What's Left

November 13, 2002

Small "m" and  big "M" monsters

By Stephen Gowans

There is little that is certain about the war on terrorism. No one knows for sure how many Afghan civilians were bombed to death (although the number probably runs to the thousands), or whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction (doubtful, but possible.)  Who's responsible for the Bali bombings is unclear, and what role Osama bin Laden played in various terrorist attacks, including the Sept. 11 horrors, remains murky. Clearly, bin Laden is the head cheerleader, but whether he's a mastermind is uncertain, and unlikely. "This is bigger than one man," said US President George W. Bush in a Sept. 11 anniversary interview, which it almost certainly is.

Equally uncertain is whether an audiotape broadcast on November 12 by the Arabic-language television station Al-Jazeera and attributed to bin Laden, is genuine.  If so, it is the clearest articulation of the motives behind Al-Qaeda's campaign of violence, to date. Previously, the Sept. 11 attacks had been chalked up, in a deliberate obscurantist fashion, to bin Laden and his followers hating America's democracy and its civil liberties, with attempts to provide a more cogent explanation meeting a brick wall of intolerance, and accusations of justifying terrorism.

But the tape, if genuine, points to what some have dubbed "a clash of fundamentalisms," with Al-Qaeda pursuing an Old Testament-style "eye for an eye" campaign, to exact revenge for the suffering Western foreign policy has visited upon Arabs in the Middle East and Muslims in Central Asia.

"For how long will fear, massacres, destruction, exile, orphanhood and widowhood be our lot, while security, stability and joy remain your domain alone?" asks the voice on the tape. "It is high time that equality be established to this effect. As you assassinate, so you will be, and as you bomb, so you likewise will be."

The audiotape cites those "killed among the children of Palestine, in Iraq," and "our dead in Afghanistan," as those in whose name Al-Qaeda's war of terrorism is being fought, emphasizing that "our people in Palestine have been massacred and subjected to the worst of suffering for nearly a century," and singling out what "Israel, the ally of America, did in bombing houses of the elderly, women and children in Palestine, using American planes."

The grievances are not without foundation. Western foreign policy has visited all manner of injustices on the people bin Laden acts as self-appointed avenger for. However, the violence Al-Qaeda pursues to redress these injustices is as a morally repugnant as the Western foreign policy that occasioned them. What's more, it's bound to fail.

Among the many uncertainties about the war on terror is not where the statement, "It is high time that equality be established to this effect," leads. It leads to an escalation that will inflict more suffering on the people bin Laden has appointed himself to speak for, as equally bloodthirsty and fundamentalist monsters in the US and other Western capitals call for the ratcheting up of the West's own tit-for-tat campaign of killing. It also leads to the deaths of civilians in the West, as the audiotape makes sure to point out, identifying Great Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany and Australia, whose governments allied "themselves to attack us in Afghanistan" as targets for terrorist violence. But the West can, and almost certainly will, inflict far more death and terror and suffering on Muslim innocents than Al-Qaeda ever could on Western innocents.

Al-Qaeda can't win at this game. Striking at Western civilians plays into the hands of Western governments, who are only too pleased to have a compelling pretext to wage war, in what is really pursuit of geostrategic goals in the Middle East and Central Asia, but can be attributed to the necessity of smashing terrorists and their infrastructure and those who may furnish them with weapons of mass destruction. Civilian casualties count for little, either those abroad victimized by the West's own war-making or those at home victimized by Al-Qaeda's retaliatory violence. Bin Laden can mount no serious challenge to Western supremacy, although his experiences in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets may have led him to believe he can. This is a delusion. The difference this time is that he has no superpower working behind the scenes, funnelling him arms, money and organizational support, to see to it that he wins. The US is far too armipotent to be hobbled by Al-Qaeda. On the contrary, bin Laden provides an ongoing justification for Washington to pursue its geopolitical goals, while exacerbating the very conditions he complains about.

A parallel exists in Palestine, where the suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilians by Islamic Jihad and other Isalmist fanatics, provides a justification for Israel to take ever harsher measures to safeguard its population, measures that conveniently advance the long standing Zionist project of expanding Israel's borders. Israel's leaders are no more deterred in pursuit of these goals by Israeli civilians being blown to bits by pipe bombs, than America's leaders are in civilian casualties of Al-Qaeda attacks. If bin Laden's followers are incensed by the suffering of the Palestinians and the deaths of Iraqis, a serious anti-terrorist program would overhaul foreign policy to remove these irritants. What's done, instead, is to exacerbate the very irritants that gave rise to the terrorism in the first place. If Western governments are really concerned about the safety of their citizens, why are they undermining it?

