Meditations from the Critically Excluded Middle

IGNORE THE WAR: A Personal Declaration of Deep Neutrality by R. U. Sirius
A PURE, HIGH NOTE OF ANGUISH by Barbara Kingsolver

by Arundhati Roy
The Guardian, UK
September 29, 2001

As the US prepares to wage a new kind of war,
Arundhati Roy challenges the instinct for vengeance

In the aftermath of the unconscionable September 11 suicide attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre, an American newscaster said: "Good and evil rarely manifest themselves as clearly as they did last Tuesday. People who we don't know massacred people who we do. And they did so with contemptuous glee." Then he broke down and wept.

Here's the rub: America is at war against people it doesn't know, because they don't appear much on TV. Before it has properly identified or even begun to comprehend the nature of its enemy, the US government has, in a rush of publicity and embarrassing rhetoric, cobbled together an "international coalition against terror", mobilised its army, its air force, its navy and its media, and committed them to battle.

The trouble is that once America goes off to war, it can't very well return without having fought one. If it doesn't find its enemy, for the sake of the enraged folks back home, it will have to manufacture one. Once war begins, it will develop a momentum, a logic and a justification of its own, and we'll lose sight of why it's being fought in the first place.

What we're witnessing here is the spectacle of the world's most powerful country reaching reflexively, angrily, for an old instinct to fight a new kind of war. Suddenly, when it comes to defending itself, America's streamlined warships, cruise missiles and F-16 jets look like obsolete, lumbering things. As deterrence, its arsenal of nuclear bombs is no longer worth its weight in scrap. Box-cutters, penknives, and cold anger are the weapons with which the wars of the new century will be waged. Anger is the lock pick. It slips through customs unnoticed. Doesn't show up in baggage checks.

Who is America fighting? On September 20, the FBI said that it had doubts about the identities of some of the hijackers. On the same day President George Bush said, "We know exactly who these people are and which governments are supporting them." It sounds as though the president knows something that the FBI and the American public don't.

In his September 20 address to the US Congress, President Bush called the enemies of America "enemies of freedom". "Americans are asking, 'Why do they hate us?' " he said. "They hate our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other." People are being asked to make two leaps of faith here. First, to assume that The Enemy is who the US government says it is, even though it has no substantial evidence to support that claim. And second, to assume that The Enemy's motives are what the US government says they are, and there's nothing to support that either.

For strategic, military and economic reasons, it is vital for the US government to persuade its public that their commitment to freedom and democracy and the American Way of Life is under attack. In the current atmosphere of grief, outrage and anger, it's an easy notion to peddle. However, if that were true, it's reasonable to wonder why the symbols of America's economic and military dominance - the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon - were chosen as the targets of the attacks. Why not the Statue of Liberty? Could it be that the stygian anger that led to the attacks has its taproot not in American freedom and democracy, but in the US government's record of commitment and support to exactly the opposite things - to military and economic terrorism, insurgency, military dictatorship, religious bigotry and unimaginable genocide (outside America)? It must be hard for ordinary Americans, so recently bereaved, to look up at the world with their eyes full of tears and encounter what might appear to them to be indifference. It isn't indifference. It's just augury. An absence of surprise. The tired wisdom of knowing that what goes around eventually comes around. American people ought to know that it is not them but their government's policies that are so hated. They can't possibly doubt that they themselves, their extraordinary musicians, their writers, their actors, their spectacular sportsmen and their cinema, are universally welcomed. All of us have been moved by the courage and grace shown by firefighters, rescue workers and ordinary office staff in the days since the attacks.

America's grief at what happened has been immense and immensely public. It would be grotesque to expect it to calibrate or modulate its anguish. However, it will be a pity if, instead of using this as an opportunity to try to understand why September 11 happened, Americans use it as an opportunity to usurp the whole world's sorrow to mourn and avenge only their own. Because then it falls to the rest of us to ask the hard questions and say the harsh things. And for our pains, for our bad timing, we will be disliked, ignored and perhaps eventually silenced.

The world will probably never know what motivated those particular hijackers who flew planes into those particular American buildings. They were not glory boys. They left no suicide notes, no political messages; no organisation has claimed credit for the attacks. All we know is that their belief in what they were doing outstripped the natural human instinct for survival, or any desire to be remembered. It's almost as though they could not scale down the enormity of their rage to anything smaller than their deeds. And what they did has blown a hole in the world as we knew it. In the absence of information, politicians, political commentators and writers (like myself) will invest the act with their own politics, with their own interpretations. This speculation, this analysis of the political climate in which the attacks took place, can only be a good thing.

But war is looming large. Whatever remains to be said must be said quickly. Before America places itself at the helm of the "international coalition against terror", before it invites (and coerces) countries to actively participate in its almost godlike mission - called Operation Infinite Justice until it was pointed out that this could be seen as an insult to Muslims, who believe that only Allah can mete out infinite justice, and was renamed Operation Enduring Freedom - it would help if some small clarifications are made. For example, Infinite Justice/Enduring Freedom for whom? Is this America's war against terror in America or against terror in general? What exactly is being avenged here? Is it the tragic loss of almost 7,000 lives, the gutting of five million square feet of office space in Manhattan, the destruction of a section of the Pentagon, the loss of several hundreds of thousands of jobs, the bankruptcy of some airline companies and the dip in the New York Stock Exchange? Or is it more than that? In 1996, Madeleine Albright, then the US secretary of state, was asked on national television what she felt about the fact that 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of US economic sanctions. She replied that it was "a very hard choice", but that, all things considered, "we think the price is worth it". Albright never lost her job for saying this. She continued to travel the world representing the views and aspirations of the US government. More pertinently, the sanctions against Iraq remain in place. Children continue to die.

So here we have it. The equivocating distinction between civilisation and savagery, between the "massacre of innocent people" or, if you like, "a clash of civilisations" and "collateral damage". The sophistry and fastidious algebra of infinite justice. How many dead Iraqis will it take to make the world a better place? How many dead Afghans for every dead American? How many dead women and children for every dead man? How many dead mojahedin for each dead investment banker? As we watch mesmerised, Operation Enduring Freedom unfolds on TV monitors across the world. A coalition of the world's superpowers is closing in on Afghanistan, one of the poorest, most ravaged, war-torn countries in the world, whose ruling Taliban government is sheltering Osama bin Laden, the man being held responsible for the September 11 attacks.

The only thing in Afghanistan that could possibly count as collateral value is its citizenry. (Among them, half a million maimed orphans.There are accounts of hobbling stampedes that occur when artificial limbs are airdropped into remote, inaccessible villages.) Afghanistan's economy is in a shambles. In fact, the problem for an invading army is that Afghanistan has no conventional coordinates or signposts to plot on a military map - no big cities, no highways, no industrial complexes, no water treatment plants. Farms have been turned into mass graves. The countryside is littered with land mines - 10 million is the most recent estimate. The American army would first have to clear the mines and build roads in order to take its soldiers in.

