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

War frenzy

By Sunera Thobani

My recent speech at a women's conference on violence against women has
generated much controversy. In the aftermath of the terrible attacks of
September 11, I argued that the U.S. response of launching 'America's new
war' would increase violence against women. I situated the current crisis
within the continuity of North/South relations, rooted in colonialism and
imperialism. I criticized American foreign policy, as well as President
Bush's racialized construction of the American Nation. Finally, I spoke of
the need for solidarity with Afghan women's organizations as well as the
urgent necessity for the women's movement in Canada to oppose the war.

Decontextualized and distorted media reports of my address have led to
accusations of me being an academic impostor, morally bankrupt and engaging
in hate-mongering. It has been fascinating to observe how my comments
regarding American foreign policy, a record well documented by numerous
sources whose accuracy or credentials cannot be faulted, have been dubbed
'hate-speech.' To speak about the indisputable record of U.S. backed coups,
death squads, bombings and killings ironically makes me a 'hate-monger.' I
was even made the subject of a 'hate-crime' complaint to the RCMP, alleging
that my speech was a 'hate-crime.'

Despite the virulence of these responses, I welcome the public discussion my
speech has generated as an opportunity to further the public debate about
Canada's support of America's new war. When I made the speech, I believed it
was imperative to have this debate before any attacks were launched on any
country. Events have overtaken us with the bombing of Afghanistan underway
and military rule having been declared in Pakistan. The need for this
discussion has now assumed greater urgency as reports of casualties are
making their way into the news. My speech at the women's conference was
aimed at mobilizing the women's movement against this war. I am now glad
for this opportunity to address wider constituencies and in different fora.

First, however, a few words about my location: I place my work within the
tradition of radical, politically engaged scholarship. I have always
rejected the politics of academic elitism which insist that academics should
remain above the fray of political activism and use only disembodied,
objectified language and a 'properly' dispassionate professorial demeanor to
establish our intellectual credentials. My work is grounded in the politics,
practices and languages of the various communities I come from, and the
social justice movements to which I am committed.


In the aftermath of the terrible September 11th attacks on the World Trade
Centre and the Pentagon, the Bush administration launched "America's War on
Terrorism." Eschewing any role for the United Nations and the need to abide
by international law, the US administration initiated an international
alliance to justify its unilateral military action against Afghanistan. One
of its early coalition partners was the Canadian government which committed
its unequivocal support for whatever forms of assistance the United States
might request. In this circumstance, it is entirely reasonable that people
in Canada examine carefully the record of American foreign policy.

As I observed in my speech, this record is alarming and does not inspire
confidence. In Chile, the CIA-backed coup against the democratically elected
Allende government led to the deaths of over 30,000 people. In El Salvador,
the U.S. backed regime used death squads to kill about 75,000 people. In
Nicaragua, the U.S. sponsored terrorist contra war led to the deaths of over
30,000 people. The initial bombing of Iraq left over 200,000 dead, and the
bombings have continued for the last ten years. UNICEF estimates that over
one million Iraqis have died, and that 5,000 more die every month as a
result of the U.N. imposed sanctions, enforced in their harshest form by
U.S. power. The list does not stop here. 150,000 were killed and 50,000
disappeared in Guatemala after the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup; over 2 million
were killed in Vietnam; and 200,000 before that in the Hiroshima and
Nagasaki nuclear attacks. Numerous authoritarian regimes have been backed by
the United States including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the apartheid regime in
South Africa, Suharto's dictatorship in Indonesia, Marcos in the
Philippines, and Israel's various occupations of Lebanon, the Golan Heights
and the Palestinian territories. The U.S. pattern of foreign intervention
has been to overthrow leftist governments and to impose right wing regimes
which in turn support U.S. interests, even if this means training and using
death squads and assassinating leftist politicians and activists. To this
end, it has a record of treating civilians as entirely expendable.

