Thought Not Vengeance

I write this as the extent of the carnage from the terrorist attacks continues to unfold. My hands are still shaking as I sit at my computer. Like most Americans, I am still in shock at the horror and the extent of innocent lives lost.

There is no need to repeat that terrorism is not rational, but an emotive reaction by frustrated and angry people. Yet the common reaction to terrorism is often no less rational, no less a reaction by a frustrated and angry people.

It would behoove this great nation to not respond in ways that would restrict civil liberties, particularly if the terrorists are from an immigrant community. Already, analogies are being drawn to Pearl Harbor, which resulted in the internment of tens of thousands of loyal U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry.

It is also important that the United States not retaliate militarily in a blind, dramatic matter as has been done in the past. In 1997, in retaliation of the terrorist attacks of two U.S. embassies in Africa, the U.S. bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan which supplied more than half the antibiotics and vaccines for that impoverished country. The Clinton administration falsely claimed it was a chemical weapons plant controlled by an exiled Saudi terrorist. In 1986, the U.S. bombed two Libyan cities, killing scores of civilians. Though the U.S. claimed it would curb Libyan-backed terrorism, Libyan intelligence operatives ended up blowing up a U.S. airliner in retaliation.

Military responses usually result only in a spiral of violent retaliation. Similarly, simply bombing other countries after the fact will not protect lives. Indeed, it will likely result in what Pentagon planners euphemistically call “collateral damage,” i.e., the deaths of civilians just as innocent as those murdered in New York City. And survivors bent on revenge.

Today, in the Middle East, the U.S. backs an occupying Israeli army as well as corrupt autocratic Arab dictatorships, which kill innocent civilians using weapons our government supplies. We justify supporting these repressive governments in the name of defending our strategic interests in that important region. Ironically, it is just such policies that may have provoked these terrorist attacks, inevitably raising the question as to whether our security interests are really enhanced through such militarization.

Even when the U.S. puts itself forward as a peacemaker, as with the Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt, it may look very different to those in the region. Indeed, not only did it avoid resolving the Palestinian question–the key to peace in the Middle East–Camp David more closely resembled a tripartite military pact than a real peace agreement, in that it resulted in tens of billions of dollars worth of additional American armaments flowing into that already overly militarized region.

It is no coincidence that terrorist groups have arisen in an area where the world’s one remaining superpower puts far more emphasis on arms shipments and air strikes than on international law or human rights, and even blocks the United Nations from sending human rights monitors or from enforcing its resolutions against an ally. Nor is it surprising that that superpower would eventually find itself on the receiving end of a violent backlash.

Similarly, it is not surprising that in the Middle East and other parts of the world that have suffered violence, some people have the perverse reaction of celebrating that the United States has now also experienced such a massive and violent loss of life on its own soil.

These tragedies remind us of the need to focus not on unworkable missile defense projects, but instead on improved intelligence and interdiction. Instead of continuing the cycle of violence, we need to re-evaluate policies that lead to such anger and resentment. Instead of lashing out against perceived hostile communities, we need to recognize that America’s greatest strength is not in our weapons of destruction, but the fortitude and caring of its people.

(Stephen Zunes <[email protected]> is a senior policy analyst and Middle East editor of the Foreign Policy in Focus Project. He is an associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. This FPIF opinion piece was published by the Baltimore Sun September 12, 2001.)