The Old Way of Thinking
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, November 2001
The images on television were heartbreaking: people on fire
leaping to their deaths from a hundred stories up; people in panic
racing from the scene in clouds of dust and smoke.
We knew there must be thousands of human beings buried under
a mountain of debris. We could only imagine the terror among the
passengers of the hijacked planes as they contemplated the crash,
the fire, the end. Those scenes horrified and sickened me.
Then our political leaders came on television, and I was horrified
and sickened again. They spoke of retaliation, of vengeance, of
We are at war, they said. And I thought: They have learned
nothing, absolutely nothing, from the history of the twentieth
century, from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war,
a hundred years of terrorism and counterterrorism, of violence
met with violence in an unending cycle of stupidity.
We can all feel a terrible anger at whoever, in their insane
idea that this would help their cause, killed thousands of innocent
people. But what do we do with that anger? Do we react with panic,
strike out violently and blindly just to show how tough we are?
"We shall make no distinction," the President proclaimed,
"between terrorists and countries that harbor terrorists."
So now we are bombing Afghanistan and inevitably killing innocent
people because it is in the nature of bombing (and I say this
as a former Air Force bombardier) to be indiscriminate, to "make
We are committing terrorism in order to "send a message"
We have done that before. It is the old way of thinking, the
old way of acting. It has never worked. Reagan bombed Libya, and
Bush made war on Iraq, and Clinton bombed Afghanistan and also
a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan to "send a message"
to terrorists. And then comes this horror in New York and Washington.
Isn't it dear by now that sending a message to terrorists through
violence doesn't work, that it only leads to more terrorism?
Haven't we learned anything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Car bombs planted by Palestinians bring air attacks and tanks
by the Israeli government. That has been going on for years. It
And innocent people die on both sides.
Yes, it is an old way of thinking, and we need new ways. We
need to think about the resentment all over the world felt by
people who have been the victims of American military action.
In Vietnam, where we carried out terrorizing bombing attacks,
using napalm and cluster bombs, on peasant villages.
In Latin America, where we supported dictators and death squads
in Chile and El Salvador and Guatemala and Haiti.
In Iraq, where more than 500,000 children have died as a result
of economic sanctions that the United States has insisted upon.
And, perhaps most important for understanding the current
situation, in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza,
where a million and more Palestinians live under a cruel military
occupation, while our government supplies Israel with hightech
We need to imagine that the awful scenes of death and suffering
we were witnessing on our television screens have been going on
in other parts of the world for a long time, and only now can
we begin to know what people have gone through, often as a result
of our policies. We need to understand how some of those people
will go beyond quiet anger to acts of terrorism.
That doesn't, by any means, justify the terror. Nothing justifies
killing thousands of innocent people. But we would do well to
see what might inspire such violence. And it will not be over
until we stop concentrating on punishment and retaliation and
think calmly and intelligently about how to address its causes.
We need new ways of thinking.
A $300 billion military budget has not given us security.
Military bases all over the world, our warships on every ocean,
have not given us security.
Land mines and a "missile defense shield" will not
give us security.
We need to stop sending weapons to countries that oppress
other people or their own people. We need to decide that we will
not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians
or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate,
a war against innocents, a war against children.
War is terrorism, magnified a hundred times.
Yes, let's find the perpetrators of the awful acts of September
11. We must find the guilty parties and prosecute them. But we
shouldn't engage in indiscriminate retaliation. When a crime is
committed by someone who lives in a certain neighborhood, you
don't destroy the neighborhood.
Yes, we can tend to immediate security needs. Let's take some
of the billions allocated for "missile defense," totally
useless against terrorist attacks such as this one, and pay the
security people at airports decent wages and give them intensive
training. Let's go ahead and hire marshals to be on every flight.
But ultimately, there is no certain security against the unpredictable.
True, we can find bin Laden and his cohorts, or whoever were
the perpetrators, and punish them. But that will not end terrorism
so long as the pent-up grievances of decades, felt in so many
countries in the Third World, remain unattended. We cannot be
secure so long as we use our national wealth for guns, warships,
F-18s, cluster bombs, and nuclear weapons to maintain our position
as a military superpower. We should use that wealth instead to
become a moral superpower.
We must deal with poverty and sickness in other parts of the
world where desperation breeds resentment. And here at home, our
true security cannot come by putting the nation on a war footing,
with all the accompanying threats to civil liberties that this
brings. True security can come only when we use our resources
to make us the model of a good society, prosperous and peacemaking,
with free medical care for everyone, education and housing, guaranteed
decent wages, and a clean environment for all. We cannot be secure
by limiting our liberties, as some of our political leaders are
demanding, but only by expanding them.
We should take our example not from our military and political
leaders shouting "retaliate" and "war" but
from the doctors and nurses and medical students and firefighters
and police officers who were saving lives in the midst of mayhem,
whose first thoughts were not violence but healing, not vengeance
Howard Zinn is a columnist for The Progressive.