The Terrorist Attacks
of 11 September 2001

By J.H. Crawford

26 September 2001


It is now two weeks since the shocking terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Perhaps just enough time has passed to begin to consider the implications and to chart a course of action that will bring an end to terror.

We stand on the brink of a holy war. On the one side, the USA and its largely Christian allies, on the other, the Moslem nations of the world. Like all wars, this one can be avoided, but that will require a creative approach and a willingness to compromise. At the moment, almost all of the voices raised in the USA are crying for blood and even war. If the hotheads prevail, the USA is letting itself into years of turmoil and grief that will ultimately settle nothing and only further inflame passions against the USA.

Even US allies are more than a little miffed by recent US turnabouts on such issues as global warming, racism, the refusal of the USA to sign its own treaty banning land mines, threatening unilateral abrogation of the ABM treaty, and a host of other insults, large and small. The disparity between what the USA preaches and what it does has become deeply disturbing. How is it that the "freest nation on earth" has the highest percentage of its population behind bars of any nation? How is it that the egalitarian USA still suffers from ingrained racism and shows little interest in addressing the problem? How is it that the many children born into poverty are virtually assured an inferior education in the nation that purports to be the world's greatest democracy?

Signs of distress on the part of US allies are everywhere - the USA has recently lost seats on two UN commissions of which it was so certain that it didn't even bother to campaign. Bush is widely regarded in Europe as an embarrassment to his nation. Even the NATO alliance is threatened by US actions. In direct contravention of its agreements with its allies, the USA supplied weapons to combatants in Yugoslavia. The Europeans were so enraged that they founded their own pan-European force, and as a result NATO has become far less important than formerly. This USA, one of the founders of the UN, has in recent years disparaged this institution of hope by, among other things, refusing to pay its dues.

This is only what the USA has done to its friends. What it has done to others is far worse. It begins with strong support for sham democracies throughout the Middle East. It continues with the ongoing attacks against Iraq, attacks that have cost the lives of many thousands of Iraqi civilians. It continues with the bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan making, not chemical weapons, but essential vaccines.

Most Americans seem incapable of understanding why anyone would attack their country. They have been fed the greatest-country-in-the-world pabulum for so long that they have come to believe that the US is infallible. In fact, most Americans lack even a rudimentary understanding of the difficult and complex issues in the Middle East. The history is long and intricate, and the region seemed, until September 11th, very far away. The unpopularity of the USA in the region stems from three main causes. First, the US maintains troops in Saudi Arabia, the holy land of Islam, and this presence enrages many Moslems. Second, the US has long acted as if the Middle East were its own private fiefdom, tinkering with politics throughout the region in heavy-handed ways that did nothing to advance the cause of democracy in the region. Third, the US has supported Israel against all comers, even when Israeli policy was clearly wrong.

Once again, the US intelligence community has failed utterly to protect the USA against a serious threat. It is time to ask how it is possible that the intelligence agencies with their huge budgets can so reliably and predictably fail to obtain useful, timely information. Clearly, the high-tech approach to intelligence is no substitute for the proven methods of observation and infiltration. The policy of CIA support for "good" terrorists is completely bankrupt - bin Laden himself was trained and equipped by the CIA during Afghanistan's war against the Soviets.

The US media has done a terrible disservice by presenting highly slanted coverage to the American people. While CNN claims "World leaders unite behind U.S.," the Dutch NRC reports European leaders in Brussels stated: "UN must lead coalition against terror," and they're talking about the same meeting. The CNN report does not even mention the U.N. The US media has acted more as a propaganda arm of the Bush regime than as an impartial purveyor of news. The American public must be watchful of both its government and its press, and it must attempt to obtain reports from non-US sources, no longer difficult to do in the Internet age.

The international shock and revulsion over the attacks will not translate into unconditional support for US actions against suspected terrorists. While the USA is already certain that bin Laden and the Taliban are responsible, it may have been the Iraqis or even some other agent. The rush to judgement in the USA regarding authors of terrorism has already led to egregious mistakes. Let's not have another one.

So, how might we appraise the situation and what might be done?

