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What’s So Complex About It?

By Michael Albert

In the past few weeks I have minutely explored, often with Stephen Shalom, multifold concerns about September 11 and the “war on terrorism.” With him I have tried to calmly and soberly respond to all kinds of concerns people feel. I recommend doing it. We all need to become adept at rebutting the insanely manipulative media messages that crowd into so many people’s minds, and into our own as well. But going straight to the uncomplicated heart of the matter sometimes has merit, too.

The U.S. bombing of Afghanistan is a barbaric assault on defenseless civilians. It threatens a nearly incomprehensible human calamity. It is pursuing abominable goals.

The bombing is not a “just war,” as Richard Falk labels it in The Nation, but a vigilante attack. No, it is not a vigilante attack; it is a vigilante lynch-mob assault writ large. No, it is not even a vigilante lynch mob assault writ large–even vigilante lynch mobs go after only those they think are culprits and not innocent bystanders. The bombing of Afghanistan is a gargantuan repugnance hurled against some of the poorest people on the planet. And this gargantuan repugnance is undertaken not out of sincere if horrendously misguided desires to curtail terrorism--since the bombing undeniably manifests terror and feeds the wellsprings of more terrorism to come--but out of malicious desires to establish a new elite-serving logic of U.S. policy-making via an endless War on Terrorism to replace the defunct Cold War. This is rehashed Reaganism made more cataclysmic than even his dismal mind could conceive.

When people say, but doesn’t the U.S. have a right to defend itself? Don’t we have to do something?. I understand their hurt, pain, anger, and confusion. But I also have to admit that I want to scream that the U.S. is increasing the likelihood that a million or more souls will suffer fatal starvation. That is not self defense. Doing something does not entail that we be barbaric. We can do something desirable rather than horrific, for example.

Put differently, what kind of thinking sees denying food to humans as self defense, as the only “something” at our disposal? The answer is thinking like Bush’s, thinking like bin Laden’s, thinking that treats innocent human lives as chess pieces, as checkers, as tidily winks, in pursuit of its own deadly agendas. Thinking that is willing to rocket a plane into a building to take 6,000 innocent lives, or thinking that is willing to drop bombs into an already devastated country abetting cataclysmic starvation is terrorist thinking. Or, more often in the case of average upset folks, it is thinking that has been systematically denied the most basic information relevant to the issues at hand, and that is too fearful, depressed, angry, or cynical to admit disturbing truths and reason through real options and values.

You think I exaggerate?

Jean Ziegler, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said October 15, "The bombing has to stop right now. There is a humanitarian emergency.” Lest anyone miss the point, he continued, “In winter the lorries cannot go in any more. Millions of Afghans will be unreachable in winter and winter is coming very, very soon." As Reuters reported (and AP carried as well, but not any U.S. newspaper or other major media outlet, as best I can tell), “the United Nations has warned of a catastrophe unless aid can get through for up to seven million Afghans.” Ziegler continues, "We must give the (humanitarian) organizations a chance to save the millions of people who are internally displaced (inside Afghanistan)," adding that he was echoing an (essentially unreported) appeal made by U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson a few days earlier, who was in turn echoing reports that go back to before the bombing. Ziegler called the bombing "a catastrophe for humanitarian work." Or in the words of Christian Aid Spokesman Dominic Nutt (quoted in the Scotsman but again in no U.S. papers): "We are beyond the stage where we can sit down and talk about this over tea. If they stop the bombing we can get the food aid in, it’s as simple as that. Tony Blair and George Bush have repeatedly said this is a three-stringed offensive--diplomatic, military and humanitarian. Well the diplomatic and military are there but where is the humanitarian? A few planes throwing lunchboxes around over the mountains is laughable." You can look at reports from one AID agency after another, it is all the same story. Impending calamity, stop the bombing.

So what’s complicated in all this?

Perhaps someone with a more subtle mind than mine can clarify it for me. But assuming one has the above information at hand, to me it seems to boil down to this. If we bomb (or even just threaten to bomb), they are more likely to starve. If we don’t bomb (or threaten to bomb), they are less likely to starve. If we continue bombing, we are telling the innocent civilians who may starve--not thousands but millions of them--you just don’t count. Compared to Washington’s agenda, you are nothing.

And what is Washington’s agenda? Remarkably the stated aim is to get bin Laden and to try him or perhaps just execute him ourselves. We could stop the bombing and have him tried in a third country, the Taliban has noted, but that’s not acceptable. So for this minuscule gradation of difference, we are told that Washington is willing to risk 7 million people. Behind the rhetoric, to me the real goals appear to be to delegitimate international law, to establish that Washington will get its way regardless of impediments and that we can and will act unilaterally whenever it suits us – the technical term for which is to ensure that our threats remain “credible” --and to propel a long-term war on terrorism to entrench the most reactionary policies in the U.S. and around the globe, and, along with all that, to terminate bin Laden and others. Risking seven million people’s lives for these aims is worse than doing it only for the minuscule gradation of trying bin Laden ourselves rather than having a third country do it, because the additional reasons are all grotesquely negative, supposing such calculus is even manageable by a sane mind.

When I was a kid and first learned about Nazi Germany, like many other kids, I asked how the German population could abide such horrors. I even wondered if maybe Germans were somehow genetically evil or amoral. I have long since understood that Germans weren’t different than Brits or Americans or anyone else, though their circumstances were different, but for those who still don’t understand mass subservience to vile crimes induced by structural processes of great power and breadth, I have to admit that I mostly just want to shout: Look around, dammit!

