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What is an appropropriate response?
Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center


by Walden Bello
Executive Director of Focus on the Global South September 2001

The assault on the World Trade Center was horrific, despicable, and 
unpardonable, but it is important not to lose perspective, especially a 
historical one. For a response that is dictated primarily by fury such as 
that now displayed by some American politicians, while understandable, is 
likely to simply serve as one more proof for Santayana's dictum that those
who do not remember history are bound to repeat it.


The scale and consequences of the World Trade Center attack are massive 
indeed, but this was not the worst act of mass terrorism in US history, as
some US media are wont to claim. The over 5000 lives lost in New York are 
irreplaceable, but one must not forget that the atomic raids on Hiroshima 
and Nagasaki killed 210,000 people, most of them civilians, most perishing
instantaneously. But one may object that you can't really compare the World
Trade Center attack to the nuclear bombings since, after all, Hiroshima and
Nagasaki were targets in a war. But why not, since the purpose of the 
nuclear bombings was not mainly to destroy military or infrastructural 
targets, but to terrorize and destroy the civilian population? Indeed, the
whole allied air campaign against Germany and Japan in 1944-45, which 
produced the firestorms in Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo, that killed tens 
of thousands had as its central aim to kill and maim as many civilians as 
possible. Similarly, during the Korean War, terror bombing of civilians 
was the policy of the US Air Force's Far Eastern Command, which was 
instructed to pulverize anything that moved in enemy territory. So 
successful was the policy that in the summer of 1951, the commander was 
able to report that "there is no structure left to be targeted."

During the Cold War, mass elimination of the enemy's civilian population, 
alongside the destruction of his armed forces or industry, was 
institutionalized in the strategy of massive nuclear retaliation that lay 
at the center of the doctrine of Deterrence. In Vietnam, where the US was 
frustrated by the fact that combatants and civilians were 
indistinguishable, indiscriminate killing of civilians was a central part 
of a "counterinsurgency war" in which 20,000 civilians were systematically
assassinated under the CIA's Operation Phoenix Program in the Mekong Delta.

But must not such actions against civilians be judged in the context of a 
broader strategic objective of sapping the enemy's will to fight and thus 
bring the war to a conclusion? But then how different is this 
justification from the terrorists' aim to change the foreign policy of the
US government by eroding the support of the country's civilian population?

The point is not to engage in a "maleficent calculus," as Jeremy Bentham 
would have called this exercise, but to point out that the US government 
hardly possesses the high ground in the current moral equation. Indeed, 
one can say that terrorists like Osama bin Laden, an ex-CIA prot?g?, have 
learned their lessons on the strategic targeting of the civilian 
population from Washington's traditional strategy of total warfare, where 
damage to the civilian population is not simply seen as collateral but as 
essential to achieving the ends of war.


In the aftermath of the World Trade Center assault, the perpetrators of 
the dastardly deed have been called "irrational" or "madmen" or people 
that embody evil. This is understandable as an emotional reaction but 
dangerous as a basis for policy. The truth is the perpetrators of the deed
were very rational. If they were indeed people connected with Osama bin 
Laden, their goal was most likely to raise the costs to the United States 
of maintaining its current policies in the Middle East, which they 
consider unjust and inequitable, and this was their way of doing it. They 
very rationally picked the targets and weapons to be used, paying 
attention not only to maximum destruction but also to maximum symbolism. 
The choice of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon as the 
targets, and American Airlines and United Airlines planes as the delivery 
vehicles doubling as warheads, was the product of cold-blooded thinking 
and planning. The loss of their own lives was factored into the 
calculation. What we saw was a rational calculus of means to achieve a 
desired end. In the view of these people, terrorism, like war, is the 
extension of politics by other means. These are Clausewitzian minds, and 
the worst mistake one can make is to regard them as madmen.


One metaphor that the Washington establishment has used to capture the 
essence of recent events is that of a second Pearl Harbor, with the 
implication that, like the first, the September 11 tragedy will galvanize 
the American people to an unprecedented level of unity to win the war 
against still unidentified enemies. The other side, one suspects, operates
with a different metaphor, and this is that of the Tet Offensive of 1968. 
The objective of the Vietnamese was to launch massive simultaneous 
uprisings that, even if defeated separately, would nevertheless add up to 
a strategic victory by convincing the other side, especially its civilian 
base, that the war was unwinnable. The aim was to rob the US of the will 
to win the war, and here the Vietnamese succeeded.

