From Sun Sep 30 11:13:12 2001
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Date: Sun, 30 Sep 2001 08:20:53 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: London review of Books Online, October 4 Cover
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[A collection of views on terrorism]

London Review of Books, Vol.23 no.19, September 2001

Tariq Ali, London

Much has been said in recent days about the instability of Pakistan. But the danger lies not so much within the population as a whole, where religious extremists are a small minority (more confessional votes are cast in Israel than Pakistan), as within the Army. Officers and other ranks who have worked with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Lashkar-i-Tayyaba in Kashmir have become infected with zealotry. At the same time native Islamists, aware of their weakness in the country, have focused their efforts on the Army. Estimates vary between 15 and 30 per cent: whatever the exact figure, these men will not look on in silence while their colleagues in Afghanistan are attacked from bases inside Pakistan. In Kashmir there has already been open opposition to the last ceasefire. An Islamist Pakistani captain refused to vacate Indian-held territory. A colonel despatched by the Pakistani High Command to order an immediate withdrawal was shot dead as a traitor to Islam. Already a partial wreck, Pakistan could be destroyed by a civil war.

The terrorists who carried out the killings in the US were not bearded illiterates from the mountain villages of Afghanistan. They were educated, middle-class professionals from Egypt and the Hijaz province of Saudi Arabia, two key US allies in the region. What made them propagandists of the deed? The bombing of Iraq, economic sanctions, the presence of American Forces on Saudi soil. Politicians in the West have turned a blind eye to this, as they have to the occupation of Palestine and the crimes of Israel. Without profound change in the Middle East, Osama bin Laden, dead or alive, is of little significance.

In the West, Saudi Arabia is simply a source of oil. We prefer not to notice the scale of social and religious oppression, the widespread dejection and anxiety, the growing discontent among Saudis. The Wahabbi Islam practised there has been the inspiration of the Taliban. It was the Saudi monarchy that funded fanaticism in South Asia; it was they (and the CIA) who sent bin Laden to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Islam was seen by all the experts as the main bulwark against Communism. Denied any secular openings, dissenting graduates have turned to radical Islam, accusing the Saudi royal family of hypocrisy, corruption and subservience to America. These are clever tacticians, open in their admiration of bin Laden and the regime headed by his father-in-law, Mullah Omar, in Kabul. When they blow up bases or foreigners in the Kingdom, the security forces round up a few Pakistani or Filipino immigrants and execute them to show the US that justice has been done, but the real organisers are untouchable. Their tentacles reach into the heart of Saudi society, and it's debatable whether they can now cut them off, even at the request of the United States.

Amit Chaudhuri, Calcutta

India is no stranger to terrorism. But the terrorism that India has had to face for some decades can by no means be connected only to Islam; and in almost every case the ruling government has played a part in causing and even nurturing the phenomenon. If we look at the story of Sikh extremism in the 1980s in Punjab, we find it has an eerie resonance with the events that took place in Washington and New York.

For Mrs Gandhi, the Congress Party—a euphemism for herself and her family—represented democracy, stability and secularism; and, in order to perpetuate Congress rule, she used every undemocratic means at her disposal. She tampered with India's federal structure, and made destabilising non-Congress state governments something of a bad habit; the damaging effects this has had on Indian democracy are evident today. Her deadliest intervention was the sponsoring of a Sikh fundamentalist in Punjab, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The Akali Dal, a regional party with a strong Sikh identity, was posing a threat to the Congress. Mrs Gandhi's son Sanjay decided the best way to counter this was by cynically promoting Bhindranwale—a figure who was violently assertive in his religious and regional identity. Unfortunately, Bhindranwale turned against Mrs Gandhi to preside over a militant secessionist movement. The consequences are well known: the military attack on the Golden Temple, where Bhindranwale was hiding, the death of Bhindranwale, the killing later, in retaliation, of Mrs Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, and, in the aftermath, the murder in Delhi of innocent Sikhs by Congress-led hoodlums.

