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On Tuesday morning, a piece was torn out of our world. A patch of blue sky that should not have been there opened up in the New York skyline . Our city was changed forever. Our country was changed forever. Our world was changed forever. So wrote Jonathan Schell in the first issue of The Nation magazine following September 11, 2001. In A Just Response, some of the most respected figures on the progressive left analyze the causes and consequences of this new American wound in a series of thoughtful, informed, and ...
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On Tuesday morning, a piece was torn out of our world. A patch of blue sky that should not have been there opened up in the New York skyline . Our city was changed forever. Our country was changed forever. Our world was changed forever. So wrote Jonathan Schell in the first issue of The Nation magazine following September 11, 2001. In A Just Response, some of the most respected figures on the progressive left analyze the causes and consequences of this new American wound in a series of thoughtful, informed, and provocative essays. Selected from The Nation and other sources, these articles counter the bombast and jingoism of so much of the media coverage since September 11—while providing informed analysis, provocative commentary, and reasoned debates. The writers in these pages speak out against "Fascism with an Islamic face," jingoism, and the undermining of civil rights, address the confusion between dissent and treason, and articulate a vision of a just response to terrorism. Others reflect on an interview with Osama bin Laden, the concept of "Blowback"—modern technological society turned unwittingly against itself—and the American right wing's exploitation of a national emergency to further its political agenda. Also included are dispatches from other countries around the world, brief background histories of bin Laden's origins, the roots of fundamentalism, asymmetrical warfare, and a heated exchange between Noam Chomsky and Christopher Hitchens.
September 12, 2001
A Hole in the World
On Tuesday morning, a piece was torn out of our world. A patch of blue sky that should not have been there opened up in the New York skyline. In my neighborhood—I live six blocks from the World Trade Center—the heavens were raining human beings. Our city was changed forever. Our country was changed forever. Our world was changed forever.
It will take months merely to know what happened, far longer to feel so much grief, longer still to understand its meaning. It's already clear, however, that one aspect of the catastrophe is of supreme importance for the future: the danger of the use of weapons of mass destruction, and especially the use of nuclear weapons. This danger includes their use by a terrorist group but is by no means restricted to it. It is part of a larger danger that has been for the most part ignored since the end of the cold war.
Among the small number who have been concerned with nuclear arms in recent years—they have pretty much all known one another by their first names—it was commonly heard that the world would not return its attention to this subject until a nuclear weapon was again set off somewhere in the world. Then, the tiny club said to itself, the world would awaken to its danger. Many of the ingredients of the catastrophe were obvious. The repeated suicide-homicides of the bombers in Israel made it obvious that there were people so possessed by their cause that, in an exaltation of hatred, they would do anything in its name. Many reports—most recently an article in TheNew York Times on the very morning of the attack—reminded the public that the world was awash in nuclear materials and the wherewithal for other weapons of mass destruction. Russia is bursting at the seams with these materials. The combination of the suicide bombers and the market in nuclear materials was that two-plus-two points toward the proverbial necessary four. But history is a trickster. The fates came up with a horror that was unforeseen. No one had identified the civilian airliner as a weapon of mass destruction, but it occurred to the diabolical imagination of those who conceived Tuesday's attack that it could be one. The invention illumined the nature of terrorism in modern times. These terrorists carried no bombs—only knives, if initial reports are to be believed. In short, they turned the tremendous forces inherent in modern technical society—in this case, Boeing 767s brimming with jet fuel—against itself.
So it is also with the more commonly recognized weapons of mass destruction. Their materials can be built the hard way, from scratch, as Iraq came within an ace of doing until stopped by the Gulf War and as Pakistan and India have done, or they can be diverted from Russian, or for that matter American or English or French or Chinese, stockpiles. In the one case, it is nuclear know-how that is turned against its inventors, in the other it is their hardware. Either way, it is "blowback"—the use of a technical capacity against its creator—and, as such, represents the pronounced suicidal tendencies of modern society.
This suicidal bent—nicely captured in the name of the still current nuclear policy "mutual assured destruction"—of course exists in forms even more devastating than possible terrorist attacks. India and Pakistan, which both possess nuclear weapons and have recently engaged in one of their many hot wars, are the likeliest candidates. Most important—and most forgotten—are the some 30,000 nuclear weapons that remain in the arsenals of Russia and the United States. The Bush Administration has announced its intention of breaking out of the antiballistic missile treaty of 1972, which bans antinuclear defenses, and the Russians have answered that if this treaty is abandoned the whole framework of nuclear arms control built up over thirty years may collapse. There is no quarrel between the United States and Russia that suggests a nuclear exchange between them, but accidents are another matter, and, as Tuesday's attack has shown, the mood and even the structure of the international order can change overnight.