It is in this context that I made my comment that the United States is the
largest and most dangerous global force, unleashing horrific levels of
violence around the world, and that the path of U.S. foreign policy is
soaked in blood. The controversy generated by this comment has surprisingly
not addressed the veracity of this assessment of the U.S. record. Instead,
it has focused on my tone and choice of words (inflammatory, excessive,
inelegant, un-academic, angry, etc.).

Now I have to admit that my use of the words 'horrific violence' and 'soaked
in blood' is very deliberate and carefully considered. I do not use these
words lightly. To successive United States administrations the deaths
resulting from its policies have been just so many statistics, just so
much 'collateral damage.' Rendering invisible the humanity of the peoples
targeted for attack is a strategy well used to hide the impact of
colonialist and imperialist interventions. Perhaps there is no more potent
a strategy of dehumanization than to proudly proclaim the accuracy and
efficiency of 'smart' weapons systems, and of surgical and technological
precision, while rendering invisible the suffering bodies of these peoples
as disembodied statistics and mere 'collateral damage.' The use of embodied
language, grounded in the recognition of the actual blood running through
these bodies, is an attempt to humanize these peoples in profoundly graphic
terms. It compels us to recognize the sheer corporeality of the terrain upon
which bombs rain and mass terror is waged. This language calls on 'us' to
recognize that 'they' bleed just like 'we' do, that 'they' hurt and suffer
just like 'us.'

We are complicit in this bloodletting when we support American wars. Witness
the power of this embodiment in the shocked and horrified responses to my
voice and my words, rather than to the actual horror of these events. I will
be the first to admit that it is extremely unnerving to 'see' blood in the
place of abstract, general categories and statistics. Yet this is what we
need to be able to see if we are to understand the terrible human costs
of empire-building. We have all felt the shock and pain of repeatedly
witnessing the searing images of violence unleashed upon those who died in
New York and Washington. The stories we have heard from their loved ones
have made us feel their terrible human loss. Yet where do we witness the
pain of the victims of U.S. aggression? How do we begin to grasp the extent
of their loss? Whose humanity do we choose to recognize and empathize with,
and who becomes just so much 'collateral damage' to us? Anti-colonial and
anti-imperialist movements and theorists have long insisted on placing the
bodies and experiences of marginalized others at the centre of our analysis
of the social world. To fail to do so at this moment in history would be
unconscionable. In the aftermath of the responses to my speech, I am more
convinced than ever of the need to engage in the language and politics of
embodied thinking and speaking. After all, it is the lives, and deaths, of
millions of human beings we are discussing.

This is neither a controversial nor a recent demand. Feminists (such as of
Mahasweta Devi, Toni Morrison, Gayatri Spivak and Patricia Williams) have
forcefully drawn our attention to what is actually done to women's bodies in
the course of mapping out racist colonial relations. Frantz Fanon, one of
the foremost theorists of decolonization, studied and wrote about the role
of violence in colonial social organization and about the psychology of
oppression; but he described just as readily the bloodied, violated black
bodies and the "searing bullets" and "blood-stained knives" which were the
order of the day in the colonial world. Eduardo Galeano entitled one of his
books The Open Veins of Latin America and the post-colonial theorist Achille
Mbembe talks of the "mortification of the flesh," of the "mutilation" and
"decapitation" of oppressed bodies. Aime Cesaire's poetry pulses with the
physicality of blood, pain, fury and rage in his outcry against the
domination of African bodies. Even Karl Marx, recognized as one of the
founding fathers of the modern social sciences, wrote trenchant critiques of
capital, exploitation, and classical political economy; and did not flinch
from naming the economic system he was studying 'vampire capitalism.' In
attempting to draw attention to the violent effects of abstract and
impersonal policies, I claim a proud intellectual pedigree.


In my speech I argued that in order to legitimize the imperialist aggression
which the Bush administration is undertaking, the President is invoking an
American nation and people as being vengeful and bloodthirsty. It is de
rigueur in the social sciences to acknowledge that the notion of a 'nation'
or a 'people' is socially constructed. The American nation is no exception.

