On September 11, the question whether there would be war was, by 0900 hours, settled. But people didn’t know what was needed right away; and so they hurried to give blood, and all the city’s hospital beds were made ready for the wounded. Given the peculiarities of this first battle, however, the donors were turned away, and the beds went empty. And a little later, it turned out that not very many body bags could be used, since so many of the dead had been vaporized.
The Vichy Left knew immediately what was necessary. We all needed to have them explain the thing to us. Unfazed, hardly missing a beat, in this time of emergency, they stood prepared to serve up, again, the same mess, again, they had served up, again, only a day before. The standard pitch opened with a ringing – but quick – deploring of the event: ringing, because these gentlemen and ladies of a fancied left habitually talk in such tones (and because, allow them this, their hands really are spotless); and quick, because they had some serious self-congratulation on their minds. It is telling that before getting to the meat of their arguments, they didn’t pause to note a thing that was clear to most people: that September 11 also witnessed a great deal of heroism, most obviously the hundreds who sacrificed their lives to save many thousands of others. There were to be no distractions from, in Edward Said’s loathsome phrase, “this community of conscience and understanding”, secure in the consciousness of its own virtue, snug and smug.
And then, God help us all, came the explanations, explanations to a fare-thee-well; after the fire, the flood. The collective wisdom of the Vichy Left has been a compost of told-you-so’s as and chickens come home to roost, root causes and deep breaths. Americans, we are assured, have neglected to ask why this happened. But of course, they have done no such thing. The many justifications (as they undeniably were, let the Vichyites deny as they will) offered up by the aspiring collaborationists amounted to no more than the truism that somebody wanted something.
And the justifications came. Poverty caused it, even though the perpetrators were all solidly bourgeois, and the Moslem ultra-right is funded by the largest reserves of unearned wealth in the world. Desperation caused it, even though the perpetrators imagine themselves to be on the cusp of victory. It was American hegemony, even though no-one from the Western Hemisphere was involved. It was American political domination, though no-one from a NATO or OAS or G8 country did it. It was a protest against American pre-eminence: political (with no Antilleans involved), military (with no Serbs), economic (with no Mexicans), cultural (with no Canadians). It was our checkered past: Wounded Knee (no Native Americans), Dresden (no Germans), Hiroshima (no Japanese), My Lai (no Vietnamese).
We have been asked to reflect on why they hate us – with the suggestion that they’re probably right, and in any event, we’d better throw them a bone or two. Wrong answers, wrong questions. It does not appear that the Moslem ultras have visited anything upon us they would spare each other. An Arab state at peace looks like, say, Syria. An Arab state under stress is, say, Lebanon in the 70’s, Iraq in the intifada, Algeria in the 90’s, Sudan today. The World Trade massacre was conventional Middle Eastern politics, by somewhat unconventional means. It should be no surprise that most Americans would rather be dead, or dogs, than Arab subjects.
There is, of course, no Arab grievance with the United States. Nonetheless, we should pause to consider the imagined hurts of Araby. Noam Chomsky, who insists that the Khmer Rouge have been outrageously maligned and who has branded Vaclav Havel a front man for Central American death squads, has predictably weighed in. And he has outstripped his old hero Faurisson by revising history while the smoke that contained the dead was still overhead. Chomsky advises us that “we can do no better than to listen to the words of Robert Fisk, whose direct knowledge and insight into affairs of the region is unmatched after many years of distinguished reporting.” Fisk, our very own Brasillach, a frantic coupling of sub-Hugh Sidey insider knowingness and Karnak the Magnificent ex-oriente-lux posturing, offers this knowledge-and-insight: we are to blame “the lies of T.E. Lawrence” and “our destruction of the Ottoman Empire.”
It is alleged that the United States has perpetrated “atrocities” against the Arab world: clearly, fantastically untrue. It is alleged that the United States has supported or at least done business with, undemocratic regimes. That is true, but who exactly is at fault? It is not as if American troops are keeping the Middle East from being Scandinavia. “Pro-American” and virulently anti-American regimes there are alike anti-democratic. When Edward Said claims, risibly, that the United States is unwilling to have dealings with “secular” regimes, we should recall that the United States is itself such a regime, that every member of NATO is such a regime, that Saddam added some pious scribble to the flag of Iraq precisely in order to combat America, that in Iran, acts of war against the United States and the consolidation of theocracy were a single cause. In sum, other peoples have freed themselves, and these have not.
