The Last Word - More Wrong Than Right?

Stephen Zunes asks, "Have we abandoned our values?" in regard to human rights and international law, and he strongly suggests that the answer is "yes," thereby somehow contributing to the deadly terrorist attacks of September 11. I disagree. Since the end of World War II, American efforts at mediation and involvement have been sought and welcomed by opposing parties, by the United Nations, and by regional political alliances in such disparate places as the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and Bosnia. Surely we have made mistakes, big ones like Vietnam, but on balance the U.S. has been a major player in support of human rights and international law around the world. As the sole "superpower," the U.S. is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. The pictures of joy displayed in the streets of Kabul and Kandahar when the Taliban regime fell were worth a thousand lectures on how American military might was used in a remote Third World country. As it should be, the people of Afghanistan are now responsible for organizing their society so that the worst abuses of human rights (women banned from education, employment, freedom of movement) are not repeated. We and other nations will provide much assistance...economic, medical, engineering, etc. The millions of dollars from bin Laden and his network were never put to good work to aid the people of Afghanistan. We can all agree that terrorists like to destroy, not to improve or to build. Even as we cope with a new sense of vulnerability, it is important to appreciate that American values, often imperfectly implemented, have not been abandoned.
Charles W. Jackson '54
Ontario, Canada

Stephen Zunes is right in his answer but wrong in his question, with the result being that he is more profoundly wrong than right. He is right when he calls on us to "re-evaluate our definition of security." We must look for better bedfellows than the Saudi royal family, find a new relationship with the two sinning parties who contend for Jerusalem, use our influence to bring prosperity and freedom for people who lack traditions of opportunity and justice to guide them, and become more effectively involved in nation building where necessary. Zunes is wrong, however, when he says that because of these obligations we should not have taken arms against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. By the form of his implicit question, Zunes has impoverished his thinking. The logical form of his proposition is a disjunction: We can either work for justice or we can take up arms. The true nature of the situation is a logical conjunction: we must both work for justice and take up arms when necessary. Though there are tensions between these duties, they are mutually dependent. We liberals claim to be good at living with ambiguity, and yet we rarely miss a chance to reduce the world to mutually exclusive binary oppositions. By reducing the situation to a choice between war and peace, Zunes predicts his answer: What decent person can prefer war to peace? For peace is obviously better. But the peace in question was the murderous peace of the Taliban, a condition comparable in effect on its citizens and on the stability of the world to the peace of Germany in 1935. While the Taliban/al-Qaeda complex threatened its own people and our children, there could be no peace. Zunes sees no moral value in the removal of the Taliban from power, but without that action there could be no question of establishing liberal democracy in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the world. It was far from the last step, but it was the first. The liberal principle of tolerance, if it is to be anything more than a mantra of hand wringing, requires that we be intolerant of violent intolerance. In the real world, good people sometimes must use force to protect themselves and their fellows from bad people. Here at home, liberals are willing to pay the salaries of police officers for this purpose, because the relationship between force and peace is not a disjunction but a conjunction. Civil rights, though liberals often oppose them to law and order, can only flourish where there is civil peace. International peace can only flourish in the absence, by force if necessary, of criminal regimes. Zunes proposes a false choice where there is no choice. We must not choose between protecting the world from criminal regimes and working for justice; we must always do both. To hold both ideas in our minds at once is sometimes uncomfortable, but we liberals claim to be good at managing the discomfort of creative ambiguity. Let us make it so.
Hollis Huston '68

White Plains, New York The publication of Stephen Zunes' essay brings no credit to either you or to its author. By our protection of the state of Israel--what Zunes calls "the Israeli occupation"--the United States preserves the only democratic government in the region and the only one that grants anything approaching equal rights to women. These are values that most Americans and most Oberlin alums are justly proud to maintain, despite the contrary opinions of religious zealots and PC professors.
Russell Pittman '73
Takoma Park, Maryland

As Oberlin alumni of different generations and political opinions, we shared a similar response to Stephen Zunes' column: disgust. Although Zunes writes that "the transgression of U.S. foreign policy...can never justify terrorism," he goes on to link terrorism with what he perceives as legitimate political grievances. Zunes' tone is all too familiar: blame the victim. Blaming terrorist acts on U.S. foreign policy is like blaming rape on the victim's provocative dress or lifestyle.
David A. Hart '79, Portland, Oregon
Thomas K. Elden '62, Salem, Oregon

Stephen Zunes asserts that our policies in the Near East explain, but do not excuse, the terrorist attacks. Does Mr. Zunes really believe that Sadaam Hussein was on course to set up a peaceful, free, democratic "Iraq Nation of All The Near East," or that Palestine (after dissolving Israel, of course) was about to form a peaceful, free, democratic Jerusalem when the demon U.S. (and her allies) stopped them? Is there in the world such a thing as a free, democratic, Islamic nation? The first requirement is the effective disestablishment of religion. Would changing our policies help do that? Does Mr. Zunes really believe anything Osama bin Laden says? What's past is past. We have made mistakes. What do we do right now? To use deadly force against an aberrant perversion of extreme religious doctrine is abhorrent to all good people of all faiths, but murder cannot be allowed. The idea of freedom is so great, so terrifying to them, that the enemies of freedom will do anything to try to stop it. We must punish those who break the law, while preserving and enhancing our freedom as an example to all.
John M. Townsend '47
Wantagh, New York

