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Apocalypse Now?

In apocalyptic tones, the media now tell us that life will never be the same after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. They are surely right in one sense. Plane travel is already more difficult and major buildings more militarized. Extensive intrusions into our privacy are more likely. But this rhetoric invites another question. If terrorism represents, as it does, a dangerous and contemptible degradation of world politics defended in apocalyptic terms, should our response be a "war," itself defended in terms of an ultimate, vengeful battle between good and evil? Terrorism merits a punitive response, but moving beyond punishment to revenge is not only wrong but also counterproductive. Terrorism is best understood as a war crime rather than an act of war. As such, it can be limited and redressed only through articulation and ongoing refinement of a new framework of international law and politics, a set of constraints that the US must join others in negotiating and observing.

Radical organizations have long denounced the United States for its support of Israeli aggression, its alliance with a corrupt Saudi monarchy, and its destructive sanctions against Iraq. They have advocated war against Israel and of its sponsor. Historically, many conservatives have cited such rhetoric in justification of efforts to crush the radicals, while some on the left have pointed to poverty and exploitation as justification for violent rhetoric and even practice.

Yet whatever the validity of radical Arab accusations -- and I share them to a degree-- the murder of thousands of Americans should not be excused or tolerated even by those on the Left. This indiscriminate terrorism represents a grave set back to efforts by labor, environmental, and peace activists to build cross class and international coalitions against the worst forms of global aggression. Terrorism has made it all too easy for advocates of an exclusive and elitist international order to deny a voice to the dissidents, now too easily portrayed as uncivilized or even less than fully human. In addition, to absolve terrorists of all responsibility is in essence to treat them as less than fully human, as incapable of choices or of restraint. Ugly circumstances do limit and predispose, but except in the most extreme cases they do not determine.

If terrorism is wrong, is it also best seen as an act of war? Our government has a bad record in its "wars" against such ill- defined enemies as poverty or drugs. Terrorism in the modern world is effected across many borders and its remediation requires analogous forms of cooperation. "War" may sanction actions that increase our insecurity and vulnerability. War does not easily coexist with justice despite the best efforts to elaborate just war theory. War seeks the destruction of the other rather than efforts to find the best ways in which to coexist with those who are different.

An effort to punish not only bin Laden but also the resources for future terrorism sets us on a journey seemingly without limits. Are bin Laden's resources merely his immediate weapons, computers, and trained personnel or do they include the many Afghan, Pakistani, and other leaders and citizens who have lent support? What about the CIA, which aided bin Laden for so long when he served our Cold War purposes? Should the Palestinian children who cheered the Trade Center collapse be included? The more broadly the net is spread, the more antipathy to the US and support for future terrorism will grow.


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This is not an argument to do nothing, but it does suggest that the most appropriate steps include an effort to understand exactly what happened and to gather evidence against its perpetrator. Based upon such evidence, the US government might then seek the indictment of the terrorists though the international tribunal at the Hague, subject to full due process standards. If the Afghan government fails to surrender bin Laden the next step is to request the support of other governments for UN sanctions.

Support for sanctions among other Middle Eastern governments based on failure to produce a documented perpetrator is more likely and less problematic than support for an open-ended war. Nonetheless, the US is unlikely to obtain broad support for such a process unless it is willing to subject itself to the same standards. General Schwartzkopf assured Americans that even in warfare our leaders are careful to spare civilian targets. Many residents of foreign lands might be pardoned if they take exception. Using documents of the Defense Department itself, the September issue of the Progressive Magazine demonstrates a decade long pattern of US violations of the Geneva Convention. The US government continues to invoke and defend a set of sanctions the principal purpose of which is to poison Iraq's water supply and thereby disable much of the civilian population.

President Bush is correct in arguing that redressing terrorism will be a lengthy process. The difficulty, however, lies not primarily in military logistics but in the time consuming and never perfect process of building new standards of international justice to match changing patterns of globalization. Broader acceptance of these standards will also require a more just deal for the classes and nations left out of the new corporate globalization.

Nonetheless, the world cannot and must not wait for a full measure of economic justice to begin enacting international anti-terrorism standards. Progress toward economic justice isn't possible without a political dialogue that eschews violence toward others. By the same token, however, that international political process must start to address the injustice that predispose the most morally compromised elements and their sympathizers toward violence. Perhaps the first and most basic step is to open the ongoing rounds of negotiation on trade, environment, and arms control to more of the dissident voices both within and outside the major industrial democracies. Tearing down the barricades, both literal and symbolic, that limit political participation would represent a retreat from violence by governments themselves, an example for the world, and an avenue for all to refine legal standards and redress outstanding grievances.

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John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive for ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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