The Attack

For more than a century, the USA has largely been spared the horrors of war. The USA has not known a significant attack on its mainland since Union troops flattened the South at the end of the Civil War. While the recent destruction of the World Trade Center is horrific, it is, in historical terms, small. US bombing of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki during WW II each killed more than ten times as many people in single attacks. If the terror continues, Americans must be prepared for even worse attacks than those just past.

The attack has often been called a "cowardly act." While it may be shocking and reprehensible, it can scarcely be called cowardly. The 19 men who actually carried out the attack intended to die in the attack, which speaks of courage, not cowardliness. There is no tradition in Western societies of suicide attacks, and they are deeply disturbing to our sensibilities. Just as with the suicide attacks by the Japanese in the closing months of WW II, the recent suicide attacks inevitably raise the question, "For what were these men planning to die?"

As is the case with any industrialized nation, the USA cannot reliably defend itself against this kind of attack. As rapidly as one barn door is closed, terrorists will search for another barn. If broad, sustained international support can be developed for actions against terrorism (preferably under the auspices of the UN), there exists the possibility to strip terrorists of their finances, which would certainly constrain their activities. However, security for the USA, in an era of terrorist attacks, lies not in a strong military or even in good intelligence, but rather in effective diplomacy. The USA presents a confused picture to the rest of the world. On the one hand, it wants to lead the world and reap all the benefits that arise from its hegemony. On the other hand, it wishes to remain largely ignorant of affairs outside its borders and does not want to involve itself in the affairs of nations. The USA can't have it both ways.

The Consequences

The knee-jerk willingness of most public figures to give away hard-won civil liberties is terrifying. Within hours of the attacks, commentators everywhere were talking about how this would usher in a new era of security that would exact a large price in terms of civil liberties. The implementation of a national ID card has been proposed, and the proposal far exceeds in its intrusiveness anything proposed or implemented elsewhere. This terrible attack is being used by the extreme right to further its agenda.

The USA seems willing to declare war on the Taliban in reprisal for the attacks. The US demands on the Taliban probably could not have been met even had they wanted to comply - it appears that the Taliban have only a loose connection with bin Laden and may, as they claimed on 23 September, really not know where he is to be found. This may have been a demand that was calculated to be impossible to meet. Do not forget that the Taliban went as far as to ask bin Laden to leave Afghanistan, a remarkable step in itself.

War in Afghanistan?

Wars don't last forever, however endless they may seem at the time. Ultimately, the disagreements that gave rise to the war are settled, often impermanently, and usually with one side or the other having to yield on one point or another that it had once thought worth dying for. It rarely becomes impossible to continue a war - at some point, the losing side decides that the cost of continuing has become unbearable and the likelihood of ultimate victory too remote. At that point, the loser gives up and the question is, at least temporarily, resolved in some fashion acceptable to the winner.

The USA has never suffered heavy losses in any war. Even in the Civil War, less than 2% of the population died. By contrast, the Soviet Union probably lost 20% of its population during WW II. Americans now seem willing to pursue a war-at-any-cost policy, but will that resolve evaporate if US losses exceed 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000? Unlike the desert war in 1991, any war in Afghanistan will not be won with light casualties on the US side. Technology is of little use in the mountains of Afghanistan, as the technically-sophisticated Soviets discovered during their recent attempts to master that country. It is hard to imagine that the USA will succeed where others have come to grief.

An attack against Afghanistan, especially if conducted without definitive proof that bin Laden organized the recent attacks, will only further inflame anti-US feeling in Moslem nations. The leaders of many of these nations have supported the US and decried the terrorist attacks, but many of their own people do not support this position. Precipitate attacks against Moslem targets are likely to lead to the fall of sympathetic regimes in the region.

It seems likely, then, that any attempt to use force on a large scale against Afghanistan is doomed to fail, unless the USA is willing to take the heinous step of carpet-bombing the mountains with large thermo-nuclear warheads, a course of action I truly hope will not even be contemplated. If military force does not succeed, what then? The USA will have to attempt to negotiate a settlement if it hopes to bring an end to the conditions that breed terrorism. Will the USA be able to obtain better terms after losing thousands of Americans in a hopeless war in the Afghan mountains? It seems unlikely. Will the USA break the will of fundamentalist Moslems through war? Almost certainly not. In fact, such a war will be branded a "holy war," and the number of outraged Moslems signing up for suicide missions will probably soar. In short, does the USA have anything at all to gain from military adventures in Afghanistan?

