national rights for Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs -- a position backed by a wide international consensus, though not by some Islamist radicals, nor by Israel or the United States.2

Beyond specific U.S. policies -- backing Israeli repression or enforcing murderous sanctions on Iraq -- another factor that provides a breeding ground for terrorism is poverty and despair. It might seem odd to speak of material deprivation in the Middle East, given the tremendous petroleum resources of the region. But in fact from North Africa to Southwest Asia there is immense poverty, made all the more incendiary by the presence of oil wealth in the hands of the few. In Saudi Arabia, with the largest oil reserves in the world, 30 percent of the workforce is unemployed and average income has dropped by at least half over the last two decades, while the extended royal family engages in ever more massive corruption. The rulers, however, don't need to be responsive to the population because they are kept in power by a ruthless internal security apparatus, closely tied to the United States.3

Obviously, there is nothing inherent in Islam that favors terrorism. But intolerant forms of Islam, like intolerant forms of Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and so on, give religious sanction to slaying non-believers. What accounts for the growth of Islamic extremism in recent years? Wherever people are poor, oppressed, and powerless, they seek some means of political participation. Sometimes the Left, through grassroots organizations, labor unions, political parties, and so on, can offer an opportunity for this participation, but unfortunately in so much of the Third World these do not exist. In many Arab and Muslim nations the Left has either been smashed by right wing forces (often backed by the major Western states) or discredited by ruthless dictatorships (as in Iraq) or by Soviet style parties. Various states have seen it in their interest to promote religious extremism. The United States backed reactionary fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden, against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and aided mullahs against the Left in Iran; Israel gave early backing to Islamic radicals in an effort to provide a counter weight to the secular PLO. So in the absence of any Left alternative, religious fanaticism has spread, helped along by religious schools financed by Washington's close ally, Saudi Arabia.

Some have argued against the relevance of exploring the root causes of terrorism by using the analogy of Hitler: Nazism may have arisen from the unjust Treaty of Versailles, they note, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have fought Hitler. But if the Treaty of Versailles helped Hitler come to power, then wouldn't it have been wise to have dealt with this grievance before it resulted in a World War with some fifty million deaths? September 11 was horrible, but far worse is possible if we allow the deep anger against U.S.-backed injustice to fester among more than one billion Muslims. The time to address grievances is now. But, some might counter, "What if we failed to address the grievance. Shouldn't we still have fought Hitler? And likewise the September 11 terrorists?" Yes, just as we arrest murderers regardless of the root causes of their criminality, so too we should defend ourselves from bin Laden or Hitler. But in each case, the issue doesn't end here. How do we do it? Do we capture the murderer by obliterating his neighborhood? (Or Afghanistan or Dresden?) Under what auspices do we do it? Do we go out as vigilantes or do we abide by the law? I return to these questions below.

Does this mean that the September 11 attacks were somehow justified or that "we deserved it"? Leftists have been subject to all sorts of abuse for suggesting the need to redress legitimate grievances. But, in fact, the notion is not terribly radical. Consider the words of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in mid-November: "Years ago, Pope Paul VI declared, ‘if you want peace, work for justice.' This wisdom should not be misunderstood. No injustice legitimizes the horror we have experienced. But a more just world will be a more peaceful world. There will still be people of hate and violence, but they will have fewer allies, supporters and resources to commit their heinous acts."

Does changing U.S. foreign policy mean that we are giving in to terrorism? If in the face of terrorism, we changed our policy to one that was wrong, that would be a tragic capitulation to evil. But if we have been pursuing wrong policies, we shouldn't be afraid to change them to right policies, even if the change is urged on us not only by people of goodwill but by terrorists as well. Certainly to take the position that we should continue, say, starving Iraqi civilians because Osama bin Laden wants us to stop would be grotesque.

Many may agree that redirecting U.S. foreign policy is crucial for reducing terrorism in the future. But they still may worry that this is a long-term solution. Even if U.S. policy changed dramatically tomorrow, there would still be some individuals whose rage has turned them into terrorists. And if any realistic change in U.S. foreign policy is going to take not days, but years, the obvious question is what can be done in the short run? Certainly no one wants to see further thousands of innocent people slaughtered as we await long-term solutions. So is the current "war on terrorism" -- now drawing to a close in Afghanistan -- the short-term answer?

What must be noted at the outset is that this is not at all a "war against terrorism," but at best a "war against a very selective subset of terrorism." It does not target the terrorism carried out by leading states or by their close allies -- it has nothing to say about, and may in fact exacerbate, the terrorism of the Russians in Chechnya, India in Kashmir, China in Tibet, Indonesia in Aceh and Irian Jaya, and so on. And it ignores the ongoing terrorism of the United States-led sanctions on Iraq (terrorism because innocent civilians are being harmed so as to pressure the government into changing its policy). Still, any reduction in the loss of innocent lives is worthwhile, so does the Afghan war accomplish that?

