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Annihilation and the Ways of Peace
The bombing part is easy. Not of course on the civilians, the "collateral damage" likely to be killed in unseemly large numbers, as they were during the Gulf War.
On September 6, Afghanistan's Taliban extremists ordered all hospitals in the capital city of Kabul to partly or completely suspend medical services to women.
The capture by Taliban guerrillas of the Afghan capital, Kabul, however short- or long-lived, has come after two years of one of the most obnoxious interventions by one state in the affairs of ano
"We need to make it very clear," said one veteran activist at a recent meeting of a nascent New York City antiwar coalition, "that we want to punish the criminals." She meant, of course, any living accomplices in the September 11 World Trade Center massacre. That night, activists were unable to come to any kind of agreement on the need to bring the murderers to justice, and their confusion and division mirrored that of antiwar demonstrators around the nation. During the last weekend in September, antiwar protests in the nation's capital underscored the movement's difficulty in articulating a message that might make sense to a broader public. That difficulty was amplified by the happy fact that, as one demonstrator put it, "it's hard to protest a war that's not happening." While things may yet get brutal, George Bush is not presently proposing to take any military action against innocent Afghan civilians, and the Administration is now seriously considering schemes that, when suggested by peace activists a week ago, sounded absurdly whimsical--like "bombing" Afghanistan with food.
Originally, more than 10,000 foot soldiers of the global economic justice movement, from the controversial hooded Anti-Capitalist Convergence (or "Black Bloc") to the AFL-CIO, had planned to show up to protest September 30's IMF/World Bank meeting. That meeting was canceled. Most protest groups canceled their actions too, and not only because there were no meetings to oppose. At a moment of sorrow and panic, demonstrators risked being ignored--or worse, reviled as unpatriotic or insensitive to the memories of the dead. In a statement explaining their withdrawal from the protests, United Students Against Sweatshops declared September in the capital "neither the time nor the place to gather in opposition."
Not everyone felt that way. The Anti-Capitalist Convergence decided to hold an antiwar demonstration Saturday morning, using, according to David Graeber of New York City's Direct Action Network, who works closely with the ACC, "less controversial tactics. None of these," he laughed, pointing to a brick in the middle of the sidewalk. The Black Bloc anarchists, known for illegal actions, refrained from any destruction of property, and the weekend ended with only eleven arrests. The ACC march drew about 1,000 (organizers claimed 2,000-3,000). Some--being anarchists--rejected any action that the state might take, even against terrorism, and rejected any international tribunal as a tool of the state.
The second, and best-publicized, march was organized by an antiwar front group assembled by the International Action Center (IAC), in turn a front for (if you're still following) the Workers World Party, which is justly reviled for supporting Slobodan Milosevic, among other gruesome dictators. Still, a few thousand people, from high school students to graying peaceniks, eventually joined by the ACC, showed up. IAC organizers subjected these demonstrators to three hours of speeches, none of which mentioned bringing the killers to justice, before the all-too-brief march from Freedom Plaza to the Capitol began. Bland sloganeering and predictable references to eclectic causes (Free Mumia!) had the effect of reducing the peril of World War III to the trivial status of another pet left crusade. There was no doubt about the sincerity of the demonstrators, who carried signs like Another Alaskan for Peace, but the IAC's involvement gave the event--which drew maybe 7,000 at its peak, though organizers claimed 20,000--the flavor of a kind of generic McProtest.
The third march, held on Sunday and organized by the Washington Peace Center and other groups, was smaller than the IAC event but achieved an appropriately serious tone. Some of Saturday's demonstrators (from the well-behaved Black Bloc to the Bread and Puppet Theater) turned up, along with many locals--a crowd of some 3,000. Speakers, many of them clergy, quoted venerable sources: the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Signs often bore scriptural messages, and one playfully queried George Bush, WWJD? Speakers read letters from family members of September 11 victims who did not want war in the name of their loved ones. Others stressed the need for reflection and the challenges of turning our grief into a cry for global peace. The event also suggested some practical alternatives to war, emphasizing justice and law over military force. Alan Mattlage, an organizer of the Washington Peace Center event and a member of the Maryland Green Party, echoed many of his fellow protesters in saying that the World Trade Center attacks should be treated not "as an act of war but as a criminal matter. [Those accused] should be tried before an international tribunal."
All three antiwar marches attracted activists who had planned to protest the IMF. Students showed up in large numbers (a nationwide network of more than 150 student antiwar groups, some calling themselves Students for a Peaceful Justice, has been holding campus vigils, protests and teach-ins). Labor organizations, by contrast, from the AFL-CIO to Jobs with Justice, were conspicuously absent. That makes some sense, given that many of their constituents may support military responses to the September 11 attacks. One of countless reasons to hope for peace is that a prolonged war--and antiwar activism--could test the warm solidarity developed in recent years between labor and other progressives, especially students. On the other hand, it's encouraging to see how quickly the global economic justice movement has embraced peace and security issues--and that peace organizations seem ready to tackle the economic roots of violence and to connect US militarism to global economic inequality.
Activists were united on a few points: There will be no peace without economic justice, and US civilians will not be safe until our government stops waging--and funding--war on other innocents. Some offered hope that our nation's suffering could open our eyes to the rest of the world's pain. At an interfaith service on peace and justice at St. Aloysius Church Saturday night, Njoki Njoroge Njehu of the 50 Years Is Enough Network advised Americans to "hold that vulnerability, to understand how people around the world live with US violence. And let us finally understand the obscenity of the phrase 'collateral damage.' Will it ever have the same casual reference again?"
