War of words
RICK SALUTIN and MARCUS GEE cross swords in an e-mail replica of the debate raging across the nation: Is the Afghan campaign justified?
By RICK SALUTIN and MARCUS GEE, The Globe and Mail
Saturday, October 13, 2001
Rick Salutin begins:
In the gulf war and the attack on Yugoslavia, at least there was no danger of retaliation. I think that was immoral and vile, but it had no concrete downside, or so it seemed then. Now, we're in a new situation. We know the other side, i.e. the bombers of Sept. 11 can inflict severe damage here with minimal means and, more important, they know it. Do you want more of this stuff happening here? I thought the point was to prevent it.
Look at the results already: The bombing in Afghanistan has been inaccurate, killed aid workers and other civilians or hit "fairly empty" (U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld) training sites -- none of which harms current capabilities of terrorists, but increases their morale and sense of righteousness. But once bombing starts, Rumsfeld and the military must justify it -- an excuse for further bombing.
If retaliation happens here, as is likely, there's pressure to bomb the hell out of "them" even more thoroughly, which unleashes further response. So you have the cycle of mutual devastation. It doesn't take long to get into massive destruction "over there" and hideous scenarios here: biochem, nuclear, the whole long, yet simple list we keep hearing. And what has been accomplished? Terror has increased.
The question ought to be how to damp down the danger of escalation while dealing with the terrorists. Since they are a small group of dedicated people, a "police action," as it's called, makes the only sense, even if it's rhetorically unsatisfying to some. Find and deal with them, covertly if possible, including the ugly notion of "disappearing" them. I'm not talking pacifism. Their leadership and most dedicated cadres will not be dissuaded by any actions to deal with "root causes" of terror.
The Bush people have, so far, been adroit at deploying the rhetoric of war (more or less obligatory in the U.S. context) while containing the forces that could escalate the cycle. I see this as having to do with the core of the Bush team being technocrats, such as Colin Powell and business people such as Dick Cheney and W. himself. The economic effects of Sept. 11 have been understated but scary for those who think largely in terms of corporate profit, and more Sept. 11s may frighten the hell out of them.
I consider this a plus, compared to having Al Gore or Bill Clinton in power for this crisis. The Bush people have thus far sidelined those who think primarily in military terms (the Pentagon) or ideologically (Condoleeza Rice). But now that they've started bombing, it gets trickier. You can see the slippery slope in their notice to the UN that other countries may be added to their list.
Come to think of it, you yourself, among others, have talked about the danger of falling into Osama bin Laden's "trap," i.e. creating a global showdown between Islam and the West, at the same time as you've been demanding the war mentality most likely to lead to it.
As George W. Bush recognized right away, the attacks were an act of war. That is certainly how its perpetrators see it. In their videotaped statements, bin Laden and his associates have called this the first act in a jihad, a holy war, against the United States and all its citizens.
Given the gravity of the threat, hitting back is not only defensible but unavoidable. The United States and its allies can't expect to prevent future attacks through defensive measures alone. Even with airport security tight as a drum and air marshals on every plane, the terrorists could simply stroll into a shopping mall or a sports stadium and detonate a suicide bomb. The only way that Americans (and the rest of us) can feel safe again is if this network is destroyed root and branch.
Police action alone won't accomplish that, even the covert or deadly kind, because the network is hiding behind the Taliban. Washington gave the Taliban a month to surrender bin Laden and close his camps, and all it did was play games. That's why the bombs are falling now.
I don't relish these attacks any more than you do. I don't think Americans relish them either. Despite what some people may say, this is no blind and vengeful lashing back. It's a defensive war, designed to prevent the future attacks that the terrorists have promised.
NATO recognized that when its 19 members invoked the part of the NATO charter that allows them to strike back when one of them comes under attack. The United Nations, similarly, has recognized the right to self-defence that applies to all UN members.
The risks in this war are obvious to everyone -- the risk to innocent civilians, the risk of a larger conflict, the risk of an Islamic backlash. But as Tony Blair of Britain has put it, the risks of inaction are far worse.
