We Abandoned Our Values?
It is the desertion of our countrys values that made the horrific
attacks of September 11 possible
by Stephen Zunes 79
a student activist in the late 1970s and well beyond, I found it
easy to take an absolutist stance against U.S. military intervention
on both pacifist and anti-imperialist grounds. Every U.S. military
intervention in my lifetime had been easy to oppose as illegal,
immoral, and/or unnecessary. Sometimes I believedand still
dothat we were on the wrong side. Even when we were not, I
believedand still dothat the U.S. did not seriously
strive for non-military solutions before dropping bombs.
Taking such principled positions was possible in part because I
had never seen the U.S. directly attacked. That all changed on September
11. For the first time I began to believe that limited paramilitary
operationspreferably in conjunction with the international
communitymight be necessary to break up these dangerous terrorist
The level and nature of the U.S. military response, however, went
well beyond what could be considered justified. The use of military
force for self-defense is legitimate under international law. Using
military force for retaliation is not. Destroying the limited government
resources in Afghanistan, therefore, seems more an act of vengeance
than self-defense. The real enemy is Osama bin Ladens al-Qaida,
the decentralized network of underground terrorist cells that do
not have much in the way of tangible targets that can be struck.
To break up these cells and bring the terrorists to justice, the
United States needs the cooperation of intelligence services and
police agencies in a number of Muslim countries. Given the widespread
perception that the attacks have been excessive and innocent lives
have been lost, it has become more difficult politically for these
regimes to provide the United States with the level of help needed.
If there is any logic to bin Ladens madness, it was his hope
that the United States would overreact militarily, resulting in
an anti-American backlash in the region that would play right into
To win the war against terrorism, we need to re-evaluate our definition
of security. The more the U.S. has militarized the Middle East,
the less secure we have become. The sophisticated weaponry, the
brave fighting men and women, and the talented military leadership
we may possess will not stop terrorism as long as our policies cause
millions of people to hate us.
I respectfully disagree with President Bush when he says the United
States has become a target because we are a beacon of freedom.
While we deserve to be proud of our democratic institutions and
our cherished freedoms at home, our policy in the Middle East has
tended not to promote freedom, but rather support authoritarian
governments, occupation armies, and further militarization of an
already overly militarized region.
Like many Americans, I was deeply offended to see scenes on television
of Palestinians celebrating the September 11 attacks. Though they
represented only a small minority, I dont think these West
Bank residents were alone in the Third World in feeling a perverse
sense of satisfaction: Finally, the United States knows what
it is like to lose thousands of civilians in an act of political
violence. This is not new to the Palestinians or to the people
of Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, East Timor, Iraq, and
Lebanon who know the feeling all too well, in no small part due
to the policies of the United States.
Indeed, watching the heart-wrenching scenes of anguished New Yorkers
holding up pictures of their missing loved ones reminded me of what
I witnessed in Latin America during the 1970s and 80s. There,
too, relatives of los desaparecidos or the disappeared
who were victims of regimes backed by our government gathered in
public places with pictures of their family and friends.
Whatever the transgressions of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle
East and elsewhere, they can never justify acts of terrorism. There
is nothing karmic about what happened on September 11. No country
deserves to have thousands of innocent people slaughtered. Yet we
must recognize why some extremists might resort to such heinous
acts if we have any hope of stopping them.
There are those who argue that bin Ladens political agenda
should not be taken any more seriously than that of Timothy McVeigh,
Charles Manson, or any mass murderer. Indeed, anyone who would sacrifice
thousands of innocent lives is clearly a psychopath and is unlikely
to be reasoned with or appeased through negotiations.
An important distinction should be made, however. Terrorist groups
whose grievances have little political appealsuch as the far-left
and far-right groups that arise periodically in Europe and elsewherecan
be suppressed. By contrast, terrorist groups whose agendas reflect
those of oppressed populationssuch as Palestinian Arabs, Sri
Lankan Tamils, or Northern Ireland Catholicsare more difficult
Bin Laden and his network may be more like the latter, but on a
global scale. Even the tiny percentage who support bin Ladens
methods will be enough to maintain a terrorist network as long as
his grievances resonate with the majority. Even if we succeed in
destroying the al-Qaida network, new terrorists will take its place
unless we take a hard look at what gives rise to these fanatics.
The concerns bin Laden has raised in his manifestoesthe opposition
to U.S. support of the Israeli occupation, the ongoing U.S. military
presence in the Gulf, the humanitarian impact of the U.S.-led sanctions
against Iraq, the U.S. support for Arab dictatorships, and the neo-liberal
economic model being pushed by the U.S. upon Middle Eastern statesresonate
deeply throughout the region, even among moderates.
If the United States supported a policy based on human rights, international
law, and sustainable development rather than arms transfers, air
strikes, and punitive sanctions, it would not only be more consistent
with our principles, it would also make us a lot safer. It is not
our countrys values, but the abandonment of our values, which
made the horrific attacks of September 11 possible.
Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the
Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.
He is a senior policy analyst and Middle East editor for the Foreign
Policy in Focus Project.