If we consider the language used by Bush and his administration to mobilize
this nation for the war, we encounter the following: launching a crusade;
operation infinite justice; fighting the forces of evil and darkness;
fighting the barbarians; hunting down the evil-doers; draining the swamps of
the Middle East, etc., etc. This language is very familiar to peoples who
have been colonized by Europe. Its use at this moment in time reveals that
it is a fundamentalist and racialized western ideology which is being
mobilized to rally the troops and to build a national and international
consensus in defence of 'civilization.' It suggests that anyone who
hesitates to join in is also 'evil' and 'uncivilized.' In this vein, I have
repeatedly been accused of supporting extremist Islamist regimes merely for
criticizing US foreign policy and western colonialism.

Another tactic to mobilize support for the war has been the manipulation of
public opinion. Polls conducted in the immediate aftermath of the September
11 attacks were used to repeatedly inform us that the overwhelming majority
of Americans allegedly supported a strong military retaliation. They did not
know against whom, but they purportedly supported this strategy anyway. In
both the use of language and these polls, we are witnessing what Noam
Chomsky has called the "manufacture of consent." Richard Lowry, editor of
the National Review opined, "If we flatten part of Damascus or Tehran or
whatever it takes, this is part of the solution." President Bush stated, "We
will bear no distinction between those who commit the terrorist attacks and
those who harbour them." Even as the bombing began last weekend, he declared
that the war is "broader" than against just Afghanistan, that other nations
have to decide if they side with his administration or if they are
"murderers and outlaws themselves." We have been asked by most public
commentators to accept the calls for military aggression against
"evil-doers" as natural, understandable and even reasonable, given the
attacks on the United States. I reject this position. It would be just as
understandable a response to re-examine American foreign policy, to address
the root causes of the violent attacks on the United States, and to make a
commitment to abide by international law. In my speech, I urged women to
break through this discourse of 'naturalizing' the military aggression, and
recognize it for what it is, vengeful retribution and an opportunity for a
crude display of American military might. We are entitled to ask: Who will
make the decision regarding which 'nations' are to be labeled as "murderers"
and "outlaws"? Which notions of 'justice' are to be upheld? Will the Bush
administration set the standard, even as it is overtly institutionalizing
racial profiling across the United States?

I make very clear distinctions between people in America and their
government's call for war. Many people in America are seeking to contest the
'national' consensus being manufactured by speaking out and by organizing
rallies and peace marches in major cities, about which there has been very
little coverage in Canada. Irresponsible media reporting of my comments
which referred to Bush's invocation of the American nation as a vengeful
one deliberately took my words out of this context, repeating them in one
television broadcast after another in a grossly distorted fashion.

My choice of language was, again, deliberate. I wanted to bring
attention to Bush's right wing, fundamentalist leanings and to the
neo-colonialist/imperialist practices of his administration. The words
'bloodthirsty' and 'vengeful' are designations most people are quite
comfortable attributing to 'savages' and to the 'uncivilized,' while the
United States is represented as the beacon of democracy and civilization.
The words 'bloodthirsty' and 'vengeful' make us confront the nature of the
ideological justification for this war, as well as its historical roots,
unsettling and discomforting as that might be.


I have been taken to task for stating that there will be no emancipation for
women anywhere until western domination of the planet is ended. In my speech
I pointed to the importance of Afghanistan for its strategic location near
Central Asia's vast resources of oil and natural gas. I think there is very
little argument that the West continues to dominate and consume a vast share
of the world's resources. This is not a controversial statement. Many
prominent intellectuals, journalists and activists alike, have pointed out
that this domination is rooted in the history of colonialism and rests on
the ongoing maintenance of the North/South divide, and that it will continue
to provoke violence and resistance across the planet. I argued that in the
current climate of escalating militarism, there will be precious little
emancipation for women, either in the countries of the North or the South.

