Howard Zinn: Our War on Terrorism
- Unless we reexamine our policies----we will always live in fear
Our War on Terrorism
10/18/04 "The Progressive" -- I am calling it "our" war on terrorism
because I want to distinguish it from Bush's war on terrorism, and
from Sharon's, and from Putin's. What their wars have in common is
that they are based on an enormous deception: persuading the people
of their countries that you can deal with terrorism by war. These
rulers say you can end our fear of terrorism--of sudden, deadly,
vicious attacks, a fear new to Americans--by drawing an enormous
circle around an area of the world where terrorists come from
(Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya) or can be claimed to be connected
with (Iraq), and by sending in tanks and planes to bomb and
terrorize whoever lives within that circle.
Since war is itself the most extreme form of terrorism, a war on
terrorism is profoundly self-contradictory. Is it strange, or
normal, that no major political figure has pointed this out?
Even within their limited definition of terrorism, they--the
governments of the United States, Israel, Russia--are clearly
failing. As I write this, three years after the events of September
11, the death toll for American servicemen has surpassed 1,000, more
than 150 Russian children have died in a terrorist takeover of a
school, Afghanistan is in chaos, and the number of significant
terrorist attacks rose to a twenty-one-year high in 2003, according
to official State Department figures. The highly respected
International Institute for Strategic Studies in London has reported
that "over 18,000 potential terrorists are at large with recruitment
accelerating on account of Iraq."
With the failure so obvious, and the President tripping over his
words trying to pretend otherwise (August 30: "I don't think you can
win" and the next day: "Make no mistake about it, we are winning"),
it astonishes us that the polls show a majority of Americans
believing the President has done "a good job" in the war on
I can think of two reasons for this.
First, the press and television have not played the role of
gadflies, of whistleblowers, the role that the press should play in
a society whose fundamental doctrine of democracy (see the
Declaration of Independence) is that you must not give blind trust
to the government. They have not made clear to the public--I mean
vividly, dramatically clear--what have been the human consequences
of the war in Iraq.
I am speaking not only of the deaths and mutilations of American
youth, but the deaths and mutilations of Iraqi children. (I am
reading at this moment of an American bombing of houses in the city
of Fallujah, leaving four children dead, with the U.S. military
saying this was part of a "precision strike" on "a building
frequently used by terrorists.") I believe that the American
people's natural compassion would come to the fore if they truly
understood that we are terrorizing other people by our "war on
A second reason that so many people accept Bush's leadership is that
no counterargument has come from the opposition party. John Kerry
has not challenged Bush's definition of terrorism. He has not been
forthright. He has dodged and feinted, saying that Bush has
waged "the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time." Is
there a right war, a right place, a right time? Kerry has not spoken
clearly, boldly, in such a way as to appeal to the common sense of
the American people, at least half of whom have turned against the
war, with many more looking for the wise words that a true leader
provides. He has not clearly challenged the fundamental premise of
the Bush Administration: that the massive violence of war is the
proper response to the kind of terrorist attack that took place on
September 11, 2001.
Let us begin by recognizing that terrorist acts--the killing of
innocent people to achieve some desired goal--are morally
unacceptable and must be repudiated and opposed by anyone claiming
to care about human rights. The September 11 attacks, the suicide
bombings in Israel, the taking of hostages by Chechen nationalists--
all are outside the bounds of any ethical principles.
This must be emphasized, because as soon as you suggest that it is
important, to consider something other than violent retaliation, you
are accused of sympathizing with the terrorists. It is a cheap way
of ending a discussion without examining intelligent alternatives to
Then the question becomes: What is the appropriate way to respond to
such awful acts? The answer so far, given by Bush, Sharon, and
Putin, is military action. We have enough evidence now to tell us
that this does not stop terrorism, may indeed provoke more
terrorism, and at the same time leads to the deaths of hundreds,
even thousands, of innocent people who happen to live in the
vicinity of suspected terrorists.
What can account for the fact that these obviously ineffective, even
counterproductive, responses have been supported by the people of
Russia, Israel, the United States? It's not hard to figure that out.
It is fear, a deep, paralyzing fear, a dread so profound that one's
normal rational faculties are distorted, and so people rush to
embrace policies that have only one thing in their favor: They make
you feel that something is being done. In the absence of an
alternative, in the presence of a policy vacuum, filling that vacuum
with a decisive act becomes acceptable.
And when the opposition party, the opposition Presidential
candidate, can offer nothing to fill that policy vacuum, the public
feels it has no choice but to go along with what is being done. It
is emotionally satisfying, even if rational thought suggests it does
not work and cannot work.
If John Kerry cannot offer an alternative to war, then it is the
responsibility of citizens, with every possible resource they can
muster, to present such an alternative to the American public.
Yes, we can try to guard in every possible way against future
attacks, by trying to secure airports, seaports, railroads, other
centers of transportation. Yes, we can try to capture known
terrorists. But neither of those actions can bring an end to
terrorism, which comes from the fact that millions of people in the
Middle East and elsewhere are angered by American policies, and out
of these millions come those who will carry their anger to fanatic
The CIA senior terrorism analyst who has written a book
signed "Anonymous" has said bluntly that U.S. policies--supporting
Sharon, making war on Afghanistan and Iraq--"are completing the
radicalization of the Islamic world."
Unless we reexamine our policies--our quartering of soldiers in a
hundred countries (the quartering of foreign soldiers, remember, was
one of the grievances of the American revolutionaries), our support
of the occupation of Palestinian lands, our insistence on
controlling the oil of the Middle East--we will always live in fear.
If we were to announce that we will reconsider those policies, and
began to change them, we might start to dry up the huge reservoir of
hatred where terrorists are hatched.
Whoever the next President will be, it is up to the American people
to demand that he begin a bold reconsideration of the role our
country should play in the world. That is the only possible solution
to a future of never-ending, pervasive fear. That would be "our" war
Howard Zinn, the author of "A People's History of the United
States," is a columnist for The Progressive.
Copyright: The Progressive
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