---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 27 Nov 2001 23:51:11 -0800
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: The impossible peace (Gitlin - 9/23)
The impossible peace
We are stretched on a moral rack, argues Todd Gitlin, who believes Congress
has failed to ask essential questions on the ends and means of war
Sunday September 23, 2001
A peace movement is beginning to roll across American campuses, but as war
fever heats up it is likely to smash into, at best, a wall of indifference,
at worst, fury, unless it confronts a question that many on the Left prefer
to duck. The question is: what is a just and effective response to the 11
September massacres? Simple rejection of war will not, by itself, do.
The appeal of the anti-war position is substantial, in precisely the degree
that the war position, while emotionally satisfying, is vague, weak and
unconvincing. Too many questions have gone unanswered. Where is convincing
evidence that the fingerprints of Osama bin Laden are all over the plot? If
they are, how can American troops find his lair, or anyone's, in the
Afghanistan mountains that have normally repelled invaders? What would
constitute victory in a war on terrorism?
On 20 September, a reporter asked Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld this
latter question. Rumsfeld roamed in circles for some time before arriving
at the claim that victory would have come when the American people were
persuaded that they were safe. Victory would come not with a surrender or a
conquest but with a belief! But beliefs can be misguided. They can be
managed. Such a war is a phantasmagorical war with real corpses and no just
So scepticism has good reasons. Yet, morally and tactically, what is the
ground for such scepticism if it is deaf to the outrage that Americans (and
others) feel? Objectors to war must also be conscientious. Those who
rightly counsel the powerful to listen to the powerless are obliged to
listen to those everywhere who have been brought low. At this moment,
American outrage is not only fierce, it is utterly and plainly human and it
is justified. Sneering critics like Noam Chomsky, who condemn the
executioners of thousands only in passing, would not hesitate to honour the
vengeful feelings of Palestinians subjected to Israeli occupation. They
have no standing.
Americans can surely be criticised for wanting war while not being sure
whom to war against. American foreign policy can be blamed for supporting
corrupt Arab regimes, frequently issuing carte blanche to wrongheaded
Israeli policies, inviting blowback. But who dares say that, whatever the
sins and crimes of American foreign policy, a nation attacked as the US was
attacked on 11 September is not entitled to self-defence?
The trouble is not with the sentiment, or the right, but the execution.
Like other dissenters, I find it hard to imagine a large-scale military
operation, in Afghanistan or elsewhere, that can 'whip terrorism' (in one
of President Bush's formulations that predated more competent
speechwriters) or even bring us closer to that just goal.
Some on the Left say they are not obliged to tell the authorities what to
do, except disappear or upend their foreign policy across the board.
Concrete proposals are said to legitimise undeserving authorities or to
ratify policies left for now unchanged. In the 1960s, the peace movement's
reply to those who asked: 'How can we leave Vietnam?' was: 'On boats.' A
good answer then, because the US had no business in Vietnam. Vietnamese
nationalism was not America's business, but massacres on American soil are
Many say that the US should change its foreign policy - I have long thought
the US should be pressing Israel to end the occupation and uproot the
settlements - but the presumption that the fundamentalist murderers would
be placated by a just arrangement in Israel-Palestine is absurd. The
question still dangles: what to do?
Timothy Garton Ash has offered one approach on the website,
opendemocracy.net. There needs to be action that plausibly fights global
terrorism, but it needs to be undertaken by the United Nations, not just
the US, or the US and the UK, or Nato, or even Nato with a few allies, but
to use a term flung around rather glibly during the past two weeks -
civilisation. The US must drag itself out of the unilateralist fit evident
over Kyoto, chemical weapons and missile defence. All this for its own
sake. But the question remains - what kind of war would even the grandest
Others propose that we think of the terrorist actions as monstrous crimes,
the perpetrators as criminals. This makes much sense. International
criminal conspiracies were and, almost certainly, remain at work. No
political claim can justify what these killers do. They may be aided or
expedited by states, but they are not themselves states. For criminals, due
process is described - indictment, capture, trial, punishment.
But to say that the whole of the murderous conspiracy ought to be
disbanded, the bad guys brought to justice, is to say that something ought
to happen that years of comparable calls have not made happen. And the
warmakers will have a right to ask: what if this fails? How long does this
quest go on? Is the use of force precluded?
So we are stretched on a moral rack. Congress, hastening to rally behind
the President, has abandoned a necessary debate about ends and means. The
war the US seems about to rush into is more likely to be Donald Rumsfeld's
counterproductive war than Colin Powell's restrained one. In prospect is a
war without end, crusade versus counter-crusade, jihad versus
counter-jihad, a war of raids, killings, guerrilla and counter-guerrilla,
captures, reprisals, counter-reprisals, with chemical, biological and
nuclear weapons not ruled out.
'Bombing the hell out of Afghanistan', as recommended by Senator Zell
Miller of Georgia, may or may not have been rejected. To the degree that
the American assaults are indiscriminate, American vengeance will fuse with
fundamentalist paranoia and generate terrorist recruits. But even less
unjust wars will likely blow back on us.
Thinking with our blood won't do. I wish I knew what would.
Todd Gitlin is the author of The Sixties: The Twilight of Common Dreams and
the forthcoming Media Unlimited: The Torrent of Images and Sounds in Modern
Life. He is the North America editor of the website www.openDemocracy.net.
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