If a war cannot be won, then it is senseless to begin it in the first place.

Peace in the Middle East

If war is not the answer, the question then becomes what to do instead. Ideally, bin Laden (assuming he is involved at all) should be brought to justice if that is possible without going to war. If not, he can be disabled by depriving him of his money and containing him within the nation that hosts him. Beyond this, what?

Oil is, of course, at the root of many of the troubles in the region. The huge oil fields in Saudi Arabia were discovered in the 1930s, and in the scramble to reorganize the world in the aftermath of WW II, the British and Americans rearranged the region to suit their convenience. Kingdoms were given to those who had little or no claim to them, and overt as well as covert power has been used ever since to maintain these despotic puppets in power. That the USA, which prides itself as the standard-bearer for democracy, should support so many of these disgraceful regimes is a major cause of resentment against the USA.

The USA must greatly reduce its consumption of oil, which will in turn allow US foreign policy to be dictated by concerns other than maintaining a steady supply of Middle Eastern oil. The USA must stop viewing the Arab world as the tenant farmer looking after its oil holdings. The USA needs to acknowledge all the nations of this region as sovereign states that deserve some measure of respect by the USA. This includes an end to meddling in internal politics, assassinations, routine support to factions working to subvert anti-American governments, and using these nations as scapegoats.

It appears that the continuing US presence in Saudi Arabia, the seat of the holiest places in Islam, is a deeply-felt affront to many Moslems. The USA should reassess the wisdom of this practice. US forces can be withdrawn from the region once the oil problem has been solved by dramatic reductions in consumption, which will take a decade of hard work to achieve.

The USA must stop supporting Israeli atrocities against Arabs, and must, in fact, condemn them in unambiguous terms, by ending all support to Israel if that is the only available means. Although the USA should not simply walk away from Israel, the government of that nation (and its people) must be made to understand that it must negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith, and therefore on terms considerably less favorable than have been contemplated up to now. No solution to the conflict between Israel on the one hand and its neighbors and the Palestinians on the other is possible without first acknowledging that terrible wrongs were done when the Palestinians were deprived of lands they had long occupied. It is now more than 50 years since the state of Israel was established, and yet nearly a million displaced Palestinians still crowd refugee camps where many have lived their entire existence. Probably the only solution for Jerusalem is to make it an international city, under the auspices of the UN, that belongs to no nation.

The USA must force Israel to the negotiating table. Bush, who received almost no support from the Jewish community in the USA, can put as much pressure as needed on the Israeli government without any damage to his reelection prospects. Clearly, Israel must pull out of the West Bank promptly, fully, and permanently. The USA is the only major nation that believes that Israeli occupation of that land has any legitimacy (see the many UN resolutions on this subject).

There is, of course, the question of religious conflict. The ongoing and alarmingly successful efforts by Christian extremists in the USA to install Christianity as the state religion in the USA does nothing to help the situation. One of the great gifts of America's founding fathers was a state that was to remain free of religion, the practice of which was to be an entirely personal matter. There is no evident reason that Christians and Moslems cannot live side by side; their religious traditions have a common basis, even if that basis is far back in the mists of time. The attacks by "good Christians" against innocent Moslems living peacefully in the USA only further inflames tensions. Many religious leaders of all faiths are, of course, calling for calm and for peace, as are most people outside the USA, including a great many Moslems.

The USA needs to return to the secular principles that served it so well for so long - church and state must be fully separated from one another. The government of the USA has no business taking religiously-based positions on any matter of public policy. This will be a hard one for Bush, much of whose constituency is precisely those Christian extremists who favor a sectarian state.  

The moment has arrived for Americans to grow up and realize the importance of the position their country occupies in the world. This brings with it a large measure of responsibility and the need to be fully informed on the issues of the day. It requires the maturity not to seek immediate revenge for the horrific attacks and to search for real solutions to the problems in the Middle East. Declaring war on Afghanistan will only make everything worse, both at home and abroad. Peace is the only sane course to pursue.


Text ©2001 J.Crawford. This text may be freely reproduced provided that the entire text is reproduced without change and that is cited as the source.

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