The perpetrators of World Trade Center assault are operating with a 
similar calculus, and, despite the current jingoistic talk in Washington, 
it is not certain that they are wrong. Will the American people really 
bear any burden and pay any price in a struggle that will persist way into
the future, with no assurance of victory, indeed, with no clear sense of 
who the enemies are and of what "victory" will consist of? The media is 
full of news about the creation of an alliance against terrorism, 
conveying the impression that coordination among key states combined with 
the outrage of citizens everywhere will give a Washington-led coalition an
unbeatable edge. Perhaps in the short run, although even this is not 
certain. For the problem is that, as in guerrilla wars, this is not a war 
that will be won strictly or mainly by military means.


If it was bin Laden's network that was responsible for the World Trade 
Center attack, then the underlying issues are the twin pillars of US 
policy in the Middle East. One is subordination of the interests of the 
peoples of the region to the US' untrammeled access to Middle East oil in 
order to maintain its petroleum-based civilization. To this end, the US 
overthrew the nationalist government of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, 
cultivated the repressive Shah of Iran as the gendarme of the Persian Gulf,
supported anti-democratic feudal regimes in the Arabian peninsula, and 
introduced a massive permanent military presence in Saudi Arabia, which 
contains some of Islam's most sacred shrines and cities.

The war against Saddam Hussein was justified as a war to beat back 
aggression, but everybody knew that Washington's key motivation was to 
ensure that the region's most massive oil reserves would remain under the 
control of pro-Western elites.

The other pillar is unstinting support for Israel. That Arab feelings 
about Israel are so elemental is not difficult to comprehend. It is hard 
to argue against the fact that the state of Israel was born on the basis 
of the massive dispossession of the Palestinian people from their country 
and their lands. It is impossible to deny that Israel is a European 
settler-state, one whose establishment was essentially a displacement from
European territory of the ethno-cultural contradictions of European society.
The Holocaust was an unspeakable crime against humanity, but it was 
utterly wrong to impose its political consequences--chief of which was the
creation of Israel--on a people who had nothing to do with it.

It is hard to contradict Arab claims that it was essentially support from 
the United States that created the state of Israel; that it has been 
massive US military aid and backing that has maintained it in the last 
half century; and that it is deep confidence in perpetual US military and 
political support that enables Israel to oppose in practice the emergence 
of a viable Palestinian state.

Unless the US abandons these two pillars of its policies, there will 
always be thousands of recruits for acts of terrorism such as that which 
occurred last week. And while we may condemn terrorist acts--as we must, 
strongly-- it is another thing to expect desperate people not to adopt 
them, especially when they can point to the fact that it was such methods 
that targeted civilians as well as military personnel, combined with the 
Intifada, that forced Israel to agree to the 1993 Oslo Accord that led to 
the creation of the Palestinian entity.

Yet another reason why the strategic equation does not favor the US is 
that there are a great many people in the world that are ambivalent about 
terrorism. In contrast to Europe, there has been a relatively muted 
response to the World Trade Center event in the South. A survey would 
probably reveal that while many people in the Third World are appalled by 
hijackers' methods, they are not unsympathetic to their objectives. As one
Chinese-Filipino entrepreneur said, "It's horrible, but on the other hand, 
the US had it coming." If this reaction is common among middle class 
people, it would not be surprising if such ambivalence towards terrorism 
is widespread among the 80 per cent of the world's population that are 
marginalized by current global political and economic arrangements.

There is simply too much distrust, dislike, or just plain hatred of a 
country that has become so callous in its pursuit of economic power and 
arrogant in its political and military relations with the rest of the 
world and so brazen in declaring its cultural superiority over the rest of
us. As in the equation of guerrilla war, civilian ambivalence in the 
theater of battle translates strategically to a minus when it comes to the
staying power of the authorities and a plus when it comes to that of the 

In sum, if there is one thing we can be certain of, it is that massive 
retaliation on the part of the US will not put an end to terrorism. It 
will simply amplify the upward spiral of violence, as the other side will 
resort to even more spectacular deeds, fed by unending waves of recruits. 
The September 11 tragedy is the clearest evidence of the bankruptcy of the
30-year-old policy of mailed fist, massive retaliation response to
terrorism. This policy has simply resulted in the extreme 
professionalization of terrorism.

The only response that will really contribute to global security and peace
is for Washington to address not the symptoms but the roots of terrorism. 
It is for the United States to reexamine and substantially change its 
policies in the Middle East and the Third World, supporting for a change 
arrangements that will not stand in the way of the achievement of equity, 
justice, and genuine national sovereignty for currently marginalized 
peoples. Any other way leads to endless war.