News and Features
They say history repeats itself. But usually not quite so quickly.
The same week that New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced his
plans to close eight city firehouses, Mike Wallace, John Jay College
professor and bard of New York, held a conference on "Ne
A spate of recent terrorism events--the bombing of a French tanker, the
destruction of a nightclub in Bali, an FBI warning of a "spectacular" Al
Qaeda action and the surfacing of a new Osama bi
We must contain terror and protect its victims through extending human rights law.
Bomb 'em now, kill 'em now, zim, boom, bah
Chickenhawks, chickenhawks, rah, rah, rah.
(We were rooting from the States.)
There you go again, Mr. Ashcroft.
We must strengthen institutions that protect us from a national security state.
Foreign creditors will eventually pull the plug.
Concerned that a much-needed international perspective is missing
from the debate in this country over the course of American foreign
policy and US relations with the world, The Nation asked a number
of distinguished foreign writers and thinkers to share their reflections
with us. It is our hope that, as in the early 1980s, when a "letter" in
these pages from the late E.P. Thompson expressing rising European
concern about the Reagan Administration's nuclear weapons buildup was
instrumental in building common bonds beween antinuclear movements
across the Atlantic, this series will forge bonds between Americans
concerned about how Washington is exercising power today and the rest of
the world. We begin with a letter to an American friend written by the
South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, whose opposition to apartheid
resulted in his spending seven years in prison.
This is an extraordinarily difficult letter to write, and it may even be
a perilous exercise. Dangerous because your present Administration and
its specialized agencies by all accounts know no restraint in hitting
out at any perceived enemy of America, and nobody or nothing can protect
one from their vindictiveness. Not even American courts are any longer a
bulwark against arbitrary exactions. Take the people being kept in that
concentration camp in Guantánamo: They are literally
extraterritorial, by force made anonymous and stateless so that no law,
domestic or international, is habilitated to protect them. It may be an
extreme example brought about by abnormal circumstances--but the
criteria of human rights kick in, surely, precisely when the conditions
are extreme and the situation is abnormal. The predominant yardstick of
your government is not human rights but national interests. (Your
President keeps repeating the mantra.) In what way is this order of
priorities any different from those of the defunct Soviet Union or other
The war against terror is an all-purpose fig leaf for violating or
ignoring local laws and international agreements and treaties. So,
talking to America is like dealing with a very aggressive beast: One
must do so softly, not make any brusque moves or run off at the mouth if
you wish to survive. In dancing with the enemy one follows his steps
even if counting under one's breath. But do be careful not to dance too
close to containers intended for transporting war prisoners in
Afghanistan: One risks finding one's face blackened by a premature
Why is it difficult? Because the United States is a complex entity
despite the gung-ho slogans and simplistic posturing in moments of
national hysteria. Your political system is resilient and well tested;
it has always harbored counterforces; it allows quite effectively for
alternation: for a swing-back of the pendulum whenever policies have
strayed too far from middle-class interests--with the result that you
have a large middle ground of acceptable political practices. Why,
through the role of elected representatives, the people who vote even
have a rudimentary democratic control over public affairs! Except maybe
in Florida. Better still--your history has shown how powerful a moral
catharsis expressed through popular resistance to injustice can
sometimes be; I have in mind the grassroots opposition to the Vietnam
War. And all along there was no dearth of strong voices speaking firm
convictions and enunciating sure ethical standards.
Where are they now? What happened to the influential intellectuals and
the trustworthy journalists explaining the ineluctable consequences of
your present policies? Where are the clergy calling for humility and
some compassion for the rest of the world? Are there no ordinary folk
pointing out that the President and his cronies are naked, cynical,
morally reprehensible and very, very dangerous not only for the world
but also for American interests--and by now probably out of control? Are
these voices stifled? Has the public arena of freely debated expressions
of concern been sapped of all influence? Are people indifferent to the
havoc wreaked all over the world by America's diktat policies,
destroying the underpinnings of decent international coexistence? Or are
they perhaps secretly and shamefully gleeful, as closet supporters of
this Showdown at OK Corral approach? They (and you and I) are most
likely hunkered down, waiting for the storm of imbecility to pass. How
deadened we have become!
In reality the workings of your governing system are opaque and covert,
while hiding in the chattering spotlight of an ostensible transparency,
even though the ultimate objective is clear. Who really makes the policy
decisions? Sure, the respective functions are well identified: The
elected representatives bluster and raise money, the lobbyists buy and
sell favors, the media spin and purr patriotically, the intellectuals
wring their soft hands, the minorities duck and dive and hang out
flags... But who and what are the forces shaping America's role in the
The goal, I submit, is obvious: subjugating the world (which is
barbarian, dangerous, envious and ungrateful) to US power for the sake
of America's interests. That is, to the benefit of America's rich. It's
as simple as that. Oh, there was a moment of high camp when it was
suggested that the aim was to make the world safe for democracy! That
particular fig leaf went up in cigar smoke and now all the other excuses
are just so much bullshit, even the charlatan pretense of being a nation
under siege. This last one, I further submit, was a sustained Orson
Wellesian campaign to stampede the nation in order to better facilitate
what was in effect a right-wing coup carried out by cracker
fundamentalists, desk warriors proposing to "terminate" the states that
they don't like, warmed up Dr. Strangeloves and oil-greedy conservative
I do not want to equate your glorious nation with the deplorable image
of a President who, at best, appears to be a bar-room braggart smirking
and winking to his mates as he holds forth his hand-me-down platitudes
and insights and naïve solutions. Because I know you have many
faces and I realize how rich you are in diversity. Would I be writing
this way if I had in mind a black or Hispanic or Asian-American, members
of those vastly silent components of your society? It would be a tragic
mistake for us out here to imagine that Bush represents the hearts and
the minds of the majority of your countrymen. Many of your black and
other compatriots must be just as anguished as we are.