Civilian Casualties

ONE CONSIDERATION THAT MAKES THIS WAR MORALLY UNACCEPTABLE is the matter of harm to civilians. Why does this matter? Think back to September 11. Why was the attack on the World Trade Center so horrendous? Because so many innocent civilians were killed. Harming innocent civilians in order to attain some political end is the very definition of terrorism. Thus, any war on terrorism -- if it is actually to reduce terrorism -- must avoid civilian deaths. This the U.S. war in Afghanistan has not done.

Now of course only pacifists believe that there is an absolute prohibition against harming civilians. International law and human rights organizations recognize that if in the course of attacking an enemy military base of 100,000 soldiers, one civilian nearby is killed, this is unfortunate, but legally and ethically permissible. But to attack a small military base and kill many civilians would not be permissible. Numbers matter. When we call the police to hunt down a murderer, we know that having an additional police car on the road will increase the risk of harm to the innocent (via the added danger of a traffic accident); most would accept this as morally permissible. On the other hand, to bomb an inhabited apartment building where the murderer might be holed up would obviously be unacceptable. Thus, Truman's claim that Hiroshima was a military target because it contained a military base is beside the point: the fact that the overwhelming majority of those vaporized were civilians makes the atomic bombing morally unacceptable.4 And bin Laden's suggestion that the World Trade Center was a legitimate military target -- destroying vital economic infrastructure of the enemy -- is also morally abhorrent. One notes that the vast majority of those killed were not captains of finance, but janitors, secretaries, low-level bond traders, firefighters, and so on, and that, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute, in terms of economic impact, most of the jobs lost as a result of the disaster in lower Manhattan are in predominantly low-wage industries. And one can assume that there will be a global economic impact as well, hurting the world's poor most of all.

Some people took the position that they supported the U.S. war in Afghanistan as long as the United States took care not to harm civilians. This was the view of the Catholic Bishops and of Richard Falk writing in The Nation. Others argued that the way the war was actually being waged showed inadequate care to avoid civilian harm, and thus that the war was unjust -- this was the position that Richard Falk shifted to shortly after the war began (though he has apparently shifted back yet again). But in fact the U.S. war was inevitably going to harm countless civilians and thus should never have been launched in the first place.

Surely, it will be said, the U.S. does not intend to kill civilians. But it is morally unacceptable to kill civilians through reckless indifference, even without any specific intent, and the United States' indifference to the fate of innocent Afghan civilians has manifested in a variety of ways.

First, U.S. bombs, as "smart" as they sometimes are, often miss; they hit villages, hospitals, UN offices, the Red Cross (twice). No doubt Taliban claims cannot be taken at face value, but Pentagon media managers seem equally unreliable -- and many deaths are likely in remote areas where there is no one to tally them. The Taliban shares responsibility for harm to civilians -- it probably did site its heavy weapons and leaders in civilian areas on purpose. But this hardly justifies Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's claim that "responsibility for every single casualty in this war, be they innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of Taliban and al Qaeda." As Human Rights Watch noted, according to international law if one party to a conflict illegally uses "the presence of civilians to shield military targets, the opposing force is not excused, in calculating the legality of an attack, from taking the risk to civilians into account." The U.S. media has been extremely reticent about reporting bombing casualties (it "seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan," CNN Chair Walter Isaacson told his staff), but a survey of foreign news sources by Marc Herold found reports of more than 3,500 deaths from the U.S. air war.

Among the ordnance being used by the United States are cluster bombs, weapons which scatter hundreds of bomblets over a wide area; most of these explode on impact, but at least five percent of them do not, becoming in effect anti-personnel mines, threatening all who later come in contact with them, including civilians. "If cluster bombs continue to be used," warned Amnesty International, "civilians will not only suffer now but for years to come." And since the bomblets are brightly colored (the same color as the food packets dropped by U.S. planes -- though the latter may change), children are especially likely to be victims. Human Rights Watch, which estimated in mid-November that there were some 5,000 unexploded bomblets littering Afghanistan, repeatedly called on the United States to immediately discontinue use of cluster munitions. Afghanistan has long suffered from an immense number of landmines, placed there by the Soviet Union during its invasion and by the mujahideen opposition; now U.S. cluster bomblets add to the population's danger. And as hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled the cities to the landmine- and cluster-bomb-strewn countryside, many no doubt died and are still dying, again probably without reporters on hand.