Fearing an attack from America, one million citizens have fled from their homes and arrived at the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The UN estimates that there are eight million Afghan citizens who need emergency aid. As supplies run out - food and aid agencies have been asked to leave - the BBC reports that one of the worst humanitarian disasters of recent times has begun to unfold. Witness the infinite justice of the new century. Civilians starving to death while they're waiting to be killed.

In America there has been rough talk of "bombing Afghanistan back to the stone age". Someone please break the news that Afghanistan is already there. And if it's any consolation, America played no small part in helping it on its way. The American people may be a little fuzzy about where exactly Afghanistan is (we hear reports that there's a run on maps of the country), but the US government and Afghanistan are old friends. In 1979, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA and Pakistan's ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) launched the largest covert operation in the history of the CIA. Their purpose was to harness the energy of Afghan resistance to the Soviets and expand it into a holy war, an Islamic jihad, which would turn Muslim countries within the Soviet Union against the communist regime and eventually destabilise it. When it began, it was meant to be the Soviet Union's Vietnam. It turned out to be much more than that. Over the years, through the ISI, the CIA funded and recruited almost 100,000 radical mojahedin from 40 Islamic countries as soldiers for America's proxy war. The rank and file of the mojahedin were unaware that their jihad was actually being fought on behalf of Uncle Sam. (The irony is that America was equally unaware that it was financing a future war against itself.)

In 1989, after being bloodied by 10 years of relentless conflict, the Russians withdrew, leaving behind a civilisation reduced to rubble.

Civil war in Afghanistan raged on. The jihad spread to Chechnya, Kosovo and eventually to Kashmir. The CIA continued to pour in money and military equipment, but the overheads had become immense, and more money was needed. The mojahedin ordered farmers to plant opium as a "revolutionary tax". The ISI set up hundreds of heroin laboratories across Afghanistan. Within two years of the CIA's arrival, the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderland had become the biggest producer of heroin in the world, and the single biggest source of the heroin on American streets. The annual profits, said to be between $100bn and $200bn, were ploughed back into training and arming militants.

In 1995, the Taliban - then a marginal sect of dangerous, hardline fundamentalists - fought its way to power in Afghanistan. It was funded by the ISI, that old cohort of the CIA, and supported by many political parties in Pakistan. The Taliban unleashed a regime of terror. Its first victims were its own people, particularly women. It closed down girls' schools, dismissed women from government jobs, and enforced sharia laws under which women deemed to be "immoral" are stoned to death, and widows guilty of being adulterous are buried alive. Given the Taliban government's human rights track record, it seems unlikely that it will in any way be intimidated or swerved from its purpose by the prospect of war, or the threat to the lives of its civilians.

After all that has happened, can there be anything more ironic than Russia and America joining hands to re-destroy Afghanistan? The question is, can you destroy destruction? Dropping more bombs on Afghanistan will only shuffle the rubble, scramble some old graves and disturb the dead.

The desolate landscape of Afghanistan was the burial ground of Soviet communism and the springboard of a unipolar world dominated by America. It made the space for neocapitalism and corporate globalisation, again dominated by America. And now Afghanistan is poised to become the graveyard for the unlikely soldiers who fought and won this war for America.

And what of America's trusted ally? Pakistan too has suffered enormously. The US government has not been shy of supporting military dictators who have blocked the idea of democracy from taking root in the country. Before the CIA arrived, there was a small rural market for opium in Pakistan. Between 1979 and 1985, the number of heroin addicts grew from zero to one-and-a-half million. Even before September 11, there were three million Afghan refugees living in tented camps along the border. Pakistan's economy is crumbling. Sectarian violence, globalisation's structural adjustment programmes and drug lords are tearing the country to pieces. Set up to fight the Soviets, the terrorist training centres and madrasahs, sown like dragon's teeth across the country, produced fundamentalists with tremendous popular appeal within Pakistan itself. The Taliban, which the Pakistan government has supported, funded and propped up for years, has material and strategic alliances with Pakistan's own political parties.

Now the US government is asking (asking?) Pakistan to garotte the pet it has hand-reared in its backyard for so many years. President Musharraf, having pledged his support to the US, could well find he has something resembling civil war on his hands.

India, thanks in part to its geography, and in part to the vision of its former leaders, has so far been fortunate enough to be left out of this Great Game. Had it been drawn in, it's more than likely that our democracy, such as it is, would not have survived. Today, as some of us watch in horror, the Indian government is furiously gyrating its hips, begging the US to set up its base in India rather than Pakistan. Having had this ringside view of Pakistan's sordid fate, it isn't just odd, it's unthinkable, that India should want to do this. Any third world country with a fragile economy and a complex social base should know by now that to invite a superpower such as America in (whether it says it's staying or just passing through) would be like inviting a brick to drop through your windscreen.

Operation Enduring Freedom is ostensibly being fought to uphold the American Way of Life. It'll probably end up undermining it completely. It will spawn more anger and more terror across the world. For ordinary people in America, it will mean lives lived in a climate of sickening uncertainty: will my child be safe in school? Will there be nerve gas in the subway? A bomb in the cinema hall? Will my love come home tonight? There have been warnings about the possibility of biological warfare - smallpox, bubonic plague, anthrax - the deadly payload of innocuous crop-duster aircraft. Being picked off a few at a time may end up being worse than being annihilated all at once by a nuclear bomb.

The US government, and no doubt governments all over the world, will use the climate of war as an excuse to curtail civil liberties, deny free speech, lay off workers, harass ethnic and religious minorities, cut back on public spending and divert huge amounts of money to the defence industry. To what purpose? President Bush can no more "rid the world of evil-doers" than he can stock it with saints. It's absurd for the US government to even toy with the notion that it can stamp out terrorism with more violence and oppression. Terrorism is the symptom, not the disease. Terrorism has no country. It's transnational, as global an enterprise as Coke or Pepsi or Nike. At the first sign of trouble, terrorists can pull up stakes and move their "factories" from country to country in search of a better deal. Just like the multi-nationals.

Terrorism as a phenomenon may never go away. But if it is to be contained, the first step is for America to at least acknowledge that it shares the planet with other nations, with other human beings who, even if they are not on TV, have loves and griefs and stories and songs and sorrows and, for heaven's sake, rights. Instead, when Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, was asked what he would call a victory in America's new war, he said that if he could convince the world that Americans must be allowed to continue with their way of life, he would consider it a victory.

