It’s easy to find agreement that the acts of Sept. 11 were evil. What’s not so simple is the question, “Why is there evil?” Posing this question in a secular environment can be a disturbing process that trades the comfortable simplicity of black and white for the many-shaded realm of gray.
On Sept. 14, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) stood on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives explaining her reasons for voting against a congressional resolution giving President Bush carte blanche to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against anyone connected with the Sept. 11 attacks.
“We know that the president has the authority to go to war under the War Powers Act. The Congress has a responsibility to provide the checks and balances and to exercise some oversight,” Lee told her colleagues. “I don’t believe we should disenfranchise the people of America in the war-making decision-making process.”
Like Jeannette Rankin, who stood in virtually the same spot and voted against entry into both world wars, Lee lost the vote, 420 to 1. Due to the ensuing barrage of death threats for her “anti-American” stance, Lee now travels with a 24-hour contingent of bodyguards.
Despite widespread anger and condemnation over last month’s attacks, a recent Gallup poll suggests that attitudes around the world may not be as united around a military response as the American mainstream media suggests. According to the poll, 46 percent of Americans were either undecided or opposed to military action. And in 29 of 30 foreign nations polled, the public was opposed to military action, preferring extradition and other legal remedies; the one exception, not surprisingly, was Israel. Public opposition to a war was in the 80 to 90 percent range in both Europe and Latin America.
Last week the World Affairs Council of Montana hosted a community dialogue, “Terrorism in America: What’s Next?” to help Missoulians untangle this complex issue. The panel included military strategy specialists, a former U.S. ambassador, and professors of history and international law.
Dr. Richard Drake, a University of Montana history professor who teaches a course on terrorism, expressed concern with President Bush’s intent to go after “all terrorism,” i.e., all sixty terrorist organizations and the countries that harbor them. While noting that the recent attacks were reprehensible and their perpetrators should be punished, other activities that might be considered “terrorism” are not always black and white. Drake discussed how in many regions of the world, economic and social forces create extreme desperation; fanatical organizations offer shelter, purpose, and an outlet for those frustrations. Drake advised that to truly attack the roots of terrorism requires addressing the needs of people living in those difficult circumstances.
Searching for the roots of terrorism must also include a look at what role the United States played in creating such “difficult circumstances.” At a school in northwest Pakistan, considered by the United States to be a training ground for turning young boys into terrorists, journalist Gotham Chopra interviewed the school chancellor, who had this to say:
“You gave us weapons and trained our men. You built our roads, fed our people. Your government helps to create and to fund the Taliban because it was in their interest to use guerilla warfare and terrorist tactics against the Russians. You made us your friend. But then your Cold War ended and you deserted us. Because it was no longer in your selfish interest to have us as your allies, you abandoned us, left our people hungry and hateful. You turned your friends into foes because you used us like whores.”
This contradictory relationship with Afghanistan existed as recently as this year. In April the U.S. State Department issued its annual report, “Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000,” in which it applauds UN Security Counsel Resolution 1333 which levied sanctions against the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Ladin. A month later the United States sent the Taliban a $43 million aid package as a reward for their edict that the growing of opium poppies was “against the will of Allah.”
During the forum, Brigadier General (ret.) Dale Stovall discussed the means at the military’s disposal for rooting out and punishing the terrorists. He said that the objective of this war on terrorism is to “put the terrorists in a position where they can’t operate, and show the world ... [that] we have the military capability to strike at any place in the world, and you cannot stop us. Therefore, if you want to get into a situation where you are aiding a terrorist to attack the United States, you can expect to get hit.”
But in an interview with the Independent after the forum, Drake cautioned that in our own thirst for revenge “there is a great danger in any kind of counterterrorist tactic, of lapsing into the same kind of actions that we accuse terrorists of perpetrating.”
As ambassador Mark Johnson noted, virtually none of the countries in question have democratically elected governments, and anti-American sentiment among the civilian population may have been exacerbated by state-run media designed to generate anti-American propaganda. Thus, any “collateral damage” could hurt innocent people who never had a say in the actions of their own government, as well as “combatants” who were victims of forced military service.
When asked if Americans could likewise be in danger of getting caught in a war machine that manufactures their consent through secrecy and propaganda, Drake says, “In times of national crisis, civil liberties are invariably infringed upon. Woodrow Wilson spoke on this on the eve of World War I when he said ‘In times of war, the Constitution becomes a dead letter.’”
Perhaps this is what Barbara Lee feared when she cast her vote, and what Nietzche feared when he warned “Those who choose to do battle with monsters must be careful to not become monsters in the process.”