Going to Extremes

News & Politics

Extremism in response to extremism is no vice. That seemed to be the reigning principle as American officialdom, and its media cheerleaders, absorbed and processed the awful events of September 11. Much of the rhetoric, analyses, and calls for actions that emanated from television sets and op-ed pages was untethered from reality. And this phenomenon -- which recognized no party lines -- flowed from the top down.

The President was extreme in simplicity. In his Oval Office address to the country, George W. Bush explained the horrendous assault this way: "America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world." Let us hope he does not actually believe this superficial, fairy-tale-ish view. It would be delusional to think that the evildoers who orchestrated and conducted this nightmare operation looked around the globe and decided that the United States must be destroyed because of its devotion to freedom and opportunity. The attack is a consequence of history and policy. The perpetuators were motivated by political, cultural, and ideological concerns forged over years.

To state that, of course, is not to justify this foulest of deeds. But in the wake of such a tragedy, it is incumbent upon responsible leaders and citizens to grapple for a full understanding of the event and what led to it. Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen wrote, "Kids, don't waste your time trying to understand such lunacy." He could not be any more wrong. Understand we must.

In an email, author Micah Sifry, a longtime follower of the Middle East conflicts, observed, "Does anybody think that we can send the USS New Jersey to lob Volkswagon-sized shells into Lebanese villages -- Reagan, 1983 -- or loose 'smart bombs' on civilians seeking shelter in a Baghdad bunker -- Bush, 1991 -- or fire cruise missiles on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory -- Clinton, 1999 -- and not receive, someday, our share in kind?"

History did not begin on September 11. Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 resulted in the deaths of 17,000 or so civilians. In recent years, the sanctions against Iraq may have destroyed the lives of perhaps half a million children. To establish context is not to excuse the murderers or to suggest such destruction was deserved. (Only Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson believe the latter; see below.) And reaching an understanding does not guarantee the appropriate response and actions will follow. But failing to seek that understanding does increase the odds mistakes will be made and the tragedy compounded.

Consider a post-attack article in Pakistan's Daily Jang which reported that "Islamic militant groups say they are having trouble coping with a rush of young Palestinians volunteering for suicide bombings against Israel." One Muslim fundamentalist leader noted "suicide operations have become a means for Palestinians to vent their disgust at several decades of occupation." And a member of the Muslim fundamentalist movement Hamas told the paper, "Our movement cannot cope with all the candidates for martyrdom."

These extremists are not acting because they despise freedom and opportunity in Israel or the United States. The suicide attacks in Israel -- and now in the United States -- are reactions to specific actions and policies. Unjustifiable reactions indeed -- but not mindless or sensless conduct born of impulse or jealousy. Bush claims this terrorism arises from resentment rather than the conflicts to which the United States has often been a party. He does a disservice to the nation by peddling such a willfully naive line.

The more obvious -- and predictable -- form of extremism was best represented by Senator Zell Miller. The day after the assault, this conservative Democrat from Georgia, declared, "I say bomb the hell out of them.'" On the Senate floor, he added, "If there's collateral damage, so be it. They certainly found our civilians to be expendable." Meaning that the United States should be willing to kill innocents and head in the moral direction of its enemies. Indeed, retribution against the authors of the attack may entail the loss of civilian life (and this may have even occurred by the time you read this). But the ugly reality of so-called collateral damage should not be diminished, let alone celebrated. A counterstrike should be a sad and somber event, not one of glee and blood-lust. One of the few reasonable voices on this point belonged to former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who told CBS News "We will be descending into the lower depths of humanity" if the country decides to "engage in a wholesale slaughter of innocent people."

Many talking heads were not heeding Cohen. Before the identity of the guilty parties was established, a claque of pundits and hawks were demanding war. And talk of war is not normally an exercise of subtlety and reflection. Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said, "there is only one way to begin to deal with people like this, and that is you have to kill some of them, even if they are not immediately directly involved in this thing." Was that his version of the old slogan, "kill them all, and let God sort them out"?

Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review complained to Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's media reporter, that "It's not necessarily an easy course to say let's go to war. It takes some righteous anger and conviction to say that." Nor is it easy, he added, to call for attacks on "states that have been supporting if not Osama bin Laden, people like him. Those states need to feel pain. If we flatten part of Damascus or Tehran or whatever it takes, that is part of the solution."

Not easy to call for war? When thousands of Americans lie dead? When flags are flying everywhere? When hundreds of Americans have threatened Arab-Americans? Does Lowry expect congratulations for assuming this difficult burden? This is a period of black-and-white pronouncements.

