Try this scenario for size: a major U.S. building is destroyed in a terrorist attack. Immediately Palestinian or Middle Eastern terrorists are suspected. But an investigation soon finds it was home grown terrorists who have declared war on the federal government and have bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. They are linked to white supremacist neo-Nazi survivalist groups that have been training in the western U.S. So the president declares war and orders the bombing of Montana and Idaho, vowing to destroy their camps and flush the terrorists out of their holes. While this action satisfies the public demand for vengeance against the Aryan nation groups, it only convinces more of their followers of the need for more violence -just as the earlier government attack on the Branch Davidian compound had brought this retaliatory attack on the Oklahoma City federal building. Violence begets violence in a series of tit for tat retributions that soon becomes a civil war, making life in America more and more dangerous for everyone.
An unlikely scenario, you say? But that is essentially the scenario now being played out on the world stage with President Bush's military response to the World Trade Center attacks. Fortunately, that was NOT the way the U.S. responded to the Oklahoma City bombing. Rather than treating it as an act of war, it was treated as a crime, a monstrous crime. The FBI conducted an investigation, culprits were arrested, Timothy McVeigh was tried in a court of law, provided with lawyers, given due process and a chance to defend himself, convicted by a jury of his peers, sentenced to death but given the right to appeal, and eventually executed. The rule of law prevailed against terrorism. The fabric of a nation of laws was strengthened.
That is the way the U.S. could have responded to the September 11 attacks. It could have been interpreted as a crime, a crime against humanity. The United Nations could have been enlisted to capture the culprits; they could have been brought before the International Criminal Court (although the U.S. would first have to join the rest of the world in recognizing this body) or a special international tribunal for a fair trial and then punished. But, you might object, these international institutions are not strong enough to deal effectively in this way. However, the U.S. had the sympathy of the world's nations after September 11. The U.S. could have mobilized that sympathy to strengthen those international institutions. It could have led us all toward a more civilized world. There was a unique historical opportunity to build the rule of law on an international scale, to build institutions that could deal effectively with this and future acts of terrorism.
But President Bush flunked the test of history; he missed this unique opportunity. Instead, he responded with the lawlessness of the Wild West. He rounded up a posse and set out to lynch the varmints. He tracked them to Afghanistan and demanded that that country turn them over to him so he could string them up. Now, they were there as guests of that country. Imagine, if you will, that you have guests in your home and an angry mob is outside demanding you turn them over to be lynched. Would you do it, would you consign a friend to such a fate? Well, I guess it would depend on how frightened you were of the mob. If you had the chance, you would call the police to protect you and your guest. What Afghanistan did, not unreasonably, was ask for some evidence of the guilt of the accused. But Bush's mob said, "don't delay, we don't want to talk about it." He demanded, "turn him over to us, and all of his friends too, then let us into your house so we can ransack it. And if you don't do that in the next few minutes, we'll burn your house down." That was essentially the way the U.S. dealt with the situation. Bush followed the primitive psychology of a lynch mob, the lawlessness of the Wild West.
The U.S., victim of an international crime, has taken on the roles of accuser, investigator, policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Any possibility of a fair trial is eliminated as the accused is declared an outlaw, wanted dead or alive, but preferably dead. And the U.S. goes on to claim the right to declare others it accuses as outside the law, to be dealt with in a similar way. What is envisioned here is not the rule of law, but a world ruled by brute force, policed by the military violence of the world's only superpower. By refusing to build international institutions to enforce the rule of law, the U.S. instead strengthens its own imperial rule. The outcome of current U.S. policy is the building of an Empire, founded on an enduring war against terrorism that only breeds new rebels to attack it so the Empire can strike back in a never ending Manichean struggle between good and evil -- but where we can no longer find good in either side. Just as in the popular "Star Wars" saga, the Empire's military actions end up engendering more resistance, more retaliation. The Empire can only act militarily; it cannot understand that it is fundamentally a political struggle that needs to be waged. Military attacks only make their targets into martyrs and heroes and so more rally to their cause.
In his unholy war against terrorism, Bush has declared to the world's nations, "you are either with us or with the terrorists." By this intimidating ultimatum, he has bullied most of nations into acquiescing to his military adventure in Afghanistan; a few have even actively, if nervously, supporting it. Rather than being a genuinely international effort, as I have been proposing, it is essentially a unilateral intervention designed to topple a government, or a "U.S. led campaign" as the Pentagon calls it.