What should be done? Should the terrorists who carried out Tuesday's attacks be brought to justice and punished, as the President wants to do? Of course. Who should be punished if not people who would hurl a cargo of innocent human beings against a fixed target of other innocent human beings? (When weighing the efficiency—as distinct from the satisfaction—of punishment, however, it is well to remember that the immediate attackers have administered the supposed supreme punishment of death to themselves.) Should further steps be taken to protect the country and the world from terrorism, including nuclear terrorism? They should. And yet even as we do these things, we must hold, as if to life itself, to a fundamental truth that has been known to all thoughtful people since the destruction of Hiroshima: There is no technical solution to the vulnerability of modern populations to weapons of mass destruction. After the attack, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld placed U.S. forces on the highest state of alert and ordered destroyers and aircraft carriers to take up positions up and down the coasts of the United States. But none of these measures can repeal the vulnerability of modern society to its own inventions, revealed by that heart-breaking gap in the New York skyline. This, obviously, holds equally true for that other Maginot line, the proposed system of national missile defense. Thirty billion dollars is being spent on intelligence annually. We can assume that some portion of that was devoted to protecting the World Trade Center after it was first bombed in 1993. There may have been mistakes—maybe we'll find out—but the truth is that no one on earth can demonstrate that the expenditure of even ten times that amount can prevent a terrorist attack on the United States or any other country. The combination of the extraordinary power of modern technology, the universal and instantaneous spread of information in the information age and the mobility inherent in a globalized economy prevents it.
Man, however, is not merely a technical animal. Aristotle pointed out that we are also a political animal, and it is to politics that we must return for the solutions that hold promise. That means returning to the treaties that the United States has recently been discarding like so much old newspaper—the one dealing, for example, with an International Criminal Court (useful for tracking down terrorists and bringing them to justice), with global warming and, above all, of course, with nuclear arms and the other weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical. The United States and seven other countries now rely for their national security on the retaliatory execution of destruction a millionfold greater than the Tuesday attacks. The exit from this folly, by which we endanger ourselves as much as others, must be found. Rediscovering ourselves as political animals also means understanding the sources of the hatred that the United States has incurred in a decade of neglect and, worse, neglect of international affairs—a task that is highly unwelcome to many in current circumstances but nevertheless is indispensable to the future safety of the United States and the world.
It would be disrespectful of the dead to in any way minimize the catastrophe that has overtaken New York. Yet at the same time we must keep room in our minds for the fact that it could have been worse. To lose two huge buildings and the people in them is one thing; to lose all of Manhattan—or much, much more—is another. The emptiness in the sky can spread. We have been warned, J.S.
September 19, 2001
A Sense of Proportion
The blow against the United States has landed. As we go to press, the counterblow is awaited. Those deciding what it will be face a devilish conundrum. A great injury seems to call for a great response—a "response commensurate to the horror," in the words of Cokie Roberts of ABC News. Unfortunately for the satisfaction of this impulse, a proportional antagonist is not always available. It is a perplexing but inescapable fact of our time that great crimes can be committed by puny forces. The obvious example is assassination—an experience branded in American memory by the assassination of President John Kennedy. The gigantic shock of that event seemed to require a gigantic explanation. The mind recoiled at the idea that a single anonymous person could affect the lives of so many so deeply. Many found their satisfaction in conspiracy theories. The government of the day, however, felt it had to resist these temptations. It was the office of the Warren Commission that had to tidy up the affair, even at the cost of many overlooked suggestive facts, many unpursued leads. During the cold war, the stakes were judged too high to indulge in endless investigations that might undermine the already tense relations of the two hostile superpowers, ready and able to blow each other up in half an hour.
September 11 also presents a maddening disproportion between cause and effect. To be sure, the assault was not the act of an individual; yet at most a few score were directly involved. Behind them—if current speculation is correct—might be a few hundred potential co-conspirators; and behind them, perhaps, some thousands of active supporters. These forces present a dim, vague target. A direct, immediate response against them cannot possibly be "commensurate" with the horror—not only because they are few but because they are dispersed and hidden. That has left the Administration searching for larger targets, and it appears to believe it has found them in its determination to, in George W. Bush's words, "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." The deliberate erasure of the distinction between perpetrators and supporters obviously has opened the way to an attack on one or more states—targets that, whatever their level of responsibility, would indeed be commensurate in size with the horror. It was in pursuit of such a target, of course, that the United States in effect dispatched a team of Pakistanis to the Taliban government of Afghanistan to persuade it to yield up its "guest" Osama bin Laden, who is suspected of masterminding the attack.