We live in a highly advanced country with means of communication that are virtually instantaneous and vastly superior to what the German populace had. We don’t have a dictator and brownshirts threatening everyone who dissents. Dissent here can be somewhat unpleasant and may involve some sacrifice and risk, but the price is most often way less than incarceration, much less death. That’s fact one. Fact two is that our country is risking murdering a few million civilians in the next few months…every serious commentator knows it, no serious commentator denies it…and we are pursuing that genocidal path on the idiotic or grotesquely racist pretext that by so doing we are reducing terrorism in the world, even as we add millions to the tally of civilians currently terrorized for political purposes and simultaneously breed new hate and desperation that will yield still more terror in the future. Does anyone remember “destroying the city to save it”? What’s next? Terrorize the planet to rid it of terrorists? For people of my generation, in the Vietnam War the U.S. killed roughly 2 million Vietnamese over years and years of horrible violation of the norms of justice, liberty, and plain humanity. The utterly incomprehensible truth is that the U.S. could attain that same level of massacre in the next few months, and, whether it happens or not, our leaders, our media moguls and commentators, in fact most of our “intelligentisia” are quite sanguine about doing so.

It is possible, with considerable effort, for the average person to discover that this “war” is potentially genocidal. One can easily get much more background, context, and analysis from ZNet, sure—but of course only one out of roughly every five hundred or one thousand U.S. citizens has ever encountered ZNet--but one can get that single insight, the possibility that genocidal calamity is imminent, even from the NY Times or Washington Post or any major paper that one might read, if one digs deep into it and reads it very carefully, that is. Of course, the fact that such information isn’t prime time news in every outlet in the land reveals how supinely our media elevate obedience above truth. Our media pundits are seeing the AID and UN reports and calls for a bombing halt I mentioned above, they are seeing stories about these in newspapers from Scotland to India, of course, and they are simply excluding the information from U.S. communications. Yet even with this massive media obfuscation, which says volumes about our society, how hard is this war to comprehend, supposing one actually tries to comprehend it?

Shortly after September 11 there was a letter in the NYT that a grade school child wrote to the editor, and I paraphrase from memory: “If we attack them aren’t we doing to them what they did to us?” This child wasn’t a genius, just a normal elementary school student. The Times probably ran the letter to show how cute kids can be, but of course the child was correct, not cute. The real question is why don’t more of us see what the child instantly saw, even now, weeks later, with the horror before our eyes?

Yes, a never-ending trumpet beat of patriotism proclaiming U.S. virtues and motives contributes to our blindness. Of course accumulated confusions, augmented daily, cloud our understanding and push the sad facts of potential starvation out of our field of vision. And yes the human capacity for self deception to avoid travail contributes, no doubt, to the process, as does anger and fear. But I suspect most people’s blindness is largely due to resignation. The key fact, I suspect, isn’t that people don’t know about the criminality of U.S. policies, though there is an element of that at work, especially in the more educated classes, to be sure. But even among those carefully groomed to be socially and politically ignorant – which is to say those who have higher educations -- I think many people do know at some broad level Washington’s culpability for crimes, and of those who don’t know, many don’t in part because they are deceived, sure, but also in part because they are more or less actively avoiding knowing. And in my view the key factor causing this avoidance isn’t that people are sublimating comprehension to rationalizations due to cowardly fearing the implications of dissent and wanting to run with the big crowd instead of against it. I think instead that people can find deep resources of courage if they think it will do some good. Witness those firefighters, average folks, running up the stairs of the WTC.

No, to me the biggest impediment to dissenting is that people feel that they can’t impact the situation in any useful way. If one has no positive hope, then of course it appears easiest and least painful and even most productive to toe the line and get on with life, trying to ignore the injustices perpetrated by one’s country, or to alibi them, or even to claim them to be meritorious, while also trying to do what one can for one’s kids and families, where we believe we can have an impact. To admit the horror that our country is producing seems to auger only alienation and tears. Here is one of many examples … at the end of an email that I got from a young woman as I was finishing writing this essay, the author laments: “I've never had a huge amount of trust in governmental actions. But what I do know is that I have no control over anything. And all I can do is hope.”

It follows that the task of those who understand the efficacy of dissent is not only to counter lies and rationalizations by calmly and soberly addressing all kinds of media-induced confusions that people have, but also to demonstrate to people their capacity to make a difference. We have to escort people, and sometimes ourselves too, over the chasms of cynicism and doubt to the productivity of informed confidence.

We do not face, as some would claim, a transformed world turned upside down and inside out. There is no new DNA coursing through us and our major societal institutions are as they were yesterday, last week, and last year. In fact, the main innovation in this month’s events is that major violence based in the third world hit for the first time in modern history people in the first world. But the problem of civilians being attacked is all too familiar. And all too often the perpetrator is us, or those we arm and empower, including in this case since bin Laden is a prime example of monstrous blowback. And now the problem is being replicated, writ ever larger, as if by a berserk Xerox machine.

What we have to do is precisely what we would want others to do: oppose barbaric policies with our words and deeds, arouse ever greater numbers of dissenters, and nurture ever greater commitment to dissent, until elites cannot sensibly believe that a “War on Terrorism” will lead to anything but a population thoroughly fed up with and hostile to elites. People all over the world are embarking on this path…we should too.

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