Holistic perspective required in the aftermath

It is staggering to contemplate the horror of the events yesterday and the suffering of the thousands of victims and their families. Even those persons not directly impacted, such as me, can’t help but feel violated and abused.

Yet I find myself getting extremely disturbed with every mention of the attacks as a “wake-up call,” or of the United States as representing the “civilized world,” or of the bemoaning of America’s loss of national “innocence.”

Last October, following the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, I suggested in a column (“Terrorism is in the eye of the beholder”, October 24) that Americans should question not simply how the ship could be bombed – which raises issues only of military preparedness – but in particular, why it was bombed.

To my knowledge, this latter question has been ignored, then and since, in virtually all media and official debate on the subject. Yet resolving why – whether one is considering the Cole or the horrendous attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. – will be necessary if the United States wishes to secure the future safety of its citizens and residents.

As I write, television newscasters have reported that “good indications” exist, according to Bush administration officials, that Osama Bin Laden was behind yesterday’s events. These reports should be treated cautiously.

Just a few years ago, the Clinton administration made similar claims about the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Based on this evidence, which was said to be overwhelming, Washington launched missiles against terrorist “training camps” in Afghanistan, as well as what it alleged was a chemical weapons plant in Sudan.

The evidence for the Sudanese structure’s use in such a manner, according to U.S. officials, was also overwhelming. In the course of the American attack, a security guard was killed at the factory. It is worth mentioning that the missile strikes were a blatant violation of international law, although this is generally of no interest to policymakers in Washington and it would have been difficult to learn as much from most American media. As it turned out, the plant actually manufactured many of the pharmaceuticals used by the Sudanese people. The allegations of its use in creating outlawed chemical agents quietly disappeared.

It is uncertain how many civilians might have suffered or died in the years since the American attack due to a lack of basic medicines. But it is certain these civilians, including the Sudanese security guard killed in the missile strike, have never been referred to by leading American journalists as victims of terror.

Nor have the people of Iraq. Since the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and the imposition of sanctions against its civilian population, the United Nations estimates that over half a million children have perished due to malnutrition, lack of necessary pharmaceuticals, poor sanitation and other preventable causes. They have been joined by their parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbors. The United States and Britain, its junior partner, have insisted throughout on the continued maintenance of the sanctions regime. And, in fact, these two nations have bombed Iraq off and on for years – including a handful of times in the last few weeks, reportedly causing a number of civilian casualties. There is no exciting video footage of the Iraqi peoples’ demise, which has occurred over the course of a decade, not several hours. But dead is dead, and there are hundreds of thousands in Iraq.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the United States remains Israel’s leading backer, subsidizing its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and its repression of Palestinian civilians. It vetoes Security Council resolutions on Israel’s behalf and it treats Israel as singularly victimized in the ongoing Palestinian conflict. Israel’s leader, a war criminal responsible for overseeing the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees – women, men and children – is regularly feted at the White House. His corrupt and despotic counterpart, Yasser Arafat, can’t even muster an invitation. Instead, he must look helpless as his people are confined to bantustans that increasingly resemble those of apartheid South Africa, their aspirations denied, their dignity crushed.

There can, of course, be no justifying the tragic attacks in New York and Washington. They must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. But in claiming that massive retaliation is both necessary and just, the United States is only ensuring additional carnage.

The problem isn’t the United State’s weakness. It’s the United State’s arrogance and strength. If attacks against the United States are inspired by U.S. actions elsewhere in the world, as seems likely, then critically examining and rectifying these policies – in the Middle East, the Balkans, East Asia – may represent the only means of avoiding future attacks. Individuals resort to terrorism, after all, because they are relatively powerless and desperate and feel that they have no other recourse.

So while mourning and denouncing yesterday’s horrific loss of life, we must also try to understand why such acts occur. The United States has perpetrated or contributed to many injustices around the world. This by no means excuses the indiscriminate slaughter of American civilians. But Washington cannot humiliate and oppress people indefinitely and expect nothing to happen in response.

How many people will have to die – in the United States and elsewhere – before our elected officials commit themselves to a world order based on justice, dignity and peace?


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