by Marty Jezer

At Brattleboro's interfaith vigil last Sunday I stood next to a prominent local Republican who disagrees with me on most political issues. We exchanged friendly greetings, lit our candles and sang "American the Beautiful" and "We Shall Overcome." As we were singing I was thinking: in many countries of the world the two of us would have been locked in battle with one another over our ideas. In the political violence that passes for political process in many countries, one or both of us might have been killed.

Civil liberties, by which tolerance and the right to hold and articulate dissenting views are protected by law, is one of our country's great contributions to the world. So is the idea of the primacy of law.

How the United States reacts to the terrorist attack of September 11th will have profound consequences, not just for the immediate future, but for generations to come. Surely the perpetrators of this monstrous act must be brought to justice. It's how we go about it that counts. There are both moral and practical reasons to respect our own legal tradition and act with caution and understanding.

The catastrophe of last Tuesday is a good example of what happens when a country acts rashly, out of narrow self-interest and without anticipating unintended consequences. In 1978 a left-wing, pro-Soviet government took power in Afghanistan. It was a secular government focused on modernizing Afghanistan and, among other projects, supporting the rights of women. It spawned an armed opposition that included anti-Soviet Afghan nationalists and fundamentalist Islamic factions. The Soviet Union invaded in support of the government. The United States, obsessed with the Soviets and disinterested in Afghan politics, armed and trained the anti-Soviet mujahedeen, whose ranks included Osama bin Laden, the son of a wealthy Saudi Arabian and a religious fundamentalist who rejects all forms of social and cultural modernism.

With U.S. support, bin Laden recruited Muslims from throughout the Middle East. When the Soviets quit Afghanistan, the religious fundamentalists continued their war against the government, which they still considered too secular. Ultimately the Taliban theocrats shot their way to power. Members of all other religions, indeed Muslims who oppose the Taliban's extreme interpretation of the Koran, are considered "infidels." Women are virtually enslaved. They cannot work, go to school, or even gather together.

Once the Soviets were defeated, the United States lost interest in Afghanistan. The country was devastated, the economy ruined. Combat fatalities, civilian deaths and homeless refugees numbered in the millions. The Reagan Administration, so generous with weapons, did nothing to help Afghanistan recover. Bin Laden and his private, well-financed militia then turned their weapons against the United States, which they hate for its power, arrogance, influence and, as they see it, decadent culture. Thus came terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia and Kenya (where the victims were mostly African Muslims), and the first bombing of the World Trade Center.

This much needs to be understood, however: bin Laden and his fighters are not part of the third world's struggle for economic justice. What they despise about the West, especially the United States, is our freedom, our hedonism, and our secular society. Like all fanatics who believe that they act in the name of God, they consider democracy a weakness. In their egocentric political theology, their legitimacy comes from God, not from the will of the people.

But this also needs to be clear: as a terrorist movement they thrive on the poverty and hopelessness that result from the United States' economic prowess and above-the-law foreign policy. There will always be fanatics in the world; what makes this group dangerous are the millions of people living in despair who are potential recruits for a terrorist army.

How do we protect ourselves from that kind of enemy; how do we get justice? According to the New York Times and USA Today, the Administration is split on this question.

Conservatives around Bush want to use the terrorist attack as an excuse to go after all our Arab enemies. Attack Afghanistan and Iraq, "take out Saddam," punish all who we perceive as supporting terrorism, whether or not there is proof that they were involved in the attack, insists deputy secretary of defense Paul D. Wolfowitz, the most vocal advocate of that position.

Wolfowitz is opposed by Secretary of State Colin Powell who wants first to use diplomacy to involve other nations, including Arab nations, in a broad anti-terrorist coalition. He wants to present the world with a bill of indictment against the actual terrorists before any action is taken.

It will not be easy building an anti-terrorist coalition. To get international support we may be asked, correctly, to limit the scope of our military strikes and to reform our foreign policy. If there's no definitive proof that Saddam is behind the attack, we may be forced to negotiate a new relationship with Iraq and end the sanctions that are hurting the Iraqi people. We may also, as the price of international cooperation, be forced to alter our support for Israel and its West Bank and Gaza settlements. In following the money to track down the terrorists, we might find it leads to some embarrassing places: the oil sheiks of Saudi Arabia and commercial banks that launder terrorist money, for instance.

Within the Bush Administration, Powell is the best hope for a reasoned response, but Powell has been marginalized in previous Administration foreign policy decisions. Ultimately it rests with the American people to rein in the war hawks. A massive retaliation that kills innocent civilians and (for precisely that reason) inflames the Arab and Muslim world against us will only undermine our national security. The unintended consequences of a reckless military adventure would be, as in Afghanistan, more terrorists, more terrorism, and a greater pool of people who, having nothing to live for, would be willing to sacrifice their lives in a holy war against the American people.

Marty Jezer's books include Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel and The Dark Ages: Life in the USA, 1945-1960. He writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at mjez@sover.net

Copyright(c) 2001 by Marty Jezer

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