I find Richard Zunes' article to be intellectually glib, insulting, and subversive. He concluded that the September 11 attack on the WTC was our own fault, an "abandonment of our values." As a paratrooper with the 11th Airborne Division, I was being readied to invade Japan in the summer of 1945. In the ensuing 56 years, the U.S. has defended democracy throughout the world and prevented a major conflagration, largely as a result of our adherence to our "values." Left to previous major powers between WWI and WWII, peace lasted 20 years. Apparently our lead in defeating Hussein, Milosevic, and the Taliban in support of Muslims, he sees as some surrender of our values. "The U.S. military response went well beyond what would be considered justification," he claims. Instead, there is general agreement that the full use of military power in Kuwait, Kosovo, and Afghanistan led to swift victories that did not target civilians, kept military casualties to a remarkable minimum, and earned us the right to be seen as a "beacon of freedom" to others and ourselves.
Tom Brennan '51
Montclair, New Jersey

You gave Stephen Zunes "The Last Word." I cannot. Zunes notes that "it is the desertion of our country's values that made the horrific attacks of September 11 possible." That statement is true. But what those values are, and precisely which values have been abandoned, Zunes does not know. He knows only what he wishes them to be. But the values that created our country are historical fact. One cannot, as does Zunes, rename or substitute for those values while maintaining historical accuracy. These values were not, and are not, "human rights, international law, and sustainable development." They were and are individualism, and thus freedom and individual rights. It is historical fact that these historical values were abandoned in the Mideast by Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter (especially Carter), Reagan, and Clinton. Only the Bushes have defended these rights for Americans in that region of the world. Look at these values anew. Individualism means that each person is responsible for himself alone, accepting the consequences, whether good or ill, of his lawful actions or inactions. Its requirements are freedom and individual rights. Freedom is freedom from coercion, i.e., political freedom. That requires economic freedom. The basic economic freedoms are private property and property rights. Individual rights are the basis of equality in our political system and, therefore, are a political value. Because of this concept, we have (or should have) a country in which the government defends the rights of the individual. By contrast, Islamic theocracies routinely violate the rights of individuals for religious purposes. This contrast, and its consequences in economic success (we're rich and successful; they are not), are two of the reasons they envy and hate us. What they call licentiousness, we call freedom. Ultimately this is an ideological conflict. Next, review the ideology at the source of these values. Each person possesses certain rights by virtue of being a person. This is the meaning of the adjective "unalienable" as applied to rights. Such a right is not granted to the individual by society or government, as liberals believe, nor is it a gift from God, as the conservatives teach. It is unalienable, an inseparable part of you. To violate it is to violate one's person, and thus to defend it is self-defense. This is the philosophical/ideological basis of politics in the U.S. The founders created our government to defend our rights, both here and abroad. These are the values that had to be abandoned before al-Qaeda terrorists could become sufficiently emboldened to attack Americans in their homeland. When U.S. oilfields were nationalized by Iran and then other Arab nations, our government, under Truman and then Eisenhower, reneged on its fundamental mandate: to protect the property rights of Americans. They were embarrassed and ashamed of being Americans with American values, so they abandoned them. That failure has not been redeemed. Today the Islamic fundamentalist movement has noticed this failure; as a result they think we are unwilling to defend ourselves, so some thousands of Americans lay dead in the rubble of the WTC. Further, it is no use denying that Islamic fundamentalist terrorists are empowered by Islamic fundamentalist states. Some of these states, perhaps all of them, were hoping we would abandon our values once more. Afghanistan was one that hoped, but no longer. War has been declared upon Americanism by Islamic fundamentalism. Upon American ideals and values by Islamic fundamentalist ideals and values; the al-Qaeda are merely the soldiers, and merely neutralizing the soldiers will not be enough. Imagine the absurdity of liberating Europe in WWII, while leaving Nazi Germany intact. Yet this is the absurdity your article suggests we pursue, Mr. Zunes, in the interest of "human rights, international law and sustainable development." Whose human rights shall we defend, Mr. Zunes? Those who routinely violate individual rights and so inevitably violate human rights? Theirs? Who rushed to enforce international law for our sake when those oilfields created by American capital, risk, and know-how were expropriated? Who rushed to enforce international law on 9-11? Who will sustain world development if we, the world developers, are destroyed? Can we be destroyed? Yes, we can be; the barbarians are at the gate. Where have they come from, Mr. Zunes? Nowhere? The values I have named must now be defended. Against terrorists AND the Islamic states that create, abet, and succor them. Let others who have a will to defend the values you have named defend them if they can. They are not ours to defend. We have our own. They make us who we are. Do not complain that "the U.S. did not seriously strive for non-military solutions before dropping bombs." Or that the U.S. response is retaliatory and that you are ashamed and embarrassed by it. Punishing the criminal after the fact IS retaliatory and necessary to deter him from further crimes. Besides, there are too many terrorists in the world more than willing to end our lives this instant. How long should we have waited to defend ourselves, until they had struck again, and again? If you are ashamed and embarrassed by American defense measures, Mr. Zunes, it's because you've failed to identify the values that sustain this country, and thus your life. I've identified them for you. Recognize this and your pride and joy to be an American will begin to return. Fail to recognize it, and your shame and embarrassment hold open the gate to those who would.
Peter Alexander Ferry '72
Ravenna, Ohio


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