Much more serious than the direct casualties from the bombing is the fact that the war has increased the dangers to the literally millions of Afghans who are at risk of starvation. In mid- October, Jean Ziegler, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, declared: "The bombing has to stop right now. There is a humanitarian emergency... In winter the lorries cannot go in any more. Millions of Afghans will be unreachable in winter and winter is coming very, very soon" (Reuters, Oct. 15). His call was echoed by Oxfam and other international aid groups. The call was ignored, however, by U.S. officials, virtually all the U.S. mainstream media, and virtually every U.S. mainstream commentator.

Obviously the U.S. war was not the start of the food problem in Afghanistan. Decades of invasion, intervention, and civil war, international neglect, the Taliban's neglect, regressive social policies, and intermittent interference with aid workers, and serious drought -- all these had brought millions of Afghans to the edge of starvation for years. But things got worse on September 11. Fearing a new war, aid agencies pulled out their international staff, making internal food distribution far more difficult. And once the bombing started, truckers became more reluctant to bring the food in. To cite just one example of how war interferes with getting food to the needy, Human Rights Watch reported on October 18, "shrapnel from U.S. bombs landing at the Kabul airport wounded an employee of the U.N. World Food Program.... The incident halted what would have been the first OXFAM food delivery into the famine stricken Hazarajat district of Afghanistan since September 11." In addition, U.S. attacks on civilian infrastructure (for example, the power station at the Kajaki Dam) increased civilian suffering, and, not surprisingly, few farmers want to plant crops while U.S. bombs fall. According to a specialist for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Afghanistan had "an extremely high mortality rate even before September," but "we can only expect that the situation is much worse today" (Gall with Becker, New York Times [NYT], Dec. 6, 2001).

Fortunately, the Taliban collapsed quickly in the north of the country, and it became possible to get food in again -- but food shipments actually declined, rather than increased. The reason was that the security situation was so dangerous -- several journalists were killed, for example -- that aid workers did not feel safe enough returning. The aid agencies called for an international security force to protect their return, but the United States rejected any international force as interfering with its war effort. So, incredibly, the battlefield victories worsened the humanitarian situation (Becker, NYT, Nov. 30, 2001). Furthermore, the main land-route into northern Afghanistan is over a bridge from Uzbekistan, but the Uzbekistani government said it wouldn't allow the bridge to be used unless security was provided to prevent Islamic radicals from infiltrating into the country. The U.S. refused to provide that security, declaring, in the words of one official "We don't guard bridges...." (Gall with Becker, NYT, Dec. 6, 2001). It now seems the bridge will finally be opened, and perhaps eventually security will be improved enough to permit food distribution. But who knows how many additional people died during this U.S. obstruction?

But even without this impediment, a catastrophe was still looming because enough food must get into the country and to many remote areas before the winter snows make the roads impassable. Whether that race could be won or will be won once security is restored is yet unknown (though, ominously, one aid official declared, "They are too late, the snow is already here" [ibid.]) But one thing is clear in any event. No one in the U.S. government expected the war to end so soon. Thus, U.S. officials who refused to stop the bombing before winter were risking a disaster of staggering proportions, and were willing to let the Afghan people take that risk. This is reckless disregard for the lives of countless innocent civilians. When someone plays Russian Roulette and survives, we don't praise that person's wisdom. When someone plays Russian Roulette and aims the gun at the heads of millions of Afghans -- even if they all survive in the end, the game is monstrous.5 But, unfortunately, they won't all survive.

Washington has offered two defenses to the charge that it has been indifferent to the lives of Afghan civilians. First, that it has been dropping food packs to hungry people. But these food drops have been denounced by aid groups as a pure public relations gimmick -- when millions are on the verge of starvation providing 35,000 daily rations per day is barely noticeable. But worse, as aid organizations noted, the drops may actually be harmful, discrediting humanitarian aid programs as being an arm of military operations, and often forcing the hungry to scurry across minefields to retrieve the packets. The second defense put forward by U.S. officials has been to charge that the starvation results from Taliban seizures of food supplies. Aid officials have refuted some of the claims of Taliban interference, but certainly there are cases where Taliban forces have looted warehouses. Such looting, however, was a predictable result of U.S. strategy. As one news report noted: "Pentagon strategists plan to take advantage of the harsh Afghan winter.... U.S. airstrikes against barracks, fuel bunkers, vehicle depots and supply stores are steadily depriving Taliban and Al Qaeda forces of the shelter, warmth, food, fuel and ammunition they will need in the coming months, defense officials said" (Landay, San Jose Mercury News, Oct. 24, 2001).

