The Validity of Anti-War Criticism

Imagine the following. You live in a community that has been experiencing a serious upsurge in crime. The possibility of being victimized is an ever-present reality, and previous attempts to solve the crime problem in the neighborhood have failed. Frustrated by this fact, local officials announce that beginning tomorrow, police will have permission to shoot anyone they suspect of criminal activity, on sight. No questions, and no arrest necessary. No need to even present proof of guilt to a magistrate -- mere suspicion or circumstantial evidence will do. Sure, some innocent people might be killed, but if so, that would be an accident. Hopefully, say the local officials, this response will deter criminals and return the neighborhood to safety.

And let's say that you find this new policy to be wrongheaded to the point of absurdity. Yet, let us also assume that you aren't really sure what needs to be done to stem the crime problem. You feel certain that shooting people at the drop of a hat won't work, but frankly aren't prepared to offer an alternative to this newly announced "Dirty Harry" approach. In such a situation, would it be inappropriate for you to object? To say that such a plan is not only morally repugnant, but guaranteed not to work, and perhaps to even make things worse, by reducing overall respect for the rule of law? Must you maintain your silence unless and until you have a "better idea?" Or if you do issue a critique, should it be taken less seriously just because you don't yet know exactly what might work better?

I would suspect that most would say no to all of the above questions. Despite not being sure how best to solve the crime problem, it would be perfectly appropriate, and indeed incumbent upon you as a concerned citizen, to say "stop" to a proposal that you found ethically and practically indefensible. Though it would be good, as a practical matter, for you and others to sit down and attempt to devise a workable anti-crime plan, doing so should certainly not be viewed -- nor would it likely be viewed -- as a prerequisite to criticizing other plans with which you disagree.

Likewise, if you were rushed to the emergency room with dangerously elevated blood pressure, and the attendant physician pulled out a canister of leeches to administer a bloodletting treatment, it would be fine for you to object, even though, never having been to medical school, you really couldn't say what the appropriate treatment might be.

Yet, despite how readily most would agree with the above propositions, it appears the same logic is not understood when it comes to discussing the bombing of Afghanistan. Repeatedly, since first writing in opposition to the extant war -- both on moral and practical grounds -- I have heard from persons who insist that unless I have a better plan to address the problem of terrorism, my criticisms of the current strategy are ipso facto invalid. Even if my detractors agree with the futility of the Administration's approach, they seem to think that "doing something," even if it might be wrong, is better than doing nothing. And they seem to feel that we haven't the time to actually think things through, deliberate, gather better intelligence, and only then, take action.

What's more, now that these same folks can point to the fall of the Taliban and the death of one of bin Laden's henchmen as positive outcomes of bombing, they feel especially emboldened to criticize anyone who has opposed the war, especially if they feel such persons to have offered no alternative methods to achieve such presumably splendid results as these.

Truth be told, of course, there actually have been alternatives to bombing and war proposed by those of us in opposition to such approaches. That the persons demanding that we provide such alternatives haven't seen them can only be the result of having not looked very hard. From the outset we have been calling for an international law approach that would involve presenting evidence of responsibility to the UN Security Council, a concerted global crackdown on terrorist financial networks and, if necessary, approval of limited but targeted police action, involving special forces, designed to go in, find the guilty parties and capture them. Such actions would be an international version of what the U.S. itself did in bringing the 1993 Trade Center bombers to trial, as well as those involved in the 1988 bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Additionally, there are any number of better security measures we could adopt, none of which would require the sweeping impositions on civil liberties that are part and parcel of the new anti-terrorism bill. Air marshals, reinforced cockpit doors, and improved screening and oversight of airport security would all make a difference, and indeed would have prevented the events of 9-11 from happening in the first place. Additional measures, including comprehensive access to health care services as protection against bio-terrorism, and the elimination of vulnerable and dangerous nuclear power facilities would also boost security.

But the mere mention of one's opposition to bombing sends more than a few into fits of apoplexy. As for the international law approach alluded to above -- which has been fleshed out in greater detail on any number of antiwar websites -- those who have bought into the Bush/Blair solution to terrorism merely shrug. Surely you can't be serious, they say. How would that possibly work? What authority does the UN have?

Of course in some ways they're right. The UN's authority and ability to act is limited, in no small part because the U.S. has consistently eschewed using it as a vehicle to enforce international norms of behavior. We have done this, of course, because to accede to UN authority would require that we follow international law. And that's something we've never been too good at: from mining Nicaragua's harbors, to bombing Libya, to supporting Israel's occupation of the West Bank in total opposition to UN resolutions for the past thirty-plus years.