The September 11 attacks were a monstrous calling card from a world gone horribly wrong. The message may have been written by Bin Laden (who knows?) and delivered by his couriers, but it could well have been signed by the ghosts of the victims of America's old wars. The millions killed in Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia, the 17,500 killed when Israel - backed by the US - invaded Lebanon in 1982, the 200,000 Iraqis killed in Operation Desert Storm, the thousands of Palestinians who have died fighting Israel's occupation of the West Bank. And the millions who died, in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Haiti, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Panama, at the hands of all the terrorists, dictators and genocidists whom the American government supported, trained, bankrolled and supplied with arms. And this is far from being a comprehensive list.

For a country involved in so much warfare and conflict, the American people have been extremely fortunate. The strikes on September 11 were only the second on American soil in over a century. The first was Pearl Harbour. The reprisal for this took a long route, but ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This time the world waits with bated breath for the horrors to come.

Someone recently said that if Osama bin Laden didn't exist, America would have had to invent him. But, in a way, America did invent him. He was among the jihadis who moved to Afghanistan in 1979 when the CIA commenced its operations there. Bin Laden has the distinction of being created by the CIA and wanted by the FBI. In the course of a fortnight he has been promoted from suspect to prime suspect and then, despite the lack of any real evidence, straight up the charts to being "wanted dead or alive".

From all accounts, it will be impossible to produce evidence (of the sort >that would stand scrutiny in a court of law) to link Bin Laden to the >September 11 attacks. So far, it appears that the most incriminating piece >of evidence against him is the fact that he has not condemned them.

From what is known about the location of Bin Laden and the living >conditions in which he operates, it's entirely possible that he did not >personally plan and carry out the attacks - that he is the inspirational >figure, "the CEO of the holding company". The Taliban's response to US >demands for the extradition of Bin Laden has been uncharacteristically >reasonable: produce the evidence, then we'll hand him over. President >Bush's response is that the demand is "non-negotiable".

(While talks are on for the extradition of CEOs - can India put in a side request for the extradition of Warren Anderson of the US? He was the chairman of Union Carbide, responsible for the Bhopal gas leak that killed 16,000 people in 1984. We have collated the necessary evidence. It's all in the files. Could we have him, please?)

But who is Osama bin Laden really? Let me rephrase that. What is Osama bin Laden? He's America's family secret. He is the American president's dark doppelganger. The savage twin of all that purports to be beautiful and civilised. He has been sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by America's foreign policy: its gunboat diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal, its vulgarly stated policy of "full-spectrum dominance", its chilling disregard for non-American lives, its barbarous military interventions, its support for despotic and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda that has munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of locusts. Its marauding multinationals who are taking over the air we breathe, the ground we stand on, the water we drink, the thoughts we think. Now that the family secret has been spilled, the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable. Their guns, bombs, money and drugs have been going around in the loop for a while. (The Stinger missiles that will greet US helicopters were supplied by the CIA. The heroin used by America's drug addicts comes from Afghanistan. The Bush administration recently gave Afghanistan a $43m subsidy for a "war on drugs"....)

Now Bush and Bin Laden have even begun to borrow each other's rhetoric. Each refers to the other as "the head of the snake". Both invoke God and use the loose millenarian currency of good and evil as their terms of reference. Both are engaged in unequivocal political crimes. Both are dangerously armed - one with the nuclear arsenal of the obscenely powerful, the other with the incandescent, destructive power of the utterly hopeless. The fireball and the ice pick. The bludgeon and the axe. The important thing to keep in mind is that neither is an acceptable alternative to the other.

President Bush's ultimatum to the people of the world - "If you're not with us, you're against us" - is a piece of presumptuous arrogance. It's not a choice that people want to, need to, or should have to make.

© Arundhati Roy 2001

By Eqbal Ahmad
(A Presentation at the University of Colorado,
Boulder, October 12, 1998)

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Jewish underground in Palestine was described as "TERRORIST." Then new things happened.

By 1942, the Holocaust was occurring, and a certain liberal sympathy with the Jewish people had built up in the Western world. At that point, the terrorists of Palestine, who were Zionists, suddenly started to be described, by 1944-45, as "freedom fighters." At least two Israeli Prime Ministers, including Menachem Begin, have actually, you can find in the books and posters with their pictures, saying "Terrorists, Reward This Much." The highest reward I have noted so far was 100,000 British pounds on the head of Menachem Begin, the terrorist.

Then from 1969 to 1990 the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, occupied the center stage as the terrorist organization. Yasir Arafat has been described repeatedly by the great sage of American journalism, William Safire of the New York Times, as the "Chief of Terrorism." That's Yasir Arafat.

Now, on September 29, 1998, I was rather amused to notice a picture of Yasir Arafat to the right of President Bill Clinton. To his left is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Clinton is looking towards Arafat and Arafat is looking literally like a meek mouse. Just a few years earlier he used to appear with this very menacing look around him, with a gun appearing menacing from his belt. You remember those pictures, and you remember the next one.

In 1985, President Ronald Reagan received a group of bearded men. These bearded men I was writing about in those days in The New Yorker, actually did. They were very ferocious-looking bearded men with turbans looking like they came from another century. President Reagan received them in the White House. After receiving them he spoke to the press. He pointed towards them, I'm sure some of you will recall that moment, and said, "These are the moral equivalent of America's founding fathers". These were the Afghan Mujahiddin. They were at the time, guns in hand, battling the Evil Empire. They were the moral equivalent of our founding fathers!

In August 1998, another American President ordered missile strikes from the American navy based in the Indian Ocean to kill Osama Bin Laden and his men in the camps in Afghanistan. I do not wish to embarrass you with the reminder that Mr. Bin Laden, whom fifteen American missiles were fired to hit in Afghanistan, was only a few years ago the moral equivalent of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson! He got angry over the fact that he has been demoted from "Moral Equivalent' of your "Founding Fathers'. So he is taking out his anger in different ways. I'll come back to that subject more seriously in a moment.

You see, why I have recalled all these stories is to point out to you that the matter of terrorism is rather complicated. Terrorists change. The terrorist of yesterday is the hero of today, and the hero of yesterday becomes the terrorist of today. This is a serious matter of the constantly changing world of images in which we have to keep our heads straight to know what is terrorism and what is not. But more importantly, to know what causes it, and how to stop it.

The next point about our terrorism is that posture of inconsistency necessarily evades definition. If you are not going to be consistent, you're not going to define. I have examined at least twenty official documents on terrorism. Not one defines the word. All of them explain it, express it emotively, polemically, to arouse our emotions rather than exercise our intelligence.

I give you only one example, which is representative. October 25, 1984. George Shultz, then Secretary of State of the U.S., is speaking at the New York Park Avenue Synagogue. It's a long speech on terrorism. In the State Department Bulletin of seven single-spaced pages, there is not a single definition of terrorism. What we get is the following:

Definition number one: "Terrorism is a modern barbarism that we call terrorism."

