By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice (etc.) 2/15/07
Imagine that we had a different president on September 11, 2001. Let’s revisit that pivotal moment in history right before the endless war against everyone everywhere began.
The days following the September 11 attacks saw an unprecedented outpouring of support for the United States and the American people. Animosity and political strife was on hold. The future was on hold. For a moment we were a global community in mourning. For a moment, confronted with murderous insanity, a sane future was possible.
The condemnation against the attackers was quick and universal—even from nations derided by George W. Bush in biblical terms as “evil.” Iran’s reformist president, Muhammad Khatami, told the United Nations that the attacks “can only be the job of a group that have voluntarily severed their own ears and tongues, so that the only language with which they could communicate would be destroying and spreading death.” Thousands of Iranians spontaneously took to the streets to hold a candlelight vigil for the American victims of the attacks. Even Iran’s conservative supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, joined in condemning the attacks.
This was an opening from a nation to which we now have aircraft carriers full of warplanes on route. Khatami, a popular progressive elected by a population demanding democratic reforms, was replaced in 2005 by a conservative hard-liner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—in large part because Khatami’s overtures to the West were discredited by what Iranians saw as Bush’s war against Islam. Ahmadinejad is now at the center of the controversy surrounding Iran’s alleged attempts to acquire nuclear bombs.
Protest in the streets of Iran is rare these days. With the United States persistently threatening Iran, any dissent is tarred as supporting the American enemy, just as George W. Bush tarred all anti-war protestors as “supporting the terrorists.” In this battle between the Great Satan and the Axis of Evil, any voice of sanity is ostracized as both sides prepare for a cataclysm neither supposedly democratic population wants.
The September 11 attacks were also roundly condemned by all major political factions in Palestine. Approximately one million Palestinian school children held a five-minute vigil in solidarity with suffering American children. Palestinian college students and faculty organized a blood drive to send their own blood to New York area hospitals to help victims of the attacks. American media, however, chose to focus on a small gathering of street punks celebrating the attacks—which would be akin to using photos of Nazi skinheads to illustrate American support for a racist jihad.
Most Americans still recall the shock we felt as we watched reports of French TV stations playing the American national anthem while Paris’ normally combative Le Monde newspaper ran the headline, “We are all Americans.” Around the world from Cuba to China, across every continent, both leaders and ordinary citizens expressed solidarity with Americans and condemnation of the attacks.
Just imagine what life could be like today if this moment of global unity had not been squandered. For a brief second in history, the slate had been wiped clear and the world seemed ready to move on—beyond the stain of US invasions, occupations, CIA-backed military coups, assassinations and attempted assassinations of political leaders. The people that died on September 11 in New York had nothing to do with this history and the people of the world wanted to make that clear. World governments faced a new threat on September 12, 2001—the threat that the world’s people were about to wage peace on each other.
Imagine that we had political leadership in the United States with the courage, the intelligence and the political motivation to have waged not war but peace back in September 2001. Imagine.
Waging peace, however, would require us first to understand why people would wage war against us—why people would hate us so as to sacrifice their own lives just to hurt an anonymous cross-section of the American population as they did on September 11. The mass media gave George W. Bush complete control over this issue during the days following September 11, allowing him to both ask and answer the “Why do they hate us?” question. Bush’s answer was simple and simpleton: “They hate us because we love freedom.”
The Bush administration and the mainstream media created and maintained a political environment were proposing any other answer was akin to committing treason and siding with the terrorists. There was no rational or productive discussion. In the real world, horrendous crimes are often solved by profilers who attempt to empathize with and understand the criminal, no matter how repulsive the profiler finds the crime and its perpetrator. This is how you stop bad things from happening—by understanding why they happen.
Fast forward to 2007. We now have a generation of children coming of age in the Arab and Muslim world, whose adult perception of the world is predicated upon images of American soldiers brutalizing people who look, talk and worship like them. I’m not making a political judgment here. I’m simply making an observation of reality. Picture a 17-year-old today who has been watching these images on television since they were 12 years old. Why do they hate us?
Then think of young people around the world toiling for 70 hours per week in sweatshops making cheap goods to fill first-world department stores. Think of these workers as their work cripples their young bodies. And think of them as their union leaders and would-be union leaders are arrested and beaten. Think of Latin American peasants displaced from the land their ancestors farmed for generations as American multinationals literally export the fruit of their labor and their children suffer from malnutrition. Think of the Nigerians whose environment, health and livelihoods are being devastated by American oil companies. They’ve watched leaders of their community murdered by death squads. Think about the Haitians who watched their popular elected government fall to a US-backed coup that has since claimed thousands of lives. Think of the family that lost a loved one in one of dozens of countries around the world where the International Monetary Fund forced governments to gut their healthcare systems. Think of the Nicaraguan family that lost loved ones to a US-backed Contra terrorist attack during the Reagan years. Then repeat these stories over and over and over again in countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, Zaire, Chile, South Africa, East Timor, Angola, Honduras, the Philippines and Columbia, and ask again: Why do they hate us?
Waging peace is not politically easy. The only way to do it is to fight for true social justice around the world. Justice means a level playing field without exploitation. This means people won’t sacrifice their youth toiling for pennies an hour so we can buy $10 jeans at Wal-Mart. It means that oil corporations can’t rape Nigeria in our name so that American shareholders can break records for corporate profitability and American consumers can continue to thoughtlessly careen about in their gas-guzzling SUVs. It means we can’t necessarily have cheap bananas or canned pineapples or summer crops in the winter—and it means a handful of food conglomerates can’t turn a double-digit annual yield for their investors. It means you can’t buy a $2 tee shirt or a $1 wristwatch. In this imaginary world of human rights and social justice, things at Target would cost a lot more. Are you ready for that?
Are we up to the challenge of peace and justice? In this angry world, we can’t have one without the other. Bush is right. The post-September 11 world is different. It’s smaller and more interconnected. Those who hate us have suddenly learned they have power and we have vulnerabilities. If we are serious about homeland security, we have to be serious about global justice.
So let’s go back and image what the world would have been like if we’d had a different president in 2001—one with the courage to wage peace. One who didn’t tell us to keep shopping or the terrorists would have won. Imagine the world we could be living in today if we’d spent just a fraction of what we’re spending in Iraq on peace instead of war—if we’d launched a global Marshall plan to fight disease, hunger and illiteracy around the world. We’d be more secure in that world not only because we’d no longer be inciting hatred on a wholesale level, but because we’d have friends who would want to cooperate in guaranteeing our national security.
Now imagine that we had a Congress and a media that wouldn’t immediately dismiss waging peace as insane. Imaging if we embraced the world as they reached out to embrace us in the wake of our national tragedy. Just imagine.
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