Thinking about War

by Michael I. Niman    (Sept 30 edit)

             Eight hours after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, I found myself, a bit shell shocked, joining an American Legion Commander as talking heads on local Buffalo television.  It was a busy day for the media. The new century’s biggest story was unfolding faster than they could report, or even comprehend.  With every TV and radio station scrambling to fill a 24-hour news hole, talking heads were in short supply.  When my phone rang I knew they were down to their B or C list.

             The episode opened with a ravenous diatribe by the Commander, calling for an immediate increase in military spending.  He laid out the specifics: More ships.  Better ships.  More planes.  He laid out a shopping list fit for a sustained air and ground war against a superpower.  We needed the Big Boy Boomeroo.  Later in the day we’d learn our enemies were armed with box cutters.

  Mulder, Scully & The Taliban

             Then came my turn.  Like so many other people on September 11th, I just started talking about my day.  Earlier, I had turned on the television for the first time since May.  It was May when TVland was shaken by the Mulder/Scully kiss.  It was also May when the Bush administration, under the guise of the war on drugs, gave Afghanistan’s Brutal Taliban “government” a $10 million grant.  May seems so long ago now.

             I had been watching the images of the World Trade Center collapse as they repeated ad nausea. I grew up in New York.  As a child I watched as the twin towers were built.  Now someone punched a whole in my skyline and in my sense of reality.  I was horrified, angry, distraught and in shock.

             I recounted my emotions to the cameras.  I then glanced over to the Commander.  The bodies of the victims were still warm.  No doubt some were gasping their last breaths amidst the rubble. I didn’t yet know if I had family or friends among the dead.  Yet, I protested, people were already using our tragedy to push their own political agendas.  It’s now over a month later and despite effectively there’s no sign of them letting up. 

     They were playing on our emotions in this time of national crisis, promoting a political agenda that was unthinkable just hours earlier.  These aren’t patriots, I argued, but cold-blooded political opportunists.  Like the bombing of the Reichstag that set off a political domino effect leading to a Nazi takeover of Germany, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center can potentially open the door wide for an anti-democratic anti-American political movement to take root.  Fascism never sleeps.

             The images of September 11th are new for Americans.  And they’re horrifying.  But for the rest of the world, unfortunately, they’re familiar.  They saw them during the U.S. bombing of Belgrade, during the U.S. bombing of Baghdad, and during the incineration of the El Chorillo neighborhood in Panama City during the U.S. invasion of Panama, to name a few places.  The reality is that this is a violent world where civilians are often killed -- sometime in mass -- both by state terrorism and individual acts of terrorism. 

 ABC, CBS, NBC and CIA Spooks


The fact that these images never graced American TV speaks reams about the U.S. corporate media and its relationship with our government.  John Alpert, for example, an award winning freelance cameraperson, risked his life behind enemy lines photographing the aftereffects of “smart bombs” that flew amiss into Baghdad’s residential neighborhoods.  The networks, which in the past regularly broadcast Alpert’s work, all refused to air his footage.  It was powerful footage and it had the potential to turn U.S. public opinion against the Gulf War.  The recent history of journalism is ripe with the names of other such heroes who documented U.S. government atrocities against civilian populations only to have their work censored and their careers short-circuited. 

         With a new sort of war on the horizon we have to once again be aware as the corporate media steps up its jingoistic hype.  Immediately following the collapse of the twin towers, ABC News, for example, put their news analyst, Vincent Cannistraro, on the air.  What they never told us is that prior to joining the ABC team, Cannistraro served as a high-ranking CIA official in charge of coordinating the terrorist Contra attacks against Nicaragua during the early 1980s.  In 1984 he joined the National Security Council where he supervised aid to the Mujahideen guerillas in Afghanistan, the forbearers of the al Qaida organization suspected in the attack on the twin towers.  In other words, ABC’s analyst, unbeknownst to viewers, actually helped organize the very terrorist movement he was now calling for retribution against.  We can’t expect any better reportage from NBC or CBS, both of whom are owned by corporations with large military contracts who stand to gain billions of dollars each in the event of a military buildup such as the one we are about to witness.

