War and Peaceniks

By Stan Persky | December 19, 2001

Bombs are loud. So loud that it sometimes makes sense to wait until they almost stop falling if you want to be heard, or even if you just want to hear yourself think. However, one consequence of waiting is that you sacrifice whatever small opportunity there may be to raise your voice against the bombs, if that’s what you want to do. Thus, silence is not an option if you’re fighting for peace, as were most of my friends during the whatever-it-was– conflict/war/imperialist-aggression/event–in Afghanistan.

So, what did you do in the war, daddy? Well, child, I spent most of the war watching it through the media and arguing about it with my peacenik friends. And for various reasons, ranging from the demands of work to my own temperamental inclinations, I mostly waited. Let me make clear that in what follows I occupy the political position of a leftist who is neither-left-nor-right. Eventually I’ll try to explain that contortionist self-description, but not right now and not all at once.

I was alerted to the September 11th terrorist attack on New York and Washington that morning before 6 a.m. Vancouver time by my friend and neighbour John Dixon, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and a colleague of mine in the philosophy department at Capilano College, where we teach. I was at my desk at home reading a book about 17th century European ideas–Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment–and after Dixon told me what happened, I continued reading rather than turning on the TV. I don’t know whether he was awed or appalled by my fake unflappability. Naturally, I did turn on the TV a few minutes later, and when I got to school an hour or so afterwards, the TV was on there too, in the faculty workroom, and it stayed on everywhere for the next couple of months, I guess.

During the first part of the war, although I dutifully discussed it with all my students (the semester had begun just a week before the attacks), I spent most of the time trying to imagine Kabul, Afghanistan. I’m not sure why I thought imagining Kabul would be a contribution to the situation, but I did. The discussions with my classes were mainly aimed at getting the students to recognize the name and location of Kabul. While 98 per cent of the students could identify the pop singer Britney Spears, less than 3 per cent of them could find Kabul on a map or in a crossword puzzle. We also tried to make what sense we could of the events, and I wanted to reassure the Middle Eastern/"Arab-looking"/Muslim students in my classes that I was willing to talk about "racial profiling," Islam, U.S. foreign policy, "the clash of civilizations," and whatever else might come up.

I’ll save for another occasion the details of my efforts to "imagine Kabul," except to note that my search ranged from reading travelers’ accounts of journeys through the Khyber Pass in 1930 to a conversation with Afsar, a woman who is the learning assistant in the Humanities Division at my school, and who had been on holiday in Kabul in the early 1970s, just before the last Afghan king was deposed. I was astonished by the amount of material–from factoids to actual ideas–that I had to acquire. One morning in class, after the students had learned that Kabul was the capital of Afghanistan, I mischievously asked, "And what’s the capital of Tajikistan?", something I’d just learned that morning from the newspaper. No one knew. "Dushanbe," I informed them. Then it was my turn to be surprised. One of the Iranian students raised his hand and said, "Dushanbe means ‘Monday’ in Persian." Gee, I said, maybe the capital of Uzbekistan means Tuesday. It got a laugh.

Okay, that’s enough chit-chat. Now I’ll get down to cases.

The first thing that struck me, listening to speeches and soundbites of U.S. President George W. Bush, was that it seemed that Bush had fastened upon and understood the idea–and let’s leave aside all the sniping remarks about the quality of Bush’s intelligence, as if our own were any greater–that mere rhetoric against terrorism would not do this time. Many previous wars–the "War on Drugs," the "War on Poverty," etc.–proved to be little more than empty words. But in proclaiming a "War on Terrorism," Bush had grasped the notion that whether or not it really was a war, he really had to get the terrorists.

