Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Anti-drone demonstrators march in 2013. (Photo: Debra Sweet/flickr/cc)

9/11 Saudi Arabia Bill Opens US to Avalanche of Lawsuits

Stephen Kinzer

 by the Boston Globe

Last week, as the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approached, members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps to pray, followed by a rendition of “God Bless America.” Then, evidently energized, they went inside and passed a bill that would allow relatives of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for its apparent support of the attackers. President Obama is likely to veto it. Emotion could lead Congress to override his veto. That would have a shattering effect on American and global politics.

Americans love to sue. Our society is one of the world’s most litigious. We have come to believe that almost anything can be adjudicated in court. That is lamentable at home, but applying the principle of tort liability to foreign policy is far more threatening. It opens the United States to an avalanche of lawsuits from victims of our actions around the world.

"First in line to sue the United States would be relatives of Iraqis, Afghans, Yemenis, and others who have been killed by American drone attacks."

One sponsor of the newly passed bill, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, has dismissed this possibility. No one could sue the United States for damages, he reasoned, because “the United States does not engage in international terrorist activity.” He may honestly believe that, but judges in other countries might disagree.

First in line to sue the United States would be relatives of Iraqis, Afghans, Yemenis, and others who have been killed by American drone attacks. In Pakistan alone, by one count, these attacks have killed 160 children. Parents of every one of them would have a case in court. Victims of “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation methods” might also be able to persuade judges that their ordeals were the product of state terrorism directed from Washington.

From there, the list is almost endless. Every country where US intervention has produced bloody results would become fertile ground for lawsuits. Guatemalans could sue for our long support of regimes in their country that carried out murder on a grand scale. So could families of Salvadorans, Chileans, Brazilians, and others who were tortured and killed by US-trained military units. Indonesians could claim that the hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered in 1965 were victims of a policy set in motion by the United States. A Cambodian or Laotian or Vietnamese who has lived without limbs as a result of American bombing, or been deformed by napalm or Agent Orange, would have a good case. Survivors of Mexicans killed by drug dealers using weapons bought in Arizona could claim that weak American gun laws are to blame, and demand compensation. Iran could sue the United States for its cyberattacks on Iranian computer systems. How about Brazil suing because a member of our Olympic team, Ryan Lochte, harmfully defamed Brazil by fabricating stories about being attacked by police there?

This circus would run in both directions. If Americans can sue Saudi Arabia because its government supports terror groups, they can also sue Pakistan. Since the 9/11 attacks were directed from Afghanistan, it could also be on the target list. An American judge might even find Germany guilty of negligence for failing to monitor the attackers while they were living in Hamburg.

“The fact that a foreign government may have aided and abetted terrorism is infuriating to the families if justice is not done,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said last week. He is correct. Americans have a right to be furious with some foreign governments. People in other countries have an equal right to be furious with the United States. We best address that fury not with lawsuits, but by changing the way we approach the world.


© 2021 Boston Globe
Stephen Kinzer

Stephen Kinzer

Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning author and foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. His articles and books have led the Washington Post to place him “among the best in popular foreign policy storytelling.” He was Latin America correspondent for The Boston Globe, and then spent more than 20 years working for the New York Times, with extended postings in Nicaragua, Germany, and Turkey. He is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. His most recent book is The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'Policy of Death': Amazon Guardians Sue Ecuador's President Over Oil, Mining Decrees

"We are fighting to defend our territory, our rivers, our forest, our fish, and our animals," one Indigenous leader explained. "Without our forest and without water, we cannot live."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Just Cancel the Debt,' Advocates Say as Biden Admin Develops Strategy for Restarting Student Loan Payments

Student debt cancellation "is good economic policy that will change the lives of millions of families," said Rep. Ayanna Pressley.

Julia Conley ·


Green Public Spending a 'Win-Win Opportunity' for Climate and Workers, Global Study Shows

"It's really a no-brainer for the federal government to prioritize green investments to put our economy back on track," said one advocate. "It's good politics and good policy."

Kenny Stancil ·


After CIA Plot Revealed, Press Freedom Coalition Says DOJ Must Drop Assange Case

"A precedent created by prosecuting Assange could be used against publishers and journalists alike, chilling their work and undermining freedom of the press," said the groups.

Julia Conley ·


'Needlessly Provocative': Austin Rebuked for Again Opening NATO Door to Ukraine and Georgia

"The Biden administration now faces a stark choice: commit to fight for Ukraine, creating a serious risk of war with Russia, or admit that NATO expansion has come to an overdue end."

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo