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09.17.2001 | POLITICS

The mood of this country is somber and angry, and will be for a long time. After violence of such magnitude, it is only human to thirst for retribution, even if we know it will do nothing to assuage the pain of victims' families or bring back the dead. Driven by such emotions, it is tempting to believe assurances that we can "wipe out" the terrorist threat with American firepower, vanquishing the enemy and making America secure for the future.

But as the nation gears up for what appears to be an assault of as yet unknown proportions on as yet unknown targets, we must ask ourselves clearly and carefully: Is this true? Will we "win" anything in a sustained military campaign? One does not have to be a weak bellied peacenik or terrorist sympathizer to think that the answer is 'no'. Indeed, one could be forgiven for seeing it as attacking a hornet's nest with a baseball bat. You may kill a few bees, but you'll awaken and antagonize a whole lot more. An indiscriminate attack on the countries we believe are harboring terrorists will only intensify anti-Americanism, and will exponentially increase the number of young Muslims dedicated to the death of America(ns). It will also make it more difficult to establish meaningful regional co-operation in fighting terrorism in the long-term, and this is a problem that will outlive the smoke and rubble left in the wake of American retaliation. The Vietnam War, after all, showed us the dangers of imposing unwanted political solutions on hostile native populations.

The question is a simple one: after heavy US military action against those Islamic states that Washington does not consider "on board", will there be more or less people that want to see the United States weakened or destroyed? Will there be more or less people convinced that we are a nation that defines 'terrorism' as violence against US citizens, and 'justice' as violence against innocent Muslims? Clearly, there will be more. Lawrence J. Korb, assistant secretary of defense for the Reagan Administration (no bunch of softies), recently wrote: "As we discovered when we retaliated for the bombings in Lebanon in 1983 and the destruction of the embassies [in Africa] in 1998, we did not strike the terrorists but instead killed innocent civilians, which only increased support for terrorism in those countries." It shouldn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure this out, but the US seems ready to ignore the delicate but obvious logic resting on its nose.

The "war" against terrorism simply cannot be won with the weapons currently being mobilized around the world. The disciplined and highly sophisticated terrorist cells, which operate internationally, can only be located and smashed by global co-operation between the intelligence bodies of every nation that has an interest in order--which is, by definition, just about all of them. The Russians, the Chinese, moderate states in the Middle East, NATO allies--everyone must be brought together in a tight 21st century web of intelligence, not merely a 20th century coalition of military might. This prospect is admittedly scary in some respects, but is the only way to sniff out and prevent this kind of attack. Human intelligence, not Pentagon hardware, is the key. Proposing tens of billions on missile defenses while the CIA has only a handful of Arabic speakers on staff represents an unconscionable lack of vision on the part of the Bush Administration, and one that will only be compounded by any response to September 11 that focuses heavily on a military campaign. We need border police, Coast Guard ships, Customs Agents, well-paid and well-trained airport personnel, thousands of hours of Berlitz language instruction and a lot of good new Arab spies far more than we need a Maginot line in outer space. For that matter sending fighter jets and special forces to somehow "eradicate terrorism" will accomplish little on its own; we need to make our now-clumsy human intelligence capabilities sleek, muscular and global, and do it soon. The Ivy League golfing network at the CIA that has been so famously incompetent so many times should be transformed beyond recognition.

The desire to simply wave flags and drop bombs in the wake of September 11th also falls short in that it has not been accompanied by a general and long overdue reflection on US policies in the Middle East (although there are welcome signs that this may be beginning). For this is the second prong--along with turbo-charged multinational intelligence efforts--in any effective "war on terrorism". Instead of endlessly replaying nightmarish images, the media ought to begin a detailed national discussion about why the US is a target for such hatred. There have been some admirable in-depth stories in the better US newspapers and on cable channels like CNN, but most of the coverage on the major networks has largely been human interest drama mixed with official warmongering.

Vague talk of "good vs. evil" has a tempting simplicity following such atrocities like those that took place in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, but ultimately it reveals the evangelical's grasp of international affairs more than it provides the crucial background the American people need in order to intelligently navigate our democracy through this crisis. While it is true that terrorist acts are indeed "evil," and that there are terrorist groups whose only desire is to wreak havoc - such as the Aum cult in Japan - the fact remains that most active terror groups have specific grievances against the United States. Many of these grievances are rooted firmly in the Arab - Israeli conflict, and in the US military occupation of Muslim holy land in Saudi Arabia, specifically Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. The ability of these groups to grow and draw support largely depends on how the US (and Israel) are perceived in their treatment of Arabs.