Just to anticipate for a moment: while Bush got the idea about getting the terrorists, what’s unclear but equally important is whether or not the U.S. government can get the idea of accepting a significant measure of responsibility for the political and economic reconstruction of Afghanistan. If the U.S. and its allies don’t get that idea with the same force that Bush got the idea about getting the terrorists–if, in short, the West only spews rhetoric in place of real reconstruction, and forgets about Afghanistan once the military operation is more or less over– they/we will lose the war. (Defining the multiple "us’s" and "thems," by the way, is a whole other and also necessary story, even though I don’t take it up here and now.) The deeper question connected to this, and one I will do no more than put on the table here, is whether it’s structurally possible for a capitalist imperial power to really do anything for other peoples that doesn’t merely serve its own imperial interests. This, of course, is a major point made by leftists.

The first thing that struck me about the talk of my leftist and/or peacenik friends is that they weren’t very interested in getting the terrorists. Let me identify some of the people whom I’m talking about in order to avoid reducing the left to an abstraction. My leftist/peacenik friends–most of whom I’ve met at least once–include: University of British Columbia Women’s Studies professor Sunera Thobani, Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin, the erudite English writer and New Left Review editor Tariq Ali, the wonderful all-purpose politico Judy Rebick, economics writer Linda McQuaig, Gen X anti-capitalist Naomi Klein, lawyer Clayton Ruby (representing the civil liberties left), socialist scholar Leo Panitch, Council of Canadians chair Maude Barlow, and a long-time personal friend of mine, Tom Sandborn, with whom I have lunch every week when we’re both in Vancouver. Almost needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, I deeply admire most of these people, and have learned immeasurably much from them over the years.

But they weren’t interested in getting the terrorists. They were interested in discussing the evils of U.S. foreign policy, the "root causes" of the terrorist attack, poverty, capitalism, racism, revolution and all the rest. They were willing to deplore the "tragedy" of several thousand people, "innocent" or otherwise, being killed by suicide bombers who had highjacked the airplanes and flown them, fuelly-loaded, into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, although they tended to undercut the force of their condemnation of terrorism by feeling compelled to point out that other innocent people had also been murdered at other times and in other places. But they just weren’t interested in the terrorists. The were willing to split semantical hairs arguing about whether the terrorists were "terrorists" or not, but they weren’t interested in getting them. If really pressed on this issue, the most they would concede was that "ordinary police methods" should be used to find and arrest the terrorists, as if the terrorists were B&E artists in Mississauga, Ontario. The last thing that should be done, they argued, was a military attack on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Of course, the North American public, insofar as it heard of these leftist views through the media, found such a stance unrealistic at best, and at worse, plain nuts. My own position as a leftist who is neither-left-nor-right was that 1) you ought to really want to get the terrorists, 2) by most, but not any, means possible, 3) and this intention must precede any other aspect of the debate. What I mean by the last item is that, as a leftist, I want the public to understand the "root causes" of terrorism, I want people to know the history of the U.S. as an imperial power, I want the fabled "wisdom of the people" to take up the cause of justice for the impoverished majority of the world, etc., but I don’t think any of that can be effectively talked about, or accepted by the public, coming from someone uninterested in getting the terrorists.

Indeed, the first rhetorical incident that occurred in Canada shortly after the bombing was a speech by Sunera Thobani that supports my point. Speaking at a federally-funded Ottawa conference to a friendly audience, Thobani delivered a fiery account of a U.S. foreign policy "soaked in blood." As soon as Thobani’s speech was reported and/or misreported in the media, there was a predictable uproar. Moderates thought her "timing insensitive," and the right reached for everything from its guns, death threats, and police charges to a minimal demand that Thobani be fired from her professorship. Insofar as her speech had an impact on the public, it was largely negative.

