October 12, 2001

Responding with terror

Print edition : February 06, 2015

September 11, 2001: The upper floors of the World Trade Centre tower burning after terrorists flew an airliner into it. Photo: AP Photo/NYPD. Via ABC News. DET GREG SEMENDINGER

Osama Bin Laden Photo: AP

THE date of September 11 has a powerful resonance in the annals of modern history. Twenty-eight years ago on this date, the Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored coup of General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of President Salvadore Allende in Chile and established a regime of terror which killed an estimated 35,000 people in the first few weeks and continued to brutalise Chilean society for some two decades. September 11 was also the date of the Camp David Accords which signalled Egypt’s final surrender to American imperialism and Israeli Zionism, leaving the Palestinians at the mercy of the latter. And, September 11 was the day when George H. Bush, father of the current President of the United States, made his fateful speech to Congress announcing the war against Iraq—that supreme act of terror which killed an estimated 200,000 people in the course of that brief assault and which has led to the death of at least half a million Iraqi children over the next decade, thanks to the U.S.-dictated blockade of their country.

Betrayal of the Palestinians, the destruction of Iraq! One can reasonably assume that these two great devastations of the Arabo-Muslim world were vivid in the memory of those 19 hijackers on September 11 this year, when they commandeered four civilian aircraft owned by two major U.S. airlines, and smashed three of them into the World Trade Centre (WTC) and the Pentagon—nerve centres of U.S. financial and military power—while committing collective suicide in the process. The White House was probably to be struck by the fourth aircraft but something in the hijackers’ plan went awry. Over 6,000 innocent civilians from 60 countries—some 500 of them from South Asia alone, including the son of a close friend of this writer—died within a couple of hours in a calculated and hideous act of terrorism carried out with stunning technical precision.

This hijacking operation, carried out by less than two dozen individuals, was the largest attack on mainland United States in its history, larger than Pearl Harbour, while American armies, assassins and covert operators of all kinds have been active around the globe for well over a century.

And, because being at the receiving end of violence on their own soil was such a novel experience for the U.S. centres of power, this attack on a couple of buildings at the heart of the imperial centre produced effects that no amount of terror and destruction in the outposts—or even the secondary and tertiary centres—of the empire could have produced. An economy that was already slowing down went into a full-fledged downturn, and the week following the hijackers’ attack proved to be the worst in the history of U.S. finance since July 1933, with the Dow Jones and the Nasdaq posting two-digit losses virtually every day and liquid assets losing $1.4 trillion of their value over the week. What happened was unspeakably hideous, cruel, senseless. The loss of thousands of precious lives, many of them cut down in the flower of their youth, has neither a moral nor a political justification.

Taking advantage of the anger and the human anguish arising from the tragedy, and exploiting the fears and frustrations arising from the prospect of a massive economic recession, the U.S. administration moved quickly to plan a new, globalised, permanent war; to expound what amounts to a new doctrine of America’s right to use its might as it pleases; to expand the war-making powers of the presidency; to put in place a new regime of infinite surveillance; and to demolish whatever restraints had been introduced after the Vietnam War on America’s right to undertake assassinations and covert actions across the globe.

Congress swiftly passed a resolution authorising Bush to use wide powers in pursuit of this war on terrorism, asserting that “all necessary and appropriate force” could be used against nations, organisations and individuals. No nations or organisations were named, let alone individuals; the President could determine which one was to be attacked as he went along. Nor was there a time limit; he was authorised to act against present danger as well in anticipation of “future attacks”. The powers were in some ways wider than a mere declaration of war could have bestowed, since such a declaration would name the country against which the war was to be waged.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department started putting together a package of proposed legislation giving the U.S. intelligence agencies much wider powers to wiretap telephones, enter into people’s Internet accounts, deport suspected immigrants, seize evidence from suspects, including DNA samples, and obtain information from educational institutions, taxation records and a whole range of public and private agencies without a prior court order or a subsequent court review of the evidence. Attorney-General John Ashcroft is said to be actively considering permanent video surveillance in public places and issuing “smart cards” to all Americans, which the surveillance devices can read electronically so as to distinguish citizen from non-citizen, keep a record of the movements of citizens themselves in public places and to have quick access to personal data linked to each of the “smart cards”.

It is also being contemplated that certain immigrants, chosen by intelligence at will, be required to report their activities regularly, like ordinary criminals on bail, and that airport security personnel be authorised to interrogate passengers at will and do on-the-spot check of their private baggage without having to explain why and what they are being suspected of.