Apple Pie Terrorism


In reality, the U.S. is a violent player in a turbulent global political arena.  Our foreign policy routinely uses acts that can arguably be called “terrorism,” throughout the world.  The bombing of Belgrade, for example, purposely targeted civilian infrastructure in an effort to disrupt life as usual in Serbia.  The Serb government for their part certainly committed their share of atrocities, but I’d like to think of America as being stronger then to sink to the level of attacks on civilian infrastructure.  To that end we bombed electric stations, water treatment plants, civilian TV stations and buildings in densely populated cities throughout that nation.  Though none of these images alone could compare to the devastation of September 11th, the bombing campaign against Serbian cities went on for days, then weeks, until most of Serbia’s population was living in the cold and dark, unable to sleep for fear of further attack. 

In the Sudan we lobbed 13 Cruise Missiles the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant, leading to medicine shortages in that nation responsible for over 10,000 deaths.  Allegations made by the Clinton administration that the plant was producing chemical weapons later proved false.  The Sudanese government, who by all accounts is up there with the Taliban as the worse human rights abusers in the world (there’s still an active slave trade there), is still in power.  And as of press time, they’re now our friends.  Orwell couldn’t have written a better script.

Our attempts to bomb Iraq “into the stone age” have yielded, by conservative estimates, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties.  The lack of functioning water treatment plants in Iraq, due to both the U.S. bombing during the Persian Gulf War and to the embargo on the parts and chemicals needed to run and repair them, is responsible for the deaths of as many as 500,000 Iraqi children.  Our war was against Saddam but in the end it was the Iraqi people who bore the brunt of the pain and suffering.

        The U.S. has also sponsored terrorism against popular democratically elected governments.  As a journalist working in Central America in the late 1980s, for example, I saw first hand the effects of the U.S. orchestrated Contra War against Nicaragua.  Nicaragua, at that time, posed what American dissident Noam Chomsky called, “The threat of a good example,” showing their neighbors that it was possible to dispense with a dictatorship and improve their day-to-day lives.  To defeat this threat we had to destroy all the gains of the Sandinista revolution.  The destruction our Contras reigned upon Nicaragua, bombing schools and health clinics as well as buses and power stations has been well documented before the World Court.   Nicaragua became hell on earth, with refugees scattering throughout Europe and the Americas.  Their economy suffered a 16,000% inflation rate.  Eventually the Nicaraguan people cried uncle and voted the Sandinistas out of office. 

     The democratically elected government of Chile suffered a quicker fate, falling to a CIA engineered coup.  The people of Chile were then subjected to two decades of brutal military rule under General Pinochet.

During the past few decades, similar covert and overt U.S. government operations ranging from assassinations and bombings to outright invasions have taken place in 67 countries. Amnesty International reported in 1996, “Throughout the world, on any given day, a man, woman or child is likely to be displaced, tortured, killed or disappeared, at the hands of governments or armed political groups.  More often than not, the United States is to blame.”  Each such action has the potential to create legions of orphans who will grow up hating the U.S. and seeking revenge.  In light of this history, the post September 11th congressional action giving the President unlimited powers to act in unspecified counties as part of the “war on terrorism” is ominous. 



The emerging consensus among Western nations points to Osama [Usama] bin Laden’s al Qaida organization as being responsible for the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  The same fingers are also pointing to Afghanistan’s Taliban regime as sharing responsibility by giving refuge to bin Laden and hosting his training camps. 

 If these are in fact the people responsible for the attacks, what we are looking at, at best, is a monumental example of “blowback.”  The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had a strong hand in both creating bin Laden as a leader, and in creating the Taliban as a political movement.  During the waning days of the cold war when a Soviet allied government ran Afghanistan, the CIA used our tax dollars to help organize, train and arm an international fundamentalist movement, the Mujahideen, as a 25,000 member strong guerilla army to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.  With a price tag of over 2.5 billion dollars, this still stands as the most expensive CIA intervention in history. 

 Prominent among the CIA’s Mujahideen contacts was bin Laden, whose group the CIA both trained and armed with sophisticated weapons.  The CIA also worked to united warring and bickering Afghani tribal factions into a united front of resistance -- the Taliban.  

