CHAPEL HILL -- The horrific scenes from Sept. 11 have not left us. Our tragedy took more than 6,000 lives. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, lovers and friends, all left for work on Sept. 11. They will never return home. Social workers in New York cannot imagine how they will comfort so many orphans.
My colleague challenged me shortly thereafter. It is not enough to say we should not bomb Afghanistan. This tragedy screams for a response. If not bombing, what can the United States do? After two weeks of fear and sadness and confusion, this is my answer.
This tragedy presents the United States with an opportunity. The forces of terror unleashed on our shores this month have been experienced by many in the Muslim world over the past two decades. Osama bin Laden represents a new kind of Islam, an Islam that historians and other specialists have never before seen.
This new faith is intolerant, hateful, violent, fascist. Its adherents throw acid in the faces of unveiled women in Afghanistan, kill Christians in Indonesia, bomb innocent victims, destroy ancient monuments, imprison women in their homes, turn jetliners into missiles. They set fire to a hotel in 1994 where Turkish intellectuals were meeting, killing 37. Their goal is to gain power over Muslims around the world, to impose a fascist interpretation of one of the world's most tolerant religions and to annihilate those who oppose them.
On Sept. 11, the terrorists demanded that we help them achieve their goals. They wait for us to retaliate. We must refuse.
The United States must instead take advantage of this opportunity to work with fascist Islam's Muslim victims to end this terror for all of us. But military action will not achieve this end.
The enemy we confront is a group we helped to create, train and finance. Bin Laden is the head of thousands of veterans, survivors of the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. When the Soviets were defeated, these killers, trained by the CIA and its Saudi and Pakistani equivalents, returned to their homes throughout the Middle East. They now seek to destabilize and control the entire Muslim world. Muslims have been feeling the full brunt of their attacks since the end of the Afghan war.
This new network has members on every inhabited continent. Killing them all through military action would be impossible. More important, military action will actually result in the proliferation of terrorists.
The United States has received overwhelming support and sympathy from the Muslim world. Their struggle has now become our struggle. That support will evaporate as soon as we begin military action.
We have only to look at 1990 to see the likely outcome. The people of the Arab world supported U.S. efforts to force Iraq's Saddam Hussein to relinquish the territory he claimed in Kuwait. But as soon as we began bombing Baghdad many began to look up to Saddam (a brutal thug who had killed many in his own country) as a courageous leader standing up to the world's only superpower.
If the United States begins military action against Afghanistan or others who have harbored terrorists, we will inevitably kill civilians. Our 1998 attacks against bin Laden in Afghanistan resulted in one missile straying across the border into a Pakistani refugee camp, another hitting a school in Afghanistan.
From a humanitarian point of view, killing the people of Afghanistan is appalling. They lived through Soviet occupation and a war for independence; they have survived a civil war, a drought and countless attacks against civilians since the end of the Soviet era. They did not choose the Taliban; they have suffered from Taliban rule. What horrible irony for the people of Afghanistan to be punished by the United States for helplessly harboring the terrorists we helped to create.
But from a strategic perspective, bombing, burning or otherwise attacking Afghanistan will be a disaster. Our collateral damage will provide fuel for bin Laden's incendiary claims, resulting in a flood of volunteers eager to become the next generation of terrorists. Matters could even get worse if we actually achieve our goal. The capture or murder of bin Laden would inevitably lead to a massive upsurge in support for his goals.
Innocent people were killed on Sept. 11, and we now scream for revenge. If we kill innocent people in retaliation, their friends, loved ones and countrymen will do exactly the same thing. They will demand new terror attacks, and we will see the United States and the rest of the world become less and less safe.
Many tell me we need to respond, or things will get even worse. I suggest that, looking at history and what we know of the perpetrators, retaliation will be a counterproductive response. Retaliation can only deter future violence if the perpetrators are afraid of death. In this case, the terrorists welcome death as a tool in their struggle. Retaliation will promote their cause. Bin Laden is the result of misguided U.S. policies. New misguided U.S. policies will create dozens, perhaps hundreds more bin Ladens.
Hundreds of Muslims died at the World Trade Center. Bin Laden does not represent them, or Islam. He represents hatred, fascism, misogyny. He represents anger and the desire to control women and men. His previous victims could become our most effective allies. With their help, we can find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.
We must make a choice. If our goal is retribution, the United States can have the emotional discharge and reassuring sense of power that result from seeing our forces bomb foreign lands. But we must understand that retaliatory strikes will only increase terror here and abroad.
If our goal is to end terrorism, we must work with the Muslim world. Together, we can refuse to create an environment where fascism can flourish, we can bring the guilty to justice and we can make sure they will never again create orphans, anywhere.
Sarah Shields teaches the history of the Middle East and Islamic civilization at UNC-Chapel Hill.
© Copyright 2001, The News & Observer