There are three very specific “wrongs” urged against us: the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, the terms of the post-Gulf war cease-fire, and the question of Palestine. Before considering of protection and defense. It’s a these individually, as they deserve, we should observe how the raising of these issues differs from the more nebulous anti-American tantrums. First, the suggestion is made that if only these issues could be resolved, the war against us would end. It would not. And second, we are assured that the resolution of these issues is something that should be done. The trouble here is that in the present time, after September 11, with ongoing biological warfare, with the certainty of future atrocities, very possibly including one or more nuclear devices, what is proposed is not morality but extortion.
American military personnel have been stationed in Saudi Arabia since the early 1940’s. They have never been used, never contemplated to be used, to suppress the national democratic stirrings of the domestic population. Their numbers increased at the time of Desert Shield, and today there are a few thousand left. These troops were sent, initially to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraqi invasion, then as a base for the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and today as a safeguard against a more remote, but still real threat of military conquest by Iraq. The offense offered by the presence of America troops is one neither to the Saudi state, which it preserves against foreign invasion, nor to its disaffected subjects. The objection raised by the aggressors of September 11 has been not to the actions of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia, but their very presence in that putative “holy” land. The crime of the non-Moslem is to exist. It is not happenstance that September 11 was a predominantly Saudi operation. Saudi Arabia is the most viciously apartheid state in the world, and it is only natural that its politics projected militarily into the world is openly genocidal.
Then, too, we are assured that we have behaved deplorably in Iraq. True, but only in not taking Baghdad ten years ago and not executing justice on its rulers. The derisory bombing conducted there is in response to clear cease-fire violations and is, plainly, not enough. It is claimed that we have murdered a million (1,000,000) Iraqi children. The number, of course, corresponds to no reality, but it is true that there has been suffering. But sanctions do that. The very real suffering of the French people was a commonplace of Petainist propaganda; what was unreal was the placing blame on de Gaulle and the British and the Americans and the whitewashing of the Nazis and their native collaborators. Iraq is awash in money, freely spent on luxury items for those in power and for military expenditures. Hunger and shortages of medical supplies in Iraq are only weapons of war used by the Iraqi state against its subject population.
But the main justification offered for September 11 – not by its perpetrators, to be sure, but by the extortionists nearer to hand who see the date as Christmas come early – has been the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is a real Palestinian grievance, but the Palestinian issue is fraudulent. The XX Century saw many millions dispossessed and slaughtered, made stateless and homeless. Maps of the world don’t stay current long. In 1947, for instance, only a year before the nakba of the Palestinian Arabs, around one million people were killed in the course of the creation of a Moslem separatist state in Pakistan. The remark attributed to Hitler, “Who now remembers the Armenians?”, has lost none of its force. The rest of humanity may be swept aside. Palestinian Arabs alone have enduring rights, and any atrocity, if claimed to further the redress of those rights, will be claimed to be justified. Palestinians are being “killed”, we are constantly being told. But guns are being fired on both sides, and even in grossly unequal contests (e.g. the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, The Warsaw uprising in 1944, Budapest in 1956) that’s called fighting. Only Palestinians can be killed because their humanity alone will be acknowledged. To be told that 79 per cent cent of Egyptians – with no rights, no food, no health, no future – regard Palestine as their most pressing problem – Palestine! – is to understand that a decent respect for the opinions of mankind will have the good sense to disregard Egyptian “public opinion” entirely. We certainly did not – and would not – celebrate the massacres at Deir Yassin or Sabra or Shatila, three centerpieces of the permanent Palestinian atrocity exhibition (rendered a little secondary after September 11). They, along with their most ardent sympathizers, applauded our misfortune. By all means, we should acknowledge injustice, and hope for its righting, but more immediately, having seen what we have seen, we should cast a cold eye.
