The Last Word

Have We Abandoned Our Values?
It is the desertion of our country’s values that made the horrific attacks of September 11 possible
by Stephen Zunes ’79

As a student activist in the late 1970s and well beyond, I found it easy to take an absolutist stance against U.S. military intervention on both pacifist and anti-imperialist grounds. Every U.S. military intervention in my lifetime had been easy to oppose as illegal, immoral, and/or unnecessary. Sometimes I believed—and still do—that we were on the wrong side. Even when we were not, I believed—and still do—that the U.S. did not seriously strive for non-military solutions before dropping bombs.

Taking such principled positions was possible in part because I had never seen the U.S. directly attacked. That all changed on September 11. For the first time I began to believe that limited paramilitary operations—preferably in conjunction with the international community—might be necessary to break up these dangerous terrorist cells.

The level and nature of the U.S. military response, however, went well beyond what could be considered justified. The use of military force for self-defense is legitimate under international law. Using military force for retaliation is not. Destroying the limited government resources in Afghanistan, therefore, seems more an act of vengeance than self-defense. The real enemy is Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, the decentralized network of underground terrorist cells that do not have much in the way of tangible targets that can be struck.

To break up these cells and bring the terrorists to justice, the United States needs the cooperation of intelligence services and police agencies in a number of Muslim countries. Given the widespread perception that the attacks have been excessive and innocent lives have been lost, it has become more difficult politically for these regimes to provide the United States with the level of help needed.

If there is any logic to bin Laden’s madness, it was his hope that the United States would overreact militarily, resulting in an anti-American backlash in the region that would play right into his hands.

To win the war against terrorism, we need to re-evaluate our definition of security. The more the U.S. has militarized the Middle East, the less secure we have become. The sophisticated weaponry, the brave fighting men and women, and the talented military leadership we may possess will not stop terrorism as long as our policies cause millions of people to hate us.

I respectfully disagree with President Bush when he says the United States has become a target because we are a “beacon of freedom.” While we deserve to be proud of our democratic institutions and our cherished freedoms at home, our policy in the Middle East has tended not to promote freedom, but rather support authoritarian governments, occupation armies, and further militarization of an already overly militarized region.
Like many Americans, I was deeply offended to see scenes on television of Palestinians celebrating the September 11 attacks. Though they represented only a small minority, I don’t think these West Bank residents were alone in the Third World in feeling a perverse sense of satisfaction: “Finally, the United States knows what it is like to lose thousands of civilians in an act of political violence.” This is not new to the Palestinians or to the people of Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, East Timor, Iraq, and Lebanon who know the feeling all too well, in no small part due to the policies of the United States.

Indeed, watching the heart-wrenching scenes of anguished New Yorkers holding up pictures of their missing loved ones reminded me of what I witnessed in Latin America during the 1970s and ’80s. There, too, relatives of los desaparecidos or “the disappeared” who were victims of regimes backed by our government gathered in public places with pictures of their family and friends.

Whatever the transgressions of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, they can never justify acts of terrorism. There is nothing karmic about what happened on September 11. No country deserves to have thousands of innocent people slaughtered. Yet we must recognize why some extremists might resort to such heinous acts if we have any hope of stopping them.

There are those who argue that bin Laden’s political agenda should not be taken any more seriously than that of Timothy McVeigh, Charles Manson, or any mass murderer. Indeed, anyone who would sacrifice thousands of innocent lives is clearly a psychopath and is unlikely to be reasoned with or appeased through negotiations.

An important distinction should be made, however. Terrorist groups whose grievances have little political appeal—such as the far-left and far-right groups that arise periodically in Europe and elsewhere—can be suppressed. By contrast, terrorist groups whose agendas reflect those of oppressed populations—such as Palestinian Arabs, Sri Lankan Tamils, or Northern Ireland Catholics—are more difficult to control.

Bin Laden and his network may be more like the latter, but on a global scale. Even the tiny percentage who support bin Laden’s methods will be enough to maintain a terrorist network as long as his grievances resonate with the majority. Even if we succeed in destroying the al-Qaida network, new terrorists will take its place unless we take a hard look at what gives rise to these fanatics. The concerns bin Laden has raised in his manifestoes—the opposition to U.S. support of the Israeli occupation, the ongoing U.S. military presence in the Gulf, the humanitarian impact of the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq, the U.S. support for Arab dictatorships, and the neo-liberal economic model being pushed by the U.S. upon Middle Eastern states—resonate deeply throughout the region, even among moderates.

If the United States supported a policy based on human rights, international law, and sustainable development rather than arms transfers, air strikes, and punitive sanctions, it would not only be more consistent with our principles, it would also make us a lot safer. It is not our country’s values, but the abandonment of our values, which made the horrific attacks of September 11 possible.

Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He is a senior policy analyst and Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project.


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