Predictably, the first people into the forum to defend Thobani’s right to speak were my friend John Dixon and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (of which, I should declare, I’m a board member). Equally predictably, the fuss was a 48-hour-wonder and quickly blew over, except perhaps for Thobani, who indeed got a lot of frightening threats, as well as kudos from her supporters. What was little noted about the contents of Thobani’s remarks is that they were rather shallow. Certainly, much of what she said about American policy and practice is true, and it’s always in need of saying. But her presentation was also unbalanced and undialectical. At least some of American foreign policy has to be located within a historical context of imperial power rivalries (whether the imperialisms of the former Soviet Union or of past and present Islamic regimes), and it has to be balanced with a recognition that this same American imperial power also generated considerable democracy, free speech and press, women’s rights, sexual orientation recognition, and a degree of ethnic equality over the past couple of centuries. Yes, yes, all imperfect, all deeply flawed, all progress begrudgingly made, etc., but better than most other imperialisms in history.

If the general public needed any proof that the left is an ideological menace, Thobani’s convincing portrayal of the Hindu goddess Kali provided it. The concept of the "people" (with or without an upper case "P"), what they think, and how they come to think whatever they think is a central concern for anyone who pretends to be a public intellectual, as most of my friends do. The notion of "public sphere" has a long and contested history within the left, and it’s certainly a concern of the right, even if only as a marketing theory to influence consumption (but, in fairness, it’s also more than that for the right). It must also be said that the negative impact of Thobani and other leftists on the public has to be construed in the context of an examination of the media. Indeed, my maxim is, The first question to ask about any story is, What is the media’s role in it?

The second thing that struck me, then, is the media. The first striking distinction for us Canadians is the difference between the media in Canada and the U.S. I stuck to TV and newspapers, but I suspect that whatever I noticed there probably holds true for radio and periodicals as well. While the American media consistently, persistently, and relentlessly interviewed every living, breathing former CIA director, ex-military general, and freelance "security consultant"/"terrorism expert" (most of whom were former CIA, FBI or other paramilitary agents) every 15 minutes, it was possible, through the Canadian media, to at least have access to a semblance of a debate.

While there were exceptions in the U.S. media–notably the Public Broadcasting Stations–the American discourse was largely confined to a narrow spectrum that ranged from cloying patriotism and religion to the lowest-of-the-low in programs such as CNBC’s "Hardball," where one had to put up with the bellicose barking of a presenter named Chris Matthews in order to glean strategic nuggets from old warmonger interviewees. The ubiquitous CNN, an imperial power itself, from its theme music to its "global reach" (to cite Bush’s phrase about terrorists he sought to target), was in full-court-press mode throughout. Apart from its useful near-the-front-lines reportage, its opinion programs were solidly orthodox and jingoistic, and thoroughly failed the "Noam Chomsky Test." The Chomsky test is simply: does a given program, channel, network present so much as one opposition view of the sort that might be provided by the renowned linguist and anarchist political thinker Chomsky? CNN didn’t. In contrast, CBC’s Newsworld program "Counterspin" gets my nomination for this year’s Junos (or Genies or whatever those silly awards are called).

"Counterspin" and some other Canadian media is where I was able to see and hear and read my friends offering an alternative point of view. I also got to hear and see some Afghan expats and a variety of Middle Eastern/"Arab-looking"/Muslim Canadians. Some of "Counterspin’s" programs were awful; the right-wingers it aired in the name of "balance" were often maniacs; frequently it degenerated into shouting matches. And admittedly, my friends weren’t always great. The dissheveled-golden-tressed Linda McQuaig gave distressing demonstrations of how to go from relative calm to sheer histrionics in 15 seconds or less, Rick Salutin regularly scrunched his head into his shoulders like a tortoise, and while Tariq Ali and Leo Panitch could be magisterial as they shook their flowing grey locks, they could also be sententious. But for all their (our) faults, they had something to say that was sometimes worth hearing, and it was possible to hear it thanks to the CBC. The moral of this little story is that you can be proud to be a lazy "Friend of the CBC." O Canada.

While the left had plenty to say, much of what it had to say was not very interesting, and it was completely unclear what the left wanted to do. At least it would have been thoroughly opaque to any "innocent" member of the public. (The word "innocent" has been so repeatedly run roughshod since Sept. 11 that it now has to be temporarily protected by ironic quotes.) It was relatively clear what the left didn’t want done. It didn’t want almost anything done. It didn’t want the U.S. et allies to militarily attack the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It didn’t want to get the terrorists. It didn’t want "innocent" civilians to be killed by American bombs.