 The agency’s motive was twofold:  The Sunni Muslim Taliban would both fight the Soviets and provide a few headaches for their rival Shi’ite Muslim neighbors in Iran.  The rest is history.  After losing more than 15,000 soldiers, the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan.  A few years later the Afghani government collapsed leaving the country mired in chaos.  The Taliban eventually rose to control the majority of what was left of Afghanistan, tormenting their own people on a level comparable to the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia or the Nazis in Germany.  Osama bin Laden returned to his native Saudi Arabia as a national hero.

 Then came the Gulf war.

 Most biographers of bin Laden explain how he witnessed up close what we, as Americans, never saw: the brutal dismembership of civil society in Iraq by U.S. military strikes.  He saw the wholesale deaths of fellow Muslims and Arabs dismissed in the American media as “collateral damage.”  He saw a callous, possibly racist disregard for that loss of life as Americans joyously celebrated the “end” of the Gulf War.  These images began the process of turning our intelligence “asset,” our operative, against us. 

 In the U.S. presence in his native Saudi Arabia, the theory goes, he saw what he felt was an American imperialist presence in the heart of Islam’s sacred holy lands.  His movement views the U.S.’s blind unwavering support over the years for Israel and our involvement with a host of brutal client states in Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as acts of war against Islam. 

 I certainly have no sympathy for bin Laden.  He epitomizes the worst that humanity has to offer.  He’s a xenophobic misogynistic cold-blooded mass murderer.  If bin Laden is our enemy, however, we need to understand how his mind works.  We have the difficult task of trying to empathize with a psychotic mass murderer.  Bin Laden doesn’t see himself as declaring war on America per se.  He sees himself fighting to protect his beloved Islam from America.  That is his fatwa and if we are to defend our country and our way of life we need to understand it.

Military Response is Futile


First we need to understand that a military defense does not work against a terrorist threat.  The murderers who destroyed the World Trade Center accomplished their morbid goals armed only with box cutters.  Quite possibly they could have accomplished similar ends using only their bare hands.  They turned our planes into weapons against us.  This tactic is no longer unthinkable and we’ll defend against it from here on in.  But once the human mind is bent to the goal of fratricide, of killing our fellow humans, history has shown there is no limit to its creativity.  Terrorists threaten all forms of civil life ranging from mass transportation to cultural events.  They don’t need weapons or poisons to kill, maim and terrorize.  They need only to be empowered with hatred.

This is why a massive military response is futile.   It feeds the cycle of violence and hatred that brought down the twin towers.  It will fuel a war that will last for generations.  It will ignite and empower a culture of suicide bombers.  This war could be the legacy we create for our great great-grandchildren. 

For peace, social justice and democracy activists in America, Armageddon is upon us.  Americans, for the first time in over a century, are seeing first hand the violence of war as it tears at our homeland.  We’re sensing our own vulnerability.  Suddenly war is more than Ted Koppel explaining a series of attack animations.  It’s real.  We’re dying.  And a violent response will only scar the earth with more death.  The now much lauded Israeli model of revenge attacks, if anything, should demonstrate that to us.  Their war knows no end as each day new martyrs are born as old hatreds are rekindled with the flames of revenge. As Gandhi tried to point out, an eye for an eye will leave the world blind.

The Peace Movement’s Armageddon


Suddenly the arguments of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Thoreau and the peace movement make sense to run of the mill flag waiving Americans.  “You mean if we kill people other people might want to kill us?”  Gee.  In my life I’ve never had an easier time convincing people to change their minds.  George Bush’s early saber rattling and talk of war is created an opportunity for a national dialog on America’s role in the world. 

So here we are, in a unique political space.  For the first time in 50 odd years, the world is looking at the U.S. as a victim.  Hands outreached in friendship are coming from around the globe.  People both feel for us and fear that, like a wounded animal, we’ll go berserk.  How we as a nation react to this situation will determine the world’s geo-political landscape for the 21st Century. But if the peace movement fails to move the country toward a sensible response, we may sink into a militaristic abyss politically unprecedented in modern times.  We have been handed an unexpected opportunity to enter into a new relationship with the rest of the world – we shouldn’t pass it up.  As I write we have not yet launched a large scale military strike.  To the contrary, we’re sending food to the starving Afghanis.   This gives me hope.  And surprisingly, as of press time, it gives me cause to cautiously praise Bush’s apparent restraint.  I can’t help but to think that Al Gore would have been lobbing missiles weeks ago.

