For Americans who can bear to think about it, those tragic pictures from New York of women holding up photos of their husbands, sons and daughters and asking if anyone knows anything about them look familiar. They are similar to scenes we have seen from Buenos Aires and Santiago. There, too, starting in the 1970s, women held up photos of their loved ones, asking for information. Since it was far too dangerous then to say aloud what they thought had happened to them–that they had been tortured and murdered by US-backed military juntas–the women coined a new word for them, los desaparecidos–“the disappeareds.” Our government has never been honest about its own role in the 1973 overthrow of the elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile or its backing, through “Operation Condor,” of what the State Department has recently called “extrajudicial killings” in Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America. But we now have several thousand of our own disappeareds, and we are badly mistaken if we think that we in the United States are entirely blameless for what happened to them.
The suicidal assassins of September 11, 2001, did not “attack America,” as our political leaders and the news media like to maintain; they attacked American foreign policy. Employing the strategy of the weak, they killed innocent bystanders who then became enemies only because they had already become victims. Terrorism by definition strikes at the innocent in order to draw attention to the sins of the invulnerable. The United States deploys such overwhelming military force globally that for its militarized opponents only an “asymmetric strategy,” in the jargon of the Pentagon, has any chance of success. When it does succeed, as it did spectacularly on September 11, it renders our massive military machine worthless: The terrorists offer it no targets. On the day of the disaster, President George W. Bush told the American people that we were attacked because we are “a beacon for freedom” and because the attackers were “evil.” In his address to Congress on September 20, he said, “This is civilization’s fight.” This attempt to define difficult-to-grasp events as only a conflict over abstract values–as a “clash of civilizations,” in current post-cold war American jargon–is not only disingenuous but also a way of evading responsibility for the “blowback” that America’s imperial projects have generated.
“Blowback” is a CIA term first used in March 1954 in a recently declassified report on the 1953 operation to overthrow the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. It is a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the US government’s international activities that have been kept secret from the American people. The CIA’s fears that there might ultimately be some blowback from its egregious interference in the affairs of Iran were well founded. Installing the Shah in power brought twenty-five years of tyranny and repression to the Iranian people and elicited the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. The staff of the American embassy in Teheran was held hostage for more than a year. This misguided “covert operation” of the US government helped convince many capable people throughout the Islamic world that the United States was an implacable enemy.
The pattern has become all too familiar. Osama bin Laden, the leading suspect as mastermind behind the carnage of September 11, is no more (or less) “evil” than his fellow creations of our CIA: Manuel Noriega, former commander of the Panama Defense Forces until George Bush père in late 1989 invaded his country and kidnapped him, or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, whom we armed and backed so long as he was at war with Khomeini’s Iran and whose people we have bombed and starved for a decade in an incompetent effort to get rid of him. These men were once listed as “assets” of our clandestine services organization.