Shoddy thinking mischaracterizes patriotism

Over the weekend I joined numerous Minnesotans and thousands of other concerned people in Washington, D.C., to protest the American march toward war. Also present in the city was a small group of counter-demonstrators.

One held a sign with a picture of a collapsing tower of the World Trade Center, next to which was written, “The Leftists’ Fantasy Came True.” Another repeatedly chanted into a bullhorn, “Swim to Cuba.” One man walked along the sidewalk squawking like a chicken, as if it were cowardice that impelled the antiwar activists – a number of whom were veterans of the armed forces – to demand a global order based on dignity, justice and peace.

Then on Monday, following a string of like-minded folks, Anthony Reel announced in a Daily opinion piece (“Counter-Americans imperil American safety” – Oct. 1) that critics of military retaliation – that is, “the counter-Americans and their co-conspirators (on) the Daily editorial board” – in fact “tacitly support those who attack the United States.” But unable to locate any endorsement of the attacks by me or other “terrorist sympathizers,” he was forced to speculate about what he believes antiwar activists are “truly saying.”

For instance, when we state “there can … be no justifying the tragic attacks,” which “must be condemned in the strongest possible terms,” as past and present actions of the United States “by no means excuse … the indiscriminate slaughter of American civilians,” as I wrote in a column on September 12, this amounts to an effort, according to Reel, “to justify why the attacks on America were deserved.”

Such logical bankruptcy, emblematic of much of the “patriotic” drivel that’s appeared in the Daily in recent weeks, is a disservice to the notion of informed debate. For the self-appointed “patriots” whose letters or columns have been published in this paper since Sept. 11, evidence is apparently immaterial, for it matters not what people actually do or say, but rather what they are “truly saying,” as determined by mind readers like Reel.

If there is any silver lining in this whole charade, it is that the intellectual reasoning of the “patriots” is so transparently vacuous as to have surpassed the absurd. No matter how many times antiwar activists condemn the atrocities as “inexcusable” and demand “the perpetrators…be brought to justice,” as I did on September 20, they will still be denounced for plotting “to undermine the defense of the United States, its people and its freedom,” as Reel proclaimed. It is worrisome analysis more complex than this sort of ridiculous swill has yet to prominently appear in most major American media.

Within this simplistic world of the “patriots,” the United States is the ultimate beneficent nation, a benevolent superpower that, unlike all other states, does not pursue the interests of its dominant interest groups, but rather selflessly and at all times strives for abstract principles like freedom, human rights, and democracy.

As such, those critical of U.S. policies abroad – such as the financing of Israeli state terror against Palestinians, the illegal American aggression that has caused an untold number of deaths in Sudan or the continued support for an Egyptian regime that imprisons democracy activists and homosexuals alike – by definition oppose these principles and are thus, according to the “patriots,” “anti-American,” “traitorous,” “counter-American,” or not Americans “in the true sense of the word.”

One of most remarkable intellectual achievements of these “patriots” since September 11 has been to reorient the meaning of the terms “idealism” and “realism” into precisely their opposites. Thus, persons suggesting terrorism cannot be defeated militarily but must be addressed in a multifaceted manner are said to be naive or idealistic, while those advocating all-out war against terrorists and the states Washington says harbor them are believed to be acting soberly and realistically.

But what the proponents of a military response have yet to identify, to my knowledge, is any historical precedent for this course of action. Why is advocating war against anti-American terrorism realistic? Where specifically have the “patriots” seen terrorism defeated militarily? Russia? Israel? Sri Lanka? The United Kingdom? Algeria? India?

In calling for a military response, Reel raised the issue of international law and claimed “the majority of the developed nations have acknowledged armed attacks in this case are warranted.” Even if this were true – and it is not – the point is irrelevant. If we take democratic theory seriously, weighing solely what “developed nations” might think is of little concern in considering the legal basis for international policymaking. In a domestic context, this would be akin to maintaining only homeowners or millionaires are legally situated to determine the constitutionality of federal policy.