Presumably, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta expected to be believed when he professed that aviation "safety is always of paramount importance." Always? Anyone who flies through London or Amsterdam -- let alone Tel Aviv -- knows that the U.S. government has taken a much less vigilant view toward safety than its European counterparts. In many European nations, airline and airport safety is the duty of the government. In the United States, it is often relegated to private contractors who pay their employees low wages. Efforts to raise these wages have been opposed by the companies. And when there was a move to submit these employees to FBI background checks -- which would take time and entail some cost -- the aviation industry successfully lobbied against it.

Extremism also took hold in the statements of national security experts who claimed that critics of the US intelligence community and restrictions placed on the spies were partially responsible for the death and mayhem in New York and Washington. Former Secretary of State James Baker wagged his finger at the Church Committee, the Senate panel that investigated CIA improbity in the 1970s: "We went on a real witch hunt with our CIA.... We unilaterally disarmed in terms of intelligence." Baker, however, raised no dramatic criticisms of this unilateral disarmement when he was chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan or Secretary of State for President George Bush the first. Did he, too, let America down?

Former CIA director James Woolsey repeatedly charged that the CIA has been unduly hampered by regulations imposed in the mid-1990s that curtailed -- but did not eliminate -- the Agency's ability to recruit human-rights violators and terrorists. These limits came about after it was discovered that a Guatemalan military official, who had killed the husband of American citizen Jennifer Harbury, had been on the CIA payroll. But placing thugs of this sort (and terrorists) on the Agency dole can embolden them and cause them to feel as if they possess made-in-Langley protection. Remember Manuel Noriega, that prized asset of the CIA? By the way, Osama bin Laden once was a significant member of the Afghanistan mujaheddin resistance, which fought the Soviet Union in the 1980s -- and which was trained by the CIA. It is disingenuous to suggest that these restrictions prevent the CIA from gathering information on terrorists.

Woolsey acknowledged in one interview that such recruitments can still occur. And in June 2000, CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said, "The notion that our human rights guidelines are an impediment to fighting terrorism is simply wrong." He noted that the CIA has "never, ever turned down a request to use someone, even someone with a record of human rights abuses, if we thought that person could be valuable in our overall counterterrorism program." Moreover, in the years before these restrictions, the CIA had a pathetic record in infiltrating closed governments and tightly-knit targets, such as the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, North Vietnam, and the Viet Cong. Other hawks have used the occasion to urge the undoing of the rules that prevent CIA spies from posing as journalists or clergy. The point of this regulation was to not put American reporters and clergy who travel overseas in the crosshairs. Again, when the CIA was free to deploy such methods, it failed miserably in penetrating Castro's Cuba or the Viet Cong.

Will permitting a CIA man to pretend to be a journalist help the agency learn of the intentions of, say, bin Laden, who already does occasionally speak to bona fide reporters? The national security cadre have also called for lifting the prohibition on government-sponsored assassination of foreign leaders -- as if that could provide a magic bullet. Once more, history shows that CIA assassination efforts have never succeeded or contributed to US security.

The day after the attack, the Secrecy News newsletter quoted an administration official who remarked, "Tragic events almost inevitably result in the promulgation of legislation/executive action that reacts to the moment. Most often, these 'solutions' turn out to be short-sighted." Expect a slew of such initiatives to be sold to the public as necessary steps in the war against terrorism. And that will include a tremendous boost -- more than 10 percent -- in the Pentagon budget.

One of the most extreme reactions to the horrific assault came -- not too surprisingly -- from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. "The ACLU's got to take a lot of blame for this," Falwell said when he appeared on Robertson's television show. How so? Because, Falwell explained, the civil libertarians have opposed prayer in school. Robertson agreed. "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve," Falwell remarked. (Talk about blaming America first.)

Furthermore, Falwell noted that "the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad." September 11 apparently was God's revenge. If so, the United States should forget about beefing up the CIA, increasing the Pentagon budget, building Star Wars, or even improving airline security. Surely, a nation cannot defend against an act of God. But Falwell failed to explain why God has not similarly punished other nations where abortion occurs. Or why God, if he/she/it were truly angry, didn't merely smite those who piss him/her/it off?

But the Reverend was on a tear: "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'" Robertson chimed in: "I totally concur." Here was one set of fundamentalists crassly taking political advantage of the murderous acts of another set of fundamentalists.

These are not days of understanding or reflection. They are days of horror, tremendous sadness, and, unfortunately, exploitation.

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