Definition number two is even more brilliant: "Terrorism is a form of political violence." Aren't you surprised? It is a form of political violence, says George Shultz, Secretary of State of the U.S.

Number three: "Terrorism is a threat to Western civilization."

Number four: "Terrorism is a menace to Western moral values."

Did you notice, does it tell you anything other than arouse your emotions? This is typical. They don't define terrorism because definitions involve a commitment to analysis, comprehension and adherence to some norms of consistency. That's the second characteristic of the official literature on terrorism.

The third characteristic is that the absence of definition does not prevent officials from being globalistic. We may not define terrorism, but it is a menace to the moral values of Western civilization. It is a menace also to mankind. It's a menace to good order. Therefore, you must stamp it out worldwide. Our reach has to be global. You need a global reach to kill it. Anti-terrorist policies therefore have to be global. Same speech of George Shultz: "There is no question about our ability to use force where and when it is needed to counter terrorism." There is no geographical limit. On a single day the missiles hit Afghanistan and Sudan. Those two countries are 2,300 miles apart, and they were hit by missiles belonging to a country roughly 8,000 miles away. Reach is global.

A fourth characteristic: claims of power are not only globalist they are also omniscient. We know where they are; therefore we know where to hit. We have the means to know. We have the instruments of knowledge. We are omniscient. Shultz: "We know the difference between terrorists and freedom fighters, and as we look around, we have no trouble telling one from the other."

Only Osama Bin Laden doesn't know that he was an ally one day and an enemy another. That's very confusing for Osama Bin Laden. I'll come back to his story towards the end. It's a real story.

Five. The official approach eschews causation. You don't look at causes of anybody becoming terrorist. Cause? What cause? They ask us to be looking, to be sympathetic to these people.

Another example. The New York Times, December 18, 1985, reported that the foreign minister of Yugoslavia, you remember the days when there was a Yugoslavia, requested the Secretary of State of the U.S. to consider the causes of Palestinian terrorism. The Secretary of State, George Shultz, and I am quoting from the New York Times, "went a bit red in the face. He pounded the table and told the visiting foreign minister, there is no connection with any cause. Period." Why look for causes?

Number six. The moral revulsion that we must feel against terrorism is selective. We are to feel the terror of those groups, which are officially disapproved. We are to applaud the terror of those groups of whom officials do approve. Hence, President Reagan, "I am a contra." He actually said that. We know the contras of Nicaragua were anything, by any definition, but terrorists. The media, to move away from the officials, heed the dominant view of terrorism.The dominant approach also excludes from consideration, more importantly to me, the terror of friendly governments. To that question I will return because it excused among others the terror of Pinochet (who killed one of my closest friends) and Orlando Letelier; and it excused the terror of Zia ul-Haq, who killed many of my friends in Pakistan. All I want to tell you is that according to my ignorant calculations, the ratio of people killed by the state terror of Zia ul-Haq, Pinochet, Argentinian, Brazilian, Indonesian type, versus the killing of the PLO and other terrorist types is literally, conservatively, one to one hundred thousand. That's the ratio.

History unfortunately recognizes and accords visibility to power and not to weakness. Therefore, visibility has been accorded historically to dominant groups. In our time, the time that began with this day, Columbus Day. The time that begins with Columbus Day is a time of extraordinary unrecorded holocausts. Great civilizations have been wiped out. The Mayas, the Incas, the Aztecs, the American Indians, the Canadian Indians were all wiped out. Their voices have not been heard, even to this day fully. Now they are beginning to be heard, but not fully. They are heard, yes, but only when the dominant power suffers, only when resistance has a semblance of costing, of exacting a price. When a Custer is killed or when a Gordon is besieged. That's when you know that they were Indians fighting, Arabs fighting and dying.

My last point of this section - U.S. policy in the Cold War period has sponsored terrorist regimes one after another. Somoza, Batista, all kinds of tyrants have been America's friends. You know that. There was a reason for that. I or you are not guilty. Nicaragua, contra. Afghanistan, mujahiddin. El Salvador, etc.

Now the second side. You've suffered enough. So suffer more.

There ain't much good on the other side either. You shouldn't imagine that I have come to praise the other side. But keep the balance in mind. Keep the imbalance in mind and first ask ourselves, What is terrorism?

Our first job should be to define the damn thing, name it, give it a description of some kind, other than "moral equivalent of founding fathers" or "a moral outrage to Western civilization". I will stay with you with Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: "Terror is an intense, overpowering fear." He uses terrorizing, terrorism, "the use of terrorizing methods of governing or resisting a government." This simple definition has one great virtue, that of fairness. It's fair. It focuses on the use of coercive violence, violence that is used illegally, extra-constitutionally, to coerce. And this definition is correct because it treats terror for what it is, whether the government or private people commit it.

Have you noticed something? Motivation is left out of it. We're not talking about whether the cause is just or unjust. We're talking about consensus, consent, absence of consent, legality, absence of legality, constitutionality, absence of constitutionality. Why do we keep motives out? Because motives differ. Motives differ and make no difference.

I have identified in my work five types of terrorism. First, state terrorism. Second, religious terrorism; terrorism inspired by religion, Catholics killing Protestants, Sunnis killing Shiites, Shiites killing Sunnis, God, religion, sacred terror, you can call it if you wish. State, church. Crime. Mafia. All kinds of crimes commit terror. There is pathology. You're pathological. You're sick. You want the attention of the whole world. You've got to kill a president. You will. You terrorize. You hold up a bus. Fifth, there is political terror of the private group; be they Indian, Vietnamese, Algerian, Palestinian, Baader-Meinhof, the Red Brigade. Political terror of the private group. Oppositional terror. Keep these five in mind. Keep in mind one more thing. Sometimes these five can converge on each other. You start with protest terror. You go crazy. You become pathological. You continue. They converge.

State terror can take the form of private terror. For example, we're all familiar with the death squads in Latin America or in Pakistan. Government has employed private people to kill its opponents. It's not quite official. It's privatized. Convergence. Or the political terrorist who goes crazy and becomes pathological. Or the criminal who joins politics. In Afghanistan, in Central America, the CIA employed in its covert operations drug pushers. Drugs and guns often go together. Smuggling of all things often go together.

Of the five types of terror, the focus is on only one, the least important in terms of cost to human lives and human property [Political Terror of those who want to be heard]. The highest cost is state terror. The second highest cost is religious terror, although in the twentieth century religious terror has, relatively speaking, declined. If you are looking historically, massive costs. The next highest cost is crime. Next highest, pathology. A Rand Corporation study by Brian Jenkins, for a ten-year period up to 1988, showed 50% of terror was committed without any political cause at all. No politics. Simply crime and pathology.