Christopher Hitchens has declared that this war has been won "with no serious loss of civilian life, and with an almost pedantic policy of avoiding ‘collateral damage'" (The Nation, Dec. 17). This is an astonishing claim. The war's not even over yet, and people are dying everyday from lack of food and clothing in refugee camps (like "Maslakh" -- which translates to "slaughterhouse" -- west of Herat). No one knows the death toll so far or what the ultimate toll will be, but there is no doubt that the loss of life will be "serious," and will surely exceed by a huge margin the grisly toll of September 11. Such a war cannot be just.

Creating Terrorists

BUT IF THE IMMORALITY OF KILLING SO MANY CIVILIANS is one argument against the war, another is that it won't even accomplish its stated aim of reducing terrorism, even if al Qaeda leaders are killed or captured.

The decision to become a terrorist is not one that people make lightly. To kill civilians -- not to mention oneself -- takes a degree of fanaticism not easily achieved except under extreme circumstances, where deep anger and frustration become unleashed. It takes years of suffering at the hands of an arrogant oppressor, or watching loved ones brutalized. This is why terrorism rarely leads to peace, but instead to more terrorism, in an escalating cycle of violence. Terror by one side does not justify counter-terrorism, but one usually provokes the other, nonetheless.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan will probably add to the number of terrorists who hate the United States. Every innocent civilian who dies in that war has relatives, and these relatives are unlikely to draw as the lessons of these deaths that violence is wrong or that killing civilians is unacceptable. On the contrary, this is the sort of situation that can drive someone to adopt nihilistic violence or see civilians as legitimate targets.6 This will especially be the case when the country responsible for the dead relatives behaves in an arrogant manner.

The United States earned a great deal of sympathy on September 11, but since then its policies have seemed particularly designed to outrage Muslim and Arab opinion.

Despite Secretary of State Colin Powell's initial pledge to publicly present the evidence against Osama bin Laden, the United States has refused to do so. The Bush administration, stated the New York Times on Oct. 7, "decided it was not necessary to make public its evidence against Mr. bin Laden." Admittedly, it may be impossible to present some evidence without compromising secret sources, but, significantly, Washington privately showed its evidence to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf -- before his intelligence chief was dismissed for being too sympathetic to the Taliban. From the beginning, bin Laden has seemed the likely culprit, but our strong suspicions are not the same as evidence. Public opinion in the Muslim world asked to see the evidence and was denied.

True, British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a report purporting to present the evidence -- but it was hardly definitive. And on November 14 -- more than five weeks after the bombing began -- Blair issued a new report, declaring that the evidence "now leaves no doubt whatever" that bin Laden was responsible. In fact, the evidence still wasn't conclusive, but in any event isn't the evidence supposed to precede, not follow, the punishment?

If snubbing the widespread request in the Middle East that evidence be presented revealed U.S. arrogance -- we don't need to present evidence, ran the implication, we say it, so it has to be true -- Washington exhibited even more arrogance in its pre-war dealings with the Taliban. Contrary to the standard account, the Taliban did not reject out of hand the U.S. demand to turn over bin Laden. On October 5 -- two days before the onset of the bombing -- the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan stated: "We are prepared to try him if America provides solid evidence of Osama bin Laden's involvement in the attacks on New York and Washington." Asked if bin Laden could be tried in another country, the ambassador said, "We are willing to talk about that, but ... we must be given the evidence." Indeed, said the ambassador, legal proceedings could begin even before the United States offered any evidence: "Under Islamic law, we can put him on trial according to allegations raised against him and then the evidence would be provided to the court." The U.S. dismissed the ambassador's remarks, refused to provide evidence, declared that its demands were non-negotiable, and initiated its bombardment of Afghanistan. Was the Taliban offer serious? Was it simply a delaying tactic? Could it have been the basis for further concessions? Who knows? Washington never pursued it. Superpowers don't need to negotiate.

Moreover, those who rule the world don't even have to follow international law, even if that international law provides institutional arrangements that strongly privilege the position of the powerful. The Bush administration pointedly decided not to get United Nations authorization for its actions. Of course, self-defense permits nations to repel an invader; but issuing ultimatums half-way around the world and launching a war of indefinite duration surely exceeds the standard international law precedent (the Caroline case) which holds that self-defense applies only to cases where "necessity of that self defense is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation." When other countries are the victims of terrorist or other attacks, Washington urges them to follow the procedures of international law and take the matter to the United Nations. But the United States does not see itself as bound by these same restraints.

