by Michael Albert and Stephen R. Shalom
4:03pm Thu Sep 20 '01
Lengthy and thoughtful reflection on the WTC attacks, their implications, and future courses.
From ZNet, whose servers have crashed.. September 11 And Its Aftermath By Michael Albert and Stephen R. Shalom
We are writing this on September 17, less than a week after the horrific terrorist attacks against the United States. We
are still dealing with our grief and trauma and we are still profoundly moved by the many acts of heroism, generosity,
and solidarity that have taken place. Some may find it inappropriate to offer political analysis this early, but however
discordant some may find it, the time for political analysis should be before actions are taken that may make the
situation far worse. Critics of war across the U.S. and around the world are working hard to communicate with people
who, for the moment, mainly seek retribution. Below we address some of the many questions that are being asked. We hope
the answers we offer, developed in consultation with many other activists, will assist people in their daily work.
Who did it?
The identity of the 19 individuals who hijacked the four planes is known, but what is not yet known is who provided the
coordination, the planning, the funding, and the logistical support, both in the United States and elsewhere. Many
indications point to the involvement of Osama bin Laden, but if his role is confirmed, this is the beginning, not the
end, of the inquiry: Were any other organizations involved and, if so, which ones? Were any national governments
involved and, if so, which ones? The danger here is that the U.S. government may answer these questions based on
political criteria rather than evidence.
Who is Osama bin Laden?
Osama bin Laden is an exiled Saudi, who inherited a fortune estimated at $300 million, though it's not clear how much
remains of it. Fanatically devoted to his intolerant version of Islam-a version rejected by the vast majority of
Muslims-bin Laden volunteered his services to the Afghan Mujahideen, the religious warriors battling the invading Soviet
Union from 1979 to 1989. The Afghan rebels were bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and the United States and trained by
Pakistani intelligence, with help from the CIA. The United States provided huge amounts of arms, including Stingers-
one-person anti-aircraft missiles-despite warnings that these could end up in the hands of terrorists. Washington thus
allied itself with bin Laden and more than 25,000 other Islamic militants from around the world who came to Afghanistan
to join the holy war against the Russians. As long as they were willing to fight the Soviet Union, the U.S. welcomed
them, even though many were virulently anti-American, some even connected to the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat of
Egypt. When Moscow finally withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, some of these Islamic militants turned their sights on
their other enemies, including Egypt (where they hoped to establish an Islamic state), Saudi Arabia, and the United
States. Bin Laden established an organization of these holy war veterans-al Qaida. In February 1998, bin Laden issued a
statement, endorsed by several extreme Islamic groups, declaring it the duty of all Muslims to kill U.S.
citizens-civilian or military-and their allies everywhere.
Where is Osama bin Laden?
After some attacks on U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia, Saudi authorities revoked bin Laden's citizenship. Bin Laden went
to the Sudan and then on to Afghanistan. His precise location is unknown, since he frequently moves or goes into hiding.
Afghanistan is led by the Taliban, a group of extreme Islamic fundamentalists, who emerged out of the Mujahideen. The
Taliban does not have full control over the country-there is a civil war against dissidents who control some 10-20
percent of the country. Afghanistan is an incredibly poor nation-life expectancy is 46 years of age, 1 out of 7 children
die in infancy, and per capita income is about $800 per year. Huge numbers of people remain refugees. Taliban rule is
dictatorial and its social policy is unusually repressive and sexist: for example, Buddhist statues have been destroyed,
Hindus have been required to wear special identification, and girls over eight are barred from school. Human rights
groups, the United Nations, and most governments have condemned the policies of the Taliban. Only Pakistan, and the two
leading U.S. allies in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, recognize the Taliban government.
Why did the terrorists do it?
We don't entirely know who did it, at this writing, so we can't say for sure at this point why they did it. There are,
however some possibilities worth thinking about.
One explanation points to a long list of grievances felt by people in the Middle East-U.S. backing for Israeli
repression and dispossession of the Palestinians, U.S. imposition of sanctions on Iraq, leading to the deaths of huge
numbers of innocents, and U.S. support for autocratic, undemocratic, and highly inegalitarian regimes. These are real
grievances and U.S. policy really does cause tremendous suffering. But how do these terror attacks mitigate the
suffering? Some may believe that by inflicting pain on civilians, a government may be overthrown or its policies will
change in a favorable direction. This belief is by no means unique to Middle Easterners-and has in fact been the
standard belief of U.S. and other government officials for years. It was the belief behind the terror bombings of World
War II by the Nazis, the U.S. and Britain, and behind the pulverizing of North Vietnam and the strikes on civilian
infrastructure during the Kosovo war. It is the same rationale as that offered for the ongoing economic sanctions
against Iraq: starve the people to pressure the leader. In addition to the deep immorality of targeting civilians as a
means of changing policy, its efficacy is often dubious.