Still, Jack, certain things need to be said and repeated. I realize it
is difficult for you to know what's happening in the world, since your
entertainment media have by now totally blurred the distinctions between
information and propaganda, and banal psychological and commercial
manipulation must be the least effective way of disseminating
understanding. You need to know that your country has made the world a
much more dangerous place for the rest of us. International treaties to
limit the destruction of our shared natural environment, to stop the
manufacture of maiming personnel mines, to outlaw torture, to bring war
criminals to international justice, to do something about the murderous
and growing gulf between rich and poor, to guarantee natural food for
the humble of the earth, to allow for local economic solutions to
specific conditions of injustice, for that matter to permit local
products to have access to American markets, to mobilize the world
against hunger, have all been gutted by the USA.Your government is
blackmailing every single miserable and corrupt mother's son in power in
the world to do things your way. It has forced itself on the rest of us
in its support and abetment of corrupt and tyrannical regimes. It has
lost all ethical credibility in its one-sided and unequivocal support of
the Israeli government campaign that must ultimately lead to the
ethnocide of the Palestinians. And in this it has
promoted--sponsored?--the bringing about of a deleterious international
climate, since state terrorism can now be carried out with arrogance,
disdain and impunity. As far as the Arab nations are concerned, America,
giving unquestioned legitimacy to despotic regimes, refusing any
recognition of home-grown alternative democratic forces, favored the
emergence of a bearded opposition who in time must become radicalized
and fanaticized to the point where they can be exterminated as vermin.
And the oilfields will be safe.
I'm too harsh. I'm cutting corners. I'm pontificating. But my friend, if
you were to look around the world you would see that America is largely
perceived as a rogue state.
Can there be a turn-back? Have things gone too far, beyond a point of
possible return? Can it be that some of the core and founding
assumptions (it is said) of your culture are ultimately dangerous to the
survival of the world? I'm referring to your propensity for patriotism
(to me it's an attitude, not a value), to the fervent belief in a
capitalist free-market system with the concomitant conviction that
progress is infinite, that one can eternally remake and invent the self,
that it is more important to be self-made than to collectively husband
the planet's diminishing resources, that the instant gratification of
the desire for goods is the substance of the right to happiness, that
the world and life and all its manifestations can be apprehended and
described in terms of good and evil, finally that you can flare for a
while in samsara, the world of illusions (and desperately make it last
with artificial means and California hocus-pocus before taking all your
prostheses to heaven).
If this is so, what then? With whom? You see, the most detestable effect
is that so many of us have to drink this poison, to look at you as a
threat, to live with the knowledge of cultural and economic and military
danger in our veins, and to be obliged to either submit or resist.
I don't want to pass the buck. Don't imagine it is necessarily any
better elsewhere. We, in this elsewhere, have to look for our own
solutions. Europe is pusillanimous, carefully though hypocritically
hostile and closed to foreigners, particularly those from the South; the
EU is by now little more than a convenience for its citizens and
politically and culturally much less than the contents of any of its
And Africa? As a part-time South African (the other parts are French and
Spanish and Senegalese and New Yorker), I've always wondered whether
Thabo Mbeki would be America's thin globalizing wedge (at the time of
Clinton and Gore it certainly seemed so) or whether he was ultimately
going to be the leader who can strategically lead Africa against
America. But the question is hypothetical. Thabo Mbeki is no alternative
to the world economic system squeezing the poor for the sustainable
enrichment of the rich; as in countries like Indonesia and your own (see
the role of the oil companies), he too has opted for crony capitalism.
Africa's leading establishments are rotten to the core. Mbeki is no
different. His elocution is more suave and his prancing more Western,
What do we do, then? As we move into the chronicle of a war foretold
(against Iraq), it is going to be difficult to stay cool. Certainly, we
must continue fighting globalization as it exists now, reject the
article of faith that postulates a limitless and lawless progress and
expansion of greed, subvert the acceptance of might is right, spike the
murderous folly of One God. And do so cautiously and patiently, counting
our steps. It is going to be a long dance.
Let us find and respect one another.
Amid the elegies for the dead and the ceremonies of remembrance,
seditious questions intrude: Is there really a war on terror; and if one
is indeed being waged, what are its objectives?
