The United States and indeed most of the world is going through a process of shock, mourning and anger in reacting to the horrific events in New York and Washington. The anger includes calls for retaliation, and the elimination of terrorists and the governments that support them.
Secretary of State Colin Powell assumes a radical realignment of the world into those for and those against terrorism.
But what is terrorism? It is the activity of the dispossessed, the voiceless, in a radically asymmetrical distribution of power. While the drums of war beat louder and louder, let calmer voices try to make some simple observations:
Terrorism is not a state-operated activity. It is a sub-state, transnational activity that is like a virus that can easily mutate. The generals are preparing for the last war once again.
Closing borders, putting up missile shields are geo-political reactions harkening back to images of the Middle Ages walls and fortresses, and do not respond to future cyber interference or chemical/biological terrorism.
Terrorism has causes. Growth in inequalities of wealth and lack of political access lead to frustration which eventually leads to aggression, violence and terrorism. The greater the levels of frustration, the greater the levels of violence. The higher the levels of repression, the higher the levels of reaction.
If we have learned anything from the Vietnam conflict, it is that the ant can defeat the elephant.
In other words, even if we accept the use of force to react to terrorism, the evidence says that the use of force will not succeed.
Wars against poverty and drugs have not succeeded. War is a legal term used between states with formal declarations. A war against terrorism makes no sense.
There has been little mention of international law in reacting to the attacks in the United States. How do we position ourselves in the use of force versus the rule of law? Talk of destroying states and repealing the ban on targeted assassinations necessary and appropriate action are counter-productive in the long run.
To undermine the system of international law, which the United States was so instrumental in establishing, flies in the face of the values the United States claims it champions and are under attack.
The fact that the terrorist violates fundamental rules of civilized society does not mean that the civilized world should react along similar lines.
At the same time we are mourning, are we capable of analyzing the root causes of the hatred leading to the attacks? Are we capable, emotionally, to overcome the calls for vengeance to exhibit restraint and justice, to show that we are civilized, the essence of what we maintain is the difference between us and them?
This is by no means an attempt to condone or justify what has taken place. Rather, it is an attempt to put in perspective our reaction to the events in order to try to see how to avoid future attacks and, most importantly, to try to see how our identity as the civilized world continues to have meaning.
This opinion piece appeared in the International Herald Tribune/New York Times on September 21, 2001, under the heading “For the West, a War on Terrorism Makes No Sense
The United States is at war. This has been repeated by President George W. Bush and members of his administration on several occasions. What has not been made clear is the nature of the war. There has been no formal declaration that clearly sets out goals and objectives.
Why is this so worrying? In 1987, the Yale University historian Paul Kennedy described the rise and fall of empires. He analyzed how all imperial powers arrived at a point of overreach that eventually destroyed the empire. Too much concern for security and disproportionate spending on defense were endemic to the fall of all previous empires he studied. The United States appears at this time to be marching into a situation that fits Kennedy's description of imperial decline.
The march begins with the overextension of the mission beyond reprisals against the immediate perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks. In his "axis of evil" speech, the president argued that the war against terrorism would be extended to countries building weapons of mass destruction that eventually could be used against the United States. In other words, the war against terrorism could be extended to not only those directly responsible for Sept. 11 but also to those who might be future aggressors.
Concern with future attacks is being presented as open-ended in time and place. There is no longer a clear necessity to link an enemy to specific events nor to say when the war can be declared over. If, in the future, one person gets on an airplane with explosives in his shoes, is the war against terrorism still on? It is difficult to imagine the limits of the war and to see how the heightened sense of national security could be diminished. The United States appears to be entering a situation of hypersensitivity wherein any threat to its national security justifies enormous sacrifices of resources and eventually civil liberties.
Kennedy's book set off an important reaction in the United States in the late 1980s. It laid out the consequences of the superpower contest with the Soviet Union in terms of mutual imperial overstretch instead of mutual assured destruction.
What is so intriguing and worrying about the war on terrorism is that following the implosion of the Soviet Union due to its imperial overreach the United States seems to be embarking on a war that may have similar effects.
The most obvious war being fought is the campaign against the perpetrators of Sept. 11. The search for Osama bin Laden and the members of the Qaeda network is an act of self-defense legitimatized by the United Nations and NATO. The United States was attacked and has the right to seek out and punish the attackers as well as to prevent future attacks by the same group as long as its reaction is proportional and within the overall framework of the laws of war.
What is more difficult to justify is the enlargement of the war to other groups. Is punishment for Al Qaeda the same as punishing governments for harboring or encouraging the terrorists? The overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan was generally welcomed internationally, but the responsibilities of the Taliban are not the same as that of Al Qaeda. In the name of fighting terrorism, excesses can easily be committed when one moves further and further away from punishing those with direct responsibility. This is what makes fighting terrorism so frustrating and dangerous. To root out particular terrorists is not the same as destroying terrorism in general.
The war on terror succeeded the Cold War. The peace dividend from the collapse of the Soviet Union has not appeared. Instead, there has been a new confrontation with rogue states, states of concern and the axis of evil.
While the war against communism was international, it was focused. The war against terrorism is global and diffused. The United States wants everyone to be "with it” but is both incapable of securing that form of domination and unwilling to understand its implications. The war against potential enemies is too open-ended.
Finally, the war on terrorism has been used within the United States for clear political and ideological reasons. Politically, it is obvious that it is difficult to criticize a president and his party during war. Ideologically, exchange communism for terrorism and Americans are back in the 1950s, with all the attacks on civil liberties which that period represented. Where this war is different is in the nature of the enemy and the terms of victory.
The irony of the current situation is that just at the moment when the Soviet Union imploded and the United States was the lone superpower, America is confronted with a situation that could easily lead to its implosion as well. In "The March of Folly," Barbara Tuchman, the historian, wrote: "All misgovernment is contrary to self-interest in the long run, but may actually strengthen a regime temporarily. It qualifies as folly when it is a perverse persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counterproductive." The war on terrorism may America lead down that very path.
This opinion piece appeared in the International Herald Tribune/New York Times on June 28, 2002.