by Peter Coyote

October 2001

Now that initial rush of grief and rage has abated a bit, I must acknowledge a growing unease about the rhetoric of retaliation and war I hear unanimously from our leaders and a too uncritical media. Since Congress has now authorized the President to spend as much as he sees fit and to punish whoever he likes, it seems important to request a deliberative pause to consider what a "war against terrorism" means and implies.

A "network is any several people who align themselves for a common purpose. Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols (and three others the government could not make a sufficient case against) were a "terrorist network" pursuing a vengeful agenda. What could soldiers or bombs have accomplished to inhibit their capacity to act? Like the Olympic bombing in Atlanta, (where the perpetrator is still at large, by the way) the terror in Oklahoma City occurred in our own country, where we speak the language and spend more on domestic intelligence than many countries spend on their entire economies. What makes us think "a war" will be more successful in places where we are constrained by enemies and political realities; where we cannot put espionage agents on the ground, and do not know the language, customs, and terrain?

It is an understandable impulse to desire vengeance when hurt, and it is in this sense that I understand many of the declarations of the President and Congress. Nevertheless, one must ask --- does retaliation serve the best interests of our people? If not, what might? It appears that Bin Laden secreted "sleepers" into America who lived invisibly until they were activated to a task. The nineteen men who so traumatized us did not fit our comfortable profile of addled and "brainwashed" men. They were self-organized, multi-lingual, educated, technologically proficient warriors of fixed purpose sustained for years before sacrificing themselves. Knowing what they cherished enough to die for would be the most reasonable place to begin any counter-terrorist response, would it not? Lacking that knowledge, what logic indicates that military campaigns in the Middle East will make us safe from such suicidal agents and not simply inspire new soldiers to replace those who have fallen?

No matter how deranged he may appear to us, Osama Bin Laden has a goal and has devised a strategy to achieve it. To foil his intentions, we must at least understand them. The assertions of motiveless evil or simple jealousy of Americans propagated by the media, does not suffice for an answer. Bin Laden, like Saddam Hussein, was once our ally, trained, armed and funded by our government. We did not think either of them deranged and unstable then. Why have our relationships with both these men soured? Why are Palestinians burning our flag? Why do so many in the Middle East apparently hate us so much? Might the problem reside our policies there? Can average Americans identify and understand those policies?

When Bin Laden asserts that America has little regard for the interests and lives of Muslims, unfortunately he has ample evidence to bolster his claims. He can remind Muslims how their cousins in Eastern Europe were denied arms to defend themselves against Milosevic's ethnic cleansing, and then bore the brunt of his genocidal fury when we initiated our bombing of Yugoslavia. Ordinary Palestinian citizens impoverished in Israeli refugee camps would need no urging to be convinced that the United States supports Israel too unequivocally, no matter how egregiously or even illegally Israel behaves towards them. It is tragically easy for Bin Laden to offer himself as their fist.

In Baghdad alone, he could point to the 200,000 civilians like our own who died and the others who suffered as we are now suffering, from our bombing of a major metropolitan area. He can cite UN estimates that an additional 500,000 children have died of an epidemic of cancer from the million uranium tipped shells we fired there, or from diseases related to our destruction of the civilian water systems. We make it too easy for Bin Laden to be the avenger for their anguish and rage.

People with something to live for are not eager to commit suicide. What are the effects of our policies on ordinary citizens in the Middle East? If they do not support them, we must attend to their grievances if we ever hope to sever connections to the thugs claiming to represent them. Bin Laden argues that the West is anti-Muslim. What could serve his interests better than further violence levied against people already traumatized by us and our allies, proving that we are the enemy he says we are?

A "war against terrorism" has a nice ring, but let us not misunderstand that what is being described is a war against ideas and intentions, and these are not targets which can be bombed or burned away. This is a war for the "hearts and minds" of people we have underestimated and ignored for too long. We made a tragic and costly mistake in Vietnam by proceeding in ignorance of the culture, belief systems and resolve of those we determined to vanquish. I pray that we do not hurl ourselves into the same abyss again. It is not the way to honor our dead. It is not the way to live.

Peter Coyote

October 2001

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