Like Mrs Gandhi in India, America has been a great, self-appointed proponent of democracy in the modern world, while, in actuality, it has treated it as a nuisance and an obstruction when it gets in the way of its self-interest. It now justifies war by speaking of the ‘will of the people’, but the will of the people in Palestine has, for decades, meant little more than the rubble of Palestine. In order to root out Communism from Afghanistan, it armed a religious extremist group; and created, in effect, a Bhindranwale. For years, America's foreign policy, like Mrs Gandhi's domestic policy, has been concerned solely with extending its own sphere of influence, whatever the cost. Only the American public can put pressure on, and change, that aberrant policy: but the American public's main source of information about its country's foreign policy is Hollywood with its images of terror and frightening rhetoric of ’good’ and ‘evil’.

Stephen Holmes, New York

Suicidal militants who hate us and want to kill us obviously cannot be deterred by threats. But can recasting US policy—say, withdrawing our troops from Saudi Arabia or putting pressure on Israel to retreat within its 1967 borders—blunt Arab and Islamic anti-Americanism soon enough to deflect the harm already flying our way? We will upgrade airport and airplane security, no doubt. We will invest millions in foreign language training for our intelligence operatives. We might conceivably launch a super Marshall Plan for distressed Islamic economies. But will such efforts bear fruit in time?

Those who committed this savage act against generic Americans see the United States as a giant who walks unthinkingly across the earth, barely noticing the small peoples it crushes. In response, they burrowed under our skin, flew into our body and blew themselves up inside us. At long last, we have noticed their existence. Some of the ‘sleepers' will be tracked down. But how many will remain at large? Apparently well trained in counter-intelligence, the group of zealots involved in the recent events knew how to blend into the landscape, working in modular ‘cells' able to continue operations when contact is broken with a controlling hand abroad. What has thrust the US foreign policy establishment into a panic is the possibility that such stealth fanatics, bruised by real and imaginary humiliations and intoxicated by self-certainty, will eventually master the delivery of those frighteningly destructive weapons that Western science has bequeathed to all mankind.

Any action we take, especially if it inflicts Muslim civilian casualties, will recruit more foot-soldiers to the jihad. So what is to be done? Talk of punishing states that ‘harbour’ terrorists is simplistic and misleading. It is more accurate to say that failed states incubate terrorism. Therefore, bullying these states, ignoring the need of weak governments for domestic political support, will be devastatingly counterproductive. Precipitating a coup in Pakistan, above all, is too high a price to pay for the small gain of eliminating Osama bin Laden. That Americans now see their own destiny at risk in such distant goings-on is a direct result of that unforgettable, unforgivable, life-shattering Tuesday morning.

R.W. Johnson, Durban

One of the 20th century's least celebrated discoveries was that terrorism works. The Irish led the way: Britain retired from the field in 1922 not because it had been militarily defeated but because it couldn’t stomach endless terrorist atrocities. Eighty years on, the British Government has been bullied into submission again by the IRA, but in the meantime lots of other terrorists (freedom fighters, if you like) have managed the same thing: the Stern Gang in Israel, the FLN in Algeria, Flosy in Yemen, Zanla in Zimbabwe and so on. In all these cases, the metropolitan power ultimately decided that the game wasn’t worth the candle and retired back home. The supine nature of British foreign policy derives in part from the fact that Britain has been more often successfully bullied by such tactics than anyone else.

The big point about the present crisis is globalisation. The US says it cannot respond to this terrorism by simply ‘going home’ and has therefore declared the whole planet off-limits to terrorism. It will be an epic struggle. Terrorism works by standing on its head the normal military objective of killing the maximum number of enemy soldiers while taking minimal casualties oneself. But why fight soldiers when it hurts the enemy so much more to kill their civilians? And why worry if your casualties are worse then theirs? In the end they’ll get fed up and go away and then you’ll have won everything. Now the logic has been pushed further still: the terrorists assume a 100 per cent casualty rate among their own soldiers and happily take their losses up front.

The terrorists believe the US can still ‘go home’. By which they mean, pull out of the Middle East, stop supporting Israel, stop harassing Gaddafi and Iraq. But America's dependence on Middle Eastern oil means that such a retreat would imply a de facto retreat from superpower status. Underneath the dreadful images lie these enormous strategic choices.