The unilateralism of the U.S. response was especially noted in the Muslim world. Iran, for example, which had indicated its willingness to support a UN action, sharply condemned the U.S. attack on Afghanistan. But the U.S. reserved for itself not just the right to unilaterally judge the evidence against bin Laden, unilaterally deliver an ultimatum to the Taliban, unilaterally assess the response, and unilaterally go to war. Washington went further, delivering a note to the Security Council indicating that U.S. self-defense measures might require it to attack other countries of its choosing -- essentially announcing an open-ended right to sit as judge and executioner of the entire world. This was arrogance with a vengeance -- and it was hardly likely to reduce the intense anger at the United States among so many Arabs and Muslims.


SO IF THE CURRENT WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER, then what else could be done in the short-run to reduce the prospects of a repetition of September 11?

The first and probably the main thing to have done was to pursue the standard techniques of law enforcement (without the appalling attack on civil liberties). Such steps are pooh-poohed by those eager for war, but in fact such measures have already shown substantial results, and, if anything, it is these measures, not the war, that we can thank for the absence of post-September 11 terrorist attacks in the West. Terrorist cells have been investigated and disrupted, and their members arrested in many countries, including Spain, Germany, and Italy. Financial networks used by terrorists have been dealt a severe blow and are under continuing pressure. Terrorist money-laundering could have been greatly reduced long ago but for the opposition of the banking industry and its political supporters (Weiner and Johnston, NYT, Sept. 20, 2001). In any event, one of the chief obstacles to even greater success in the police investigations and the efforts against the financial networks has been the limited cooperation of Saudi Arabia. Few U.S. policymakers, however, have proposed expanding the war on terror to Riyadh.

Christopher Hitchens has written that "Apparently unimpressed by those who maintained that the Al Qaeda death squads were trying to utter a cry for help about the woes of the world's poor..., Judge Baltasar Garzón has put the Spanish wing of this gangster network into custody" (The Nation, Dec. 17). This is an exceedingly offensive sentence, implying that those who pointed to the roots of terrorism were not just excusing al Qaeda, but were even against the arrest of members of terrorist cells. There are people who oppose the war in Afghanistan -- being not quite as convinced as Hitchens that U.S. officials have pursued "an almost pedantic policy of avoiding 'collateral damage'" -- without believing that al Qaeda operatives should remain at large among us to sow further terror. For example, one commentator has written:

The West and its political, military, social and economic hierarchies have been more preoccupied with the abusive and shameful march of production, speculation and profit than with an adequate redistribution of wealth. It has favoured a policy of social exclusion over integration and progressive immigration. And it has insisted on maintaining -- and insisted on payment of -- external debt instead of using those funds in the same countries it is now asking for help and understanding. For all those conscious mistakes, the West is suffering the terrible consequences of fanatical religious violence.

Does this commentator oppose arresting members of terrorist cells? No -- given that these are the words of Judge Baltasar Garzón himself (Financial Times, Oct. 3, 2001). Garzón, whom Hitchens praises for telling U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to respect the rule of law, notes that the response he seeks "is not military," but "one based on law," specifically "through the immediate approval of an international convention on terrorism."

The question may legitimately be raised that while law enforcement may be the way to deal with terrorist networks in the United States and Europe, how can this get at a bin Laden who was being harbored by the government of Afghanistan? Say the Taliban really refused to turn over bin Laden to justice? Is he to be permitted to continue planning and plotting terrorist outrages? International law provides a remedy. The United States should present its evidence to the United Nations for it to take appropriate action. Under its Charter, the UN is authorized to take various steps, up to and including the use of force, to maintain international peace and security.

Those who favor the U.S. war in Afghanistan reject the United Nations route as being unrealistic. Richard Falk (in his first, pro-war position) claimed that it "seems highly improbable that the U.S. government can be persuaded to rely on the collective security mechanisms of the UN." True enough, but this is not an argument against calling for the U.S. to go to the UN. It was also highly improbable that Osama bin Laden could have been persuaded to rely on non-terroristic methods of redressing his grievances, but that doesn't make his terrorism just or lead us to refrain from condemning him for not doing so.7

Another way in which going to the UN is said to be unrealistic is that the UN has no troops of its own and thus cannot do more than issue nice-sounding resolutions. But though the UN has no military force, it can request the loan of appropriate military forces from member states, including the United States, that would operate under the direction and control of the UN. The only obstacle to this happening is that Washington refuses to cede any authority over any of its troops to the UN. But this is not a reason for us to accept unilateral U.S. action.

Going to the UN or using other international institutions (such as war crimes tribunals) are also rejected by some who oppose the U.S. war. These critics argue that the UN (and perhaps also other international institutions more generally) are illegitimate and undemocratic; in this view, international action is just as objectionable as unilateral U.S. action and we shouldn't call for UN involvement.