So the focus is on only one, the political terrorist, the PLO, the Bin Laden, whoever you want to take. Why do they do it? What makes the terrorist tick?

I would like to knock them out quickly to you. First, the need to be heard. Imagine, we are dealing with a minority group, the political, private terrorist. First, the need to be heard. Normally, and there are exceptions, there is an effort to be heard, to get your grievances heard by people. They're not hearing it. A minority acts. The majority applauds.The Palestinians, for example, the superterrorists of our time, were dispossessed in 1948. From 1948 to 1968 they went to every court in the world. They knocked at every door in the world. They were told that they became dispossessed because some radio told them to go away - an Arab radio, which was a lie. Nobody was listening to the truth. Finally, they invented a new form of terror, literally their invention: the airplane hijacking. Between 1968 and 1975 they pulled the world up by its ears. They dragged us out and said, Listen, Listen. We listened. We still haven't done them justice, but at least we all know. Even the Israelis acknowledge. Remember Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, saying in 1970, "There are no Palestinians.' They do not exist. They damn well exist now. We are cheating them at Oslo. At least there are some people to cheat now. We can't just push them out. The need to be heard is essential. One motivation there.

Mix of anger and helplessness produces an urge to strike out. You are angry. You are feeling helpless. You want retribution. You want to wreak retributive justice. The experience of violence by a stronger party has historically turned victims into terrorists. Battered children are known to become abusive parents and violent adults. You know that. That's what happens to peoples and nations. When they are battered, they hit back. State terror very often breeds collective terror. Do you recall the fact that the Jews were never terrorists? By and large Jews were not known to commit terror except during and after the Holocaust. Most studies show that the majority of members of the worst terrorist groups in Israel or in Palestine, the Stern and the Irgun gangs, were people who were immigrants from the most anti-Semitic countries of Eastern Europe and Germany. Similarly, the young Shiites of Lebanon or the Palestinians from the refugee camps are battered people. They become very violent. The ghettos are violent internally. They become violent externally when there is a clear, identifiable external target, an enemy where you can say, "Yes, this one did it to me'. Then they can strike back.

Example is a bad thing. Example spreads. There was a highly publicized Beirut hijacking of the TWA plane. After that hijacking, there were hijacking attempts at nine different American airports. Pathological groups or individuals modeling on the others. Even more serious are examples set by governments. When governments engage in terror, they set very large examples. When they engage in supporting terror, they engage in other sets of examples.

Absence of revolutionary ideology is central to victim terrorism. Revolutionaries do not commit unthinking terror. Those of you who are familiar with revolutionary theory know the debates, the disputes, the quarrels, the fights within revolutionary groups of Europe, the fight between anarchists and Marxists, for example. But the Marxists have always argued that revolutionary terror, if ever engaged in, must be sociologically and psychologically selective. Don't hijack a plane. Don't hold hostages. Don't kill children, for God's sake. Have you recalled also that the great revolutions, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Algerian, the Cuban, never engaged in hijacking type of terrorism? They did engage in terrorism, but it was highly selective, highly sociological, still deplorable, but there was an organized, highly limited, selective character to it. So absence of revolutionary ideology that begins more or less in the post-World War II period has been central to this phenomenon.

My final question is - These conditions have existed for a long time. But why then this flurry of private political terrorism? Why now so much of it and so visible? The answer is modern technology. You have a cause. You can communicate it through radio and television. They will all come swarming if you have taken an aircraft and are holding 150 Americans hostage. They will all hear your cause. You have a modern weapon through which you can shoot a mile away. They can't reach you. And you have the modern means of communicating. When you put together the cause, the instrument of coercion and the instrument of communication, politics is made. A new kind of politics becomes possible.

To this challenge rulers from one country after another have been responding with traditional methods. The traditional method of shooting it out, whether it's missiles or some other means. The Israelis are very proud of it. The Americans are very proud of it. The French became very proud of it. Now the Pakistanis are very proud of it. The Pakistanis say, "Our commandos are the best.'

Frankly, it won't work. A central problem of our time, political minds, rooted in the past, and modern times, producing new realities. Therefore in conclusion, what is my recommendation to America?

Quickly. First, avoid extremes of double standards. If you're going to practice double standards, you will be paid with double standards. Don't use it. Don't condone Israeli terror, Pakistani terror, Nicaraguan terror, El Salvadoran terror, on the one hand, and then complain about Afghan terror or Palestinian terror. It doesn't work. Try to be even-handed. A superpower cannot promote terror in one place and reasonably expect to discourage terrorism in another place. It won't work in this shrunken world.

Do not condone the terror of your allies. Condemn them. Fight them. Punish them. Please eschew and avoid covert operations and low- intensity warfare. These are breeding grounds of terror and drugs. Violence and drugs are bred there. The structure of covert operations, I've made a film about it, which has been very popular in Europe, called Dealing with the Demon. I have shown that wherever covert operations have been, there has been the central drug problem. That has been also the center of the drug trade. Because the structure of covert operations, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Central America, is very hospitable to drug trade. Avoid it. Give it up. It doesn't help.

Please focus on causes and help ameliorate causes. Try to look at causes and solve problems. Do not concentrate on military solutions. Do not seek military solutions. Terrorism is a political problem. Seek political solutions. Diplomacy works.

Take the example of the last attack on Bin Laden. You don't know what you're attacking. They say they know, but they don't know. They were trying to kill Qadaffi. They killed his four-year-old daughter. The poor baby hadn't done anything. Qadaffi is still alive. They tried to kill Saddam Hussein. They killed Laila Bin Attar, a prominent artist, an innocent woman. They tried to kill Bin Laden and his men. Not one but twenty-five other people died. They tried to destroy a chemical factory in Sudan. Now they are admitting that they destroyed an innocent factory, one-half of the production of medicine in Sudan has been destroyed, not a chemical factory. You don't know. You think you know.

Four of your missiles fell in Pakistan. One was slightly damaged. Two were totally damaged. One was totally intact. For ten years the American government has kept an embargo on Pakistan because Pakistan is trying, stupidly, to build nuclear weapons and missiles. So we have a technology embargo on my country. One of the missiles was intact. What do you think a Pakistani official told the Washington Post? He said it was a gift from Allah. We wanted U.S. technology. Now we have got the technology, and our scientists are examining this missile very carefully. It fell into the wrong hands. So don't do that. Look for political solutions. Do not look for military solutions. They cause more problems than they solve.

Please help reinforce, strengthen the framework of international law. There was a criminal court in Rome. Why didn't they go to it first to get their warrant against Bin Laden, if they have some evidence? Get a warrant, then go after him. Internationally. Enforce the U.N. Enforce the International Court of Justice, this unilateralism makes us look very stupid and them relatively smaller.