If it implies conventional war, as we now have, with missiles and high-altitude bombs, we can already see it's ineffective and counterproductive. It mainly encourages and motivates the other side. What I meant by a police action isn't cops at airports; it's the truly nasty, black ops stuff that went on in the Cold War. I don't like that stuff, but you can at least say it's effective and unlikely to precipitate a catastrophe.
I also think it's muddle-headed and self-defeating to accept bin Laden's contention that this is a jihad, or civilizational clash, or good versus evil, or what have you, and thus fight it on his preferred terms. I grant that kind of conflict is what the fundamentalists want, but you can see that even they aren't confident they can gather support on that basis. If the West could defuse two time bombs, Palestine and the sanctions, it would leave the fundamentalists with a retrograde, mainly religious agenda which the rest of the Muslim world does not seem particularly inclined to support, at least not into a massive war with the West. The fundamentalists would still yearn for their jihad, but have a lot harder time making it happen.
I also think it's worth noting that none of that agenda -- the secular and even the religious component -- amounts to a cry to go after the West or the U.S. in their homelands. It's more like a sacralized Islamic call of "Yankee, go home and leave us alone." Not quite a matter of cosmic conflict.
Two problems with that. First, it rewards terrorism. If bin Laden discovers that he can make the United States change its Middle East policies by crashing planes into buildings, then he will keep crashing planes into buildings. Others like him will be encouraged to do similar things. If we have learned anything in three decades or so of fighting terrorism, is that making concessions under threat is fatal.
Second, the changes you are talking about would not satisfy him. He doesn't just want the Israelis out of the Palestinians' hair, he wants them out of the Middle East. He thinks they're an alien, infidel presence in the "Muslim nation" and he will not be satisfied until "the Jews" (as he puts it) are wiped from the map.
Now, I agree that creating a Palestinian state and lifting the blockade of Iraq would remove a grievance that many Muslims hold against the United States. But how, exactly, should Washington go about doing that? It has been working at least since Camp David in 1978 to broker a Middle East agreement that would give the Israelis the security they need and the Palestinians the homeland they deserve.
For various reasons, the brokering didn't work. What should Washington do now? Cut Israel off at the knees? Order it to pull out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip tomorrow, without any deal on borders of security, and let the chips fall where they may?
As for Iraq, the United Nations (not just the United States) has kept its partial blockade on Iraq because Saddam Hussein refused to give up his weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological, nuclear. If it simply lifts the blockade now and walks away, Saddam could do something that would make Sept. 11 look like a picnic. Yes, the sanctions are hard on the Iraqi people, but that is mainly because Saddam refuses to distribute the food and medicine he is allowed to buy.
I don't like the way bin Laden is framing this fight as a "clash of civilizations" either. He doesn't represent civilization; he represents its antithesis. But I do think it's a fight between good and evil. Bin Laden is the nearest to an embodiment of pure evil I've come across in my lifetime. A creature like him can't be explained away or pandered to. He must be fought.
That means all sorts of things: better policing, better security, diplomatic pressure and your "black ops." All these things are being tried. But it may also mean going in and overthrowing his protector, the Taliban, a regime that keeps little girls from going to school. Would that be such a tragedy?
Fundamentalism acquired this appeal because secular forces failed to deliver on the crying social, political and economic needs of the region. The bizarre result is that antidemocratic fundamentalists are becoming the electorate's choice, as in Algeria, where the military denied them a rightful victory. In many African states, Muslim fundamentalists may not (yet, anyway) share the terror premises of bin Laden, but do embrace the notion of Islamic law replacing secular models. This is a set of forces which can't be wished away. The question is, can they be countered or moderated through resolving the sorest points, like Palestine and the brutal sanctions?
Would that mean rewarding terrorists? Hardly. The cause of the Palestinians and dying Iraqi kids does not belong to the terrorists; they just exploit those causes. It means depriving them of that chance and the support they gain thereby, especially since you grant that Palestinians deserve a state and Iraqi kids don't deserve to die. It isn't giving in to terror, it's doing the right thing, and reaping certain benefits.