Yitzhak Laor, Tel Aviv

The thousands who died in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania were people of all races, faiths, classes, nationalities. We in Israel have mourned them; many of us have mourned for NYC as part of our real life, unlike Khartoum or Baghdad. Indeed, ‘Israeliness' had its best week for some time. The street leading from the Defence Ministry into the heart of Tel Aviv has been renamed Pentagon Street (for a month only). Ariel Sharon, known for his delicacy, phoned President Bush explaining that ’Everyone's got his own bin Laden.’ To sum up, the public discourse was kind of ‘Hey, America, look at us. We are mourning more than anyone else, and wishing you a happy new war.’

Who is not sickened by the idea that these crimes have something to do with ‘liberation’? But Western nihilism, too, knows no limits; it switches, almost whimsically, its definitions of ‘freedom’ and ‘terror’, ’moderates' and ‘extremists', and everything solid melts into air. Bush says: ‘The world has never seen such a crime.’ It all comes down to visibility and invisibility: the crimes we never see, the crimes we’ll see for ever, again and again, ‘live’ and relived. Terror now can involve massive killing, almost like an American air-raid on Basra, or Baghdad. Is it not that very fact that our Hebrew media have been celebrating? At last Israel's victim status can be properly understood - no need to mention the Holocaust—while as perpetrators, we are unseen again. And the Arabs? They are criminals: no more chance for them to be seen as victims. We are in, they are out. We, the Jews, belong with you, dear Old West. Dear sponsors, we—like you—are victims.

In the week after the atrocities in New York and Washington, the IDF killed about twenty Palestinians. Nobody even noticed, said one of our ministers with satisfaction. Then came holy night, the beginning of the Jewish New Year. I wandered in my flat, between my little son's bed and the TV set with its nerve-racking news. I called a friend in Ramallah, to find out if the invasion (for that night) was over, how many dead, and if the children were safe, or ‘just’ terrified, and all those silly questions put by the privileged having nothing to offer but sympathy. ’And thou shalt show thy son.’ Jews are supposed to tell their children what they were told by their fathers. Your grandfather, my son, like my grandfather, was born and grew up when being a Jew was much like what it is today to be an Arab. But we—you and me—are saved. ‘Dad, they say the next American war is good for us. Is it?’ Who are ‘us'? The living in Kabul, New York, Tel Aviv? Ramallah? Who are ‘they’? The dead in New York? In Baghdad? In Gaza? In Jerusalem?

Edward Said, New York

For the seven million Muslim Americans (only two million of them Arab) who have lived through the catastrophe and backlash of 11 September, it's been an unpleasant time. Several victims of the atrocities were Arabs and Muslims, but there is an almost palpable air of hatred directed at the group as a whole. George W. Bush has clearly drawn God and America into alignment, declaring war on the ‘folks'—who are now, as he says, wanted dead or alive—who perpetrated the horrible deeds. And this means that Osama bin Laden, who represents Islam to the vast majority of Americans, has taken centre stage. TV and radio have run file pictures and potted accounts of the shadowy (former playboy, they say) extremist almost incessantly, as they have of the Palestinians caught ‘celebrating’ America's tragedy. Pundits and hosts refer non-stop to ‘our’ war with Islam, and words like ‘jihad’ and ‘terror’ have aggravated the understandable fear and anger that seem widespread all over the country. Two people (one a Sikh) have already been killed by enraged citizens, fired up by Paul Wolfowitz, a Defense Department official, to think in terms of ‘ending countries' and nuking our enemies. Hundreds of Muslim and Arab shopkeepers, students, women in hejab, and ordinary citizens have had insults hurled at them, while posters and graffiti announcing their imminent death spring up all over the place. The director of the leading Arab-American organisation told me this morning that he averages ten messages an hour of insult, threat and verbal attack. A Gallup poll released yesterday suggests that 49 per cent of the American people said yes to the idea that Arabs, including those who are American citizens, should carry special ID; 58 per cent demand that Arabs, including those who are Americans, should undergo special, more intensive security checks.

