The novelist Alice Walker argued that the best way to punish Osama bin Laden for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 would be not to strike militarily: "The only punishment that works is love." Noam Chomsky, the perennial dissenter from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argued that American actions around the world had caused more death and destruction than took place in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Chalmers Johnson, a political science professor, in an article in The Los Angeles Times, wrote that a military "overreaction" by the United States would turn the country into a "rogue state" that would be subject to more terrorist attacks.
As Americans waited for the Bush administration to act against Mr. bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan, a few voices of opposition could be heard, even as peace demonstrations took place in Washington and on many university campuses. Intellectuals, in other words, were doing what they always do, and what a free society usually expects them to: trying to anchor opinion in knowledge, giving priority to reason at a time when many others may be overcome with emotion, and pricking the consciences of their fellow citizens.
Demonstrators in Swarthmore, Pa., urge a restrained response to terrorist attacks.
As always, too, sober, refined and thoughtful statements were mixed with a degree of what some critics of the dissenters were treating as the higher silliness. And so, not surprisingly, some of the dissenting statements produced angry or sarcastic rejoinders.
The liberal New Republic, for example, put what it called an "Idiocy Watch" on its Web site (www.thenewrepublic.com) and invited readers to submit examples of silly things being said in the wake of the attack. And the conservative Weekly Standard last week gave what it called its first Susan Sontag Certificate, as its "way of recognizing inanity by intellectuals and artists in the wake of terrorist attacks."
The magazine's jokey awards were a measure of the attention that Ms. Sontag, the essayist and critic, attracted with a short article she wrote in the New Yorker the week after the attacks. In it Ms. Sontag said the attacks were aimed not at American freedom but rather at "the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions." If anyone was a coward, she said, it was not the suicidal hijackers but those — presumably American — pilots who bomb from the air, safe from harm themselves.
On the left, where most of the dissent derives, essentially two arguments have been made against the early pronouncements and programs of the Bush administration. One is that military action would only increase the cycle of violence while failing to cure the root cause of terrorism, which the writer Barbara Ehrenreich called "the vast global inequalities in which terrorism is ultimately rooted."
Mr. Johnson, a professor emeritus at the University of California at San Diego, agreed that those responsible should be brought to justice and that it would be appropriate to declare war on any state that harbored the terrorists or helped them. But he warned that an American overreaction — namely a war against "the hopeless and impoverished people of Afghanistan" — would produce "a further cycle of terrorist attacks, American casualties and escalation."
On the right side of the spectrum, the opposite point of view — that the military response must be overwhelming — prevails, and since the Bush administration has promised to get Mr. bin Laden dead or alive, there has been less dissent from official policy despite a few comments like that of the writer Mark Helprin that the attacks were a consequence of American "appeasement."
The other common critique offered by the left is a more general one, that American policies and actions around the world caused the anti-American fury that erupted on Sept. 11.
The idea that the United States is widely hated because of its policies — rather than because of its freedom — is a common theme. Stanley Hauerwas, a professor of theological ethics at Duke University and an avowed pacifist, argued that the United States should arrest those responsible instead of killing them.
"The events of Sept. 11 have brought home to America that war is about dying," he wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "I'm not quite sure how that will be received. I suspect it will produce a more repressive politics than we already experience. Americans have no sense of how it is that we can be this hated. It never occurs to them that our country's actions have terrible results for other people around the world, and that they blame us."
Paul Kennedy, the Yale University professor best known for his book warning against American imperial overreach, provoked a stir when he asked students to imagine how they would feel if the United States were small and the world dominated by a unified Arab-Muslim state. "In those conditions, would not many Americans grow to loathe that colossus?" he asked. "I think so."
This prompted a rejoinder from Donald Kagan, a Yale classics professor and a conservative in foreign affairs, who said that Mr. Kennedy's comments were a "classic case of blaming the victim."