How could the U.S. do it? Pressure the Israelis into abandoning the settlements in the occupied territories, and give security guarantees. The U.S. has gone through greater contortions, like underwriting Islamic fundamentalism and Osama bin Laden and Saddam, then demonizing them. They can manage these shifts. There would surely be a political price to pay in the U.S., but Bush and the Republicans are better able to pay it than the Democrats were. Bush is President because the Jewish vote in West Palm Beach didn't get properly registered.
The media price would be more severe: charges of appeasement by columnists like George Will, Charles Krauthammer, yourself I guess. But the payoff, a damping down of the appeal of terrorism, would be worth the rough ride, and could be sold to Americans now better than at any time in the past. As for Saddam, reincorporate him as the Western client he once was, or overthrow him, as the U.S. could have done during the gulf war and chose not to.
As for your thoughts on this being about good versus evil, embodiments of pure evil, etc. -- this language virtually mirrors that of bin Laden about the West, and the problem with it is, it does not lead toward a lasting solution. Get rid of bin Laden, but create masses of new followers in his steps? Fanatics may always be with us, but where possible it's a good idea to try to keep them on the sidelines rather than create situations in which they and their message can thrive.
The other thing that scares the crap out of me in this kind of language is the pretext it offers for repression of debate and opposition in our own society. In the U.S. this week, we saw Bush use it to deny Congress information; then to pressure the news media to self-censor. Fighting evil is a great excuse for shutting down (or up) everyone you dislike. Up here, we heard calls for cabinet ministers to be sacked, just because they sat through a speech by [University of British Columbia professor] Sunera Thobani that some people found offensive.
The rubble had barely settled in Lower Manhattan before people like The Globe's Naomi Klein, The Toronto Star's Haroon Siddiqui and, in a milder way, even you, were lining up to explain that they had brought it on themselves by acting like bullies in the world.
That struck be as not only offensive (you lean over a guy just run over by a bus and tell him he should have looked both ways before crossing) but misleading. People like bin Laden may oppose what the United States does, but what they truly hate is what it is -- the home, as they see it, of materialism, secularism, licentiousness, etc. You can't defuse that by fixing the Arab-Israeli impasse or lifting sanctions against Iraq.
Blaming Sept. 11 on U.S. foreign policy is like blaming the Holocaust on the Treaty of Versailles. It may be true that the way the Allied powers stepped on Germany after the First World War helped to lay the groundwork for the rise of nazism, but you wouldn't say that the day we liberated Auschwitz. You wouldn't say, as people like Thobani now do: "Yes, we deplore this mass slaughter, but we have to look at the root causes. The Nazis had grievances, and we in the West helped create them."
If the analogy seems far-fetched, remember that in the 1930s lots of people said just that: "Germany has grievances, over unfair war reparations and over the treatment of Sudeten Germans, and these must be understood and addressed."
No, the roots of the Holocaust lay in hatred (anti-Semitism) and ideology (fascism), and the roots of Sept. 11 lie in hatred (anti-Americanism) and ideology (radical Islam). To say otherwise -- to say that the terrorists were driven to do what they did because of political or social conditions (they're depraved because they're deprived) -- is to absolve them of moral responsibility for what they did. It lets them off the hook.
Yes, of course, we should try to defuse the grievances that so many Muslims seem to feel. Yes, we should try to break the Arab-Israeli impasse (and since Sept. 11 the Americans have been working to do just that by, among other things announcing support for a Palestinian state). Yes, we should try to fix the Iraq problem, and I'm glad you think we should consider overthrowing Saddam Hussein.
But I doubt that that is going to keep fanatics like bin Laden, as you say, "on the sidelines." Whatever gave birth to them, they have a life of their own that is beyond politics. Such an evil -- and calling it that can't be avoided if we are going to beat these people, even if offends your ears -- has to be fought head-on, not explained away as the result of U.S. foreign policy or root causes.
But giving an explanation of why people around the world are justly pissed off about the effects of American foreign policy on their lives is in no way the same as issuing a licence to some religiously crazed fanatics to slaughter innocent members of the American population, and then blaming those victims, and anyone who thinks it is, is as crazy as the terrorists are. It's a critique of U.S. policy, full of limits but useful nevertheless, and appropriate.