Indeed, the UN is undemocratic. Many of its constituent states are themselves brutal dictatorships, and the Security Council, its most powerful body and the one with primary responsibility for enforcement action, has a voting system giving veto power to five big powers, including the United States, Russia, and China. So why should we pay any attention to the UN, why should its rulings carry any moral weight, and why should we urge the U.S. to submit its grievances to it?

Going to the UN would make U.S. action legal, in conformity with treaties signed by the United States and other nations. But that an action is legal does not mean that it is just. If the UN authorized an attack on Afghanistan that killed many civilians, this would be wrong and immoral and we should oppose such a war. The Left often criticizes actions that are legal but that violate moral norms. It is legal for bosses to exploit their workers, but of course we still denounce such exploitation. But though we know the laws are rigged in favor of the rich, we still tell the rich to follow the law. Say a rich person's child has been mugged and the rich person responds by hiring a goon to break the kneecaps of the attacker. We condemn this vigilante action. But, what if the rich person claims he has no choice. We would reply, "Yes you do. You can do what all citizens are supposed to do in these cases. Go to the police and let them deal with it." We say this even though we know that the police, and the law more generally, are often beholden to the rich. Now it may be that if he went to the police, they would proceed to kneecap the attacker themselves. Then what? Then we'd condemn the police action. But we still think it's better to have a legal system than not and would prefer to have people adhering to the law than not, though in some cases we ourselves will call for people to violate unjust laws.

Law places some constraints on the power of the powerful. Obviously, we want to see those constraints enhanced and, until there is a truly equitable and democratic legal system, we will want to continually point out existing biases. What about on the international level: does the UN constrain United States foreign policy? The fact that the United States chooses not to go to the UN suggests that Washington believes that to some degree it would not have the same freedom of action as it would have if acting unilaterally. And that's one reason we should demand that it abide by international law and go to the UN. Washington probably also believes that it is important for its credibility as a superpower, for its ability to get other states to succumb to its threats, that there be no precedent established that it needs to seek authorization from the UN. And this is the other reason we should demand that it go to the UN. Yes, the UN contains a lot of thugs, but it's probably harder to get a group of thugs to endorse a specific act of thuggery than to let one thug decide unilaterally.

What do we tell other countries when they are the victims of attack? In October, for example, the Indian state legislature in Kashmir was hit by a terrorist attack, with several dozen casualties. India suspected -- probably accurately -- that Pakistan was complicit in the attack. Do we want India to unilaterally issue ultimatums, assess the responses, and then go to war? What about Ethiopia and Eritrea, claiming cross-border attacks? In all these sorts of cases we'd like to see the aggrieved party present evidence to the UN and refrain from unilateral action. So do we really want to say that all aggrieved parties except the United States should go to the UN? Again, saying that the U.S. should go to the UN does not mean that we have to endorse what the UN chooses to do. We especially should be hesitant to endorse any move by the UN to give a blank check to the United States (or anyone else) to carry out a unilateral action under the UN flag. The problem here is not so much that the troops will all come from a single country, as that the crucial decisions -- wording an ultimatum, assessing the response, deciding how much harm to civilians is "acceptable," deciding when the operation should end -- will be made by Washington (or whoever has been given the blank check). In the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, for example, there was UN authorization, but every significant decision was made in the White House, not at UN Headquarters. The U.S. bought the necessary votes and ran the war entirely on its own. We should oppose blank checks and should have opposed that war, but that doesn't mean we should have opposed the call for the United States to go to the UN.

Some analysts, such as Ian Williams ("The UN and the United States in Afghanistan," Foreign Policy in Focus, Nov. 30, 2001) claim that in fact the UN has already given a blank check to the United States. The Security Council did pass a strongly-worded resolution condemning the September 11 attacks, reaffirming the right to self-defense, and urging international cooperation to combat terrorism. It did not, however, authorize the U.S. war in Afghanistan (or anywhere else). If it had done so, giving Washington carte blanche to do as it wished, then we should have criticized the UN's abdication of its responsibilities.

Given the especially undemocratic nature of the Security Council, it makes sense to call for aggrieved parties to go not to that body, but to the General Assembly. Under the Charter, the Security Council was supposed to have exclusive responsibility for enforcement action, but a precedent was set in 1950 at U.S. urging that the General Assembly could act in such cases under the Uniting for Peace resolution. The General Assembly, of course, is also not a model of democratic structure, but it is less problematic than the Security Council. Significantly, during the Kosovo war, NATO justified their bypassing the UN with the claim that the Russians or the Chinese would have vetoed any action. But the British government apparently considered the possibility of seeking General Assembly authorization under the Uniting for Peace resolution and rejected the idea.8 Presumably, they didn't want to establish the precedent of the UN acting in a body where Britain didn't have veto power.