With respect to the last, my friend Tom insisted at one of our weekly lunches, presumably on the basis of his reading of alternative leftist media and bulletins from Noam Chomsky, that the bombs were "primarily" killing Afghan civilians. While not a fanatical believer in the technological proficiency of American militarists, I found his claim hard to credit, and to date it’s unsubstantiated. At another point he claimed, again presumably on his gleanings from the Internet left media, that the main motive of the U.S. intervention was to acquire an oil pipeline across central Asia. That also struck me as an echo of Chomskyian doxa. On the other hand, Tom dutifully participated in the local Vancouver peace vigils, an activity that may not have had much effect, but which nonetheless compels a degree of unfeigned admiration on my part. When no one is questioning the dropping of bombs, it’s a good idea to have a few people holding up their placards.

In the absence of a more plausible approach than Bush’s, or a convincing argument to do next to nothing, and as a leftist who is neither-left-nor-right and who wanted to get the terrorists, I couldn’t think of persuasive reasons not to attack the Taliban regime militarily. Of course, we could have followed the advice of the left in the last conflict, in Kosovo, and what would we have had? More dead and displaced Kosovar Albanians, and Slobodan Milosovic still in power in Serbia. The advice about Afghanistan seemed disturbingly similar.

At most, someone like Rick Salutin, when pressed on the question of what to do, would simply repeat that what the Americans were doing would only assuredly lead to the creation of another generation of terrorists in the name of martyrdom. It was only after I’d heard or read Salutin earnestly insisting on that claim for the dozenth time, as if it were a truism, that it occurred to me to ask whether it was true or not. And on reflection, it doesn’t seem necessarily truer than the possibility that the next generation of inhabitants of the next Absurdistan will decide that maybe jihad isn’t a vocational choice with a great future, and that the toys of McWorld are more desirable and/or obtainable than the 72 virgins on offer in Paradise. As a general measure of the respective debating strengths of left and right, Globe and Mail columnist Salutin’s lengthy published exchanges with Globe and Mail resident right wing editor Marcus Gee might be cited. There, Gee regularly bested the paper’s "house communist."

As an aside, I should note that nowhere in the media was there much room for atheists or anti-religionists of any stripe to get a word in edgewise. Nowhere did I hear anyone declare that Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, and all-Amurrican born-again Protestantism are all stark-raving-mad ideas about reality and/or any supernatural portion of the cosmos. Personally–and I’m no doubt biased by my current temporary location in southeast Asia–I find old-fashioned, ancient animism less appalling than the more recent religious designer labels. (V.S. Naipaul makes this point in his book, Beyond Belief.) Next door to where I presently reside, there’s a garden restaurant where the staff attend homemade shrines set up in front of various trees, offering the tree spirits incense, flowers, and food and drink. The other day, I saw a skinny local cat sidle up to the alter and swipe a slice of Chinese sausage that had been offered to the tree spirit. Unlike the "jealous god" of the monotheisms, the tree spirit didn’t seem to mind. This sort of spirituality strikes me as at least relatively harmless compared to the imprecations of sundry mullahs, rabbis, and priests.

The third and final thing that struck me was the anti-terrorism legislation of Canada and the United States. As civil libertarians, here at last was something we could say and do something about. The civil libertarian left, as articulated by lawyer Clayton Ruby, simply argued that all of the anti-terrorism legislation was unnecessary and dangerous. We already had more than enough law to take whatever precautions were necessary, Ruby insisted in his numerous TV and newspaper appearances. All we needed was effective but routine "police dirtywork" to adequately protect us from terrorism. It isn’t an absurd argument, but it may not be an adequate one.

