Infinite Just Us      Tom Mayer, Professor of Sociology, University of Colorado at Boulder, September 17, 2001.

An Appropriate Response

Hunger for revenge can easily swamp any form of reason in thinking about the awful tragedy that unfolded on September 11. If we see things as a crusade of good against evil -- as our President recommends -- then we learn nothing from the murder of thousands and, in all likelihood, even worse disasters lie in store.

The bombing of the World Trade Center emerges from more than five decades of history, a history which most Americans do not know about or would prefer to forget. During the last twenty years alone, the United States bombed Libya, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, and Yugoslavia. These direct applications of American military force are only the tip of the interventionist iceberg. Consider seven points:

The basic causes of the September 11 bombing are clear enough. A huge number of people in a band of countries from Morocco to Afghanistan are furious at the United States and have been for a long time. Although only a small fragment of this population advocates terrorism, and only a tiny share of this fragment will ever engage in terrorist acts, the fury of the great mass sustains the violence of the tiny sect.

Although envy of the rich and powerful is normal in human affairs, the policies of the United States towards the Middle East since World War Two have provoked more than the ususal anger among many Middle Eastern people. These policies include ruthless preoccupation with oil, almost carte blanche support of Israel, indifference to the welfare of Arab people, hostility towards and overthrow of truly nationalist governments, backing of reactionary rulers (e.g. shah of Iran, emir of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban) whenever it serves American purposes, and liberal use of military force to obtain these objectives. The underlying source of the attack upon the World Trade Center is not Islamic fundamentalism but imperialist domination.

We are rightly horrified by the death of innocents in Washington and New York. But how many Americans shed a tear over the estimated 500,000 children that have perished as a consequence of U.S. policies towards Iraq, or 17,000 civilians killed in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon bankrolled by our government, or Clinton’s bombing of Sudan that destroyed half of its pharmaceutical supplies with massive and deadly consequences, or the devastation of Afghanistan facilitated by CIA intervention?

Technocratic anti-terrorism will not succeed. It may be possible to eliminate some existing groups bent upon committing violent acts against American civilians. However, if the underlying sense of injustice and violation persists, others will take their place and new violent sects will emerge. To millions of people in the region from Morocco to Afghanistan, the perpetrators of Tuesday’s massacre were not conscienceless fanatics, but brave soldiers trying to avenge the humiliation of Middle Eastern societies.

Although the bombings of New York and Washington were immensely destructive, they are small by comparison with the terrorist carnage feasible in the years ahead. Car delivered nuclear bombs can wipe out entire cities. Easily spread biological pathogens (e.g. anthrax or small pox) can devastate counties or even states. There is no effective defense against such horrors. The only feasible approach is reducing the motivation to commit terrorist deeds.

Violence alone will not prevent any large collectivity from committing violence. If violence prevented violence, the history of the last century would have been entirely different. On the contrary, the use of violence without addressing grievances typically deepens the resolve to commit yet further violence. And the violence of a military superpower against a far weaker opponent instills the motivation to commit violence as an act of terrorim.

Any effort to exact a broad retribution that aims at punishing persons, organizations, or countries associating with identified terrorists will probably degenerate into indiscriminate massacre cum racism.

An appropriate response to the September 11 massacre, and an appropriate memorial to its victims, would include:
 (a)  apprehending the living persons directly responsible for the World Trade Center atrocity (likely a small group),
 (b)  reevaluating – and hopefully changing – the policies that systematically antagonize people of the Middle East,
 (c)  retreating from the arrogant unilateralism characteristic of America’s international role in the recent past,
 (d)  sharply curtailing the weapons trade, and
 (e)  strengthening the United Nations as the most hopeful and legitimate venue for resolving world conflicts.

September 17, 2001

webpage edit 10-21-2001