“Specific actions and specific alliances” have nothing to do with September 11. It is not what we did, but what they did. And what they did was initiate, unambiguously, war. September 11 was genocidal means to genocidal ends. There has been a perception, among the enemy, that such measures work, that one must be willing to accept some casualties oneself, but that we will give up once our dead begin to mount. Think of Algeria. The FLN, even with a great deal of foreign support, never came close to defeating France militarily, yet it prevailed. It did so by killing thousands of civilians, the overwhelming majority of them Moslems, and in victory, it drove out the non-Moslem population and expropriated their property, and it conducted a general massacre of the harkis (along with their families). Marines sent to Lebanon to secure the safety of the local Palestinians were killed by a truck bomb, and the American military were withdrawn. In Somalia, 29 Pakistanis and 18 Americans were killed by local allies of al Qa’eda, and the Americans withdrew. The World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, and not a single member of al Qa’eda answered for it with his life. The same is true of the 1998 Embassy bombings and of bombings of military targets in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. But soft targets – civilians – are preferred. September 11 (“Hiroshima”, as its perpetrators giddily call it) is linked so often with the Palestinian Arab cause because there is a commonality of means. Attacks on international civil aviation have been a Palestinian specialty for over thirty years, and it was entirely in character that when the Achille Lauro was hijacked, the one person selected to be shot, out of the hundreds aboard, was an old man in a wheelchair. And “the heroic struggle of the Palestinian people” today takes the form of suicide bombings of public spaces and random shootings on the roads.
What do our attackers want, and what do their multitudinous sympathizers want? It matters only that, understanding them, we may better frustrate their purposes. But finally, it doesn’t matter at all. Political viruses have raged through that part of the world since the 1920’s: pro-Hitlerism, Nasserite national socialism, anti-Zionism, the Palestinian cause, “anti-imperialism”, Third-World-ism, Third International-ism, alliances with the USSR (in the 1980’s!), Ba’thism, Shi’ite triumphalism, Sunni triumphalism, this latest thing. All begin in failure and end in failure. Mohammad Heikel, the pre-eminent Arab journalist of the second half of the XXth Century is a representative figure. For many years, he served as Nasser’s spokesman, then in the late ’70s, he could be heard gushing over Ruhollah Khomeini, in the 80’s he was publishing book-length eulogies of the Egyptian jihad. What intellectual integrity is to be found here, going from National Socialism to one fundamentalism to another? Forget what such a man believes, what does he even want? The answer is: September 11. And the wider context for September 11 is not policy changes that will work to everybody’s benefit, but further atrocity: more bombings, more torture of captives, more human shields, more, and more effective, biological and chemical weapons, and as logistics allow, nuclear attacks here. A war of genocide has been proposed. It ends when one side dies.
What will that war be? As is usually the case, we don’t now know. However much the Civil War was rooted in the question of chattel slavery, the United States did not begin to fight under the banner of emancipation, but the war’s end was Lincoln being carried through the streets of Richmond on emancipated shoulders. The Paris Commune, which began with public demolition of the guillotine, ended up driven to shoot hostages. Between Sept 1, 1939 and V-E Day, both Italy and the USSR, initially Hitler’s allies, ended up allied against him.
In the Second World War, the United States, reaching accommodations with Franco’s Spain, nevertheless fought to the end a war against fascism. The land of Jim Crow and nisei internment nevertheless fought a war against racism. The allies of Stalin nevertheless fought for democracy. The destroyers of Japan’s and Germany’s cities nevertheless fought a war against genocide. We live in contradiction, and to say so is neither an admission nor a recommendation of inaction. The “war on terrorism” will not end “terrorism”, nor even define it successfully. We will be employing against our enemies assassination, “surgical” bombing, sabotage, seizures of bank assets, clandestine operations, and general eschewing of judicial process, ending states: in other words the repertoire of the XIXth Century’s most militant working class practice. What an earlier time vapidly denounced as terrorism, we can now recognize as the purest democracy in action brought to bear on democracy’s most fervent enemies.
This war will not achieve infinite justice nor, on its own, enduring freedom. And since not even Mr. Bush’s favorite Political Philosopher ever promised to root out evil from the world, we should not presume to try. We must merely, in all our imperfection, overcome the nothingness offered by our enemies.
It is the duty of the left in this time not only to be a party of war, but to be the maximalist party of war. Hostilities must extend not only to Iraq, Sudan, etc. but to the supposed friendlies, the darlings of many on the domestic right: Saudi-Arabia, the UAE, and Pakistan. We can do no better, to use Chomsky’s phrase, than, first, to disregard Chomsky utterly (along with such organs of disinformation as Z and Counterpunch as well as the more genteel Harpers, LRB, and The Nation). But more important, we can do no better than to emulate revolutionary France: which, with audacity, without indulgence, summoning up the people, carried the war, across whosever borders, to the enemies of the republic.
From November, 2001