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9/11, Moral Equivalence & Appropriate Response: Reflections on "Left" Reactions

With the recent announcement by members of the Bush administration that Cuba is on the list of possible targets in the ongoing war on terror, and the release of the latest US military budget which is greater than the military budgets of the next 15 highest spending countries combined(!), it is perhaps time to reflect on the “debate” which took place among what I want to call practioners of critical discourse over the nature of the attacks on September 11 and of the appropriate response. Despite the title, I don’t really want to situate this debate on the left-hence the scare quotes above-since some people think that a man like Clinton was/is on the left; fewer, I think, would credit him with practicing critical discourse.

In the days and weeks following September 11, 2001, then, there emerged among what we’ll call intelligent critics at least two intelligent (obviously) interpretations of the events. It is difficult to characterize each interpretation on its own terms; rather, they took form in their points of contention with each other. Those points of contention had to do first with whether the events of September 11 are/were sui generis or whether they need(ed) to be seen in the context of a history of atrocities committed by what we can loosely term the western powers; and second, with what, in any event, should have been the response to the attacks.

Conveniently, the positions came attached with proper names, as many of the readers of this piece will already know: Hitchens and Chomsky.   The Hitchens position was (is?) that the events of September 11 were sui generis and, understood properly, compelled support for the Bush administration’s war against Afghanistan, while the Chomsky position attempted to situate the events of September 11-and without excusing them in any way-in a historical context where atrocities committed against civilian populations are not only more common that we would like, but frequently authorized, if not authored, by the West which found itself attacked that day.

In what follows, with the recent budget and Cuba in mind, I intend to examine Hitchens’ argument most closely, since his is a departure from the consensus among some critics on understanding US power. This consensus was based on a shared understanding of the general nature of US power from which critical analysis of particular events could proceed. Simply put, since at least the end of the Second World War the United States has projected its power in ways that are not congruent with its professed values and beliefs. While presenting itself as defender of human rights, freedom, democracy and free markets it has acted in ways that undermined those principles. In so doing it has caused incalculable immiseration. This analysis has all-too frequently been misread by newly radicalized college students and powerful film-makers, inter alia, as proof that the US is the root of all evil, that it is, as a nation, some kind of congenitally evil force in the world. I disregard this misreading here and its associated unintelligent “analysis” which views the events of September 11 as some sort of a “revolt” of the multitudes. No intelligent thinker is claiming that bin Laden is “a ventriloquist for thwarted voices of international justice” (as Hitchens claims in “A Rejoinder to Noam Chomsky”), and Hitchens is correct to dismiss those who see in the events of September 11 some sort of revolt or demand for reckoning from the wretched of the earth. But again, no intelligent person makes such a case (or if they do their claim to intelligence is thereby cancelled). Those critical of US actions and committed to a more just and egalitarian world no doubt want better, more constructive, more humanistic and secular responses to the injustices wrought by the indifference or the attentions of the US to this and that geopolitical space. But make no mistake, bin Ladenism is a response, or perhaps more accurately a reaction, to US actions over the last fifty years. Indeed, as everyone-even the “so what!-ers”-knows, bin Laden was once one of our boys.

On the evidence of his articles, Hitchens seems to think that Chomsky, and others, by invoking an historical context of western atrocities-committed quite explicitly in the name of God and freedom against defenseless others-were attempting to secure an adequation between September 11 and events before it. The term specifically invoked by Hitchens was “moral equivalency.” Chomsky and others like him, so the charge went, caught up in feelings of guilt and self-hatred, were intent on making September 11 an act equivalent to, no worse than certainly, acts committed by the West against the rest. The most recent “equivalent” event would then be the Clinton administration’s cruise missile attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical facility, which killed one person directly, and untold numbers indirectly. By making the two events equivalent, our moral horror at September 11 is somehow neutralized, Hitchens argues, and our morale, our gumption for the hard work ahead, irredeemably attenuated.

The problem here seems to be one of misunderstanding what purpose the introduction of historical context serves. The introduction of historical context is meant to show that there is a reason (for reasons have always existed, if not in reasonable form), however unjustifiable, for September 11. Though it took us all by surprise, it did not come from nowhere. It has a genealogy, and an intelligent response-a response which would become part of the solution, which would interrupt, so to speak, the bloodline-should take into account that genealogy. The bombing of Al-Shifa is, in other words, just one more act in a series of acts by the US which inspires an always redoubled, it seems, hatred. Acknowledging this might help explain the attacks; it in no way justifies and less does it welcome them.

With this in mind we can examine the issue of moral equivalency. Hitchens says in “Of Sin, the Left & Islamic Fascism” that Chomsky “coldly compared the plan of September 11 to a stupid and cruel and cynical raid by Bill Clinton on Khartoum in August of 1998.” Hitchens goes on to assert in the same piece that to “mention this banana-republic degradation of the United States in the same breath as a plan, deliberated for months, to inflict maximum horror upon the innocent, is to abandon every standard that makes intellectual and moral discrimination possible.”

