How depressing was the October 13 peace rally in Washington Square? Well, the Bread and Puppet Theater performed–that should give you an idea. “It’s the sixties all over again,” murmured the portly graybeard standing next to me as the funereal drum thudded and the players, holding their papier mâché body masks, paraded glumly through the crowd of perhaps 500 people–most, by the look of them, veterans of either the peace and justice or sectarian left. Look on the bright side, I thought: At least we don’t have to sing “Down by the Riverside,” as happened at the peace rally in Union Square on October 7, a few hours after bombs started falling on Afghanistan.
I don’t like to criticize the activists who put together what little resistance to the bombing there is. But the 2000s aren’t the 1960s, and whatever else Afghanistan is, it isn’t Vietnam, any more than international terrorism or Islamic extremism is the new communism. Essential to the movement against the war in Vietnam was the pointlessness of our involvement: What had Ho Chi Minh ever done to us? The Vietcong never blew up American office buildings and murdered 5,000 ordinary American working people. You didn’t have to be a pacifist or an opponent of all intervention everywhere to favor getting out of Vietnam–there were dozens of reasons, principled, pragmatic, humanitarian, self-serving, to be against the war. This time, our own country has been attacked, and the enemies are deranged fanatics. No amount of military force short of nuclear weapons would have defeated the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, who really did swim like fish in the sea of the people and had plenty of help from the Soviet Union besides; the Taliban, by contrast, are widely, although not universally, hated in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden’s men, known as the Arab-Afghans, are viewed there by many as a hostile foreign presence.
Faced with a popular air war conducted, at least on paper, in such a way as to minimize civilian casualties, the peace movement falls back on boilerplate: All war everywhere is wrong, no matter what evils pertain; any use of force merely perpetuates the “cycle of violence”; the war is “racist,” whatever that means; it’s a corporate plot. The most rousing and focused speech at Washington Square was physicist Michio Kaku’s denunciation of Star Wars–but no one I heard (I missed the noted foreign policy experts Al Sharpton and Patti Smith) grappled with the central question: If not war, what? Realistically, some of the alternatives that have been proposed would also involve military action. Osama bin Laden is not likely to mail himself to the International Criminal Court to be tried for crimes against humanity; the disarming of both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance by United Nations peacekeepers, followed by free and democratic elections–the course favored by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan–is not likely to happen peacefully either.
The attack on the World Trade Center, an unspeakable and unjustifiable crime, created a sense of urgency and feelings of fear and anger that do not easily accord with calls for a deeper understanding of America’s role in the Muslim world. It’s hard to care that the US government armed and bankrolled the fundamentalist mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, or that it supports clerical-fascist Islamic governments like the one in Saudi Arabia, when you’re afraid to fly in an airplane or open your mail. Say for the sake of argument that the “chickens” of American foreign policy “are coming home to roost”: You can see why many would answer, Well, so what? Why not just kill the chickens and be done with it? That may prove much more difficult than today’s pro-war pundits acknowledge–what if one only hatches more chickens?–but it’s not totally off the wall, like Alice Walker’s embarrassing and oft-cited proposal that bin Laden be showered with love and “reminded of all the good, nonviolent things he has done.”
Right now, the argument that the war will have unforeseen and disastrous consequences may sound like handwringing, but it is doubtless true. Given the millions who are starving in Afghanistan, the 37,500 mini-meals that have fallen from the sky are a cruel joke. And even if the Al Qaeda network is destroyed and the Taliban overthrown, the circumstances that created them will remain. This is the case whether one sees the attack on the WTC as inspired by religiously motivated hatred of modernity and Enlightenment values, like Christopher Hitchens, or as a response to particular American policies in Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as Noam Chomsky argues. Experts can debate the precise amount of motivation this or that factor contributes to terrorism–but unless the Muslim world is transformed on many levels, it is hard to see how the bombing of Afghanistan will keep Americans safe or prevent new Al Qaedas and Talibans from forming. For that, we would have to be able to look down the road ten years and see a peaceful, well-governed, rebuilt Afghanistan; a Pakistan in which the best chance for a poor boy or girl is public school, not a madrassah for him and nothing for her; a Saudi Arabia with a democratic, secular government; an Egypt without millions living in abject poverty and a hugely frustrated middle class. This is all the more true if militant Islam is relatively independent of concrete grievances like Israel and Iraq.
Unfortunately, anyone who tries to talk about the WTC attack in this way–as Susan Sontag did in her entirely reasonable but now infamous New Yorker piece–is likely to find themselves labeled a traitor, a coward, anti-American or worse. (I found this out myself when I made the mistake of going on the radio with mad Andrew Sullivan, who has said the “decadent left…may well mount a fifth column,” and who accused me of objectively supporting the Taliban and likened me to someone who refuses to help a rape victim and blames her for wearing a short skirt.) But a war can be “just” in the sense that it is a response to aggression–as Vietnam was not–and also be the wrong way to solve a problem.