Those who do not remember history are bound to repeat
The assault on the World Trade Center was horrific,
despicable, and unpardonable, but it is important not to lose perspective,
especially a historical one. For a response that is dictated primarily by
fury such as that now displayed by some American politicians, while
understandable, is likely to simply serve as one more proof for Santayana's
dictum that those who do not remember history are bound to repeat it.
THE MORAL EQUATION The scale and consequences of the World
Trade Center attack are massive indeed, but this was not the worst act of
mass terrorism in US history, as some US media are wont to claim. The over
5000 lives lost in New York are irreplaceable, but one must not forget that
the atomic raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed 210,000 people, most of
them civilians, most perishing instantaneously. But one may object that you
can't really compare the World Trade Center attack to the nuclear bombings
since, after all, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were targets in a war. But why not,
since the purpose of the nuclear bombings was not mainly to destroy military
or infrastructural targets, but to terrorize and destroy the civilian
population? Indeed, the whole allied air campaign against Germany and Japan
in 1944-45, which produced the firestorms in Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo,
that killed tens of thousands had as its central aim to kill and maim as
many civilians as possible. Similarly, during the Korean War, terror bombing
of civilians was the policy of the US Air Force's Far Eastern Command, which
was instructed to pulverize anything that moved in enemy territory. So
successful was the policy that in the summer of 1951, the commander was able
to report that "there is no structure left to be targeted."
During the Cold War, mass elimination of the enemy's
civilian population, alongside the destruction of his armed forces or
industry, was institutionalized in the strategy of massive nuclear
retaliation that lay at the center of the doctrine of Deterrence. In
Vietnam, where the US was frustrated by the fact that combatants and
civilians were indistinguishable, indiscriminate killing of civilians was a
central part of a "counterinsurgency war" in which 20,000
civilians were systematically assassinated under the CIA's Operation Phoenix
Program in the Mekong Delta.
But must not such actions against civilians be judged in
the context of a broader strategic objective of sapping the enemy's will to
fight and thus bring the war to a conclusion? But then how different is this
justification from the terrorists' aim to change the foreign policy of the
US government by eroding the support of the country's civilian population?
The point is not to engage in a "maleficent calculus,"
as Jeremy Bentham would have called this exercise, but to point out that the
US government hardly possesses the high ground in the current moral equation.
Indeed, one can say that terrorists like Osama bin Laden, an ex-CIA prot?g?,
have learned their lessons on the strategic targeting of the civilian
population from Washington's traditional strategy of total warfare, where
damage to the civilian population is not simply seen as collateral but as
essential to achieving the ends of war.
THE CLAUSEWITZIAN CALCULUS In the aftermath of the World
Trade Center assault, the perpetrators of the dastardly deed have been
called "irrational" or "madmen" or people that embody
evil. This is understandable as an emotional reaction but dangerous as a
basis for policy. The truth is the perpetrators of the deed were very
rational. If they were indeed people connected with Osama bin Laden, their
goal was most likely to raise the costs to the United States of maintaining
its current policies in the Middle East, which they consider unjust and
inequitable, and this was their way of doing it. They very rationally picked
the targets and weapons to be used, paying attention not only to maximum
destruction but also to maximum symbolism. The choice of the World Trade
Center towers and the Pentagon as the targets, and American Airlines and
United Airlines planes as the delivery vehicles doubling as warheads, was
the product of cold-blooded thinking and planning. The loss of their own
lives was factored into the calculation. What we saw was a rational calculus
of means to achieve a desired end. In the view of these people, terrorism,
like war, is the extension of politics by other means. These are
Clausewitzian minds, and the worst mistake one can make is to regard them as
PEARL HARBOR OR TET? One metaphor that the Washington
establishment has used to capture the essence of recent events is that of a
second Pearl Harbor, with the implication that, like the first, the
September 11 tragedy will galvanize the American people to an unprecedented
level of unity to win the war against still unidentified enemies. The other
side, one suspects, operates with a different metaphor, and this is that of
the Tet Offensive of 1968. The objective of the Vietnamese was to launch
massive simultaneous uprisings that, even if defeated separately, would
nevertheless add up to a strategic victory by convincing the other side,
especially its civilian base, that the war was unwinnable. The aim was to
rob the US of the will to win the war, and here the Vietnamese succeeded.
