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Bombs as Self-Defense?

The Pentagon now trumpets the expulsion of the Taliban from Kabul as the first installment in its war on terrorism. These apparent gains make it hard for war critics to be heard, but they still raise legitimate questions about how recent military successes translate into domestic security.

Administration defenders correctly remind us that this is not another Vietnam. The US has been attacked and has a right to defend itself. Nonetheless, invoking this principle requires documented identification of the perpetrator and caution that steps taken in its name not engender even further risks.

Noting that most of the hijackers were Saudis, much of the world suspects an ongoing Saudi role in sustaining terrorism. Providing hard evidence, not merely to our cheerleader-in-chief, Tony Blair, but to all parties may strike some as a legalistic nicety, but growing doubts have tangible consequences. A war that increasingly involves civilian casualties elicits even less sympathy when its evidentiary support is murky at best. In addition, absent a willingness to share evidence, ugly conspiracy theories, now already implicating suspects as diverse as Israel and the CIA, will migrate from shadowy internet exchanges into our politics.

Even if one accepts bin Laden as the perpetrator, will bombing Afghanistan eliminate the sources of future terrorism? Bombs, which kill many civilians whom even the Pentagon concedes support neither bin Laden nor the Taliban, may be counterproductive. Self-defense is one thing, but, as in medicine, the adage of first do no harm should remain. As veteran Middle Eastern correspondent Robert Fisk put it in a recent interview, "Just as international capital has been globalized, so bin Laden is globalized... Individuals in various countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia listen to the tapes of bin Laden. They gather in groups of four or five. They feel they want to do something to express their support for what they've heard."

Our Middle Eastern critics expect us to fully own up to the consequences of our bombs. These include not merely immediate casualties but hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees who face imminent starvation. Unfortunately, US responses strike many of these critics as disingenuous. Our military asserts that our bombing is different from terrorist attacks because it does not target civilians. Yet when regular reports of civilian casualties surface, these are reluctantly acknowledged as "inevitable" byproducts of bombing. Much of the Arab world considers intentional pursuit of civilians versus inevitable--albeit regrettable--"collateral damage" a distinction without a difference. They have a point many Americans would acknowledge in other contexts. Would an American child who repeatedly broke windows while bouncing baseballs off the back of his parents' house ever win exoneration by claiming he "wasn't trying to break a window?"

The Administration may argue that this is not a war against Islam, but many Middle Eastern viewers witness the plight of innocent Afghani citizens not only on their networks but on highly regarded BBC newscasts. The plausibility of notions of a war between "civilizations," with all the frightful consequences for future terrorism, may grow.

Administration suggestions that all foreign and domestic opponents of the bombing are implicitly supporting terrorism both risks enacting the international war it decries and muddies important debates. Many critics of US bombing have suggested several strategies to make our nation safer. They have also proposed constructive military or police alternatives to a US led war, such as a combination of UN sponsored commandoes, international tribunals, collective intelligence efforts, financial regulations, and diplomatic pressures from area governments to turn bin Laden over to for trial. These steps are portrayed as tortuous and of dubious efficacy. Yet the weakness of the UN, collective diplomacy, and international financial regulation all trace in part to continual US resistance to even limited efforts to improve mandates and enforcement tools. In addition, when military brass are asked to assess the war and offer prognoses, they solemnly remind us that this is a different kind of war, and that its course will be long and not linear. There is a curious asymmetry to the debate, with advocates of alternative international approaches, even ones involving force, held to a higher standard of proof than proponents of the US military.

That the war has so tenuous a connection to our long- term security may in part account for the Administration's aggressive attitude toward civil liberties and free debate. Despite occasional suggestions that an open media with unedited Arab views would aid the enemy, the Administration's primary fear seems to be that US "resolve" might be swayed. Critiques of the war and exposure to civilian casualties in the British media do seem to have affected political opinion there. Given the tortured logic of its course, Administration fears may be well grounded.

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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