The Taliban are out of power. Poppies bloom once more in Afghan
pastures. The military budget is up. The bluster war on Iraq blares from
every headline. On the home front the war on the Bill of Rights is set
at full throttle, though getting less popular with each day, as judges
thunder their indignation at the unconstitutional diktats of Attorney
General John Ashcroft, a man low in public esteem.
On this latter point we can turn to Merle Haggard, the bard of
blue-collar America, the man who saluted the American flag more than a
generation ago in such songs as "The Fightin' Side of Me" and "Okie From
Muskogee." Haggard addressed a concert crowd in Kansas City a few days
ago in the following terms: "I think we should give John Ashcroft a big
hand...[pause]...right in the mouth!" Haggard went on to say, "The way things are going I'll probably be thrown in jail tomorrow for saying that, so I hope
ya'll will bail me out."
It will take generations to roll back the constitutional damage done in
the wake of the attacks. Emergency laws lie around for decades like
rattlesnakes in summer grass. As Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch
points out to me, one of the main legal precedents that the government
is using to justify detaining "enemy combatants" without trial or access
to a lawyer is an old strikebreaking decision. The government's August
27 legal brief in the Padilla "enemy combatant" case relies heavily on
Moyer v. Peabody, a Supreme Court decision that dates back to
The case involved Charles Moyer, president of the Western Federation of
Miners, a feisty Colorado trade union that fought for such radical
reforms as safe working conditions, an end to child labor and payment in
money rather than in company scrip. As part of a concerted effort to
crush the union, the governor of Colorado declared a state of
insurrection, called out the state militia and detained Moyer for two
and a half months without probable cause or due process of law.
In an opinion that deferred obsequiously to executive power (using the
"captain of the ship" metaphor), the Supreme Court upheld Moyer's
detention. It reasoned that since the militia could even have fired upon
the strikers (or, in the Court's words, the "mob in insurrection"), how
could Moyer complain about a mere detention? The government now cites
the case in its Padilla brief to argue that whatever a state governor
can do, the President can do better.
Right under our eyes a whole new covert-ops arm of government is being
coaxed into being by the appalling Rumsfeld, who has supplanted Powell
as Secretary of State, issuing public statements contradicting offical
US policy on Israel's occupation of and settlements in the West Bank and
Gaza. Rumsfeld has asked Congress to authorize a new under secretary of
defense overseeing all defense intelligence matters, also requesting
that the department be given greater latitude to carry out covert ops.
Wrap that in with erosion or outright dumping of the Posse Comitatus Act
(1878), which forbids any US military role in domestic law enforcement,
and the silhouette of military government shows up ever more clearly in
the crystal ball.
The terrorists in those planes a year ago nourished specific grievances,
all available for study in the speeches and messages of Osama bin Laden.
They wanted US troops out of Saudi Arabia. They saw the United States as
Israel's prime backer and financier in the oppression of Palestinians.
They railed against the sanctions grinding down upon the civilian
population of Iraq.
A year later the troops are still in Saudi Arabia, US backing for Sharon
is more ecstatic than ever and scenarios for a blitzkrieg against Saddam
Hussein mostly start with a saturation bombing campaign that will plunge
civilians in Iraq back into the worst miseries of the early 1990s.
Terror against states springs from the mulch of political frustration.
We live in a world where about half the population of the planet, 2.8
billion people, live on less than $2 a day. The richest 25 million
people in the United States receive more income than the 2 billion
poorest people on the planet. Across the past year world economic
conditions have mostly got worse, nowhere with more explosive potential
than in Latin America, where Peru, Argentina and Venezuela all heave in
Can anything stop the war cries against Iraq from being self-fulfilling?
Another real slump on Wall Street would certainly postpone it, just as a
hike in energy prices here if war does commence will give the economy a
kidney blow when it least needs it.
How could an attack on Iraq be construed as a blow against terror? The
Administration abandoned early on, probably to its subsequent regret,
the claim that Iraq was complicit in the attacks of September 11. Aside
from the Taliban's Afghanistan, the prime nation that could be blamed
was Saudi Arabia, point of origin for so many of the Al Qaeda terrorists
on the planes.
Would an attack on Iraq be a reprisal? If it degraded Saudi Arabia's
role as prime swing producer of oil, if it indicated utter contempt for
Arab opinion, then yes. But no one should doubt that if the Bush
Administration does indeed topple Saddam Hussein and occupy Baghdad,
this will truly be a plunge into the unknown, one that would fan the
embers of Islamic radicalism, which actually peaked at the end of the
1980s, and amid whose decline the attacks of September 11 were far more
a coda than an overture.
Would Iran sit quiet while US troops roosted in Baghdad? And would not
the overthrow of Saddam be prelude to the downfall of the monarchy in
Jordan, with collapse of the House of Saud following thereafter?
Islamic fanatics flew those planes a year ago, and here we are with a
terrifying alliance of Judeo-Christian fanatics, conjoined in their
dream of the recovery of the Holy Land. War on Terror? It's back to the
thirteenth century, picking up where Prince Edward left off with the
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