Bush was blunt. The war is against a network of hundreds of thousands of people spread across some 60 countries, he said, and this war was, in his considered phrase, “a task that never ends”. Echoing John Foster Dulles, the rabid Foreign Secretary of the Eisenhower years, who said that non-alignment was “immoral”, Bush too has put the whole world on notice: if you do not explicitly join us in this global crusade, we shall treat you as a hostile country! Enemies are lurking in thousands of little corners, in dozens of countries across the globe, and America will choose its targets as well as its methods and timing of dealing with them as it goes along, according to its own convenience; every country must join up each time, or else it too becomes an enemy and perhaps the next target. This war—“unlike any we have ever seen,” he said—shall be perpetual but largely secret. Some of it shall be seen on television, he said, but much shall go unrevealed—even in success, he emphasised. Congressional leaders in Washington are now talking of putting the CIA “on a war footing” and cite with admiration the Israeli example of an open policy of assassinations without regard to legal niceties.

Soon after the hijacked civilian planes smashed into the World Trade Centre, the dominant electronic media set out to identify all sorts of people as the culprits. The PLO and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were the early favourites. By noon, the focus shifted to Osama bin Laden. By afternoon the channels were abuzz with the idea that bin Laden could not have done it without the diabolical expertise of Saddam Hussein.

The focus on Iraq soon became so alarming that Secretary of State Colin Powell as well as Vice-President Dick Cheney and others were eventually forced to say on record that Iraq had nothing to do with it. Indeed, Powell has been the cool head in Washington, arguing that the U.S. ought not to go around shooting all over West Asia and should judiciously concentrate on one major target at a time, and that Afghanistan should be the first. He is also the one arguing that too much of an escalation against Iraq at this time, when the U.S. wants Arab governments to join it in a coalition against the Taliban, would be counterproductive.

Senior Pakistani statesman Niaz Naik revealed on the BBC a personal conversation he had had with Colin Powell well before the recent events, in which Powell had spelled out the set of U.S. demands which have now been presented to the spellbound television-watching world as non-negotiable and a retaliation against the “attack on America”. These included that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden and, in Bush’s words “deliver to the U.S. authorities all the leaders of Al Qaeda.... Give to the U.S. full access to terrorist training camps” — demands which the Taliban would find impossible to accede to even if it wanted to. The emphasis is significant: it is the United States, not some international tribunal or United Nations forces, which shall take custody of these people and places. The tactic too is obvious: present non-negotiable and impossible demands, issue a short notice, and invade. That there shall be an invasion is clear, but there is still a far-reaching debate within the U.S. government as to what kind of invasion it would be.

Bush was careful enough to say that America’s enemy was that particular “terrorism” which “has global reach”. In other words, he is not particularly concerned with the great many varieties, which include the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Ireland, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) fraternity in India.

Nor is “fundamentalism” the issue: Taliban fundamentalism is bad but Saudi fundamentalism is good, and Bush himself of course speaks the language of that Christian fundamentalism which defines the Far Right in contemporary U.S. “Terrorism with global reach”, the designated enemy, is the one that challenges American power.

Briefly put, “terrorism” is what comes when the communist Left and anti-colonial nationalism have both been defeated while the issue of imperialism remains unresolved and more important than ever. Hatred takes the place of revolutionary ideology. Privatised, retail violence takes the place of revolutionary warfare and national liberation struggles. Millenarian and freelance seekers of religious martyrdom replace the defeated phalanx of disciplined revolutionaries. Un-reason arises where Reason is appropriated by imperialism and is eliminated in its revolutionary form.

There were no Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan before the Americans created them as a counterweight against the secular Left. Islamism arose in Iran to fill that space which had been left vacant with the elimination of the secular, revolutionary Left by the CIA-sponsored regime of the Shah. Islamic secret societies arose in Egypt after imperialism and Zionism combined to defeat Gamal Abdel Nasser’s secular nationalist project. The Hamas arose in Palestine because the cosmopolitan Palestinian nationalism was denied its dream of a secular state in the historic land of Palestine where Jew and Arab could live as equals. What gets called “terrorism with global reach” today is a mirror of defeat but also the monster that imperialism’s Faustian success made possible and which now haunts its own creator.

America can never defeat “terrorism with a global reach” because for all its barbarity and irrationality, religiously motivated “terrorism” is also a “sigh of the oppressed”, and if some Palestinians cheered it, that too was owed to the fact that even an “opiate of the people” is sometimes mistaken for the medicine itself. The only way to end this “terrorism” is to rebuild that revolutionary movement of the Left whose place it occupies and with whose mantle it masquerades.

(The author wishes to register that he has written this essay with the memory of Taimur in his heart, a lovely boy who was last seen on the 94th floor of the World Trade Centre.)

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