Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind

October 5, 2001

Desire for vengeance will not end terrorism. The US must tackle it by attacking poverty and inequality worldwide, says Stanley Aronowitz.

After all the talk of revenge and crusades, the posting of countless flags across America and the invocations to God to lead us into battle, the sabre-rattling mood in the United States has shifted to one of sullen sobriety as we contemplate our options.

After the defeat of the Axis powers, the cold war gave structure to our international military and diplomatic relations. In conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf, the US and its allies confronted nation-states. The stakes were chiefly ideological and economic. Today, the "enemy" is unclear, and military action could provoke popular uprisings in the Middle East. Ground troops face difficult terrain and determined opponents, and it appears unlikely that the US has the intelligence apparatus in place to infiltrate the terrorist groups, at least in the short run.

President George W. Bush talks of forming an "international coalition" including Afghanistan's Northern Alliance and other opposition forces to hunt down Osama bin Laden, a tactic similar to that America used during the anti-Soviet war when, under the rubric of the enemy of our enemy is our friend, the US provided support for the groups that later became the Taliban. Now we are getting into bed with those who are fighting against our own Frankenstein's monster, which is only likely to create another monster. Moreover, attacking a nation widely recognised as being on its knees might even prolong the Taliban regime. Afghanis may not like them, but would they welcome American troops as liberators?

Most Americans support some form of military retaliation. But in recent days, a small but increasingly visible anti-war movement has emerged, much of it situated in universities. The movement includes many church organisations and some labour unions and civic groups worried about the consequences of a wide war, the erosion of civil liberties and growing xenophobia.

There has also been talk of a legal route, taking the perpetrators of the attacks to a world court for crimes against humanity. This would entail what the US has in the past called unacceptable: placing investigative and police powers that would cover the US in an international agency.

In trying to understand what led to the attacks and how to respond, two other ideas are gaining currency. Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington's influential 1995 Foreign Affairs article "The Clash of Civilisations?" is becoming required reading among foreign policy leaders and a wide array of intellectuals. Huntington's claim is that religion and culture underlie economic and political alliances, and he calls "pre-modern" Islamic civilisation the source of the "next confrontation". He reiterates the view that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West is at the peak of its power and "runs the world". The choices for the non-West are clear: join the West and its values or, like fascism and communism, risk decline. Although not advocating cultural and religious homogeneity, Huntington believes that few will attain modernity without westernising.

Not unexpectedly, the left, which is unified in condemning the attack, traces the roots of the conflict to the widening gulf between rich and poor. Some have advanced the idea of a new aid effort to Islamic countries and the end of US support for authoritarian governments in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia. Writers such as Noam Chomsky and Edward Said have condemned the US's record in the Middle East, where it has made loyalty to its hegemony the main criterion of support, but Said has also opposed the region's many anti-democratic regimes and labelled Yasser Arafat and his followers incompetent and corrupt.

Few on the left have acknowledged the politics of representation and symbolic violence that is inherent in religious fundamentalism. E. L. Doctorow is one exception. He points out that, if the roots of the conflict are cultural (including religious differences), it is hard to envisage a viable military strategy.

If anti-western figures such as bin Laden have a political base in the Islamic world, it is not a result of their religious fundamentalism alone. Anti-western movements condense a multiplicity of seething resentments against the West, particularly the US. Beneath the political struggles over the US presence in the Gulf, US support for Saudi Arabia and its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the resistance of the ruling circles in Western and Middle Eastern societies to democratic and egalitarian solutions.

There can be no justification for terrorism that targets civilian populations, but it is hard to see how any long-term policies that focus exclusively on security and military-style retribution could prevent more such tragedies. Unless people have a stake in their own futures, a sense of ownership of their political and social worlds, more terrorist strikes like those of September 11 are virtually guaranteed and popular uprisings in the Middle East are likely. It remains to be seen whether we can get beyond a mood of revenge to begin to address the real issues.

Stanley Aronowitz is director of the Center for Cultural Studies at City University of New York.

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