In this case, one would have a totally inaccurate view of the United States if one thought that the events of September
11 would cause U.S. officials to suddenly see the injustice of their policies toward the Palestinians, etc. On the
contrary, the likely result of the attacks will be to allow U.S. leaders to mobilize the population behind a more
uncompromising pursuit of their previous policies. The actions will set back the causes of the weak and the poor, while
empowering the most aggressive and reactionary elements around the globe.
There is a second possible explanation for the September 11 attacks. Why commit a grotesquely provocative act against a
power so large and so armed as the United States? Perhaps provoking the United States was precisely the intent. By
provoking a massive military assault on one or more Islamic nations, the perpetrators may hope to set off a cycle of
terror and counter-terror, precipitating a holy war between the Islamic world and the West, a war that they may hope
will result in the overthrow of all insufficiently Islamic regimes and the unraveling of the United States, just as the
Afghan war contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union. Needless to say, this scenario is insane on every count one
But even if provocation rather than grievances is what motivated the planners of the terror strikes against the U.S.,
this still wouldn't mean grievances are irrelevant. Whatever the planners' motives, they still needed to attract
capable, organized, and skilled people, not only to participate, but to give their lives to a suicidal agenda.
Deeply-felt grievances provide a social environment from which fanatics can recruit and gain support.
How should guilt be determined and how should the punishment be carried out?
The answers to these questions are all important. In our world, the only alternative to vigilantism is that guilt should
be determined by an amassing of evidence that is then assessed in accordance with international law by the United
Nations Security Council or other appropriate international agencies.
Punishment should be determined by the UN as well, and likewise the means of implementation. The UN may arrive at
determinations that one or another party likes or not, as with any court, and may also be subject to political pressures
that call into question its results or not, as with any court. But that the UN is the place for determinations about
international conflict is obvious, at least according to solemn treaties signed by the nations of the world. Most
governments, however, don't take seriously their obligations under international law. Certainly, history has shown that
to U.S. policy makers international law is for everyone else to follow, and for Washington to manipulate when possible
or to otherwise ignore. Thus, when the World Court told the U.S. to cease its contra war against Nicaragua and pay
reparations, U.S. officials simply declared they did not consider themselves bound by the ruling.
Why us? Why the U.S.?
The terrorists wreaked their havoc on New York and Washington, not on Mexico City or Stockholm. Why?
George W. Bush has claimed that the United States was targeted because of its commitment to freedom and democracy. Bush
says people are jealous of our wealth. The truth is that anti-Americanism rests on feelings that the U.S. obstructs
freedom and democracy as well as material well being for others. In the Middle East, for example, the United States
supports Israeli oppression of Palestinians, providing the military, economic, and diplomatic backing that makes that
oppression possible. It condemns conquest when it is done by Iraq, but not when done by Israel. It has bolstered
authoritarian regimes (such as Saudi Arabia) that have provided U.S. companies with mammoth oil profits and has helped
overthrow regimes (such as Iran in the early 1950s) that challenged those profits. When terrorist acts were committed by
U.S. friends such as the Israeli-supervised massacres in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon, no U.S.
sanctions were imposed. But about the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iraq, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of
innocent children, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright could only say that she thought it was worth it. When the U.S.
went to war against Iraq, it targeted civilian infrastructure. When Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war, the United States
surreptitiously aided both sides.
On top of specific Middle Eastern concerns, anti-Americanism is also spawned by more general grievances. The United
States is the leading status-quo power in the world. It promotes a global economic system of vast inequality and
incredible poverty. It displays its arrogance of power when it rejects and blocks international consensus on issues
ranging from the environment, to the rights of children, to landmines, to an international criminal court, to national
Again, these grievances may have nothing to do with the motives of those who masterminded the terror strikes of
September 11. But they certainly help create an environment conducive to recruitment.
Isn't it callous to talk about U.S. crimes at a time when the U.S. is mourning its dead?
It would be callous if the people talking about U.S. crimes weren't also horrified at the terror in New York and if the
U.S. wasn't talking about mounting a war against whole countries, removing governments from power, engaging in massive
assaults, and evidencing no concern to discriminate terrorists from civilian bystanders.
