News and Features
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.
Our own ‘phony war.’
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.
Nine times the Space that measures Day
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquisht, rolling in the fiery Gulf
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv'd him to more wrath...
--John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I
As a million impoverished Afghans flee toward the borders of Iran and Pakistan, as the reconfiguring of civil and human rights is debated in Congress, as the CIA considers reinstating the kinds of training camps in which Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein learned so much before they Fell From Grace, as rumor and disinformation swirl through our media and the Internet, and as the world readies itself for war against murkily located and confusingly defined enemies, I find no words for this great sadness. I offer instead cautionary notes from my clippings of the Gulf War ten years ago, during the presidency of George Bush the Elder.
January 8, 1991: The New York Times reports that the Defense Department, "in obtaining permission to give experimental drugs to American troops in the Persian Gulf, is about to violate the Nuremberg Code, one of the primary moral documents to emerge from World War II.... Since Nuremberg, no government has officially attempted to justify research on competent adults without their informed consent--that is, not until our government said exceptions would be permitted so that specific unapproved drugs and vaccines could be administered to the troops without their consent.... Under the new regulation, whatever experimental drug or vaccine military commanders and the FDA think is in the soldiers' best interest becomes obligatory 'treatment.'"
January 17, 1991: The airstrikes have numbered more than 1,000 in fourteen hours. No word about Iraqi casualties. On TV there are reports of massive anti-American demonstrations throughout the Middle East. A Washington expert on the Near East says that provided we look like the winner, he doesn't think the "Arab street" will matter. He says that these countries aren't democracies, so their leaders don't have to listen to popular opinion, though if it becomes drawn out, then the "Arab street" will be "more of a factor." This is followed by an interview with the publisher of something called Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, who explains the war from "an oil policy point of view."
On another channel, a newscaster describes the bombing of Baghdad as a "star-spangled reign of terror." A foreign policy expert hails Desert Storm as ushering in a new period in which "there will be no more wars," and in which it will be clear that "America's sword is the mightiest."
January 18, 1991: At least 2,000 sorties every day. In today's New York Times [p. A9], there is an interview with Colin Powell: "Q.: 'Do we have any estimate how many Iraqi soldiers might have been killed in the bombings?' Powell: 'No, I'm not able to answer that at this time. It is a comprehensive campaign with, as I've said many times, air, land and sea components. And we have thought it out. It will unfold over a period of time. But I can't answer your question directly...'" On TV, President Bush says war is "never cheap or easy." In response to concern about the protests in "the Arab world," Bush says that there is no single Arab world, and that most of the Arab world is behind the United States.
January 20, 1991: The Gulf War costs between $150 million and $1.6 billion a day, depending on the intensity of fighting. Dick Cheney is going to ask Congress for $20 billion more for next year's budget, in addition to the $295 billion already in next year's defense budget.
January 21, 1991: A press conference at the Defense Department. I guess the questions don't matter when the answers are: "You're into a delicate area." "I'd like to be more forthcoming." "I can't tell you." "I will absolutely not talk about submarines." "We can't say with certainty." "The answer to that is militarily insignificant." "I can't quantify that for you." "I would like to answer that for you, I truly would, but it would be inappropriate." "I can't confirm that." "All I can do is give you the official position." "It would lead one to believe..."
February 3, 1991: The New York Times reports that "after more than two weeks of war in the Persian Gulf involving the heaviest sustained bombing in history, the Pentagon is avoiding any estimate of Iraqi deaths so far.... The overall death toll could be as low as a few thousand or more than 10,000.... [According to Loren Thompson, deputy director of the national security program at Georgetown University] 'General Schwarzkopf's main concern is that when you get into the body-count business, you end up perverting the bomb damage assess.... You have a talisman, a single measure of success that really isn't related to whether you are winning the war.' At the same time, he said, when damage is listed in terms of tanks destroyed or airfields cratered, as the Pentagon has done, 'you avoid talking about lives lost, and that serves both an esthetic and a practical purpose.'"
March 15, 1991: The Washington Post reports 70 percent of the bombs dropped on Iraq and occupied Kuwait missed their target.
March 22, 1991: The Pentagon lists 148 American deaths (thirty-five of those from "friendly fire"), but omits any mention of Iraqi deaths. The Wall Street Journal reports that General Schwarzkopf has "privately given" President Bush estimates that "at least" 100,000 Iraqis lost their lives in six weeks of fighting.
In the hushed wake of all the luminous, precious lives snuffed out in the World Trade Center, I believe a so-called body count neither adds to nor subtracts from the greatness of our grief--nor will it always even be the only moral measure if our end is justice. On the other hand, ignoring altogether great human cost in deference to the "aesthetic" of efficient war--that is a great wrong, not easily forgiven, and one whose price could keep us spiraling in infinite bouts of vengeance and revenge with those who wonder, like Milton's Stygian Counsel: "Will he, so wise, let loose at once his ire,/Belike through impotence, or unaware,/ To give his Enemies their wish, and end/ Them in his anger, whom his anger saves/ To punish endless...."
If Islamabad heeds Washington's war demands, it risks internal revolt.