The attack by Saudi citizens on the World Trade Tower represented a despicable crime.
Nonetheless, their crime, like Timothy McVeigh's, hardly merits wars on expanding lists of enemies or potential enemies. The attack on the World Trade Towers has been followed by a war on Afghanistan and Iraq and a long military occupation of Iraq. The perpetrator of the crimes of 9/11 has not been found. The Taliban is regaining its power. War or the threat of war has now spread throughout the Middle East. The president tells us that terminating the occupation of Iraq before our aims are achieved will only open us to further terrorism on our own shores. His speeches are rife not only with misleading comparisons to World War II but also with a misunderstanding of that conflict that has long had tragic implications for American foreign policy.
The notion of al Qaeda as a uniquely dangerous threat to the US should carry little weight for those of us who are middle-aged or older. We remember hiding under school desks in the fifties while the Soviets tested hydrogen bombs or ICBMs. No terrorist, even with a suitcase nuke, could wipe out American civilization.
The effort to translate Osama into a modern Hitler or Stalin would not survive even casual scrutiny were it not for two distinctive features of our political culture. Expansive and misleading uses of the Hitler analogy did not start with President Bush. Indeed, they were a staple of political discourse -- often bipartisan -- from '40s accusations that the US "loss" of China presaged dangers to the rest of Southeast Asia to even more inflamed accusations that defeat in Vietnam would eventually lead to attacks on California. On the domestic front, left and union critiques of the corporate order were treated as Communist-inspired.
Today's rhetoric of "Islamo-Fascism" is especially compelling because it emerges from and reinforces a heroic reading of US foreign policy. The nation Puritans celebrated as a "City Upon a Hill" is being refashioned for the 21st century, where US obligations are seen as global. Such refashioning seems especially important amidst the turmoil and insecurity that corporate globalism has inflicted and the end of the Cold War. Treating all domestic and international dissent as inspired by violent and evil men can ease doubts about core national values during periods of rapid social change.
That Hitler's acts were evil and had to be stopped by military means is disputed by few, but the current portrayals of the era are curiously a-historical. Lost in today's renditions are the role of US corporations in arming Hitler's war machine; the role of the draconian peace terms enacted by France, Britain and the US after World War I in stimulating xenophobia in Germany; and capitalism's near collapse in the thirties.
Virulent nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism had long and ugly histories in Europe, but US policy, practices and institutions were far from innocent or above reproach.
Likewise, today, freelance terrorists and "rogue states" like Iran have access to nuclear materials and technologies because the US generously encouraged "allies" like the Shah of Iran to go nuclear and US firms to export nuclear technologies.
If there is a domino effect today, it lies in the cascade of events flowing from the self-fulfilling belief that radical Islamists inspire all resistance to US policy. Islam, like other religions of the book, has always had its fundamentalist, authoritarian, anti-modern interpreters. Nonetheless, attacking and occupying Iraq on grounds of its connection to al Qaeda at the same time that the US treats all critics of its Palestinian policies as inspired by radicals lends credibility to the latter's charge that the US is engaged in civilizational war against all Moslems.
One consequence of this obsession is the conversion of Iraq into a haven for more terrorism. In addition, it strengthens the most extreme and militaristic elements in Iran. Finally, in a tragic catch-22, Iran's belligerence is taken as proof of the cancer's further spread and is now being used as an argument to expand military efforts in the region. US or Israeli nuclear bombardment of Iran could unleash further devastation and instability in the region. The moral and economic costs could mount exponentially.
In a recent online poll, my hometown newspaper asked readers if they would vote for a Congressional candidate whose views on the Iraq war they did not share. Such a poll is, as the paper fully acknowledges, unscientific. Nonetheless, it was striking to me that about 80% of readers responded they would not. In many states, candidates, especially Republicans, are trying to downplay their position on the war. Voters should not give them this choice. Even many of my Republican friends now have growing doubts about the war. Since the Iraq war has morphed into an increasingly unpopular occupation with indeterminate length, staggering financial costs and cascading consequences, progressives should remind all voters that they can do something to stop this domino effect. They should give Iraq the priority it deserves as they cast their votes this fall.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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