It’s also Armageddon for the peace movement since many forms of political resistance are about to be criminalized.  One of the bills rushing through the House and Senate will give George Bush’s government sweeping powers to conduct political surveillance and infiltrate domestic political movements such as the peace, global justice and environmental movements, which have long been a thorn in the side of corporate America.  The war against terrorism also allows for sweeping actions to be conducted against “terrorist” organizations, and for due process to be suspended when dealing with suspected “terrorists” and people supporting “terrorist organizations.”  At this juncture it is important to remember back in the 1980s when the Reagan Administration declared the Coalition in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), a Peace Center affiliate organization protesting against the U.S. covert war in El Salvador, to be an organization “supporting terrorism.”    Suddenly thousands of American Quakers, Catholic Workers, and run of the mill pacifists fell under the rubric of “terrorist.” 

Already the right wing pundits who dominate the corporate airwaves are musing about how Earth First!, Sea Shepherd and other environmental organizations employing direct action tactics are, like bin Laden’s al Qaida movement, “Terrorists.”  Likewise, the wide net cast for suspected terrorists will also no doubt be used to suppress globalization protestors, especially those that employ civil disobedience as a tactic.  Yes, politically this is Armageddon.  Either the peace and social justice movements will prevail and introduce a dialog of sanity, or they will be criminalized.  These are dangerous times for democracy.

Democracy On The Line


In the wake of the attacks of September 11th, the Bush administration moved fast to reinvigorate it’s stalled radical agenda for restructuring American government.  The first political victim of the attacks will be the social security “lockbox” as the Bush administration raids the previously untouchable social security surplus to pay for the ensuing war. 

The man in charge of the money, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil, the former CEO of Alcoa Aluminum, is already on record calling for the elimination of social security, Medicare and all forms of government supported social services.  Up until this point, such a radical agenda was politically untenable.  A $40 billion plus war bill, coupled with the recently imposed Bush tax restructuring plan, promises to lead the U.S. government in the direction of bankruptcy.  At that juncture, the hard medicine we will be forced to take won’t be tax increases for corporations and the rich.  O’Neil is also on record calling for the elimination of all corporate taxes.  The hard medicine we as patriots will be forced to endure will be more cuts to education and social services, which was on the Bush agenda all along.  The new vision of government articulated by O’Neil may very well become a reality, with government morphing into a massive military-police state providing few other services.

As a result of the events of September 11th, we can also expect to see renewed calls for drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and in the Gulf of Mexico, two items high on the Bush administration wish list that the public recently declared off-limits.  With our new war on terrorism threatening to turn the heat up in the Middle East, development of domestic oil reserves will no doubt become an issue of “national defense.”

Also on the legislative agenda as a result of the attacks is a bill allowing the CIA and other government agencies to assassinate foreign nationals at will and to hire known human rights abusers as operatives.  This one really requires a pause for reflection.  This is a bill that in the name of fighting terrorism will allow the Bush administration and all those who follow, to order the murder of individuals, including elected leaders, at will.  No judge or jury, just summary execution at the whim of a bureaucrat or government sponsored terrorist.  The bill will also allow the CIA to once again support the work of notorious human rights abusers.  This is exactly the activity that, before it was banned, brought us the likes of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, and hundreds of other murderous madman throughout the world. It’s the renewal of the very policy that led to the destruction of the World Trade Center.  It’s unethical by every measure, it’s a threat to democracy and social justice movements around the world, and it’s just plain stupid.

It was also only hours after the first plane hit the World Trade Center that government spokespersons started to call for more funding for the CIA.  And politicians started echoing that call without any recognition of the fact that it was excessive funding of the CIA back in the 1980s that created the terrorist organizations that are now attacking us.  How stupid can we be?