Official bellicosity has slowly diminished as Bush discovers that his allies are not quite as unrestrained as he is, and as some of his advisers, chief among them the altogether more sensible-seeming Colin Powell, suggest that invading Afghanistan is not a simple matter. Meanwhile, the enormity of the mess that Bush faces dissipates the Manichean simplicity that he has been proposing to the public. A change sets in, even though reports of police and FBI harassment of Arabs and Muslims continue to flood in. He visits a Washington mosque, he calls on community leaders and the Congress to damp down hate speech, he starts trying to make at least rhetorical distinctions between ‘our’ Arab and Muslim friends (the usual suspects: Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, those well-known champions of democracy) and the still unnamed terrorists. Here and there Powell expresses displeasure with Sharon for exploiting the crisis by oppressing Palestinians still more. Yet there is little real knowledge of the Arabs and Islam to fall back on: the stereotypes of lustful, vengeful, violent, irrational, fanatical people persist. Palestine as a cause has not yet gripped the imagination here. Even Columbia, my own university, justly famous for its intellectual diversity and the heterogeneity of its students and staff, does not have a course on the Koran.

What is encouraging is the slow emergence of dissent, petitions for peaceful resolution and action, a gradually spreading, if still very spotty and relatively low-key demand for alternatives to further bombing and destruction. If only more Americans can grasp that the long-term hope for the country is this community of conscience and understanding, that whether in the protection of Constitutional rights, or in reaching out to the innocent victims of American power (as in Iraq), or in relying on understanding and rational analysis, ‘we’ can do a great deal better than we have so far done. This won’t lead directly to changed policies on Palestine, or a less crazy defence budget, or more enlightened environmental attitudes: but what serious option is there, other than this sort of decent reconsideration?

Jeremy Waldron, New York

Were the murderous attacks of 11 September an act of war against the United States? We are being told that they were and that America is now at war and (as I write) preparing to wage war against whoever committed this act of war against us.

Certainly this was like war, with destruction on the scale of an air-raid and indiscriminate killing on a massive scale. But ‘like war’ - the metaphor (war on poverty, war on drugs)—is not enough. We are told it was literally an act of war—a formulation difficult to decipher in the US, where ‘literally’ works as an intensifier. Many compared 11 September to Pearl Harbor: both involved massive, unexpected and destructive attacks; and incidentally both were described by their victims (though not by their perpetrators) as utterly unprovoked. That Pearl Harbor was an attack on a military installation, and 11 September mostly not, is a first and obvious disanalogy. And with a second, I think the ‘war’ description begins to unravel. Notoriously—infamously - Pearl Harbor was not preceded by any declaration of war. But if 11 September was an act of war and if indeed it was bin Laden's organisation that did it, then we have to acknowledge that a declaration of war was issued in February 1998. (That few in America took bin Laden's ‘declaration’ seriously is neither here nor there.)

How far do we want to go with this characterisation? If the events of 11 September were acts of war, should we judge them by the logic of war? Should the co-ordination, the daring, the self-sacrifice, the sheer audacity of the attacks be admitted to the annals of great feats of arms? As usual we want to have it both ways: it was not crime, it was war; but it is damned with the stigma of criminality and (absurdly) ’cowardice’. When we apprehend the accomplices of the perpetrators, are we to treat them as prisoners of war? (Remember the demands of the IRA hunger strikers.) Is our response to be governed by the laws of war? I hope so, except that the logic (as opposed to the law) of modern warfare is that attacks on civilians are not inappropriate as responses to attacks on civilians. (’We will mete out to the Germans the measure, and more than the measure, they have meted out to us.’)

War tends both to unite a people and to dispose them to dispense with the irritations of democracy. But with the temptations we face, we cannot do without things like checks and balances, public hesitations, open and—if necessary—partisan debate, criticism without accusations of disloyalty, caution without attributions of cowardice. Calling 11 September an act of war, and responding to it accordingly, is calculated to deprive us of these necessities.