The Taliban have indeed sheltered bin Laden, and an effort to end that support makes sense. However, a military strike against the Taliban or any other regime is full of perils that—hard as it is to imagine in the wake of the recent tragedy—are far greater than the dangers we already face. Civilian casualties, even in retaliation, stir indignation, as we now know so deeply. Anger is the best recruiter for violent causes, including radical Islam. There is a distinct danger of self-fulfilling prophecy. By striking indiscriminately we can create the "commensurate" antagonist that we now lack. The danger takes many forms. In the first place, moderate Muslims who now dislike U.S. policy toward their countries but who also oppose terror may begin to support it. In the second place, by attacking radical regimes we may undermine other, conservative regimes. One is the repressive, monarchical regime of Saudi Arabia, possessor of the world's oil supplies. Another is Pakistan. Its leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is a military dictator with a tenuous grip on power. His most powerful opponents are not the democrats he overthrew in his military coup but Islamic militants, who honeycomb his army and could, if angered enough by the humiliation of his regime by demands from the United States, possibly overthrow it. Pakistan, of course, has been a nuclear power since May 1998. Will the United States, in its fury at a terrible attack that was, nevertheless, on the "conventional" scale, create a fresh nuclear danger to itself and the world?
It's rightly said that in the face of the attack, America must be strong. Its military strength is beyond doubt, but strength consists of more than firepower. The strength now needed is the discipline of restraint. Restraint does not mean inaction; it means patience, discrimination, action in concert with other nations, resolve over the long haul. We live, as we have since 1945, in an age of weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical and biological. During the cold war there was one ladder of escalation that led to oblivion. Now there are many. Now as then, escalation is "unthinkable." It must be avoided at all cost. J.S.
September 26, 2001
The Power of the Powerful
This article is the third in a series of entries in a sort of reflective public diary that will chronicle and comment upon the crisis set in motion by the attacks on the United States on September 11. It will address the issues that are flying in profusion out of this new Pandora's box while seeking to preserve as much as possible the continuity of a single unfolding story.
Of course there can be no such thing as a literal letter from ground zero—neither from the ground zeros of September 11 nor from the potential nuclear ground zero that is the origin of the expression. There are no letters from the beyond. (By now, "zero" has the double meaning of zero distance from the bombardier's assigned coordinates and the nothingness that's left when his work is done.) As it happens, though, I live six blocks from the ruins of the north tower of the World Trade Center, which is about as close as you can be to ground zero without having been silenced. My specific neighborhood was violated, mutilated. As I write these words, the acrid, dank, rancid stink—it is the smell of death—of the still-smoking site is in my nostrils. Not that these things confer any great distinction—they are merely the local embodiment of the circumstance, felt more or less keenly by everyone in the world in the aftermath of the attack, that in our age of weapons of mass destruction every square foot of our globe can become such a ground zero in a twinkling. We have long known this intellectually, but now we know it viscerally, as a nausea in the pit of the stomach that is unlikely to go away. What to do to change this condition, it seems to me, is the most important of the practical tasks that the crisis requires us to perform.
It takes time for the human reality of the losses to sink in. The eye is quick but the heart is slow. I had two experiences this week that helped me along. It occurred to me that I would be a very bad journalist and maybe a worse neighbor if, living just a few blocks from the catastrophe, I did not manage to get through the various checkpoints to visit the site. A press pass was useless; it got me no closer than my own home. A hole in the storm-fence circling the site worked better. I found myself in the midst of a huge peaceable army of helpers in a thousand uniforms—military and civilian. I was somehow unprepared by television for what I saw when I arrived at ground zero. Television had seemed to show mostly a low hillock of rubble from which the famous bucket brigade of rescuers was passing out pieces of debris. This proved to be a keyhole vision of the site. In fact, it was a gigantic, varied, panoramic landscape of destruction, an Alps of concrete, plastic and twisted metal, rising tier upon tier in the smoky distance. Around the perimeter and in the surrounding streets, a cornucopia of food, drinks (thousands of crates of spring water, Gatorade, etc.) and other provisions contributed by well-wishers from around the country was heaped up, as if some main of consumer goods on its way to the Trade Center had burst and disgorged its flood upon the sidewalks. The surrounding buildings, smashed but still standing, looked down eyelessly on their pulverized brethren. The pieces of the facade of the towers that are often shown in photographs—gigantic forks, or bent spatulas—loomed surprisingly high over the scene with dread majesty. Entry into the ruins by the rescue workers was being accomplished by a cage, or gondola, suspended by a crane, as if in some infernal ski resort. When I arrived at the southern rim, the rescuers were all standing silent watching one of these cages being lifted out of the ruins. Shortly, a small pile of something not shaped like a human being but covered by an American flag was brought out in an open buggy. It was the remains, a solemn nurse told me, of one of the firemen who had given his life for the people in the building. And then the slow work began again. Although the site was more terrible even than I had imagined, seeing it was somehow reassuring. Unvisited, the site, so near my home, had preyed on my imagination.
Excerpted from A JUST RESPONSE by Katrina vanden Heuvel. Copyright © 2002 by Avalon Publishing Group Incorporated. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.