It has been said of George W. Bush that unlike other presidents, he is the only president who ever wanted to go to war. And while this is too kind to other presidents -- their aversion to war is overestimated -- there's a certain truth in the Bush administration's eagerness to flex America's vastly hypertrophied military muscles. The voice on the audiotape alleged to be bin Laden's isn't far off the mark when it calls Bush "the pharoah," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "the butcher of Vietnam who has killed more than two million people" and likens Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell to the 13th century Mongol Houlagou who conquered Baghdad.

And since "as many as 260,000 could die in [a US-led attack on Iraq] and its three-month aftermath, with a further 200,000 at risk in the longer term from famine and disease," according to Medact, an organisation of British health professionals (NewScientist.com, Nov. 12, 2002), this would qualify Bush, and his administration, as monsters.

But whether Bush is a monster may have nothing whatever to do with Washington's plans. The role of individuals is often greatly overestimated; the power of presidents overstated. Instead, there's a certain logic that pushes Western capitalist governments in certain directions, no matter who is nominally in charge, monsters or not.

What's more, this logic always seems to be moving the world in directions that make no sense, at least not from the perspective of what's humane and rational and just. Increasingly, our future is threatened by the accumulation of greenhouse gasses, but treaties to tackle the problem are undermined by concerns over profits. The Kyoto Accords, while they make sense from the perspective of our common future, make no sense from the perspective of shareholder value. Which will prevail? In a world where capitalism holds court, the outcome is foreordained, giving new urgency to the old warning that the future of mankind will be decided by whether capitalism is replaced by something that makes more sense before we're overtaken by an absolute catastrophe born of the unremitting pursuit of fatter profits.

It's estimated that Washington could spend up to $200-billion in attacking Iraq and subsequently establishing a military occupation (Globe and Mail, Nov. 13, 2002). While there may be arguments about how many people will die, no one is arguing the numbers won't be large. And while Washington has spent the last year trying to fashion a compelling case that Iraq is a serious threat, it has failed at every turn. Nevertheless, the drive to war continues inexorably, as if heading toward a foreordained conclusion, and nothing can be done to stop it. The $200-billion Washington will spend on war against a threat it can't make a case for, could address the healthcare needs of the world's poorest people for eight years (Globe and Mail, Nov. 13, 2002), yet there never seems to be an inexorable force driving the world to invest in humane goals, like healthcare for those without it. Instead, humane goals are always said to be beyond our means. That's because healthcare and environmental protection don't make sense from the perspective of a balance sheet; war does. There's little commercial gain in addressing the healthcare needs of the world's poor, but there's a bounty of profits to be had in attacking Iraq -- profits that come from supplying arms to the US military and its allies; profits that come from selling Iraq's oil. "As part of our plan for Iraq, in addition to identifying the political leadership and the coalition and building democracy, we're going to run the oil business...we're going to run it well, we're going to make money," said  Senator Richard Lugar (Globe and Mail, Aug. 2,  2002.) The lives of Iraqis or Palestinians or anyone else Bin Laden acts as self-appointed avenging angel for, are like greenhouse gasses -- unlikely to get much consideration against the logic of profits. Bin Laden's terrorism only helps a minority in the West make more money selling more arms and developing more oil fields.

Without question, the Al-Qaeda leader is a monster, and Cheney and Powell, without question, deserve to be called "the butchers of Baghdad." Bush should be called what he is: a manipulative, lying, blood-thirsty warmonger. But some monsters are only the children of other, larger, monsters, monsters that don't have human faces and can't be charged with war crimes and can't have a bounty put on their head and can't be thrown into prisons and can't be impeached. Still, more than the monsters we can see and listen to, these monsters deserve to be swept aside where they can do no more harm, and replaced with something better, something more congenial to the health and well-being and happiness of us all: these monsters, are the big "M" monsters: Zionism, fundamentalism, and capitalism.

....

You may re-post this article, providing the text remains unchanged.

Join our e-mail list. Send an e-mail to What's Left and write "subscribe" in the subject line.

What's Left