In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, two Internet petitions have appeared in my mailbox. The first arrived from three different directions–Montreal, Vancouver, and Washington, D.C–asking me to petition President Bush, NATO Sec/Gen Lord Robertson, EU President Roman Prodi and anyone else north of the head gardener of Patagonia to employ international judicial institutions and international human rights law rather than military weapons and personnel in the efforts to capture and punish the perpetrators of the attacks. I had no difficulty getting behind that, for reasons so obvious I’m sure no one needs me to elaborate.
Two other clauses in the petition were similarly easy to agree to: 1.) Innocent civilians living within any nation that may be found responsible, in part or in full, for the crimes recently perpetrated against the United States, must not bear any responsibility for the actions of their government, and must therefore be guaranteed safety and immunity from any military or judicial action taken against the state in which they reside, and 2.) we demand that there be no recourse to nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, or any weapons of indiscriminate destruction, and feel that it is our inalienable human right to live in a world free of such arms.
Unhappily, there was another demand that preceded these last two, and it read as follows: we assert that the government of a nation must be presumed separate and distinct from any terrorist group that may operate within its borders, and therefore cannot be held unduly accountable for the latter’s crimes. It follows that the government of a particular nation should not be condemned for the recent attack without compelling evidence of its cooperation and complicity with those individuals who actually committed the crimes in question.
Now, we can quickly agree that this clause is transparently designed to separate the Taliban regime that controls most of Afghanistan from Osama ben Laden, who is the terrorist entrepreneur whom the Americans and nearly everyone else believe is behind the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon. It is hard to agree with because the Taliban and ben Laden are in fact intimately connected. Ben Laden’s militia were instrumental, with CIA technological help, in helping the Taliban force Soviet military forces out of the country at the end of the 1980s, and ben Laden has since been a major funder of the Taliban’s ascendance to nominal political control in Afghanistan over the last decade. The pragmatist in me recognizes that permitting the separation of the two will effectively hide any surviving WTC perpetrators and their backers either inside the rocky confines of Afghanistan or under diplomatic leaves and rocks everywhere else in the world, including under our noses. Beyond that, it will effectively prevent any successful curbing of international terrorism elsewhere in the world, and it would render futile any other (much-needed) curbing of the endemic extranational entrepreneurial lawlessness that currently ranges from trans-border drug transport and banking crime to a vast assortment of immigration law violations and queue-jumpings.
The petition appears to have originated within the University of Chicago, and judging from the contact list attached to one of the versions I received, the target supporters are mostly people within the universities, and secondarily the liberal arts and social science-based communities that tend to be tied to them. Given that North American universities embraced the culture of self-determination and personal rights that developed during the last quarter of the 20th Century, often to the exclusion of traditional educational responsibilities and occasionally to common sense, I think I understand the motives that made the petition-builders structure their petition as they did. The primary concern of the petition-builders is not to bring to justice the surviving organizers, capital funders or functionaries of the WTC attack, nor to prevent a recurrence. Their concern is with the curtailment of individual rights that will inevitably result from the mounting of any effective response to the WTC attacks. They are trapped, intellectually and culturally, in a continuum of human self-determination that plays better in the halls of academia than on the street, where it has long since developed a nasty imperialism of its own and is currently threatening to engulf other cultural institution of western democracy that have had equal or greater influence among academics until recently.
Viewed abstractly, protecting human rights and enhancing self-determination are admirable pursuits if they’re not practiced to the detriment of other democratic institutions such as public security, the rule of law and the responsibilities inherent in free inquiry. I don’t want to see immigration from the Middle East and South Asia choked off, and I don’t want to see people who happen to have dark skins and funny accents or clothes being deported or unduly harassed when they want to enter North America. No decent person does.
But I also damned well don’t want to be terrified every time I’m in or near a tall building for the rest of my life, and I want to have some assurance that I can get onto a plane without being turned into an irrelevant organic element in a 200 ton guided missile. At a slightly less urgent level, I’d like to see all those nose-thumbing, queue-jumping criminals and entrepreneurial jackasses back in the same lineups with the rest of us citizens, and I guess I wouldn’t mind seeing some of the more arrogant among them get their asses kicked around a little, either. And shameful as it may be, I want to see the surviving sons-of-bitches involved in the WTC and Pentagon attacks captured–and, maybe, I’d like to see them dead.
The second petition is, if anything, more troubling to parse: It reads as follows:
We the undersigned are appalled by the decision of the Taliban government of Afghanistan to require all Hindus to wear a piece of yellow cloth sewn onto a shirt pocket in order to identify themselves. An individual’s communion with God, however they find him, is a matter of personal conscience and must not be the subject of intimidation or persecution. The right of everyone to worship as they wish is fundamental and inalienable. The United Nations was founded in order to defeat Hitler and his henchmen who required the same from another religion with all it’s horrific consequences. It is completely unacceptable that nearly 60 years later history is repeating itself.
Hard to argue against either the substance or the spirit of that one. But its timing is a problem, and some of the cognitive instruments and language it uses are spotted.
