Building a Progressive Response to the Crisis

By Yifat Sussking, Associate Director, MADRE

Throughout the United States, people are feeling shock, grief and anger after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, DC. But even as we struggle with these emotions, we must continue to think critically, to move beyond the buzzwords of the mainstream media and to work with others in our communities to formulate progressive responses to the crisis.

Vengeance Is Not Justice
President Bush has made it clear that the US will retaliate with military force. But more violence will not break the cycle of bloodshed, nor will it lessen the destruction and loss of life in New York and Washington. The US historical record is full of misguided retaliatory attacks, such as the 1986 bombing of Libya, which only succeeded in killing dozens of civilians and the 1997 bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant that manufactured most of that impoverished country's antibiotics and vaccines. The only aim served by a military response is revenge. And what's needed now is not vengeance, but justice.

In recent years, the international human rights movement has strengthened its mechanisms for addressing crimes against humanity such as this week's attacks. A process to investigate, try and punish the perpetrators of these bombings should be pursued through international courts, not through acts of war by the United States. Those of us concerned with justice -- for the victims of these attacks and for people worldwide -- must work to ensure that any US response respects international human rights standards and civil liberties at home.

The Racist Backlash
Recall that after the Oklahoma City bombing, authorities presumed that the bombers were from the Middle East. Dozens of Arabs and Arab Americans were persecuted and harassed before the culprits were discovered to be white Americans. This time, too, speculation was immediately directed at Muslim and Arab groups. Random assaults against these communities in the US began only hours after the attacks in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These racist assaults must be condemned and opposed.

Given that nearly all public debate assumes that the bombings were orchestrated abroad, we need to be able to participate constructively in this debate.

Asking Ourselves Why
In the thousands of corporate media reports that have aired since the first explosion hit, a most fundamental question has been largely ignored: Why would people want to wage this attack against the United States? The question goes unasked by mass media because it suggests that there might be reasons for the rage and resentment that must have fueled these acts. Reasons do not imply justification, but in the US, even posing the question is taboo.

Instead, we have been bombarded with buzzwords and ideological nonsense. President Bush informed us that we are under attack "because we love freedom and prosperity." In all likelihood, we are under attack because US policies have denied freedom and prosperity (and even subsistence) to millions of people around the world.

Consider the historical record: Since World War II, the US has bombed 26 different countries. Throughout the 1970's and 1980's, the US killed more than two million people in Southeast Asia and supported death squads across Central America, including a policy of genocide in Guatemala. Ten years of US bombing and sanctions against Iraq have left more than a million people dead, including 500,000 children. Successive US administrations have commandeered the oil resources of the Middle East, leaving most people impoverished and suffering under authoritarian regimes. The US provides the funds and political backing for Israel's 34-year illegal occupation of Palestinian land and gives diplomatic cover to Israeli human rights violations.

The United States is the biggest arms dealer in the world, supplying weapons that are aimed mainly at civilian populations. US economic policies have caused a sharp rise in poverty and inequality around the world, while lining the pockets of US corporations. And since George W. Bush came to power, US arrogance and militarism have increased dramatically. Nothing justifies arbitrary attacks against civilians, whether in New York and Washington or in Baghdad and Belgrade. Defending this principle entails an honest appraisal of the underlying reasons for such attacks.

Dancing in the Streets?
Many in the US are angered over media images of Palestinians in the West Bank celebrating the bombings. It is important to understand that this callous response is a minority reaction. Any attempt to characterize Palestinians in general as gleeful about the attacks is irresponsible and disingenuous. It is also important to understand that this small minority is not celebrating the pain and suffering of the victims, but rather, the destruction of the centers and symbols of US economic and military might.

Some suggestions for moving forward

  • • These attacks are a golden opportunity for the Bush Administration to pump up military spending and justify unbridled US militarism and hawkishness in the name of "national security." We must not let the bombings reinforce a political culture of reactionary "Americanism" and war-mongering. These politics of destruction will perpetuate violence around the world. Moreover, US national security is only undermined by policies that cause suffering to others.
  • • As grief and shock give way to anger and a desire for revenge, we will surely see more arbitrary and racist assaults against Muslims and Arab Americans. We need to oppose attacks against minority and immigrant communities and fight racism in our communities as well as in US foreign policy.
  • • Historically, when the US government has perceived itself to be under attack, civil liberties have been restricted. Right-wing pundits have already begun blaming "liberals" for inviting these attacks by undermining America. Now more than ever, it is imperative to protect dissent and defend people's rights to criticize government policy.
  • • Finally, as we process these horrifying events with family, friends and others in our communities, let's work to imagine responses -- both from the Bush Administration and from one another -- that might actually promote peace and justice around the world, instead of generating more destruction.

© MADRE, Inc.