The question here is that I mentioned that I would go somewhat into the story of Bin Laden, the Saudi in Afghanistan and didn't do so, could I go into some detail? The point about Bin Laden would be roughly the same as the point between Sheikh Abdul Rahman, who was accused and convicted of encouraging the blowing up of the World Trade Center in New York City. The New Yorker did a long story on him. It's the same as that of Aimal Kansi, the Pakistani Baluch who was also convicted of the murder of two CIA agents. Let me see if I can be very short on this.

Jihad, which has been translated a thousand times as "holy war," is not quite just that. Jihad is an Arabic word that means, "to struggle." It could be struggle by violence or struggle by non-violent means. There are two forms, the small jihad and the big jihad. The small jihad involves violence. The big jihad involves the struggles with self. Those are the concepts. The reason I mention it is that in Islamic history, jihad as an international violent phenomenon had disappeared in the last four hundred years, for all practical purposes. It was revived suddenly with American help in the 1980s. When the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan, Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator of Pakistan, which borders on Afghanistan, saw an opportunity and launched a jihad there against godless communism. The U.S. saw a God-sent opportunity to mobilize one billion Muslims against what Reagan called the Evil Empire. Money started pouring in. CIA agents starting going all over the Muslim world recruiting people to fight in the great jihad. Bin Laden was one of the early prize recruits. He was not only an Arab. He was also a Saudi. He was not only a Saudi. He was also a multimillionaire, willing to put his own money into the matter. Bin Laden went around recruiting people for the jihad against communism.

I first met him in 1986. He was recommended to me by an American official of whom I do not know whether he was or was not an agent. I was talking to him and said, "Who are the Arabs here who would be very interesting?' By here I meant in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said, "You must meet Osama.' I went to see Osama. There he was, rich, bringing in recruits from Algeria, from Sudan, from Egypt, just like Sheikh Abdul Rahman. This fellow was an ally. He remained an ally. He turns at a particular moment. In 1990 the U.S. goes into Saudi Arabia with forces. Saudi Arabia is the holy place of Muslims, Mecca and Medina. There had never been foreign troops there. In 1990, during the Gulf War, they went in, in the name of helping Saudi Arabia defeat Saddam Hussein. Osama Bin Laden remained quiet. Saddam was defeated, but the American troops stayed on in the land of the kaba (the sacred site of Islam in Mecca), foreign troops. He wrote letter after letter saying, Why are you here? Get out! You came to help but you have stayed on. Finally he started a jihad against the other occupiers. His mission is to get American troops out of Saudi Arabia. His earlier mission was to get Russian troops out of Afghanistan. See what I was saying earlier about covert operations?

A second point to be made about him is these are tribal people, people who are really tribal. Being a millionaire doesn't matter. Their code of ethics is tribal. The tribal code of ethics consists of two words: loyalty and revenge. You are my friend. You keep your word. I am loyal to you. You break your word, I go on my path of revenge. For him, America has broken its word. The loyal friend has betrayed. The one to whom you swore blood loyalty has betrayed you. They're going to go for you. They're going to do a lot more.

These are the chickens of the Afghanistan war coming home to roost. This is why I said to stop covert operations. There is a price attached to those that the American people cannot calculate and Kissinger type of people do not know, don't have the history to know.

(Eqbal Ahmad, Professor Emeritus of International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, also served as a managing editor of the quarterly Race and Class. A prolific writer, his articles and essays have been published in The Nation, Dawn (Pakistan), among several other journals throughout the world. He died in 1999.)

A Personal Declaration of Deep Neutrality

by R. U. Sirius

"Dear god, if there is a god, please help me, if you can help me." Ganesh Baba

"An 85 year-old Buddhist monk… had been living in a cave since 1939, after spirits of the mountain appeared to him in a dream and asked him to become the mountain's protector. In the course of our conversation, the monk asked me, 'Who is this Chairman Mao you keep mentioning?" Bill Porter, from Road To Heaven, Encounters with Chinese Hermits

I feel sort-of fortunate that I happen to be studying Taoist texts this fall, for a book I'm writing. When human political affairs become so complex and ugly that an honest, thinking, feeling person might not easily find her way to a solid ethical stance, or might not wish to choose sides, even when his tribe's native land is under attack and/or attacking, one could do worse than seek a still place within from which to contemplate the eternal and ever-chaotic flow.

And so, perhaps unduly influenced by ancient Chinese hermits, I declare myself neutral, stuck-in-neutral, neutered even. Hey, this is no time to front – call it what you will.

Don't get me wrong. I prefer our 21st Century global capitalism that at least maintains some allegiance to those grand enlightenment themes like choice, democracy, pluralism, separation of church and state, the right to be irreverent or ironic, and the rights of women to sing, speak, laugh, look outside, and wear skimpy clothes, it's all preferable to an ancient philosophy that seeks to dictate absolute conformity to a particular interpretation of a singular religion. I made that choice clear years ago by living in Northern California instead of the Bible Belt.

And we can argue about the causes of this conflict until we're red, white and blue in the face. Some say it's blowback for US militarism and imperial arrogance. Some say Bin Laden and his ilk are fundamentalist headcases bent on killing all infidels, and that's a mighty big chunk of humanity. But as the Peppermint Twins wisely advised, "Stop! You're both right! I subscribe to the critique of US militarism and imperial arrogance, and to the fear of fundamentalists bent on killing all infidels, particularly one's who also happen to believe they go to a real sexy heaven (sexiness on earth being virtually verboten) when they die a martyr. I also subscribe to the claim made by some liberal war supporters that the critique of US arrogance has little immediate relevance to the question of how to contend with the situation at hand. In fact, I have enough "on the one hand" but "on the other hand" thoughts rattling around my brain to make my head spin like Linda Blair in the Exorcist. Talking about my deep confusion may be self-indulgent, but I suspect that there are many like me; not ready to hail the war, and not ready to march in protest either.

Yes, I know, in my lifetime (born 1952) the United States of America has committed acts of war – involving either launching an invasion, sending in shooting troops, dropping or planting bombs, or assassinating national leaders – in nineteen nations, and has committed violence by proxy in many more. I know that we are the only nation on earth with military bases all over the globe. I know that our military spends more money than the rest of the G7 countries combined and twenty times as much as the eight countries we call "rogue states." And I know that we sell most of the armaments used by most of the conflicting parties engaging in various slaughters the world over. Even if mainstream political analysts can justify most of these actions, one at a time, when this information is taken in as a whole, they ought to at least admit that we sure stand out among the nations of the world. Surely this "burden of empire" schtick is a bit much!