In the specific case of Afghanistan, it was the American administration's
economic and political interests which led to its initial support for, and
arming of, Hekmatyar's Hezb i Islami and its support for Pakistan's
collaboration in, and organization of, the Taliban regime in the mid-1990s.
According to the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, the United States and
Unocal conducted negotiations with the Taliban for an oil pipeline through
Afghanistan for years in the mid-1990s. We have seen the horrendous
consequences this has had for women in Afghanistan. When Afghan women's
groups were calling attention to this U.S. support as a major factor in
the Taliban regime's coming to power, we did not heed them.

We did not recognize that Afghan women's groups were in the front line
resisting the Taliban and its Islamist predecessors, including the present
militias of the Northern Alliance. Instead, we chose to see them only as
'victims' of 'Islamic culture,' to be pitied and 'saved' by the West. Time
and time again, third world feminists have pointed out to us the pitfalls of
rendering invisible the agency and resistance of women of the South, and of
reducing women's oppression to various third world 'cultures.' Many
continue to ignore these insights.

Now, the U.S. administration has thrown its support behind the Northern
Alliance, even as Afghan women's groups oppose the U.S. military attacks on
Afghanistan, and raise serious concerns about the record of the Northern
Alliance in perpetuating human rights abuses and violence against women in
the country. If we listen to the voices of these women, we will very quickly
be disabused of the notion that U.S. military intervention is going to lead
to the emancipation of women in Afghanistan.

Even before the bombings began, hundreds of thousands of Afghan women were
compelled to flee their homes and communities, and to become refugees. The
bombings of Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and other cities in the country will
result in further loss of life, including the lives of women and children.
Over three million Afghan refugees are now on the move in the wake of the
U.S. attacks. How on earth can we justify these bombings in the name of
furthering women's emancipation?

My second point was that imperialism and militarism do not further women's
liberation in westerm countries either. Women have to be brought into line
to support racist imperialist goals and practices, and they have to live
with the men who have been brutalized in the waging of war when these men
come back. Men who kill women and children abroad are hardly likely to come
back cured of the effects of this brutalization. Again, this is not a very
controversial point of view. Women are taught to support military
aggressions, which is then presented as being in their 'national' interest.
These are hardly the conditions in which women's freedoms can be furthered.
As a very small illustration, just witness the very public vilification I
have been subjected to for speaking out in opposition to this war.

I have been asked by my detractors that if I, as a woman, I am so critical
of western domination, why do I live here? It could just as readily be asked
of them that if they are so contemptuous of the non-western world, why do
they so fervently desire the oil, trade, cheap labour and other resources of
that world? Challenges to our presence in the West have long been answered
by people of colour who say, We are here because you were (are?) there!
Migrants find ourselves in multiple locations for a myriad of reasons,
personal, historical and political. Wherever we reside, however, we
claim the right to speak and participate in public life.


My speech was made to rally the women's movement in Canada to oppose the
war. Journalists and editors across the country have called me idiotic,
foolish, stupid and just plain nutty. While a few journalists and columnists
have attempted balanced coverage of my speech, too many sectors of the media
have resorted to vicious personal attacks. Like others, I must express a
concern that this passes for intelligent commentary in the mainstream media.

The manner in which I have been vilified is difficult to understand, unless
one sees it as a visceral response to an 'ungrateful immigrant' or an uppity
woman of colour who dares to speak out. Vituperation and ridicule are two of
the most common forms of silencing dissent. The subsequent harassment and
intimidation which I have experienced, as have some of my colleagues,
confirms that the suppression of debate is more important to many supporters
of the current frenzied war rhetoric than is the open discussion of policy
and its effects. Fortunately, I have also received strong messages of
support. Day by day the opposition to this unconscionable war is growing in
Canada and all over the world.

I would like to thank all of my family, friends, colleagues and allies who
have supported and encouraged me.

Sunera Thobani

private communication