This fact, which should be shouted from the rooftops in the coming weeks, is not the same as saying that it is America's "fault" that terrorism exists, but rather that terrorism is in part fueled by specific policies which breed hatred, and these policies include the 34 year-old Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, the American military support for secular Arab dictatorships, and the devastating sanctions against Iraq, which have killed vastly more people than the attack on the World Trade Center. These policies certainly seem "terroristic" to the much of the populations affected by them, but Americans can't responsibly contemplate or reflect upon what they aren't told. In order to lower the threat of terrorism in the future, at least a basic understanding of this cycle of resentment and violence is needed. In checking the long-term appeal of Islamic fundamentalism and containing the terrorist threat, frank talk about the history and politics of the Middle East in America is central. Networks love to show the 1997 CNN interview footage of Bin Laden with his Kalishnakov, but usually do not translate his statements about why he and a growing segment of the Arab world despise the US.

The "civilizational thesis"--the idea that fundamentalists simply hate the values of the modern world and wage war because of their medieval reading of the Koran--is only a partial truth and does not address the high probability that terrorism could be mitigated by adjustments in US foreign policy. Bin Laden and his followers are not driven because they want so badly for the world to be rid of atheistic Americans, but because they want Saudi Arabia to be rid of them. This is not a minor distinction, and it mustn't be lost among the efforts to paint this as a mythic conflict between American Goodness vs. Directionless Evil. Hijacking a plane and crashing it into a populated area is certainly evil, and so are the men who do it, but this evil is not inevitable. It is a product of the complex interplay of forces in the world; forces that a superpower like the US can to some extent--but not completely--manipulate.

Sadly, most Americans are not aware of, or do not care about, the key issues at stake, and thus are understandably dumbstruck when anti-American violence is carried out. The knee-jerk reaction that all terrorism is without rhyme or reason, and merely represents destruction for destruction's sake, is borne out of a potent mix of ignorance and illusion about the US abroad. And it must end. I have been personally spat upon and hissed at by businessmen and college students while handing out literature on street corners about how infants are dying by the thousands of curable diseases in Iraq due to US-imposed sanctions. Ever tried to talk to a someone about life conditions in occupied Gaza? Or about how it must feel to have US missiles slam into your urban neighborhood, rural village or local medicine factory? It must be absolutely, mind-numbingly terrifying, just as it is when planes slam into the skyscrapers of New York's financial district at 9 o'clock in the morning.

To say this is not to a draw moral equivalency between thousands of innocent dead in New York and Baghdad, or to justify a single innocent death, but rather to expand our understanding of why someone might do something so awful, of what our actions feel like from the other side, of what it means to be bombed from the sky by an untouchable enemy. It is true that some people hate without reason, but the vast majority do not, and many Arabs hate the US because they associate us with terrifying and grief-filled moments in their own lives. It isn't un-American to say this, and in fact it is necessary to say it if we are to stop September 11th from happening again. It does no justice to the memory of the lost to perpetuate and heighten the conditions that helped lead to their tragic deaths. Yes, let's bring the terrorists to justice, yes, let's sniff out their partners around the world, and yes let's get tough with states that harbor them--but let's also take a sober look at the different possible futures of US policy in the Middle East and their likely effects on a generation of as-yet-unborn Muslims. What can America and its allies do to make them want to grow up to be suicide bombers, and what can we do offer them a better future, one in which they view the US as a benign power?

Looking around the US, it doesn't look like many Americans are interested in asking hard questions or accepting hard answers about the future development of our intelligence capabilities or policies in the Middle East. In times of peace, the majority of citizens of this country happily watch television and shut out the rest of the world, and in times of complexity and sadness, which require wisdom and vision, they wave flags and demand that bombs be dropped. There is indeed a place for flags and even occasion for bombs, but unless they are now matched with subtler tactics and more forward-thinking policies, then we as a nation will fail in what is sure to be a long and defining era of crisis.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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