We might say that the comparison is, to resort to a shorthand, obscene. It is obscene, because the authors of September 11, the bombings of the Twin Towers, of the Pentagon, of the would-be target, are guilty of premeditated acts of barbarity against innocent civilians. Their very purpose was to take as many human guiltless lives as possible. This conscious callousness, this-one could call it-evil, falls way further down the moral scale than the bombing of Al-Shifa, the intent of which was not to kill as many innocent people as possible in a stroke. The intent there was to destroy what could have conceivably been, according to the evidence which Hitchens uncovered in his investigation and denunciation of the action, a chemical weapons plant (see his “A Rejoinder to Noam Chomsky” on the Nation website).

Perhaps the comparison is unwarranted, perhaps it is obscene and in its very formulation it may indeed degrade the notion of critical intellectual thought. Nevertheless, I want to pursue it. It is notable, first of all, that Hitchens refers to the attack on the Al-Shifa plant as “Clinton’s rocketing” (“A Rejoinder”), as a “raid by Bill Clinton” (“Of Sin”), and as, again, “Clinton’s rocketing” (“Against Rationalization”), and marshals evidence which demonstrates that Clinton called this one himself, either without or willfully ignoring contrary advice from his people. By emphasizing Clinton’s agency in this crime, Hitchens enervates the critique of the systematicity of US state behavior, which obeys a logic beyond the will of any one man, even the President. Fair enough.

Insisting on Clinton’s agency in that bombing, he argues that if we consider “intention and motive” (“A Rejoinder”), the difference between the two events is further clarified:

The clear intention of the September 11 death squads was to maximize civilian deaths. . . . The malicious premeditation is very evident and manifest: The toll was intended to be very much higher that it was. And . . . the cruise missiles fired at the Sudan were not crammed with terrified civilian kidnap victims. I do not therefore think it can be argued that the hasty, politicized and wicked decision to hit the Al-Shifa plant can be characterized as homicidal in quite the same way [as the September 11 attacks]. (“A Rejoinder”)

Indeed. There is no identity in terms of the homicidal character of each action. The claim that the US acted with no evil intent is probably correct. No doubt the architects of the bombing of half of the Sudan’s pharmaceutical production capacity were acting, rather, with tactical intent, trying to destroy some physical plant that may conceivably have posed a threat to the world’s future. They made a mistake, and for that we are . . . well, no, we’re not even sorry.

We might now consider the moral difference that might hold between the actions of a state (leaving aside the reality that we’re talking here about the most powerful state in the world) and the actions of a group of individuals (whose state support-from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia-owes something in turn to the real if quite stupid politik of the United States for the last quarter century)? We might, I want to suggest, expect individuals to be pathological, while we should expect something that more resembles rational behavior from states, especially ones that promote themselves as rational defenders of all that is good in the world. More directly, what I am trying to say is that the fact that the United States can, without any fear of reprisal and without conceiving of even the possibility of regret, simply chuck cruise missiles around the under-developed world-and does so!-might be cause for pegging its moral stature below that of the horrifying-no argument there-Al Qaeda. Terrorism, we should not forget, has always been about killing civilians directly. They are killed to advance some sort of political goal, reprehensible though we may find it. Terrorists operate according to a calculus (albeit misguided): enough civilians die, we will get what we want.

The United States, on the other hand, does not sit around plotting how many civilians it might kill with this or that strike because it doesn’t matter. It might kill 1 directly, as in Al-Shifa, or it might wipe out thousands as in Japan, directly, or thousands as in Indonesia and elsewhere, indirectly. It doesn’t matter. In toppling the Taliban it might rid the world also of 3 or 4 thousand Afghanis. It doesn’t matter. How is the calculus implicit in our response to September 11 any different to that of the terrorists? The latter is simply commutated: if we get what we want (assuming what we want is to overthrow the Taliban), enough civilians will die. By what logic? By the logic of modern warfare, which amounts to dropping bombs from very high up on what are optimistically called targets, and which, despite talk of smart bombs and laser guidance systems, is synonymous with bombing civilians. This is the truth of that “obscene” notion, collateral damage: when the United States prosecutes a war or whatever the legal term is for it, the civilians deaths are simply beside the point. They’re not accidental; they’re the price we’re willing to pay-in spades, if you will pardon the obscene pun. The depredations of the United States are indeed in no way equivalent, morally or otherwise, to the actions of Al Qaeda. They are of a different order entirely. The attempt to make a comparison-and Chomsky has made the comparison (if not insisting on the moral equivalence): he says in a web reply to Hitchens that “the comparison is quite appropriate” (“Reply to Hitchens” on the Nation website)-is made in order to situate the horror of September 11 within a context of horrors; meanwhile, the insistence on the sui generis status of September 11, the attempt to de-link monstrous event from its bloody genealogy, nullifies at a stroke the accumulated work of critics of the US role in constructing the terribly insecure world in which we live.