But since critics are feeling the pain and the U.S. is already formulating its notions of justice in precisely those
unconstructive terms, for critics to carefully point out the hypocrisy, and the likely consequences even as we also
mourn the dead, feel outrage at the carnage, and help relief efforts, is essential. It is how we help avoid piling
catastrophe on top of catastrophe.
Suppose bin Laden is the mastermind of the recent horror. Imagine he had gone before the Afghan population a week or two
earlier and told them of the U.S. government's responsibility for so much tragedy and mayhem around the world,
particularly to Arab populations as in Iraq and Palestine. Imagine that he further told them that Americans have
different values and that they cheered when bombs were rained on people in Libya and Iraq. Suppose bin Laden had
proposed the bombing of U.S. civilians to force their government to change its ways. In that hypothetical event, what
would we want the Afghan people to have replied?
We would want them to have told bin Laden that he was demented and possessed. We would want them to have pointed out
that the fact that the U.S. government has levied massive violence against Iraq's civilians and others does not warrant
attacks on U.S. civilians, and the fact of different values doesn't warrant attacks of any sort at all.
So isn't this what we ought to also want the U.S. public to say to George Bush? The fact of bin Laden's violence,
assuming it proves to be the case, or that of the Taliban, or whatever other government may be implicated, does not
warrant reciprocal terror attacks on innocent civilians.
By talking about U.S. crimes abroad, aren't we excusing terrorist acts?
To express remorse and pain, and to also seek to avoid comparable and worse pain being inflicted on further innocents
(including Americans) is not to evidence a lack of feeling for the impact of crimes against humanity, but instead
indicates feelings that extend further than what the media or the government tells us are the limits of permissible
sympathy. We not only feel for those innocents who have already died, and their families, but also for those who might
be killed shortly, for those we may be able to help save.
U.S. crimes in no way justify or excuse the attacks of September 11. Terror is an absolutely unacceptable response to
U.S. crimes. But at the same time, we need to stress as well that terror-targeting civilians-is an absolutely
unacceptable response by the United States to the genuine crimes of others.
The reason it is relevant to bring up U.S. crimes is not to justify terrorism, but to understand the terrain that breeds
terrorism and terrorists. Terrorism is a morally despicable and strategically suicidal reaction to injustice. But
reducing injustice can certainly help eliminate the seeds of pain and suffering that nurture terrorist impulses and
support for them.
Bush has said that the "war on terrorism" needs to confront all countries that aid or abet terrorism. Which countries
The current thinking on this topic, promulgated by Bush and spreading rapidly beyond, is that anyone who plans, carries
out, or abets terrorism, including knowingly harboring terrorists, is culpable for terrorist actions and their
results-where terrorism is understood as the attacking of innocent civilians in order to coerce policy makers. Some
people might argue with some aspect of this formulation, but from where we sit, the formulation is reasonable enough. It
is the application that falls short.
The U.S. State Department has a list of states that support terrorism, but it is-as one would expect-an extremely
political document. The latest listing consisted of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, and Sudan-significantly
omitting Afghanistan. Cuba is included, one suspects, less because of any actual connection to terrorism, than because
of longstanding U.S. hostility to the Cuban government and the long record of U.S. terrorism against Cuba. If we are
talking about terrorism of the sort exemplified by car and other hand-delivered bombs, kidnappings, plane hijackings, or
suicide assaults, we can reasonably guess that most of the countries on the State Department list, along with
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and some other poor nations would qualify with varying degrees of culpability.
On the other hand, if we are talking about terrorism of the sort exemplified by military bombing and invasion, by food
or medical embargoes affecting civilians rather than solely or even primarily official and military targets, by hitting
"soft targets" such as health clinics or agricultural cooperatives, or by funding and training death squads, then we
would have a rather different list of culpable nations, including such professed opponents of terrorism as the United
States, Britain, France, Russia, and Israel.
At times the parties engaged in either list point to the actions perpetrated by those on the other list as justification
for their behavior. But, of course, terror does not justify subsequent terror, nor does reciprocal terror diminish
terror from the other side.
Do Palestinians support the attacks, and, if so, what is the implication?
There have been reports of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza cheering the attacks, and similar reports regarding
Palestinians in the United States. Fox News has played over and over the same clip of some Palestinians in the occupied
territories celebrating. But the media fails to explain that they are showing only a small minority of Palestinians and
that official Palestinian sentiment has expressed its condemnation of the attacks and sympathy for the victims. The
media have been especially remiss in not reporting such things as the statement issued by the Palestinian village of
Beit Sahour movingly denouncing the terror, or the candlelight vigil in Arab East Jerusalem in memory of the victims.