So take the guy run over by the bus and told that he brought it on himself. That sounds like a lousy experience and I don't know anyone, even on the left, who would do it. But if he gets up and staggers on without looking where he's going, you might point it out, with the intention of helping him not to get bashed again.
The point is not, or should not be, to lay blame -- no matter how much people compulsively seem to enjoy playing that game, left, right and everywhere. The point is to understand, as fully as possible, what brought the situation to this point in order to prevent future disasters.
You say none of these questions like foreign policy touches on what bin Laden really hates. Well, who actually knows the insides of his hatreds and, if they do, who actually cares, as long as he doesn't have power to do much about it?
So I'd rather concentrate on what is giving him this power, which is at least to a large extent the sense of injustice felt by so many. Deal with that, since you aren't going to get anywhere arguing him out of his views anyway, no more than you would with any fundamentalist, in Afghanistan or on network TV. Without political resonance, if he wants to commit criminal or terrorist acts, he'd be just another criminal.
Something similar goes for the question about the roots of the Holocaust. You have theories; so do others. They may be true but they can't be proved. For the practical purposes of living our lives, the questions that matter are: Can anything be done to prevent such disasters or were they inevitable? You can at least say, in the case of the Holocaust, a lot more could have been tried than was tried, and a lot should not have been done that was done.
Your weary tone when you get to some of the specifics (yes, we should do this; yes, we should do that) makes me feel that politics bores you a little in this momentous time and you're anxious to get on to the big stuff like metaphysical evil and moral responsibility.
Personally, that stuff interests me too; it always has. But getting too much metaphysics mixed up in politics is almost always a recipe for social catastrophe (I'm thinking especially of the history of messianism). So I'd like to cast the bin Ladens and other absolutists (including anyone who takes seriously the notion of a cosmic battle between good and evil) out of the political arena by acting intelligently within the political realm.
As for Sunera Thobani, as I tried to say at more length in yesterday's Globe, I don't disagree with anything she said about the generally violent, exploitative record of U.S. foreign policy. But I do have a beef over what she failed to say in that speech: namely, that groups like bin Laden's are not legitimate representatives of the aggrieved and exploited, who are being used and exploited all over again for the purposes of a violent, authoritarian, racist, misogynist and obscurantist ideology.
Just as it's hard to know the insides of bin Laden's hatred, it's hard to know what makes so many Muslims so mad at the United States (though it's important to remember that many also admire it). One reason may be simple poverty, leading to envy and resentment of the rich and showy Americans.
Another may be the incitement of generally anti-American and often anti-Semitic media in countries such as Egypt.
Who knows? What I do know is that it's wrong to lay all this at the feet of U.S. foreign policy, especially at a time like this. Whatever the savants in the Cairo coffee shops may say, it's simply not true that the United States has oppressed Muslims. In fact, in at least three occasions over the past decade when Washington employed its military power -- in Bosnia, in Kosovo and in the Gulf after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait -- those whom it was fighting to defend were Muslims.
We could argue all night about whether U.S. policy "is frequently, even basically violent and bad for many humans on the planet." (Tell that to the Kosovo Albanians who were freed from Serb terror. Tell that to the Somalis who were rescued from starvation when U.S. troops intervened to help end a famine.) What is wrong is to jump up right after 5,000 people perished in New York and say, "Aha, the chickens come home to roost."
You say that picking apart U.S. foreign policy right now doesn't give licence to the terrorists. I'm not so sure. When you condemn American misdeeds in the same breath as condemning Sept. 11, you draw a parallel -- a moral equivalence -- between what was done to Americans then and what Americans have done in the past. Intentional or not, that lends legitimacy to the terrorists.
What really dismays me about the current mess, aside from the potential for immensely greater death and destruction, is the way it has sent this society careening back in the direction of some of its worst impulses. Like xenophobia. Just talk to anyone who looks vaguely Arab or Muslim about what it's been like out there for the past month. And not just in the streets but in the genteel pages of The Globe ("I will never see another devout, turban-wearing Muslim without wondering -- unfairly, I admit . . . was he part of it?"), the smugness and sense of cultural superiority, expressed by Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and endorsed by Robert Fulford in The National Post. The impulse to self-hate, reflected by the desperate search for a Canadian connection to the Sept. 11 attacks, which was never found. The anxious need for American approval, reflected in the horror that we weren't mentioned in one of Bush's speeches. The fear to criticize, others and ourselves, because it is . . . dangerous?