The Taliban are not, in Western terms, nice guys, and sewing cloth badges on non-believers is not their only transgression. They’re punitive toward everything and everyone that contravenes their specific and (as far as I can see) specious interpretation of the Koranic law and custom. They’re intolerant culturally, politically and intellectually, and they’re viciously oppressive toward women, denying them educational, occupational and political rights that are now virtually universal outside their borders and perhaps those of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. They’ve also permitted terrorists like Osama ben Laden to operate openly within their borders, offering comfort to them if not much financial aid. A few months ago, when they were obliterating ancient monuments with high explosives because they’d decided that evidence of what is ultimately their own religious history is an affront to Allah, I cheerfully signed a petition condemning them for it.
If this latest anti-Taliban petition had reached me a day before September 11th, I’d have signed it and sent it on its way, even though privately I believe that protecting the right to individual communion with God is a wasted right in a world in which there are relevant rights clamouring for our support. I say this because God either doesn’t exist or hasn’t been paying the slightest attention to the prayers of the decent or the innocent during my lifetime, and considerably before it, and that there is thus mountains of evidence suggesting that attempts to commune with God is a waste of energy and time. Further, there is no convincing evidence to suggest that God is a "he" (as the petition words it) aside from his/her monumental inattention to the specifics of human suffering. Thus, I’m unable not to wonder why this petition is circulating right now, while every intolerant militarist in the western hemisphere is trying to paint the Taliban as monsters and demons. It feels like spook-work to me, aimed at getting decent liberals and feminists behind a program that might push us a very long way from territory comfortable to them, to a place where tactical nukes are being used against Afghanistan.
One of my most sensible friends here in Toronto, a man who called himself a Yugoslav all through the period where everyone from the former Yugoslavia was self-righteously reinflating ancient ethnic grievances against one another, told me that he doesn’t believe the Taliban had much to do with the attacks, and that he wasn?t convinced that ben Laden was the only culprit involved in the spiritual and fiscal logistics. The Taliban, he pointed out, like to denounce infidels, push around their own people, and they’re fond of waving AK-47 rifles in the air during their celebrations of Islamic virtue, but they’re too xenophobic to know enough about the West to imagine anything as sophisticated as these attacks let alone help to carry them out.
Similarly, my friend agrees that this must have been a big knee-slapper for ben Laden, but he?s not convinced that ben Laden has the resources to drop operators into the U.S. and have them go incognito for years of technical training or that he has the attention span to recognize the right circumstances for this level of attack, or the patience to wait for the right moment to strike. At very least, he thinks it wise to look at Iraq and Iran for the sources of funding and logistics.
On a different tack, his analysis is that this conspiracy was curiously redolent of the style of the euroterrorists of the 1960s and 1970s even if its substance and scope was beyond their wildest dreams. What he was trying to get at, I think, is that like their European precursors, the WTC terrorists were often better educated than average North Americans, and that their natural fuel was therefore frustration and despair rather than religious ecstasy. Given their reported origins within five or six countries around the Middle East, it is apparent they weren’t doing this to save Egypt, or Iraq, or Saudi Arabia from any specific threat, but were acting out an agreed-upon sense of abstract aggrievement they’d convinced themselves that the United States was primarily responsible for.
As my friend was outlining this profile, it occurred to me that if the men responsible for the WTC attack were religious fanatics, they were behaving in strangely impious ways. There had been several credible eye-witness sightings of them in Florida bars in the days before the hijackings, and alcohol consumption is among the most serious contraventions of Islamic law. When I pointed this out to my friend, he said he thought it was likely that Islam simply offered them a convenient structural rationale for the high political drama they craved, and a degree of emotional padding for their conscience. Most likely what united them, he said, was their hatred of the United States, which they would identify as the true source of the many humiliations of Islam at the hands of the Israelis or the military coalition that got Iraq out of Kuwait. They’d also, he thought, probably regard regard the U.S. as the impediment to ending the income disequities within the Islamic countries of the Middle East that are deplorable even on our terms. Finally, there is the self-inflating insanity of their mission: most martyrs, he noted, are also egomaniacs and we all know how passionately egomaniacs care for the fine human details.
Despite all the preceding, my friend agrees with President Bush that the remaining conspirators and their benefactors must be hunted down, but he suspects there’ll be no more than 20 or 30 left alive in North America. Since the principal conspirators died in the airplanes they?d hijacked, all that might now be uncovered will be their secondary network, and perhaps some offshore funders. Slim pickings if you’re looking for revenge that’s dramatic enough to play well on television.
I agree with nearly everything in his analysis, but after ten days of wall-to-wall expert speculation, I’m less sure about any of it than my friend is, and a lot less sure than I was the day after, except that I’m pretty well convinced that what’s going to happen next isn’t going to be satisfying to anyone except maybe the World Council of Morticians, which is another of those organization I can’t confirm the existence of.
In the meantime, I wish I didn’t have to deal with either of these petitions. I can’t sign either of them, and when I refuse, I’m going to feel as if I’ve betrayed some people I like and respect. But then, I also wish nothing had happened in New York City on September 11th save the customary muggings and the continuing slide of the stock market. We’re all going to have to put up with things we don’t like in the near future, and it’s a future that could stretch on for the rest of our lives.
2223 w. September 22nd, 2001