Hitchens takes up this latter issue at various points in his essays. He recognizes, expressly, the role of the US in giving birth to the Al Qaeda network and interrogates the significance of this fact in determining our response to the attacks. “Did we not aid the grisly Taliban to achieve and hold power?” he imagines being asked. “Yes indeed `we’ did,” he responds to his imagined interlocutor, asking his own question in return, “Well, does this not double or triple our responsibility to remove them from power?” (“Of Sin”). Such logic compels Hitchens to support the war on Afghanistan. Here Hitchens, who chides Chomsky for being “naïve” for the latter’s belief that there was a peace process underway in the Sudan and the entire region which Clinton’s cruise missiles upset and interminably delayed-with massive projected but unnecessary casualties and deaths-might himself be judged a little green. He then goes on, however, to rhetorically shoot himself in the foot (or is it the head?), by mentioning and decrying historical and on-going US support for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as well as older associations with Noriega, Hussein and Milosevic. The fact that we created them shouldn’t obviate our retiring them, says Hitchens, not registering that with each clean up job there is no significant change in the way the US state behaves. Why expect the post-Taliban US to be different when all historical precedent suggests otherwise? The point that the world would be a better a place without the Taliban is unarguable. What’s also unarguable is that with our current leaders literally calling the shots, the overthrow of the Taliban will not make the world a better place.

We have already moved onto the terrain of the second point of contention between Chomsky and Hitchens, which has to do with the appropriate response to terrorism of September 11. Hitchens, in making his case against the Taliban, makes the case for a US sponsored air war against their regime. He writes that the “very first step that we must take . . . is the acquisition of enough self-respect and self-confidence to say that we have met the enemy and that he is not us, but someone else” (“Of Sins”). Elsewhere he develops that thought: “What they [the Taliban/Al Qaeda] abominate about `the West’, to put it in a phrase, is not what Western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific enquiry, its separation of religion from the state” (“Against”). Given this, we must let the bombs go is Hitchens’ substantial argument for war. Hitchens here overlooks that these very things-emancipated women, scientific enquiry, separation of religion from the state-are the same things hated by our own western Christian fundamentalists, which is why the Falwells and the Robinsons got into trouble for tacit laurels to the terrorists, as if their gods were in the end the same. Hitchens writes, “Loose talk about chickens coming home to roost is the moral equivalent of the hateful garbage emitted by Falwell and Robertson” (“Against”), but surely here he has it backwards. Their hateful garbage is the equivalent of the terrorists’ garbage. Should we, following Hitchens’ logic, bomb our fundamentalist haters of western liberal values too?-wait, don’t answer that.

So what should have been the response? As the terrorists knew, there is no more sure way of killing innocents than dropping bombs on buildings full of them. If it’s wrong in North America, then surely it is wrong in the middlish East. We know that US bombs killed innocent people in Afghanistan. We know. But the cause was worth it. The intelligence that can utter sincerely such statements seems to be morally equivalent to that of a terrorist. Those against the war in Afghanistan have been criticized for being unable to support any war that the US government prosecutes. But is that so wrong? Those who opposed the war were perhaps utilizing the benefit of hindsight from previous US interventions. And such hindsight allows a clear vision of US motives, which are hardly about projecting democracy out into the world. (How can anyone take such a claim seriously when confronted with the sorry state of democracy at home?) And since the “successful” prosecution of the war in Afghanistan (which, in any case, wasn’t legally a war-and why, if the case was so airtight and the cause so just, couldn’t the US declare a legal war?), what sort of behavior have we seen from the civilization’s defender. A discourse lifted from Star Wars and the Cold War about good and evil accompanied by talk of years of war and new targets to attack. With the Soviet Union out the way we can re-read and really appreciate the high-school text that we all had to read but seemed to have learned little from: war is peace. The newspeak is not the language of Ingsoc but, funnily enough, its equally perverse obverse: Amcap, which I’m sure the reader can figure out. It is a language we can’t seem to escape from, much as its designers, if they existed, would want.

No one’s saying that September 11 was not an outrage. No one is saying that it’s morally equivalent to what we’ve been doing for decades (or, depending on your depth of analysis, centuries) and so we should just suck it up. No one is saying that we shouldn’t respond. The question is how to respond, and here we might recall Hannah Arendt’s oft-repeated point that, “Since the end of human action . . . can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals.”   Having “won” the war in Afghanistan has not even gotten rid of Bin Laden. What it has done is embolden the US to propose attacking countries far and wide who fall afoul of our hardly disinterested and wholly unstatesman-like businessmen and religious fundamentalists who run the show. Recently Cuba has been added to the list of targets, because in the eyes of the bombing class its excellent biotech infrastructure is a bio-hazard, an infrastructure of biological weaponry. Accompanying that peace plan is a military budget that is unbelievable. The US government has rarely shown itself to be a constructive force in world politics. It has, conversely, consistently dedicated the seemingly infinite resources at its disposal to subverting efforts at constructive politics at home and abroad. Here, to be clear, I mean politics aimed at more developing more equitable conditions of existence on planet earth, as attempted in numerous nation-states.   There was never any reason to believe the Bush government (and we could not have expected a better response from a Gore government, to be sure-though, as an admittedly snide aside, I wonder how many liberals secretly gave thanks on September 12 that Nader did run and that the Supreme Court had installed Bush in the White House) would wage a war in Afghanistan that would make the world a better place. It hasn’t. I have no doubt that a US government could make the world a better place. But this one, and this way? Not in four or a million years.

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