In the past, I've railed against the smugness of ordinary Americans who – with minimal attention – stood in quiet support as our government lobbed the odd occasional bomb into foreign lands with all the casualness of Jenna Jameson giving blow jobs. I warned that smug Americans might some day get their comeuppance.

But I wasn't expecting a sort of Spanish Inquisition!

Indeed, like many dissident Americans who believe(d) that the biggest current political problems were global warming, excess global corporate power, and the police stateist machinations of the war on drugs, I'm dealing with total paradigm shock. These issues continue to be important, and the US Government is not my friend in their regard. But there's no getting around it. The forces that are almost certainly behind the 9/11 brutality have expressed some serious interest in spreading a demented fascist fundamentalist rule as far and wide as possible, by any means necessary. Many among us have mocked those who've perceived this sort of threat in the past as victims of an unseemly paranoia that attacks only unenlightened control freaks. But those Bin Laden speeches and interview and TV broadcasts are real. You didn't hallucinate this one, acid boy. This guy has declared war on every American, Jew, Pagan… and every infidel! That's everybody who doesn't agree with him – as big a portion of the human population as the non-Aryans our German buddies wanted to off or enslave back in the day. Of course, when I heard this quote from Mr. Laden a few years ago, it seemed abstract. Now there's a fucking hole in the middle of New York City. This ain't just some Jasper coming down off a three day speed binge, deciding he should rule the world, and then taking his frustrations with his powerlessness out on his wife and kids. These guys are serious, tactically adept, and reasonably well-equipped. They are clearly equally happy to kill pacifists, corporate executives, soccer moms, goths, anti-globalization activists, skinheads, Sally Fields, dogs, cats, Arab Americans, and firemen.

There are those who will still insist that the main motivation of these terrorist fighters is their frustration with US Military presence and aggressiveness in the Islamic region, compounded by US financial and political support for Israel, and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. According to this view, if we bring our imperial troops and dollars back home, they'll leave us alone. Maybe. Wanna bet? Consider the terms of the wager.

Consider this: Hitler's Nazis were at least partly the product of the cruel treatment imposed on Germany by the imperial, arrogant powers that defeated them in World War I. He had some legitimate gripes. Also, as with Bin Laden and his ilk now, many wise Western thinkers understood how our business-as-usual created and supported Hitler. We had some major responsibility there. But when push came to shove, Hitler still had to be stopped.

Now, consider the rule of the Taliban. Homosexuality is a capital offense. Television and video technologies are confiscated and burned. (Eat your heart out, Jerry Mander!) Women are punished for showing any skin, even by accident. Photographs and drawings of people or animals are banned. Clapping is forbidden. Non-religious music is illegal. Unwed couples who have sex are whipped (Of course, this also happens frequently in San Francisco, but that's consensual.) No doubt, US allies Saudi Arabia impose similarly weird restraints based on the same interpretation of Islamic law. Indeed, we can find enough contradictions, counter-examples, and Byzantine Western double-dealings in this situation to make our heads spin like Linda Blair again and maybe even puke green.

Still, the bottom line is that the terrorist cells being clumsily pursued by American and British bombs and troops hate US Imperialism and they hate fun. I'd throw over the imperialism but I'll insist on keeping whatever fun we can still manage to afford. We've arrived at a peculiar point in history where we might be seeing a war between the haves and the have-nots, in which the haves more or less believe in humanist values (massive contradictions, hypocrisies, and colonial advantages duly noted) and the have-nots don't. Stalinism and Maoism prefigured all this, but it emerges into a horrible clarity with the rise of religious fundamentalisms among the have-nots. It' s a great time to be neutral!

I used to subscribe to the materialist interpretation of human conflict — that beneath the ideologies, you find competition for resources and territory. I was a jerk. When people are fanatical about their belief in a religion or ideology, they'll even act against their own material interests. This is "idealism," in point of fact, standing in contrast to greedy self-interest. (Hold the phone, Ayn Rand. I'm not joining your rallies either, and I don't feel like unpacking this one right now.) This is why idealism can be so much more dangerous than corrupt power seeking. Idealism can't be paid off. And when an idealism wants to force everybody to share its ideal, it can be implacable.

You may well ask, since I believe the Islamic warrior cells are probably the biggest threat to life and liberty since the German Nazis, why am I neutral? Why don't I support the war?

Well, because I don't trust the Bush Administration to do this in the most humane way possible, and because it might be a really stupid move. I don't trust the Bushies to make the right tactical decisions. In World War II, the allies visited terror on the civilian populations of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Whether these horrific actions were necessary to bring the war to an end is still debated today, but at least the war did come to an end. There was a nation state on the receiving end that could be brought to surrender. This is different. It isn't really a war. It's a situation. And it's a situation where the wrong tactics would be a disaster, both ethically and in terms of our security. Bombs always seemed to me a blunt instrument for military actions that pretend to "surgical precision." So I assert my democratic right to question the tactics of the Commander-in-chief, and I assert my existential right to declare my total uncertainty about what the right tactics are at this moment. If I were President I wouldn't have that luxury, but I'm not, so I do. You too.

Beyond these tactical considerations, I don't trust the Bushies' motivations. I don't trust them to act in the best interests of humanity and America… never mind a dissident weirdo like me. Already, the attack on what's left of our civil liberties (http://www.aclu.org/action/usa107.html) is under way. And the Pentagon is ripping us off for more money…

(Parenthetical rant… Do you mean to tell me that $300 Billion or so a year in military expenditures is not enough money to go after an enemy consisting of a few tens of thousands of stateless desert dwellers supported by one guy worth less than Bill Gates dream home, plus whatever riches come from being on the shit end (poppy growing) of the heroin trade? We spend more on defense than the next five nations combined, but we can't use what we already have to go after an enemy the relative size of a mosquito? Does any thinking person, for one second, believe that our technology-heavy military is going to effectively eliminate a sneaky desert mosquito if it just has 40, or 80 or $100 billion. After telling us for twenty years that common folks can't "throw money" at problems, like not being able to pay rent or Doctor's bills, we're suddenly going to be made safe by giving the Pentagon and our failing intelligence agencies more money?)

If history is any indicator, surely some time in the future, if we're lucky enough to get there, we will confront evidence of Bushie neglect for our safety and freedom in this "war." Just like the victims of Gulf War Syndrome or the people in the Washington Subway system who were the unwitting tests of an early bio-war experiment (http://csf.colorado.edu/mail/psn/jan98/0027.html) by our own military, we will get yet another opportunity to understand that whatever actions our government might take, it's never about protecting us.