One problem with acting through the UN, or through any instrument of international law, is that the powerful will be less likely to appear in the dock than the weak. The UN might call for enforcement action against some small rogue state, but never against a powerful state (or even the close ally of a powerful state). The International Criminal Court might put a bin Laden on trial, but never a Bush, Putin, or Sharon. I'm not sure that Washington is so confident that such a Court might not interfere with its freedom of action (else why such opposition to the Court among U.S. officials?). But in any event the argument that we should oppose the Court because not all criminals will be punished is unconvincing.

Say a corporate CEO is responsible for thousands of deaths but his political clout enables him to escape punishment. At about the same time some poor person goes around committing serial murders. Would anyone say that we should not arrest the latter because the former is out free? This is not simply a question of equitable treatment -- that we want to treat all murderers equally; it's also, and more importantly, a matter of protecting innocent victims. So by all means, let us denounce the murderous policies of the CEO (and of Bush, Putin, Sharon, etc.), point out the inequities, and demand that the legal system deal with all criminals; nevertheless, we must stop those murders that we can stop, even if we can't stop them all.

The Taliban

ALTHOUGH WASHINGTON'S STATED REASON FOR GOING TO WAR against Afghanistan related to Osama bin Laden, the Bush administration was glad to discover just how deserving of overthrow the Taliban was. Some of the indictment against the Taliban -- like Blair's claim that this was a war to save Europe from being flooded with opium -- was nonsense (in the last year the Taliban had stamped out poppy production in regions under its control, while production more than doubled in territory held by our new-found allies, the Northern Alliance) and some was gallingly hypocritical, coming from an administration whose first act had been to prohibit any international group receiving U.S. funds from accurately informing women of their reproductive health options. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the Taliban was a moral abomination. Its oppression of women was perhaps in a class by itself in modern times. And this oppression was not just a reflection of the backward social norms of Afghanistan: while social pressure played a role in constraining women, the Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice enforced the regime's misogynist decrees with an iron fist. The Taliban's religious intolerance was also extreme, as was its general neglect of the public welfare. Thus, the demise of the Taliban is a welcome event.

This happy outcome does not, however, make the U.S. war just. The Afghan people will not be going from a horrible regime to a decent one, but -- there is good reason to believe -- from a horrible one to a slightly less horrible one. And, in any moral calculus, this residual benefit must be weighed against the human costs of the war as well as the costs of having regime changes decided in Washington.

The major armed force in the opposition that is replacing the Taliban is the Northern Alliance (also called the United Front). Hitchens disparages those who are critical of the Northern Alliance's "spotty" human rights record, but others have used rather stronger language to describe its record. Human Rights Watch, for example, condemned the "dismal human rights records" of some of Washington's new allies, who had a "deplorable record" of attacks on civilians. "From 1992 to 1997, forces that are now part of the alliance shelled civilian neighborhoods in Kabul and looted, raped and killed civilians there and in other parts of the country." In March 1995, reported the U.S. State Department, Northern Alliance forces "went on a rampage" in Kabul, "systematically looting whole streets and raping women."9 The Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women was less restrained in its November 13 assessment: "The retreat of the terrorist Taliban from Kabul is a positive development, but entering of the rapist and looter NA in the city is nothing but a dreadful and shocking news for about 2 million residents of Kabul whose wounds of the years 1992-96 have not healed yet." One might recall how the Taliban came to power: in part it was with the military help of Pakistan's intelligence service, but in part the population was so fed up with the deadly power-struggles that characterized the Northern Alliance's reign, that the Taliban was welcomed for restoring some measure of internal peace. Now, with the Northern Alliance in power again, RAWA predicts an intensification of "ethnic and religious conflicts" and "another brutal and endless civil war.…The terrible news of looting and inhuman massacre of the captured Taliban or their foreign accomplices in Mazar e Sharif in [the] past few days speaks for itself."

The change from the Taliban to the new government has come about at a tremendous price: namely, all the war-induced deaths from starvation, disease, and exposure, from destroyed civilian infrastructure, from stray bombs and lingering bomblets. The price includes as well all the stunted development that will be the long-term impact of war-induced severe malnutrition. Of course, there are deaths to be counted on the other side of the ledger as well; for example, the Taliban's policy of denying girls an education contributed to Afghanistan's horrific infant and maternal mortality rates. We don't have, and we won't have, any accurate data as to the overall human consequences -- positive and negative -- of this war, but certainly there is no basis for the claim that the war has involved, in Hitchens' words, "no serious loss of civilian life."