The SUV Connection


        The best defense against terrorism is to stop creating enemies so dedicated to our destruction that they are willing to sacrifice their own lives to kill us.  We need to recognize that the Islamic world is off limits to our neo-colonial rule.  This means we will no longer be able to control the flow of oil coming from Persian Gulf countries.  In the simplest terms, this is what it’s all about.  Vice President Dick Cheney is the former CEO of Halliburton Oil.  Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans is the former CEO of a Denver based oil and gas corporation.   White House Director of Legislative Affairs, Nicholas Calio is a former lobbyist for Atlantic Richfield (ARCO).  Chevron actually named a tanker after National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice.  The list goes on and on.  The Bush family is all about oil.  Daddy Bush’s Persian Gulf War was all about oil.   

        The United States, with less than 5% of the world’s population, currently consumes 40% of the world’s annual oil output.  Put simply, the current problem is the result of our need to control Middle Eastern Politics.  And we control Middle Eastern Politics so we can control the supply of oil to feed our gas guzzling SUVs as we cruise from jobs to shopping malls in and endless cycle of working and consuming.  If we’re to live at peace with our global neighbors, this unsustainable behavior must stop.  We can’t hog nearly half of the world’s oil.  Likewise we can’t keep buying cheap goods made in sweatshops around the world. 

        Go to the dollar store.  Go to Wal Mart.  Look at what things cost and think about how much labor went to produce them.  Think about how much oil fueled the ship to bring them across the globe.  The math doesn’t add up.  Our consumerist society is a vampire sucking the labor and resources from the world.  We’re blind to our own complicity in global exploitation.  One toy store chain, in a show of hypocrisy, is sponsoring an American Flag making event for children.  The children, however, would have a difficult time finding American made products in that store.  Almost all toy production is now ‘outsourced’ to low wage offshore factories and sweatshops.  We get cheap toys but they’re often manufactured under hellish conditions. Even the American flags we now proudly wave are more often than not produced under dismal conditions in foreign plants, with “communist” China pumping out Old Glories by the million.

        Our economic hegemony is backed up by a global military presence.  It’s a politically untenable situation that invites resentment.  The events of September 11th are the end result of resentment run amok.

         Unfortunately the attack on the World Trade Center will only exacerbate the problem.  As skyscrapers become targets for terrorists, the concept of densely packed cities will begin to unravel.  The result, as we are now seeing in the wake of the attacks, is more suburban sprawl as companies seek safer scattered harbors from which to work.  This means more cars on more highways consuming more oil as businesses move further from mass transit accessible urban centers.  The fact that a few firemen survived the collapse of the twin towers inside the refuge of a SUV will ironically contribute to even more sales of these ridiculous giant cars – now seen as terrorist-proof.

         We’re at a juncture now.  In the rubble of the World Trade Center we can catch a glimpse of a bleak future.  There’s an eerie serenity in the air; the calm before the storm.  The media is telling us that their polls show we want war.  We want to go down this dark path of endless destruction.  We want to avenge murder with murder.  We want to kill.  But the polls are a sham.  The questions are leading.  They’re designed to produce a given set of answers.  These are dangerous times.  Believe nothing.  Talk to your neighbors, your friends, your family.  In my heart I know we’re not a community of killers.

The Enemy


        I want justice, but I don’t want war.  There’s no way to fight a physical war against an ideology.  Our weapons are obsolete.  We’re not prepared for this battle.  Our government tells us our war might be waged against Afghanistan.  But Afghanistan is already in rubble.  With some help from the former Soviet Union, the Afghanis have already, during the past two decades of war, destroyed all the infrastructure in their own country. Only 13% of the population has access to potable drinking water.  Only 12% has access to flush toilets.  Only 36% of Afghanis can read.  Only one in a thousand has a telephone. Seventy percent of the population is malnourished and 22% are currently facing imminent starvation.  In Afghanistan death offers a respite from the horrors of life.

         As rulers, the Taliban have failed.  Afghanistan is in ruins.  They invite this war.  Only with an American invasion can they have an external foe upon whom to blame their failures.  Only with the help of an American attack can they survive the eventual wrath of their own people. Only in the spotlight of our own hatred can the Taliban’s ideology of hate persist and spread.  They welcome this war.  The terrorists invited this war.  They wrote the script.  We must resist following it.


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