Much Ok. So since I'm saying, "bombs are a blunt instrument," why not join the anti-war protests. Well, at the risk of being obvious, somebody did just blow a fucking hole in New York City, and it is apparently the same bunch that had declared war on us. This is some serious shit. This one is different, and it behooves dissidents not to be predictable and reactive. Also, I have to admit the possibility that the Bushies might be choosing the best alternative in a Hobson's choice. I have to consider that nothing short of shutting down the Taliban regime in Afghanistan can begin to root out a genuine threat, and that nothing short of bombs can defeat the Taliban. Additionally, I have to admit that there's a pretty good chance that the Afghan people – particularly the women – will be better off if we defeat the Taliban with few civilian casualties. It would be difficult for the Afghanis to do much worse than the extended rule of the Taliban. Ironically, the role model here might be our old enemies, the Vietnamese, who finally invaded Cambodia to get rid of Pol Pot, whose horror show was spilling over into neighboring countries.

So here am I; neutral, stuck-in-neutral, neutered… not even stuck in the middle with Bill and Al, but trapped in right field with Dubya and Herr Ashcroft busy making plans for his own version of the Spanish Inquisition, unable to join the antiwar protests with a clear conscience because they could be wrong, not able to fly the flag because I don't believe in nationalism, not able to endorse the "war" because it could be a dumb tactic leading to pointless deaths, unwilling to sacrifice my irony and foolish irreverence to the martial mood of the country or to a bizarre and pious import from the 13th Century.

Do you feel like I do?

Perhaps we neutrals should join together. We can hold public cry-ins. We can carry picket signs that say "Not sure," "Utterly confused," and "It's just sad." Maybe not.

Maybe it's time to turn on, tune out, and drop way down deep inside ourselves, quietly, solemnly, into a private search for meaning. After all, if it's all downhill from here – if we're all going down slow, it would be a lot more dignified to go down in a meditation posture, or clutching a Beckett play, than bellowing "USA! USA! USA!" like some WWF ape. I mean, many Americans responded to the situation by purchasing guns. They're gonna shoot 'em down some anthrax! Well, everybody has to find his or her comfort level, I guess.

Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
First realize that you are sick.
Then you can move toward health Lao Tzu

by Barbara Kingsolver
Published on Sunday, September 23, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times

TUCSON -- I want to do something to help right now. But I can't give blood (my hematocrit always runs too low), and I'm too far way to give anybody shelter or a drink of water. I can only give words. My verbal hemoglobin never seems to wane, so words are what I'll offer up in this time that asks of us the best citizenship we've ever mustered. I don't mean to say I have a cure. Answers to the main questions of the day--Where was that fourth plane headed? How did they get knives through security?--I don't know any of that. I have some answers, but only to the questions nobody is asking right now but my 5-year old. Why did all those people die when they didn't do anything wrong? Will it happen to me? Is this the worst thing that's ever happened? Who were those children cheering that they showed for just a minute, and why were they glad? Please, will this ever, ever happen to me?

There are so many answers, and none: It is desperately painful to see people die without having done anything to deserve it, and yet this is how lives end nearly always. We get old or we don't, we get cancer, we starve, we are battered, we get on a plane thinking we're going home but never make it. There are blessings and wonders and horrific bad luck and no guarantees. We like to pretend life is different from that, more like a game we can actually win with the right strategy, but it isn't. And, yes, it's the worst thing that's happened, but only this week. Two years ago, an earthquake in Turkey killed 17,000 people in a day, babies and mothers and businessmen, and not one of them did a thing to cause it. The November before that, a hurricane hit Honduras and Nicaragua and killed even more, buried whole villages and erased family lines and even now, people wake up there empty-handed. Which end of the world shall we talk about? Sixty years ago, Japanese airplanes bombed Navy boys who were sleeping on ships in gentle Pacific waters. Three and a half years later, American planes bombed a plaza in Japan where men and women were going to work, where schoolchildren were playing, and more humans died at once than anyone thought possible. Seventy thousand in a minute. Imagine. Then twice that many more, slowly, from the inside.

There are no worst days, it seems. Ten years ago, early on a January morning, bombs rained down from the sky and caused great buildings in the city of Baghdad to fall down--hotels, hospitals, palaces, buildings with mothers and soldiers inside--and here in the place I want to love best, I had to watch people cheering about it. In Baghdad, survivors shook their fists at the sky and said the word "evil." When many lives are lost all at once, people gather together and say words like "heinous" and "honor" and "revenge," presuming to make this awful moment stand apart somehow from the ways people die a little each day from sickness or hunger. They raise up their compatriots' lives to a sacred place--we do this, all of us who are human--thinking our own citizens to be more worthy of grief and less willingly risked than lives on other soil. But broken hearts are not mended in this ceremony, because, really, every life that ends is utterly its own event--and also in some way it's the same as all others, a light going out that ached to burn longer. Even if you never had the chance to love the light that's gone, you miss it. You should. You bear this world and everything that's wrong with it by holding life still precious, each time, and starting over.

And those children dancing in the street? That is the hardest question. We would rather discuss trails of evidence and whom to stamp out, even the size and shape of the cage we might put ourselves in to stay safe, than to mention the fact that our nation is not universally beloved; we are also despised. And not just by "The Terrorist," that lone, deranged non-man in a bad photograph whose opinion we can clearly dismiss, but by ordinary people in many lands. Even by little boys--whole towns full of them it looked like--jumping for joy in school shoes and pilled woolen sweaters.

There are a hundred ways to be a good citizen, and one of them is to look finally at the things we don't want to see. In a week of terrifying events, here is one awful, true thing that hasn't much been mentioned: Some people believe our country needed to learn how to hurt in this new way. This is such a large lesson, so hatefully, wrongfully taught, but many people before us have learned honest truths from wrongful deaths. It still may be within our capacity of mercy to say this much is true: We didn't really understand how it felt when citizens were buried alive in Turkey or Nicaragua or Hiroshima. Or that night in Baghdad. And we haven't cared enough for the particular brothers and mothers taken down a limb or a life at a time, for such a span of years that those little, briefly jubilant boys have grown up with twisted hearts. How could we keep raining down bombs and selling weapons, if we had? How can our president still use that word "attack" so casually, like a move in a checker game, now that we have awakened to see that word in our own newspapers, used like this: Attack on America.

Surely, the whole world grieves for us right now. And surely it also hopes we might have learned, from the taste of our own blood, that every war is both won and lost, and that loss is a pure, high note of anguish like a mother singing to any empty bed. The mortal citizens of a planet are praying right now that we will bear in mind, better than ever before, that no kind of bomb ever built will extinguish hatred.

"Will this happen to me?" is the wrong question, I'm sad to say. It always was.

Barbara Kingsolver's most recent novel is "Prodigal Summer."
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

The Way Home

Goals | Play | Study | News | FAQ | Contact | Help | Archives