Harbor Lights

“Harbor Lights” (9.12.01) context of the Sept 11 attacks on the WTC & Pentagon, The Manitoban, 26 September 2001.

A British analyst on late night NPR Tuesday night emphasized that this is exactly what it is like in most of the rest of the world most of the time the sense of not knowing what is going to happen next, the fear for safety of family members, the sense of outrage and injustice. Knowing this, one of my students cried as she described how hard it was to hear her mother say “this wasn’t supposed to happen to us”. If we are to avert future civilian deaths, the most important thing we must do is reflect on the role we play in that reality of constant violence and in the unresolved conflicts which visit terror on so many peoples every day.

The violence which threatens most of the world is done with weapons we made and sold, according to military advice and training we provided, almost always with the tacit tolerance when not the explicit support of our nation. Why might people burn our flag yesterday or any other day? Because the bullets that fall on their children carry that flag, no matter who shot them this time. In the Indonesian invasion beginning in 1975, over 200,000 East Timorese were killed and 90% of the weapons used were sold to Indonesia by the U.S. Throughout the 1990s, Columbia’s military and paramilitary has killed 3,000 citizens a year while continuing to be the top recipient of U.S. military aid to Latin America. Turkey, 80% of whose arms come from the U.S., has killed tens of thousands of Kurds since 1984. There are many more examples.

The attacks yesterday can be interpreted as “cowardly acts”. But they are no more cowardly than many executions which the U.S. has performed. There may be ten thousand dead from yesterday’s attack on the World Trade Center. As we decide how to respond to our pain about that, we must put our dead in the perspective that four thousand children die each month in Iraq as a direct result of U.S. sanctions, which are now in their tenth year. We almost never put personnel at risk, preferring to use high-tech distance weapons. Instead, we use sanctions, low-intensity warfare, psychological operations, off-shore missile launchers. We target infrastructure like water supplies with deadly but indirect effects on the civilian population and we fund and train the governments that send out the death squads.

As expressions of sympathy pour in from the rest of the world, we should understand that the senders are all too familiar with what we are experiencing but the source of their pain is significantly less mysterious. We must understand that in our pain we have the comfort of our righteous rage and the world’s strongest military with which to express it while people who suffer this terror daily do so defenselessly. Many of those who mourn with us are also now cringing in the knowledge that they may be the target chosen for our furious revenge.

Much of the world must be at pause today, frozen in the horror that the nation whose righteous rage will soon descend on the planet is the only one which has refused to sign bans on chemical and biological weapons. This is the nation which knew Pearl Harbor would happen and let it in order to have the excuse to go to war. More recently, this is the nation which refused to proceed with diplomatic channels to Milosevec even when almost all defense advisors thought it would work and counseled against military action. This is the nation which killed possibly tens of thousands of Sudanese, supposedly by mistake, and then blocked UN investigation attempts. This is the nation which bombed a column of retreating Iraqi soldiers when the war was over. This is the nation which refused to use its political or military resources to intervene in genocide in Rwanda, Turkey, Nigeria, Colombia, Cambodia, and East Timor. This nation is known for arrogance, selfishness, and the most terrible violence.

As we wonder how other humans could rationally resort to an act of violence such as we suffered yesterday, we must carefully excavate our histories. Studying history will reveal in many cases that the U.S. has not participated with good faith in international dialogues and diplomacy. A good place to start is an examination of the U.N. voting records on issues of nuclear weapons proliferation. If there was the slightest suspicion that the Israel-Palestine conflict was relevant to yesterday’s events, the first and most minimal thing we should have done was send somebody to Durban, to take more seriously the concerns that were being raised there about our role in that conflict. We bailed on the obviously necessary Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases and we undermined the Montréal Protocol on Biosafety. We stand nearly alone in the world in refusing to do anything about anti-personnel land mines (which are still killing people in Southeast Asia, 25 years after the end of the Vietnam war), the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Criminal Court. We have protected Israel from international sanction time and time again in cases where they are in clear violation of International Law in their treatment of Palestinians. People working on any of these issues might feel that the U.S. has abandoned rational discourse and can only be communicated with through brute force.

The attacks yesterday have been characterized as attacks on American “freedom”. The buildings that were attacked are indeed potent symbols. But of what kind of freedom? I can hardly imagine that for most Americans (out of work, underpaid, indebted, insecure) the World Trade Center symbolizes anything about “freedom”. And in the eyes of the world, that Center symbolized America’s freedom to exploit workers, to snatch agricultural and natural resources, and to control even the value of nations’ own currencies. The Pentagon symbolizes the fearsome military power which always looms behind our economic forays and which makes our preferences a terrible law in so many parts of the world where people are struggling to control their own destinies. We didn’t like the freedoms chosen in Cuba in 1959, in Chile in 1973, in Grenada in 1979 and we intervened violently to change their courses.

These attacks are intolerable because they were carried out against civilians. But whether these civilians are indeed “innocent” is another claim that occasions reflection. Residents of the U.S. are innocent to varying degrees. Some of the workers in the buildings have little power in this society and indeed live in great fear every day due to their immigration status, skin color, or economic vulnerability. But most of the people in those buildings, like myself, are in no way “innocent” of our country’s relations with the rest of the world. We eat and wear and drive the blood of the third world. We congratulate our war-mongering leaders on violent “humanitarian” adventures without taking the time to carefully study the situations, learn about all alternatives, and consider the incredible cost our actions carry.

Most painfully in the eyes of the world is the fact that we shrug our shoulders helplessly when our elected officials behave unaccountably. The rest of the world knows that we have more civil liberties than most of them. And they depend on us to control the behavior of the world’s mightiest corporations and armies. They expect us to carefully, laboriously, and responsibly bend our institutions to behave in the interests of true justice and democracy. We must be so loyal to democracy and freedom that we are willing to question actions our own nation has taken in their and our names. Hard as it may be, for our own sake, for the meanings of the ideas we hold most dear, and for the safety of all our fellow humans, we must respond to a great injustice by examining the possibility that even if the hijackers were foreign, we may be the harbor.

Dr. Amory Starr

Department of Sociology

Colorado State University

“We urge Congress and George Bush that whatever response or policy the U.S. develops it will be clear that this nation will no longer target civilians, or accept any policy by any nation which targets civilians. This would mean an end to the sanctions against Iraq, which have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. It would mean not only a condemnation of terrorism by Palestinians but also the policy of assassination of the Palestinian leadership by Israel, and the ruthless repression of the Palestinian population…” David McReynolds, for the War Resisters League wrl@igc.org

for news, see http://www.alternet.org

for more analysis of international relations, see http://www.zmag.org

other important points to pay attention to from today’s 474 class:

* who benefits & who loses? make lists!

* the primacy of the economy

* does are government really give a shit about us?

* the loss of civil liberties which will result from increased racial profiling, personal surveillance, and militarization all in the name of anti-terrorism to protect us