There is no reason to doubt, however, that some Palestinians-both in the U.S. and in the Middle East-cheered the
attacks. This is wrong, but it is also understandable. The United States has been the most important international
backer of Israeli oppression of Palestinians. Politically immature Palestinians, like the Americans who cheered the
atomic bombing of Hiroshima or many lesser bombings such as that of Libya in 1986, ignore the human meaning of
destroying an "enemy" target.
But that some Palestinians have reacted in this way, while disappointing, should have no bearing on our understanding of
their oppression and the need to remedy it. In fact, given that Israel seems to be using the September 11 attacks as an
excuse and a cover for increasing assaults on Palestinians, we need to press all the more vigorously for a just solution
to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
What is the likely impact of the attacks within the U.S. policy-making establishment?
The catastrophic character of these events provides a perfect excuse for reactionary elements to pursue every agenda
item that they can connect to "the war against terrorism" and that they can fuel by fanning fears in the population.
This obviously includes expanding military expenditures that have nothing whatever to do with legitimate security
concerns and everything to do with profit-seeking and militarism. For example, even though the events of September 11
should have shown that "national missile defense" is no defense at all against the most likely threats we face, already
the Democrats are beginning to drop their opposition to that destabilizing boondoggle. Amazingly, certain elements will
even extrapolate to social issues. For example, our own home grown fundamentalists-like Jerry Falwell-have actually
declared (though retracted after wide criticism) that abortion, homosexuality, feminism, and the ACLU are at fault.
Others hope to use the attacks as a rationale for eliminating the capital gains tax, a long-time right-wing objective.
But the main focus will be military policy. In coming weeks, we will see a celebration in America of military power, of
a massive arms build-up, and perhaps assassinations, all touted as if the terror victims will be honored rather than
defiled by our preparing to entomb still more innocent people around the world.
So what is the likely U.S. response?
U.S. policymaking regarding international relations (and domestic relations as well) is a juggling act. On one side, the
goal is enhancing the privilege, power, and wealth of U.S. elites. On the other side, the constraint is keeping at bay
less powerful and wealthy constituencies who might have different agendas, both at home and abroad.
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has had a problem-how to get the public to ratify policies that don't benefit
the public, but that serve corporate and elite political interests. The fear of a Soviet menace, duly exaggerated,
served that purpose admirably for decades. The ideal response to the current situation, from the elite standpoint, will
be to replace the Cold War with the Anti-Terror War. With this accomplished, they will again have a vehicle to instill
fear, arguably more credible than the former Soviet menace. Again they will have an enemy, terrorists, whom they can
blame for anything and everything, trying as well to smear all dissidents as traveling a path leading inexorably toward
the horrors of terrorism.
So their response to these recent events is to intone that we must have a long war, a difficult struggle, against an
implacable, immense, and even ubiquitous enemy. They will declare that we must channel our energies to this cause, we
must sacrifice butter for guns, we must renounce liberty for security, we must succumb, in short, to the rule of the
right, and forget about pursuing the defense and enlargement of rights. Their preferred response will be to use the
military, particularly against countries that are defenseless, perhaps even to occupy one and to broadly act in ways
that will not so much reduce the threat of terror and diminish its causes, as to induce conflict that is serviceable to
power regardless of the enlargement of terror that results.
Already Congress has been asked to give the president a blank check for military action, which means further removing
U.S. military action from democratic control. Only Rep. Barbara Lee had the courage to vote "no" on Congress's joint
resolution, authorizing the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations,
or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11,
2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against
the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."
What response should the U.S. take instead?
The best way to deal with terrorism is to address its root causes. Perhaps some terrorism would exist even if the
grievances of the people of the Third World were dealt with-grievances that lead to anger, despair, frustration,
feelings of powerlessness, and hatred-but certainly the ability of those who would commit terror, without grievances to
recruit others, would be tremendously reduced. As a second step, we might help establish a real international consensus
against terrorism by putting on trial U.S. officials responsible for some of the atrocities noted earlier.
Of course, these are long-term solutions and we face the horror of terrorism today. So we must consider what we want the
United States government to do internationally right now.
The U.S. government's guiding principle ought to be to assure the security, safety, and well-being of U.S. citizens
without detracting from the security, safety, and well-being of others. A number of points follow from this principle.