Even if you’re a neither-left-nor-right civil libertarian, and can see some need for additional law, the glaring imperfections of the quickly-legislated Canadian and U.S. laws cannot be ignored. I won’t provide a detailed account of what’s wrong with those laws, although this is one place where semantic hair-splitting is indeed appropriate. Rather, the main deplorable features of those laws are as follows: 1) the Canadian anti-terrorism law defines "terrorism" in such a way that non-terrorist political demonstrations can be captured under the rubric of terrorism, and 2) the American anti-terrorism law authorizes secret military tribunals in which "foreign" defendants can be executed on the basis of unsubstantiated secret evidence and in the absence of rudimentary civil legal procedures, the very situation that the U.S. otherwise loudly protests against when it occurs in other countries. The Canadian law, and this was publicly admitted by Richard Mosley, the senior, very conservative, civil servant in the Canadian justice department who drew up the bill, is a direct reflection of Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s continuing obsession with crushing the civil protest that occurred at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) meetings in Vancouver a few years ago, even though subsequent public commissions investigating the RCMP response to those demonstrations sharply chastised the Chretien government’s machinations. Such a law, which could conceivably, but not necessarily (that’s the "trust us" factor), result in the arrest of non-terrorists as accused terrorists is a dangerous infringement of Canadian civil liberties.

What I mean by the phrase "neither-left-nor-right" is that one conscientiously attempts not to prejudge events, actions, and ideas on the basis of one’s ideological commitments, but instead constantly interrogates those ideological commitments in the light of events, actions, ideas. I think my leftist friends would claim that that’s what they’re doing too, and I have no reason to doubt them, though I didn’t see much evidence of it. Of course, I claim no superior virtues for myself. Thus, though I share my leftist friends’ desire for real global justice (including economic justice) and for full public discussion of the history of the American Empire, I also share the rightest commitment to get the terrorists, and the civil libertarian program to protect democracy. This is no doubt an inadequate summary of a more complicated set of thoughts that centres on the larger issue of whether "humanitarian interventionism" (as it was dubbed during the Kosovo events) can be justified in the name of globalised democracy. Minimally, I hope this account at least identifies the differences between people I’m non-malevolently calling "peaceniks" and people like myself.

Since I’m concerned about the public and intellectuals’ effectiveness in relation to the public, I have to ask, Have our civil libertarian criticisms of the infringement of civil liberties done any good? The answer is: a little. Again, this aspect is complicated by the function of the mainstream media. With respect to the issue of anti-terrorism legislation, the mainstream media, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Globe and Mail, have more or less taken a position similar to that of civil libertarians. So, whatever we make of "the wisdom of the people" on this question has to take into account the factor that the mainstream media and the right-of-centre North American government policies have not been in sync. Still, it appears that the people, in their wisdom, while "willing to grant government wide latitude in pursuing suspected terrorists… are wary of some of the… recent counterterrorism proposals and worried about the potential impact on civil liberties" (International Herald-Tribune, Dec. 13, 2001). While polling statistics may not mean anything much as an indicator of public wisdom and/or public stupidity, 51 per cent of surveyed respondents "said that it was not a good idea to try foreigners accused of terrorism in secret military proceedings," and 80 per cent said that the executive branch of government should make any changes in the justice system in consultation with the legislative branch. Given the loudness of the official drumbeat for sweeping measures, I read the numbers as a sign that the people are widely resistant to arbitrariness in law, and that their wisdom on this question has been effectively supported by voices in the media, in civil liberties ranks, and by my peacenik friends, all of whom opposed the U.S. and Canadian government line on anti-terrorism law.

There’s more to say about all of this. There always is. The "more" operates on another level than the daily reports from the front and has to do, in my case, mostly with philosophical concerns about "reality." But in the interests of modestly restraining the current grapharrhea, let me merely point to those bigger questions, like we point to the full moon, without attempting to explicate them.

Bangkok, Thailand, Dec. 19, 2001 4004 w/


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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