After 9-11, We All Have New Battles to Fight
Wednesday, as we awakened and confirmed that no, it wasn't all just a bad dream -- that the World Trade Center and the west side of the Pentagon are as destroyed as they were on Tuesday -- one thing became utterly clear. For those of us who want a better, more just world, the terrain on which our effort must be fought has shifted dramatically with one bold act. We have an enormous amount of work to do, and a lot of work that needs to be done right now, today, immediately, before the United States government, with or without its allies, undertakes retaliatory measures that make a bad situation much, much worse.
Tuesday night, I attended two events. First was a peace rally attended by a couple of hundred people. To "warm up" the crowd, a guitar-playing duo sung a half-hour of cringe-inducing traditional peace songs: "Give Peace a Chance," "Kumbaya," "We Shall Overcome." The intentions were good, but the effect was jarring, and probably offensive to many people who heard it on TV. In the first 24 hours after the attack, Americans veered dangerously between shock, grief, and rage. It was a time to urge calm, but not a time to imply, to those who felt a desire to see our military flatten something, that their impulses were bad. Misguided, yes, but at some level, an emotion almost everyone felt. It was a time when doves and hawks alike needed to come together and recognize our common sorrow and fear and anger.
Later, I went to an enormous interfaith service. In terms of trying to "convince" Americans that more bloodshed won't help, this was actually a far more effective event -- calming, community-building, invoking the things all of us felt, including frailty. Even for people who don't recognize some form of a Higher Power, there are simply days when you have to ackknowledge that some things are completely beyond our control, personally or as a society. Tuesday was one of those days.
It's a lesson the United States desperately needs to learn every day. Unlike every other country in the world (with the possible exception of China), residents of the U.S. are not only oblivious to the rest of the world, but they can afford to be. There's no threat of invasion -- no history of it in nearly 200 years -- and not since OPEC in the early '70s has anyone reminded us that the rest of the world can intentionally hurt the U.S. economy badly. We have felt far too self-sufficient, and too free to ignore the atrocities done in our name elsewhere.
The broadest goal today of progressives is one that transcends any ideology: we, all of us, as individuals, must become aware and participating citizens of the world, not just the U.S. We have to pay attention beyond our flimsy borders, and we must demand that the U.S. treat others as we would have them treat us. Because no matter who was behind the attacks, it's certain that they felt they were treating us as we have treated others.
And in countless cases, that is correct. The same emotions of shock, terror, grief, rage, and powerlessness that many of us felt yesterday have been felt before by the ordinary people in Belgrade, Dili, Mogadishu, Baghdad, Panama City, Beirut, and many other places where the craters take the form of American footprints. They know the world is a small place. So must we all.
Beyond that, however, we have some very immediate and urgent concerns: peace, bigotry, media, civil liberties, and the attacks' effect upon global and domestic issues. In order:
1) Retaliation is unavoidable. The steadily escalating rhetoric of George Bush and his administration over the last few days has, most recently, advanced to calling the attacks an "act of war" (rather than terrorism); pledging to strike back not just at the perpetrators, but the countries where they live; and all but stating that they would not be bound by the norms of international law or justice in doing so (in Colin Powell's words, they will strike back, "legally or not.") We've must do whatever we can to beseech our government and its allies not to respond to the taking of innocent lives by taking still more innocent lives.
The U.S. has the military technology to destroy precision targets with military (or terrorist) value. All too often in the recent past, as with revelations that the U.S. intentionally destroyed Iraq's water supply ten years ago, we've chosen to punish civilians instead. Doing so again is not only unjust -- a war crime, actually, although at this point it's common practice -- but will virtually guarantee a cycle of further retribution. If Israel, a small country with only a few hundred miles of borders and shoreline to defend, is helpless to stop terrorism, the U.S. certainly will be. Our only rational course is to eliminate, to the extent possible, the actions that spur such unfathomable hatred toward us. The other road is the road the Israeli government has chosen, and we see the results; in America, it would only be worse.
