If there is one thing the world should have learned in the last 30 years, it is that terrorism is a political, not a military problem. And to reduce it to the latter simply sows another generation of dragons’ teeth. The examples abound.
When American embassies were bombed in Kenya and Tanzania, the Clinton Administration pounded Osma bin Ladin’s camps in Afghanistan. We need not dwell on the effectiveness of that response. The blank spots in New York’s skyline are eloquent testimony to the futility of military solutions.
Israel’s invasion and 18-year occupation of Lebanon in an effort to root out “terrorism” resulted in nothing but tens of thousands of civilian deaths, hundreds of dead and wounded Israeli soldiers, and finally, ignominious retreat. The Israeli’s are in the process of writing the same script in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
The story plot in all these places—Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Mindanao, Chechnya, Colombia, Macedonia, Algeria, and a dozen other places in the world—is much the same: Grievances about political power or access to economic resources are met with force. That, in turn, sparks terrorism. Retaliation follows, setting off endless rounds of bloodletting.
Sometimes the terrorists deliberately court repression, always a fertile recruiting ground. We certainly did that in Afghanistan, where the CIA poured in $6 billion to destabilize a regime on the Soviet border. As former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brsezinski commented, “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we consciously increased the probability that they would do so. The secret operation was an excellent idea. Its effect was to draw the Russians into the Afghan trap.”
The invasion did indeed destabilize the Soviet Union, but in the process killed one million Afghans and helped place in power one of the most savagely repressive regimes in the world.
But it does not have to be so. Ireland is a case in point. Bombings, shootings, and intra-communal violence were endemic from 1967 to 1985, in spite of a massive military presence, extra-legal internment, death squads, and repression. It was only when the process moved from the streets to the negotiating table that “terrorism” began to abate. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) has held to that peace for seven years, although its Protestant counterparts have backslid in recent months. If Ireland remains “terror free,” it will because the political process has trumped the phony issue of IRA arms, and the Protestants finally decide that political power is something you share, not corner.
Will such agreements end all terrorism? No. There will always be crazies like the Real IRA or the Protestant Red Hand Defenders death squads who will bomb and murder, but without any support in their respective communities, they will fade. The only danger is from those who want the status quo, and use the actions of a fringe as an excuse to sabotage the peace process, thus bestowing veto power on the most violent and reactionary elements in both communities.
People who blow up pizza parlors filled with teenagers, throw bombs at Catholic children trying to go to school, or ram skyscrapers filled with secretaries have made the wrong choices in life and politics. Whatever conditions led people to make those choices are canceled out by the fundamentally reactionary, inhuman and criminal nature of their acts. They must be brought to justice.
But it has to be a justice for all. Crimes against humanity are crimes, no matter who perpetuates them. It is criminal to blow up Israelis in pizza parlors, but it is also criminal to shoot Palestinian children, rocket houses in Gaza, and occupy land in violation of international law. Justice must be for everyone or for no one.
If we are serious about fighting terrorism, we must examine its roots. This is not to excuse criminality; it is to try to understand why so many people in the world are unhappy with our country and to alter the policies that have brought us to this point.
When we threw in with the likes of Osama bin Ladin and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, we made a conscious choice to undermine a moderately reformist government because it was friendly with our Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union. We made the same decision in 1953 in Iran, installing the Shah over a democratically elected government, earning the deep antipathy Iranians have for the U.S. We did the same thing in Guatemala, overthrowing the democratic Arbenz government to install a series of military regimes that were, in essence, little more than death squads with a national anthem.
So maybe this is bad idea, right? And maybe we ought to come clean and own up to what role we played in 1973 military coup in Chile, and our participation in Operation Condor that tortured and murdered thousands of dissenters throughout Latin America. If we did that, if we opened the books and took responsibility for the some of the horrors we have unleashed on the world, we would have the moral—and more importantly—political high ground.
Most Americans knew nothing about these awful things. That, in part, is why they are so stunned by the events of Sept. 11. If most Americans had known about our role in Iran, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Chile, and elsewhere, I strongly suspect they would not have stood for it. When they found out the truth about Vietnam, they said “out, now” loud and clear.
We must track down the monsters who killed all those people Sept. 11. But we must also look at our own monsters. “Fiat Lux” is the slogan of the university where I work: Let there by light. Excellent idea. Everywhere, on everything, and everyone.