The term 'terrorist' remains undefined. It means whatever Emperor Bush says it means. The U.S. reserves the right to decide which countries are terrorist or harbor terrorism. Judging from past practices, we can expect the U.S. will wield the sword against any nation, any leader, any social movement it feels threatens U.S. interests, i.e. the interests of U.S. corporations. For the last half century it has done this in the name of anti-communism. Now U.S. imperialism has found a new legitimating rationale: anti-terrorism. The sword has been unsheathed in this first campaign against the new enemy. We have been promised it will also be used against others it chooses to tar with the brush of terrorism.
The U.S. has just conducted a successful disinformation campaign in Nicaragua, branding presidential candidate Daniel Ortega a supporter of terrorism to frighten the people of that poor country into electing the candidate preferred by the U.S. Of course, the people of Nicaragua know Ortega has nothing to do with terrorism, but they vividly remember the terrorism they suffered in the 1980s during his presidency. But that was U.S. sponsored terrorism designed to overturn its progressive government. And that's not just my opinion; the World Court convicted the U.S. of violations of international law for its actions during that "low intensity conflict", as the Pentagon called our terrorism. The U.S. just snubbed its nose at the World Court. The current U.S. disinformation campaign was a not very subtle warning that if they returned Ortega to office now, they would once again have to defend themselves from the terrorism of the colossus of the North.
The dirty war against Nicaragua was launched and directed from neighboring Honduras. The U.S. Ambassador there was John Negroponte, whom Bush has now made his Ambassador to the United Nations. So a man with the blood of thousands of Nicaraguans on his hands is now our representative to the UN in charge of our war against terrorism.
Indeed, if it were not for September 11 where the guns of terrorism were turned on the U.S. homeland for the first time -- if it were not for that horrible crime, the U.S. claim to oppose terrorism would have little credibility in the eyes of the world. For whether most U.S. citizens realize it or not, much of the world's population sees the U.S. as the #1 terrorist nation. For example, Miami, Florida is widely known as a major center for terrorists operating against progressive forces in Latin America. Trained and supported by the CIA, many of these terrorists continue to operate on their own. Orlando Bosch, the mastermind of the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 persons, lives comfortably in Miami where he continues to boast of his planting bombs in Havana hotels. For over 40 years now, these Miami terrorists have been unrelenting in their attacks on Cuba while U.S. authorities either look the other way or actively support them. To date 3,478 Cubans have died as a result of acts of aggression; as a percentage of its population, that is almost equal to U.S. deaths in the Korean and Vietnam wars combined! If the U.S. were really serious about ending terrorism, it would start right here at home in Florida.
But it is not so much the past I want to focus on here. I'm far more worried about the future. The U.S. is likely to increasingly find reason to intervene in other countries as globalization proceeds. Under the neo-liberal policies that have guided this process so far, globalization has increased inequality wherever it has set foot. It has dislodged previous production systems, displacing people from their means of livelihood, bringing them into the domain of the transnational corporations. Through privatization it has weakened the social supports that millions have depended upon and that gave a measure of stability to many societies. As these effects intensify, we can expect to see increasing resistance from popular forces, of the sort we have seen by the Zapatistas in southern Mexico. Political control by comprador elites will be weakened. The imperial U.S. can be counted on to come to the rescue to protect "our national interests", i.e. the corporations, and restore order, i.e. the power of those elites that serve the U.S. The U.S. will continue to ally itself with reactionary oligarchies as it has done for the last half century, now in the name of the war against terrorism. Once the sword is unsheathed, it will not be easy to replace it with plowshares.
That will only be possible by restoring the democratic will of the American people - the democratic will of an informed people, no longer blindly following a political elite that serves the interests of the wealthy and the large corporations, a people that takes back our nation and makes it stand for social justice both at home and abroad, a nation that allies with the popular classes around the world rather than reactionary oligarchies. Such a nation can finally promote the rule of law rather than the lawlessness of Empire. We can demand nothing less.
Dr. Cliff DuRand is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Morgan State University, Baltimore MD and
Profesor Invitado at La Universidad de la Habana, Habana, Cuba.