Tell me, what is dangerous about discussing the misdeeds of U.S. policy "in the same breath" as what happened on Sept. 11? Not because they are equivalent, or because the one caused the other, but because they are connected. Related. The world is a big, interconnected place, at least the one I live in is. It's not divided into discrete, mutually repelling spheres of light and darkness, good and evil, the way it is in the realms of myth and theology, and the way you sometimes, though not always, seem to describe it. Who, for instance, gave Osama bin Laden his big boost, leading to him being the threat he is to the West today? The USA and the CIA! Complexity? You bet.
All the best
I'll tell you why that's dangerous: because it incites hatred against Americans. There's a direct line between the irrational anti-Americanism that is rife in so many parts of the world and the attacks of Sept. 11. Have you noticed that many of the things bin Laden and his ilk criticize about the United States -- its supposed arrogance, its soulless materialism, its junk culture, its predatory capitalism -- are echoed almost to the word by its critics in the West.
(If you think that sort of thing doesn't incite hatred, consider that Islamic militants say to Americans what anti-Semites say to Jews: That if only they'd be less pushy, less arrogant, less money-grubbing, then people might not hate them so much. It's no coincidence that bin Laden spews hate against Jews and Americans with equal passion.)
I'm interested that you mention the Cold War, because the same sort of thing happened in those days. Every time the Soviets did something terrible, apologists rushed to point out that the Americans had once done something just as bad.
Let's call this the "yes but" response. Yes, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is probably a bad thing, but what about Vietnam? Yes, it's wrong to jail Soviet Jews for wanting to emigrate to Israel, but what about the blacks who went to jail in the Deep South for fighting segregation? Yes, Moscow sent dissidents to the gulag, but what about all the Americans persecuted during the McCarthy-era witch hunts? The aim was to equate the flaws of the world's greatest democracy with the crimes of its greatest tyranny.
Now the same crowd is saying the same "yes buts" about Sept. 11. Yes, it was a tragedy, but what about U.S. support for Israel, what about the sanctions against Iraq, what about the whole "blood-soaked" history of U.S. foreign policy?
Whatever you may wish, this sort of thing does lend legitimacy to the terrorists. It also weakens our own effort to confront them. One reason that Soviet communism survived so long despite its manifest failures is that intellectuals in the West refused to see it as it was -- not as an alternative way of organizing society, as valid in its own way as our own, but as a hate-filled utopian ideology headed by people who would sacrifice any number of lives to achieve their goal of remaking the world. It took an old cornball like Ronald Reagan to call it what it was: an evil empire. People laughed at him for saying that, as they laugh now when George Bush talks about the "evil doers," but saying it helped to strip away the varnish of legitimacy that the Soviets had enjoyed for so many years. We have to confront bin Laden's hate-filled people with the same unblinking honesty. Instead of echoing their twisted critique of the United States, we have to denounce it as the dangerous, demonizing prejudice that it is.
If we really want to go out on a limb, we might even try saying that there are good things about the United States and the values it represents. It's not cultural superiority to say the spread of American ideals like individual liberty and economic freedom have allowed the people in the Western world to achieve a higher level of comfort and freedom than any group in history. It's not smug to say the universal rights that have flowered most in the United States, Canada and other Western countries -- the right to free speech, to choose those who govern us, to equal treatment before the law, to equal status for men and women -- are valid for everyone. Ask the people of Taiwan, who have embraced democracy (while at the same time holding on to their Chinese culture). Countless others around the world would do the same, given half a chance.
Am I saying we should stop criticizing the Americans now that they are under attack? Of course not. There's lot to criticize -- capital punishment, hostility toward the United Nations, racial division. Americans do it all the time themselves. For all their essential faith in the American way of life, they're the most self-critical people in the world.
So please don't say you're being silenced. I'm not trying to shut you up. I just happen to think you're wrong. We're having an argument. That's allowed in our society -- and one of the reasons it's worth fighting for.
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