2) Palestinians, Arab-Americans, and Muslims in general are in great danger today in our country. In every community across the land, those of us not facing that danger should decry race- or religion-based bigotry and hatred, extend our solidarity, and, if necessary, our protection and support. Islam is no more responsible for yesterday's horror than Christianity was responsible for Hitler. And long-term, we should expect and try to head off an inevitable backlash against all immigrants.
3) In times of national emergencies in the past, especially wars, our national media has dropped all pretense of objectivity and has become a willing tool for government propaganda and even disinformation. We must demand that our networks and wire services and TV and radio stations and newspapers report the facts fairly and fully, not protect our government's actions from the public eye, and not disseminate hatred or play to a manipulative sense of patriotism. Our media have a tremendous capacity to do harm and make a bad situation worse; we need to flood them with requests to act responsibly.
4) Our civil liberties and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms -- like the freedoms of speech and assembly -- are clearly in danger. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll this morning, two-thirds of Americans polled said they'd be willing to give up civil liberties to combat terrorism. Such liberties, when given up in a time of crisis, are never given back -- and granting still more power to our government and this country's political and economic elites, in the name of "fighting terrorism," guarantees that that power will be abused to other ends.
One of those ends could easily be curtailment of the right to criticize our government. I'm hoping and praying that the folks planning mass civil disobedience and direct action in Washington D.C. during IMF/World Bank meetings in two weeks are rethinking their plans. (For that matter, I'm hoping the IMF and World Bank themselves will cancel.) A mass street protest in D.C. right now simply won't be allowed; I have ugly visions of Army units simply shooting any group of people that shows up with signs.
While globalization and any number of other issues are pressing and urgent, the most pressing issue right now is solidifying our continue rights to petition our government for a redress of our grievances (and to be able to make our cases to the public, too). Between the trends of the last two years, Genoa, and yesterday, that seems very much at risk right now. I've heard several quite serious comments (on talk radio, for example) suggesting that anti-WTO anarchists could be responsible for the attack. What that means is that our media and politicians can so thoroughly misrepresent the global justice movement that a few angry young protesters breaking windows can be conflated with the premeditated murder of thousands. That should give any would-be protester a lot of pause.
5) No global issue -- whether it's debt relief, structural adjustment programs, interntaional credit and aid, global warming or other environmental issues, trade and military treaties, arms sales, refugees, global health, anything -- can be addressed now without factoring in how it may affect what will become, unless we act now to defuse it, an undeclared global guerrilla war. Just as with military retaliation, the U.S. and its citizens simply can't risk having our government go it alone with the attitude that it can impose its will anywhere it likes.
It can, but the risk is that a lot of us will die as a result. Given the Bush crew's hostility to international agreements or even dialogue, we have, in many ways, the worst possible set of people running executive branch for the next three years.
6) Domestically, Bush's pledge to spend "whatever it takes" to respond appropriately and to tighten security at home means that his tax cut for the rich, the economy's downturn, and his increased military spending will combine with this blank check to decimate the federal budget. Social programs are at very great risk. So are Social Security and Medicare.
The one ray of good news is that the blasphemously expensive National Missile Defense program -- which is essentially a Trojan Horse for exactly the sort of Pentagon global domination scheme that inspires terrorism in the first place -- is suddenly very vulnerable. The real threats to this country's domestic security clearly don't lie in some mythical intercontinental missile from some country that doesn't have the money or technology to fix its typewriters. The threats come in small packages and anonymous acts. It should now be obvious to all that NMD will make our country less secure, by draining our budget of money that, in part, could otherwise be used to promote programs that are actually relevant to the dangers out there.
But while NMD may be at risk, there are also blank checks waiting for other Pentagon schemes and certainly for the CIA and black budget agencies. After all of that, there may not be any money left over for the basic services we demand from government -- a state of affairs that was entirely preventable. (Hint: tax the rich fairly.)
When people need something from their government and it's not there -- because it's been privatized or eliminated or spent already -- let's make sure they remember the tax cut, and George W. Bush. And let's hope we have the freedom tomorrow to make that case in public.