Are there any people
on earth more wretched than the women of Afghanistan? As if poverty,
hunger, disease, drought, ruined cities and a huge refugee crisis
weren't bad enough, under Taliban rule they can't work, they can't go
to school, they have virtually no healthcare, they can't leave their
houses without a male escort, they are beaten in the streets if they
lift the mandatory burqa even to relieve a coughing fit. The
Taliban's crazier requirements have some of the obsessive
particularity of the Nazis' statutes against the Jews: no high heels
(that lust-inducing click-click!), no white socks (white is the color
of the flag), windows must be painted over so that no male passerby
can see the dreaded female form lurking in the house. (This
particular stricture, combined with the burqa, has led to an outbreak
of osteomalacia, a bone disease caused by malnutrition and lack of
Until September 11, this situation received only
modest attention in the West--much less than the destruction of the
giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan. The "left" is often accused of
"moral relativism" and a "postmodern" unwillingness to judge, but the
notion that the plight of Afghan women is a matter of culture and
tradition, and not for Westerners to judge, was widespread across the
Now, finally, the world is paying
attention to the Taliban, whose days may indeed be numbered now that
their foreign supporters--Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates,
Pakistan--are backing off. The connections between religious
fanaticism and the suppression of women are plain to see (and not
just applicable to Islam--show me a major religion in which the
inferiority of women, and God's wish to place them and their
dangerous polluting sexuality under male control, is not a central
original theme). So is the connection of both with terrorism, war and
atrocity. It's no accident that so many of the young men who are foot
soldiers of Islamic fundamentalism are reared in womanless religious
schools, or that Osama bin Laden's recruiting video features bikinied
Western women as symbols of the enemy.
fundamentalism requires the suppression of women, offering desperate,
futureless men the psychological and practical satisfaction of
instant superiority to half the human race, the emancipation of women
could be the key to overcoming it. Where women have education,
healthcare and personal rights, where they have social and political
and economic power--where they can choose what to wear, whom to
marry, how to live--there's a powerful constituency for secularism,
democracy and human rights: What educated mother engaged in public
life would want her daughter to be an illiterate baby machine
confined to the four walls of her husband's house with no one to talk
to but his other wives?
Women's rights are crucial for
everything the West supposedly cares about: infant mortality (one in
four Afghan children dies before age 5), political democracy,
personal freedom, equality under the law--not to mention its own
security. But where are the women in the discussion of Afghanistan,
the Middle East, the rest of the Muslim world? We don't hear much
about how policy decisions will affect women, or what they want. Men
have the guns and the governments. Who asks the women of Saudi
Arabia, our ally, how they feel about the Taliban-like restrictions
on their freedom? In the case of Afghanistan, the Northern
Alliance presents itself now to the West as women's friend. A story
in the New York Times marveled at the very limited permission
given to women in NA-held territory to study and work and wear a less
restrictive covering than the burqa. Brushed aside was the fact that
many warlords of the Northern Alliance are themselves religious
fighters who not only restricted women considerably when they held
power from 1992 to '96 but plunged the country into civil war,
compiling a record of ethnically motivated mass murder, rape and
other atrocities and leaving the population so exhausted that the
Taliban's promise of law and order came as a relief. It's all
documented on the Human Rights Watch website
Now more than ever, the Revolutionary
Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which opposes both
the Taliban and the Northern Alliance as violent, lawless,
misogynistic and antidemocratic, deserves attention and support.
"What Afghanistan needs is not more war," Tahmeena Faryel, a RAWA
representative currently visiting the United States, told me, but
massive amounts of humanitarian aid and the disarming of both the
Taliban and the Northern Alliance, followed by democratic elections.
"We don't need another religious government," she said. "We've had
that!" The women of RAWA are a different model of heroism than a
warlord with a Kalashnikov: In Afghanistan, they risk their lives by
running secret schools for girls, delivering medical aid, documenting
and filming Taliban atrocities. In Pakistan, they demonstrate against
fundamentalism in the "Talibanized" cities of Peshawar and Quetta.
Much as the victims of the WTC attack need our support, so too do
Afghans who are trying to bring reason and peace to their miserable
country. To make a donation to RAWA, see www.rawa.org.
* * *
I got more negative comment on my
last column, in which I described a discussion with my daughter about
whether to fly an American flag in the wake of the WTC attack, than
on anything I've ever written. Many people pitied my commonsensical,
public-spirited child for being raised by an antisocial naysayer like
me. And if The Weekly Standard has its way--it's urging
readers to send young "Miss Pollitt" flags c/o The Nation--she
will soon have enough flags to redecorate her entire bedroom in red,
white and blue, without having to forgo a single Green Day CD to buy
one for herself. (See this issue's Letters column for some of the
mail on the flag question.)
Fortunately, for those who want
to hang something a bit more global out their window, there are
alternatives. The peace flag (www.peaceflags.org) reshapes Old
Glory's stars into the peace sign; the Earth flag (www.earthflag.net)
displays the Apollo photo of the Earth on a blue background.
Some Sundays back, the New York Times fronted a story from its
Paris correspondent, Suzanne Daley, about the fear and loathing
Americans induce among Europeans these days.
The events of September 11, viewed from abroad.
US actions abroad have repeatedly led to unintended, indefensible consequences.
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