But no matter how imperfect an internationalist approach might be, there is simply no reason to think it would be any less effective than carpet-bombing. Especially when one considers the likely backlash the latter approach could engender, as compared to the almost non-existent risk of it in the former case. That such an approach hasn't been tried is not because it couldn't work to catch terrorists. Rather, it is because catching terrorists is not the point of Operation Enduring Freedom. Its point is to project U.S. military power, to demonstrate our willingness to use such power and to make clear that, as the current President's father once said, "What we say goes."

In fact, the nightmare scenario for George W. would have been for the Taliban to have captured and turned over each member of Al Qaeda (assuming this was something they could have done in the first place) before the first shot was fired. We rejected their offer to turn over bin Laden to a third country, not because we thought they were bluffing, but because we were afraid they weren't. Trying him in a court of law wouldn't rank high enough on the bad-ass-ometer that seems to matter so much to the President, with his "dead or alive" rhetoric and "let's roll" punch lines. It wouldn't satisfy the "nuke the bastards" contingent. In short, it wouldn't do much for Georgie's re-election chances.

Now some would say that we simply didn't have the luxury of this more peaceful but also more time consuming approach. With other terrorists likely planning imminent attacks on our shores, we had to act quickly, decisively, immediately.

But consider the illogic of such a statement. If indeed there are additional confederates of bin Laden planning imminent attacks, there is little reason to think they would still be in Afghanistan, if in fact they were ever there. They would most likely already be in the U.S., or hiding out some place until they could sneak into the country. So bombing the Taliban into the Pleistocene couldn't possibly do anything to minimize the risk of an actual pending attack, already far along in the planning process.

And if, on the other hand, there were no ongoing and imminent plots underway, there would be no reason to rush into military action; or at least, no reason to do so if the real goal of such action was to diminish the threat of terrorism.

Much as the U.S. was able to wait several months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and carefully plan our response, without diminishing our security or "inviting" another attack -- the fear so many have today -- so too could we have deliberated, planned and carefully honed our response in the instant case. That we didn't has nothing to do with strategy and everything to do with a culture that has become far less patient over the past half-century. In a nation of channel-surfers and short attention-spans, where "Just Do It" is more a national mantra than mere shoe-marketing slogan, anything that takes time is considered unworthy of the support of folks locked into a fast-food and microwave mentality.

So the decision to bomb Afghanistan, while definitely "doing something," hardly amounts to doing something that is related to the goal most Americans have in mind. And none of those who have lambasted me for opposing it has been able to offer one shred of logic, to say nothing of evidence indicating that the Al Qaeda would be significantly damaged by pummeling that particular nation. They haven't even tried, in fact.

The fear that understandably has gripped so many in the U.S. since 9-11 has prompted them to latch onto anything, any remedy for terrorism, no matter how hollow, no matter how unlikely to work it may be. Not willing to seek out alternatives, or think critically about better methods for addressing the problems themselves, they rush to support anything that is offered by those in power; those whom they sincerely believe to have their best interests at heart. So when some of us criticize the methods of those the people trust, we become the targets of personal attack. We become appeasers and supporters of terrorism. We become the enemy.

The simple truth is, even if we who oppose bombing and war didn't have any alternative suggestions about how best to handle terrorism, our critiques would still be legitimate and worthy of consideration. Bad policy is bad policy, and should be resisted. Good alternatives are important to develop, but one should not have to wait until one has thought of such a policy, before raising one's voice to oppose that what one finds objectionable. Bad policy unquestioned could result in the deaths of tens of thousands, if not millions of people.

Perhaps instead of criticizing those who critique the war, those who feel the U.S. must do "something," should spend a little less time watching CNN or Fox News, and a little more time Web surfing to discover what war critics actually believe. That they won't likely do this is not because discovering such views is particularly difficult, but rather, because doing so would require acknowledgement that the war hasn't actually made them safer, and that safety will require thought-out solutions to terrorism, long-term and short-term policy changes, and diplomacy. Since it's so much easier to drop explosives, many Americans would rather not hear this. We want the solution that is easy and quick. But as H.L. Mencken once said, the solutions that are short and simple are also invariably wrong.

Tim Wise is a writer, lecturer and antiracism activist. He can be reached at

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