Aside from the costs of the war on the Afghan people, the war has one other extremely significant cost: the precedent it sets for unilateral U.S. military intervention. Recall that from 1979-89 the mujahideen who were fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were vicious women-haters. Some mujahideen leaders were infamous for throwing acid at females who dared to show their faces in public or go to school. The Soviets, on the other hand, backed a regime that would have promoted women's rights, relatively speaking. But would anyone think that this justified the Soviet invasion? Even if the Soviet invasion had not caused some one million deaths, Moscow's more enlightened view on women would not have justified its invasion. One can make a case that sovereignty is not sacrosanct, that extreme human rights violations might justify a humanitarian intervention. But surely, we would not want the intervention to be decided upon by a single government, especially one whose foreign policy more generally has promoted the most egregious violations of human rights. Washington has already served notice that it considers itself to have the right to intervene anywhere in the world it chooses in pursuit of its war on terrorism. This is a precedent that must be opposed.

Why War?

WASHINGTON DID NOT ATTACK AFGHANISTAN BECAUSE OF ITS CONCERN over women's rights. Its enthusiastic backing for the regime that ranks second in the world's misogyny hit parade -- Saudi Arabia -- demonstrates that. But its stated reason for war -- stamping out terrorism, or, more accurately, anti-U.S. terrorism -- is not the whole story either. Surely U.S. officials are aware of the record of military force for dealing with the problem of terrorism. The history of Israel-Palestine is just one among many that shows the counter-productivity of military action for addressing this problem. But U.S. policy-makers have another powerful reason to wage war in Afghanistan. The war serves the interests of U.S. elites. This is not to endorse the ludicrous and sickening claims that the CIA (or the Mossad) were behind the September 11 attacks. But war is quite functional to top U.S. officials. It boosts approval ratings, funnels money to the military, allows a clamp-down on civil liberties and dissent, permits the transfer of wealth to the rich, can be used to bludgeon environmentalists, delegitimates institutions of international law, bases U.S. troops in a region of growing competition over natural gas pipelines, and serves notice on the world that "what we say goes" -- to use the words of George W. Bush's father.


September 11 was a horrendous event. But we shouldn't allow our trauma to distort our political judgment. We still need to oppose unjust policies and unjust wars.



  1. Thanks to Cynthia Peters, Michael Albert, and Mark Dow for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article. return

  2. The Bush administration's recent statement supporting a Palestinian state, while an advance over its previous position, does not represent an acknowledgment that Israelis and Palestinians are entitled to equal rights. A Palestinian entity with the West Bank divided into multiple pieces -- as Clinton's Camp David peace plan offered -- is a series of Bantustans, not a viable state. Even Sharon says he supports some form of Palestinian state: unconnected islands of Palestinian self-rule surrounded by belts of Israeli control. return

  3. Some argue that poverty or U.S.-backed oppression can't explain terrorism because if it did then most terrorists would come from Africa, Latin America, or Vietnam. But, of course, poverty and oppression alone don't explain terrorism, just as poverty and oppression alone didn't explain why in 1789 revolution took place in relatively rich France rather than in Africa. Clearly there were other factors involved. But would anyone deny that the misery of daily life in France, and the rage that that misery engendered, mattered? return

  4. See my "The Obliteration of Hiroshima," New Politics, No. 21, Summer 1996, pp. 153-75. return

  5. Richard Falk now writes (The Nation, Dec. 24) that he had worried we were in for a long and savage military campaign inflicting great suffering on the Afghan people, but, "at this point, in view of the unexpectedly rapid collapse of the Taliban, the overall undertaking appears reasonable." But unreasonable actions do not become reasonable by virtue of unexpected developments. Say a police officer calls in air strikes against a mugger hiding in a crowded movie theater; unexpectedly the mugger gives himself up before the bombers arrive. Do we conclude that the police officer's actions were reasonable? return

  6. It is true, of course, that U.S. terror bombing in World War II did not produce hordes of post-war German or Japanese terrorists. But wars against nations, whose governments can surrender forces, have a different dynamic than wars against amorphous terrorist organizations. Israel, for example, has found it far easier to defeat Arab armies than Palestinian terrorist groups. In any event, during the Pacific War, U.S. bombing probably made it easier rather than harder for the Emperor to recruit kamikaze pilots. return

  7. For a fuller critique of Falk's initial view, see my on-line essay, "A ‘Just War'? A Critique of Richard Falk," Oct. 21, 2001, return

  8. House of Commons, Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, Kosovo, Fourth Report, June 7, 2000, Minutes of Evidence, Examination of Witnesses, Questions 63-66, 178. return

  9. Hiltermann and Parekh, International Herald Tribune, Oct. 10, 2001; HRW "Military Assistance to the Afghan Opposition," Human Rights Watch Backgrounder, Oct. 5, 2001. return

    [colored bar]

    Contents of No. 32

    Go back to New Politics home page