We must insist that any response refrain from targeting civilians. It must refrain as well from attacking so-called
dual-use targets, those that have some military purpose but substantially impact civilians. The United States did not
adhere to this principle in World War II (where the direct intention was often to kill civilians) and it still does not
adhere to it, as when it hit the civilian infrastructure in Iraq or Serbia, knowing that the result would be civilian
deaths (from lack of electricity in hospitals, lack of drinking water, sewage treatment plants, and so on), while the
military benefits would be slight. We would obviously reject as grotesque the claim that the World Trade Center was a
legitimate target because its destruction makes it harder for the U.S. government to function (and hence to carry out
its military policies). We need to be as sensitive to the human costs of striking dual-use facilities in other countries
as we are of those in our own country.
We must insist as well that any response to the terror be carried out according to the UN Charter. The Charter provides
a clear remedy for events like those of September 11: present the case to the Security Council and let the Council
determine the appropriate response. The Charter permits the Council to choose responses up to and including the use of
military force. No military action should be carried out without Security Council authorization. To bypass the Security
Council is to weaken international law that provides security to all nations, especially the weaker ones.
Security Council approval is not always determinative. During the Gulf War, the U.S. obtained such approval by
exercising its wealth and power to gain votes. So we should insist on a freely offered Security Council authorization.
Moreover, we should insist that the UN retain control of any response; that is, we should oppose the usual practice
whereby the United States demands that the Council give it a blank check to conduct a war any way it wants. In the case
of the Gulf War, although the Council authorized the war, the war was run out of Washington, not the UN. To give the
United States a free hand to run a military operation as it chooses removes a crucial check.
We should insist that no action and no Security Council vote be taken without a full presentation of the evidence
assigning culpability. We don't want Washington announcing that we should just take its word for it-as occurred in 1998,
when the U.S. bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, asserting that it was a chemical warfare facility, only to
acknowledge some time later that it had been mistaken.
If-and it's a big if-all these conditions are met, then we should no more object to seizing the perpetrators than we
object to having the domestic police seize a rapist or a murderer to bring the culprit to justice. And what if a state
is also found to be culpable or if a state determines to use military means to protect the terrorists? The dangers of
harm to civilians are much greater in the case of a war against a state. Military action would be justified only insofar
as it did not cause substantial harm to civilians.
In addition, if the goal of a proposed military action is to enhance U.S. security rather than to wreak vengeance, such
envisioned benefits would have to be weighed against the prospects of driving thousands of others in the Islamic world
into the hands of terrorism. In other words, military action needs to be the smallest part of the international
response. More important are diplomatic pressures, cutting off funding for terrorist organizations, reducing the
grievances that feed frustration, and so on.
It is critically important to also note, however, that even non-military actions can cause immense civilian suffering
and that such options too must be rejected. Calling for Pakistan to cut off food aid to Afghanistan, for example, as the
United States has already done, would likely lead to starvation on a huge scale. Its implications could be far worse
than those of bombing or other seemingly more aggressive choices.
What should we do to protect ourselves from these sorts of attacks?
Beyond pursuing the implementation of international law through appropriate international channels and beyond trying to
rectify unjust conditions that breed hopelessness and despair that can become the nurturing ground of terror, it is also
necessary to reduce vulnerability and risk.
Some things are far easier than the media would have us believe. If we don't want to ever see a commercial airliner
turned into a missile and used to destroy people and property, we can disconnect the pilots' cabin and the body of the
plane, making entry to the former from the latter impossible. Likewise, it is significant that the U.S. airline industry
has, up until now, handled airport security through private enterprise, which means low-paid, unskilled security
personnel with high turn-over. In Europe, on the other hand, airport security is a government function and the workers
are relatively well-paid, and hence much more highly motivated and competent.
Other tasks will be harder. What we should not do, however, is curtail basic freedoms and militarize daily life. That
response doesn't ward off terror, but makes terror the victor.
How do we respond to what seems like militaristic flag-waving?
To harshly judge the way some show their feelings for the U.S. in times of crisis can be callous and unconstructive. The
image of firefighters running up stairs to help those above is heroic and deserves profound respect. The vision of
hundreds and thousands of people helping at the scene, working to save lives, donating, supporting, is similarly worthy
and positive. Even the flag waving, which can at times be jingoistic, should not be assumed to be such.The important
thing is to increase awareness of the relevant facts and values at stake, the policies that may follow and their
implications, and what people of good will can do to influence all these.
What should progressives do?
Change depends on organized resistance that raises awareness and commitment. It depends on pressuring decision makers to
respect the will of a public with dissident and critical views. Our immediate task is to communicate accurate
information, to counter misconceptions and illogic, to empathize and be on the wavelength of the public, to talk and
listen, to offer information, analysis, and humane aims.