Our War on Terrorism
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, November
I am calling it "our" war on
terrorism because I want to distinguish it from Bush's war on
terrorism, and from Sharon's, and from Putin's. 'What their wars
have in common is that they are based on an enormous deception:
persuading the people of their countries that you can deal with
terrorism by war. These rulers say you can end our fear of terrorism-of
sudden, deadly, vicious attacks, a fear new to Americans by drawing
an enormous circle around an area of the world / where terrorists
come from (Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya) or can be claimed
to be connected with(Iraq), and by sending in tanks and planes
to bomb and terrorize whoever lives within that circle.
Since war is itself the most extreme form
of terrorism, a war on terrorism is profoundly self-contradictory
Is it strange, or normal, that no major political figure has pointed
Even within their limited definition of
terrorism, they-the governments of the United States, Israel,
Russia-are clearly failing. As I write this, three years after
the events of September 11, the death toll for American servicemen
has surpassed 1,000, more than 150 Russian children have died
in a terrorist takeover of a school, Afghanistan is in chaos,
and the number of significant terrorist attacks rose to a twenty-one-year
high in 2003, according to official State Department figures.
The highly respected International Institute for Strategic Studies
in London has reported that "over 18,000 potential terrorists
are at large with recruitment accelerating on account of Iraq."
With the failure so obvious, and the President
tripping over his words trying to pretend otherwise (August 30:
"I don't think you can win" and the next day: "Make
no mistake about it, we are winning"), it astonishes us that
the polls show a majority of Americans believing the President
has done "a good job" in the war on terrorism.
I can think of two reasons for this.
First, the press and television have not
played the role of gadflies, of whistleblowers, the role that
the press should play in a society whose fundamental doctrine
of democracy (see the Declaration of Independence) is that you
must not give blind trust to the government. They have not made
clear to the public-I mean vividly, dramatically clear-what have
been the human consequences of the war in Iraq.
I am speaking not only of the deaths and
mutilations of American youth, but the deaths and mutilations
of Iraqi children. (I am reading at this moment of an American
bombing of houses in the city of Fallujah, leaving \\ four children
dead, with the U.S. military saying this was part of
a "precision strike" on "a building frequently
used by terrorists.") I believe that the American people's
natural compassion would come to the fore if they truly understood
that we are terrorizing other people by our "war on terror."
A second reason that so many people accept Bush's leadership is
that no counterargument has come from the opposition party. John
Kerry has not challenged Bush's definition of terrorism. He has
not been forthright. He has dodged and feinted, saying that Bush
has waged "the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong
time." Is there a right war, a right place, a right time?
Kerry has not spoken clearly, boldly, in such a way as to appeal
to the common sense of the American people, at least half of whom
have turned against the war, with many more looking for the wise
words that a true leader provides. He has not clearly challenged
the fundamental premise of the Bush Administration: that the massive
violence of war is the proper response to the kind of terrorist
attack that took place on September 11, 2001.
Let us begin by recognizing that terrorist
acts-the killing of innocent people to achieve some desired goal-are
morally unacceptable and must be repudiated and opposed by anyone
claiming to care about human rights. The September 11 attacks,
the suicide bombings in Israel, the taking of hostages by Chechen
nationalists-all are outside the bounds of any ethical principles.
This must be emphasized, because as soon
as you suggest that it is important, to consider something other
than violent retaliation, you are accused of sympathizing with
the terrorists. It is a cheap way of ending a discussion without
examining intelligent alternatives to present policy.
Then the question becomes: What is the
appropriate way to respond to such awful acts? The answer so far,
given by Bush, Sharon, and Putin, is military action. We have
enough evidence now to tell us that this does not stop terrorism,
may indeed provoke more terrorism, and at the same time leads
to the deaths of hundreds, even thousands, of innocent people
who happen to live in the vicinity of suspected terrorists.
'What can account for the fact that these
obviously ineffective, even counterproductive, responses have
been supported by the people of Russia, Israel, the United States?
It's not hard to figure that out. It is fear, a deep, paralyzing
fear, a dread so profound that one's normal rational faculties
are distorted, and so people rush to embrace policies that have
only one thing in their favor: They make you feel that something
is being done. In the absence of an alternative, in the presence
of a policy vacuum, filling that vacuum with a decisive act becomes
And when the opposition party; the opposition
Presidential candidate, can offer nothing to fill that policy
vacuum, the public feels it has no choice but to go along with
what is being done. It is emotionally satisfying, even if rational
thought suggests it does not work and cannot work.
If John Kerry cannot offer an alternative
to war, then it is the responsibility of citizens, with every
possible resource they can muster, to present such an alternative
to the American public.
Yes, we can try to guard in every possible
way against future attacks, by trying to secure airports, seaports,
railroads, other centers of transportation. Yes, we can try to
capture known terrorists. But neither of those actions can bring
an end to terrorism, which comes from the fact that millions of
people in the Middle East and elsewhere are angered by American
policies, and out of these millions come those who will carry
their anger to fanatic extremes.
The CIA senior terrorism analyst who has
written a book signed "Anonymous" has said bluntly that
U.S. policies-supporting Sharon, making war on Afghanistan and
Iraq-"are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world."
Unless we reexamine our policies-our quartering
of soldiers in a hundred countries (the quartering of foreign
soldiers, remember, was one of the grievances of the American
revolutionaries), our support of the occupation of Palestinian
lands, our insistence on controlling the oil of the Middle East-we
will always live in fear. If we were to announce that we will
reconsider those policies, and began to change them, we might
start to dry up the huge reservoir of hatred where terrorists
Whoever the next President will be, it
is up to the American people to demand that he begin a bold reconsideration
of the role our country should play in the world. That is the
only possible solution to a future of never-ending, pervasive
fear. That would be "our" war on terrorism.
Howard Zinn, the author of A People's
History of the United States," is a columnist for The Progressive.
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