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Justice, Not Vengeance | The Nation

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Justice, Not Vengeance

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The atrocious attacks on the World Trade Center were massive crimes against humanity in both a real-world sense and in a technical legal sense, as Richard Falk reminds us. As such they are appropriately and lawfully the object of concerted US and international efforts to find and punish those responsible. But acknowledging a legitimate right of response is by no means equivalent to an endorsement of unlimited force. Indeed, notes Falk, an overreaction may be what the terrorists were seeking to provoke in order to mobilize popular resentment against the United States on a global scale. We must act effectively, but within a framework of moral and legal restraints.

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Americans need to take a deep breath, clear their heads of the political frenzy in Washington and demand much better from their leaders. As we go to press, with combat planes headed for the Persian Gulf and President Bush poised to address the nation, the din of war rhetoric grows louder. But our objective should be justice, not vengeance. We will advance justice, as well as national security, by sticking to the facts and the cooperative procedures of international law and institutions (which means seeking a mandate from the UN Security Council and supporting a special world court to try the perpetrators of terrorism), and by recognizing that a random slaughter of more innocents is immoral and contrary to America's self-interest, as well as to its core beliefs.

At home, the Bush White House is using fears of a recession to advance a partisan and exploitative agenda--repackaging familiar tax cuts for business and capital under a flag of crisis. What would be most effective in staving off recession, however, would be to assist those at the lower end of the economic scale who live from one paycheck to the next. It would also be the right thing to do. The essential reality of American life, long neglected in this era of bubble and boom but revealed again by this tragedy, is our reliance upon the enduring fiber of ordinary workers, from firefighters and police to nurses, flight attendants and janitors. Many of them died and many more will become innocent victims as the recession deepens. (Nation readers can act on their own by contributing to the disaster relief funds set up by unions; see "Nation Notes.")

Under the guise of fighting terrorism and in an ominous echo of past ill-conceived wartime measures targeting aliens, the Administration has expanded its powers to detain legal immigrants. It has drafted "antiterrorist" legislation that assumes sweeping powers of deportation but does little to fight terrorists, as David Cole shows.

The worst consequence of Washington's war talk is how it fogs public thinking, sustaining the nostalgic illusion that the military can somehow conquer this elusive enemy. If the objective is to crush the networks of scattered terrorists--whoever they are--who organized the murderous assault and might strike again, then military force is generally impotent. But the United States and other advanced nations have many effective, nonlethal weapons with which to break up the organizations.

The global financial system is one. A terrorist organization may camp in remote desert caves beyond the reach of strategic bombing or cruise missiles, but its activities depend crucially upon financing. Some of that may be done through informal channels, as Dilip Hiro notes, but some of it is also done through legitimate financial institutions. Governments can stop those money flows. If history is any guide, however--witness the Bush Administration's unwillingness to get tough on money-laundering--they seem unlikely to do so.

We have now entered a new era--one without battlefields and borders, in which old ideas about national security are obsolete. In this new era, Falk tells us, the only viable security is one built on a commitment to "human security" in the form of economic and social well-being for all people. This is the message that must be sent to Washington and the other capitals of the world.

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