The perpetrators of World Trade Center assault are
operating with a similar calculus, and, despite the current jingoistic talk
in Washington, it is not certain that they are wrong. Will the American
people really bear any burden and pay any price in a struggle that will
persist way into the future, with no assurance of victory, indeed, with no
clear sense of who the enemies are and of what "victory" will
consist of? The media is full of news about the creation of an alliance
against terrorism, conveying the impression that coordination among key
states combined with the outrage of citizens everywhere will give a
Washington-led coalition an unbeatable edge. Perhaps in the short run,
although even this is not certain. For the problem is that, as in guerrilla
wars, this is not a war that will be won strictly or mainly by military
THE UNDERLYING ISSUES If it was bin Laden's network that
was responsible for the World Trade Center attack, then the underlying
issues are the twin pillars of US policy in the Middle East. One is
subordination of the interests of the peoples of the region to the US'
untrammeled access to Middle East oil in order to maintain its
petroleum-based civilization. To this end, the US overthrew the nationalist
government of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, cultivated the repressive Shah of
Iran as the gendarme of the Persian Gulf, supported anti-democratic feudal
regimes in the Arabian peninsula, and introduced a massive permanent
military presence in Saudi Arabia, which contains some of Islam's most
sacred shrines and cities.
The war against Saddam Hussein was justified as a war to
beat back aggression, but everybody knew that Washington's key motivation
was to ensure that the region's most massive oil reserves would remain under
the control of pro-Western elites.
The other pillar is unstinting support for Israel. That
Arab feelings about Israel are so elemental is not difficult to comprehend.
It is hard to argue against the fact that the state of Israel was born on
the basis of the massive dispossession of the Palestinian people from their
country and their lands. It is impossible to deny that Israel is a European
settler-state, one whose establishment was essentially a displacement from
European territory of the ethno-cultural contradictions of European society.
The Holocaust was an unspeakable crime against humanity, but it was utterly
wrong to impose its political consequences--chief of which was the creation
of Israel--on a people who had nothing to do with it.
It is hard to contradict Arab claims that it was
essentially support from the United States that created the state of Israel;
that it has been massive US military aid and backing that has maintained it
in the last half century; and that it is deep confidence in perpetual US
military and political support that enables Israel to oppose in practice the
emergence of a viable Palestinian state.
Unless the US abandons these two pillars of its policies,
there will always be thousands of recruits for acts of terrorism such as
that which occurred last week. And while we may condemn terrorist acts- -as
we must, strongly--it is another thing to expect desperate people not to
adopt them, especially when they can point to the fact that it was such
methods that targeted civilians as well as military personnel, combined with
the Intifada, that forced Israel to agree to the 1993 Oslo Accord that led
to the creation of the Palestinian entity.
Yet another reason why the strategic equation does not
favor the US is that there are a great many people in the world that are
ambivalent about terrorism. In contrast to Europe, there has been a
relatively muted response to the World Trade Center event in the South. A
survey would probably reveal that while many people in the Third World are
appalled by hijackers' methods, they are not unsympathetic to their
objectives. As one Chinese-Filipino entrepreneur said, "It's horrible,
but on the other hand, the US had it coming." If this reaction is
common among middle class people, it would not be surprising if such
ambivalence towards terrorism is widespread among the 80 per cent of the
world's population that are marginalized by current global political and
There is simply too much distrust, dislike, or just plain
hatred of a country that has become so callous in its pursuit of economic
power and arrogant in its political and military relations with the rest of
the world and so brazen in declaring its cultural superiority over the rest
of us. As in the equation of guerrilla war, civilian ambivalence in the
theater of battle translates strategically to a minus when it comes to the
staying power of the authorities and a plus when it comes to that of the
In sum, if there is one thing we can be certain of, it is
that massive retaliation on the part of the US will not put an end to
terrorism. It will simply amplify the upward spiral of violence, as the
other side will resort to even more spectacular deeds, fed by unending waves
of recruits. The September 11 tragedy is the clearest evidence of the
bankruptcy of the 30-year-old policy of mailed fist, massive retaliation
response to terrorism. This policy has simply resulted in the extreme
professionalization of terrorism.
The only response that will really contribute to global
security and peace is for Washington to address not the symptoms but the
roots of terrorism. It is for the United States to reexamine and
substantially change its policies in the Middle East and the Third World,
supporting for a change arrangements that will not stand in the way of the
achievement of equity, justice, and genuine national sovereignty for
currently marginalized peoples.
Any other way leads to endless war.
*Executive Director of Focus on the Global South and
professor at the University of the Philippines.
Focus on the Global South (FOCUS) c/o CUSRI, Chulalongkorn
University Bangkok 10330 THAILAND Tel: 662 218 7363/7364/7365/7383 Fax: 662
255 9976 E-mail: N.Bullard@focusweb.org Web Page http://www.focusweb.org