Other commentators have reacted more strongly to such expressions of dissent. Andrew Sullivan wrote on www.andrewsullivan.com, his Web site: "The middle part of the country — the great red zone that voted for Bush — is clearly ready for war. The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead — and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column."
In addition to these sharply polemical exchanges, some thoughtful scholars have established a kind of middle position, one in which they blame the terrorists for terrorism but caution against a response that would erode democratic values or commitment to laws. Richard Falk, the political science professor from Princeton, known as a leftist critic of American foreign policy, argued like other dissenters that the deeper cause of terrorism was "the mass of humanity" that "finds itself under the heels of U.S. economic, military, cultural and diplomatic power."
Still, he labeled the attacks "massive crimes against humanity" and said that those responsible should be punished to the full extent of the law. "Any use of force," he argued, "should be consistent with international law and with the `just war' tradition governing the use of force — that is, it should discriminate between military and civilian targets, be proportionate to the challenge and be necessary to achieve a military objective, avoiding superfluous suffering."
Mr. Falk is a familiar figure from the years of the anti-Vietnam War movement of a quarter century ago, and so are some of the other figures on the left who have spoken out. Howard Zinn, the Boston University history professor wrote, "We need to think about the resentment all over the world felt by people who have been the victims of American military action — in Vietnam, in Latin America, in Iraq."
Another figure from the antiwar movement is Mr. Chomsky, who has never stopped criticizing American foreign policy as the major cause of hardship and harm in the world. He has long since stopped getting much notice among mainstream journals of opinion in the United States, but he retains an avid following among the numerous small leftist groups with magazines and Web sites and among the foes of so-called globalization.
"The terrorist attacks were major atrocities," Mr. Chomsky wrote, "but in scale they may not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton's bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and killing unknown numbers of people." His reference was to the 1998 missile attack against a factory that was believed by American intelligence to be a cover for a chemical weapons plant.
Statements like these have generated responses both from the more moderate left and from conservatives, like the editors of The Weekly Standard, who declared that Mr. Chomsky "fell off the cliff into goofiness more than 30 years ago and hasn't made any effort to climb back."
His most visible critic from the left was the writer Christopher Hitchens, whose columns over the years in The Nation have not generally shown him to be an uncritical admirer of the American role in the world. Mr. Hitchens, beginning several public exchanges with Mr. Chomsky published in The Nation, excoriated what he called "the liberal-left tendency to `rationalize' the aggression of Sept. 11," which, he added, was "a plan, deliberated for months, to inflict maximum horror upon the innocent."
To conservative commentators, remarks like those of Ms. Sontag, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Chomsky smacked of an old leftist impulse to find the primary fault with the United States and to assume that its enemies were reacting naturally and understandably to the American abuse of power around the world. The specific measures, for example, that Mr. Johnson recommended were these:
"We must recognize that the terrorism of Sept. 11 was not directed against America but against American foreign policy. We should listen to the grievances of the Islamic peoples, stop propping up repressive regimes in the area, protect Israel's security but denounce its apartheid practices in Palestinian areas and reform our `globalization' policies so that they no longer mean that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer."
One difference between dissent during the Vietnam War era and now, however is that nobody feels any sympathy for the forces decreed by the American government to be the country's enemies. The arguments are not that Mr. bin Laden's organization, or the Taliban, are progressive or revolutionary forces, but that war fever, as some critics have characterized the American response so far, will only lead to no good.
But has war fever really taken over? As the week ended, there was no full-scale invasion or massive bombing of Afghanistan; the White House has been talking of a carefully calibrated response. It seemed as though the recommendations of some supposed critics of American policy were indistinguishable from the actual policies being carried out. The Bush administration's announcement that it would send $320 million in food and medicine to Afghanistan, for example, seemed consistent with the belief of Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation, that the United States should take the money it would spend on bombs "to help the wretched Afghan people and support those among them who favor democracy."
In this sense, some of the dissent seemed more to anticipate events rather than react to them. It will be up to thinkers and commentators in the weeks ahead to see if the worries they have expressed were real.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company