Bizarrely, Reel pointed to the actions of NATO members as justifying U.S. military retaliation. While properly conceding “NATO is not international law,” he erroneously wrote the military alliance nonetheless “defers to the definitions and requirements of international law.” While this may perhaps be true in theory, it has certainly not been true in practice. To assert as much is stunningly ahistorical.

With respect to the war over Kosovo, perhaps NATO’s best-known campaign to date, The New York Times, which supported Washington throughout, observed in a postwar footnote: “One accusation rarely noted in the American press, but extensively accepted as truth abroad, was that the bombing of Yugoslavia was a flagrant violation of sovereignty and international law.” Again, evidence for the “patriots” is immaterial.

Yet Reel’s mention of international law – however misguided in his understanding of the right to self-defense, as he selectively excluded the fundamental caveat of imminent attack – nonetheless represents a positive development in the ongoing debate over how the United States should respond to the events of September 11. It would of course be irresponsible to claim there exists a simple solution to ensuring justice and preventing future terror, but some proposals are certainly more sensible than others.

And of the various alternatives, war strikes me as the most ill-conceived and insane. Why? Several reasons immediately come to mind, though this list is by no means exhaustive.

First, invading Afghanistan, Iraq or some other state under the guise of eradicating anti-American terrorism will kill innocent civilians. As now-widow Judy Keane, who lost her husband Richard on September 11, commented in opposing a military response: “Bombing Afghanistan is just going to create more widows, more homeless, fatherless children.” These people would be just as innocent as those who died three weeks ago.

Second, such killing would only further the bitterness of many people throughout much of the Islamic world. Rupert Eales-White, whose brother Gavin Cushny was killed in the attacks, reasonably surmised “(i)f military action results in the deaths of innocent Afghans, then 100 more Bin Ladens will rise from the grave.” What might this suggest about the prospect for continued attacks against the United States?

Third, from a strictly pragmatic perspective it is doubtful to what extent Washington could even locate Osama bin Laden, whom they claim is responsible, in order to retrieve him “dead or alive,” as our esteemed president so eloquently put it. According to a report three days ago in The New York Times, the CIA has been unsuccessfully attempting to assassinate Bin Laden for years.

Fourth, if policymakers should have learned any lesson from previous U.S. support for Bin Laden and other “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan, it is that the repercussions of American overt and covert support can be devastating. Rather than heed this lesson, however, Washington is presently proposing major support for the brutal and abusive rebel forces that oppose the Taliban. This could portend future “blowback” of a similar nature for the United States.

Fifth, military action has the potential to destabilize Pakistan and perhaps India, both of which possess nuclear weapons. The dangers inherent to this possibility are self-evident.

And sixth, any invasion absent of U.N. authorization would demonstrate to the world Washington has nothing but contempt for international law and recognizes only the limits of its own power. It must be noted the Security Council passed a broad (and flawed) anti-terrorism resolution on Friday that nonetheless, according to The Washington Post, explicitly “stopped short of authorizing the use of military force” by the United States. Reel conveniently neglected to mention this in his discussion of the international consensus he believes to exist.

While perhaps not satisfying the blood lust of many “patriots,” adherence to international law and support for multilateral institutions represents probably the most logical and effective means of combating terror and bringing to justice the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks. International legal procedures exist – whether through the UN or bilateral extradition and diplomatic conventions – and should be employed by the United States.

Yet if Washington desires that others respect international law in not attacking American civilians, then it must lead by example. Critical to this enterprise will be a major re-evaluation of U.S. foreign policy and the cessation of U.S.-sponsored terror. This will likely be the most painful prescription for many “patriots,” as it concedes peoples and groups around the world have legitimate grievances against the United States. But if we are serious about averting future attacks like those of September 11, it will be necessary to address the anger that drives desperate people into doing desperate things.

One final note: It’s time, in my opinion, to stop senselessly bickering about who is really an American and begin meaningfully debating the repercussions of war. Along these lines, there will be a teach-in tomorrow, October 4, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. in 230 Anderson Hall sponsored by the MacArthur Program and the Working Group on Understanding September 11th. Rafael Ortiz and I will speak on the direction of activism in the wake of the attacks, as well as show slides and discuss the recent antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C.

Scott Laderman’s column regularly appears alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor
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