In Terror and Hope

The US attack on Afghanistan and the prior destruction of the World Trade Centre and attack on the Pentagon have launched the world into a new historical period — this is true even though most of the newspapers say it is true. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States’ position as the world’s only superpower has coexisted uneasily with global attempts to build an international framework of justice and security. September 11 has destroyed any patience that the US government or large sections of its public have had with that sort of thing. Any possibility that the incident be dealt with by the UN Security Council or a multilateral force — still less as a matter of international crimes against humanity or a criminal act — is obviously out of the question. The Bush administration has invoked Section 51 of the UN Charter to justify its attack on Afghanistan, yet the conditions of that clause — an imminent or ongoing attack on one’s own territory — have not been met by a foreign power. But there is obviously no way that the US would submit to any ruling on this matter. It has embarked on an era of unabashed exercise of unilateral power, with widespread public support.

This move to open power in the aftermath of the terrorist attack marks a new stage in a process of global extension of its explicit power and of the institutions — overwhelmingly the semi-open market — upon which they are based. The Gulf War was an intervention into a dispute wholly contained within the Arab world for the purposes of guaranteeing a compliant oil producer — that ‘Nintendo’ war, whose casualties John Pilger reminds us of, spawned the Iraq sanctions and the immense sufferings of the Iraqi population. The signing of the GATT and the establishment of the WTO exposed the South to Northern economic power in a way that spawned the Zapatista uprising and the new global movement that sprang from it. Prior to that the Carter government — as former advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski now admits — established and funded the mujhadeen before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and was intended to provoke just such a move (Nouvel Observateur 15.01.98). That act not only destroyed what had been a modernising society and launched upon the seas the asylum seekers our Navy is now firing upon, it created much of the extra capacity for the renewed global heroin trade — a crop the US encouraged the muj’ to develop as a funding base. Militant Islam was selectively encouraged by the US, but also served as a conduit for and expression of the rage felt by the Arab world and central Asia at the endless manipulations to which it had been subject by the West. With the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and the attack, it all came together in a double fireball. Such a movement — combining ‘national’ rage with a religious calling out and networks of money and power — has expanded far beyond the root causes which gave it a start. Militant religion has become a mode of production for suicide warriors. Initial grievances about international relations, Palestine and Iraq have given way to the pure desire to land a blow on the enemy, to take revenge for being no more than a target in the Nintendo conflict. As has been noted, the attack on the Twin Towers was a very late skirmish in the Gulf War. That such a movement began as a reaction to the same global racket which also spawned the new global movement (sometimes called anti-globalisation movement) has been used by the Right to portray the opponents of the US as a single entity. The reverse is the case — expanding US power is a single entity which attracts the resistance of groups with totally opposed worldviews.

That the Twin Towers and Pentagon attack was evil and ruthless goes without saying. Yet the political uses to which it has been put are manifold. The Right, both in the US and here, has sought to label the very act of reflecting upon global power as an act of ‘blaming the victim’ and US culture — as Ray Nichols notes — has slipped over into an unabashed triumphalism, endorsed by the President. The attack on civil liberties is occurring on multiple fronts. As Damien Lawson and Nehal Bhuta note, much of it over here was prepared for by the mockery the government made of separation of powers and rights during the Tampa affair. The process of extending executive power into every sphere of life can now continue. Since the overall cultural and political effect of an expanding market is to make executive power into the only type of state power that is real (the strong leader, the no-nonsense government) crises such as war-scares cut with the grain of the age.

Parallel to the attack on such civil liberties as exist is an attempt to conscript the public emotions in the interests of foreign policy. For many, such sympathy as one had for the victims of the attack and their relatives became increasingly tinged by bitterness that the lives of those living in New York came to be valued more highly de facto than the nameless, numberless dead of the South. But as with the death of Princess Diana — which acted as a dress rehearsal for this sort of thing — reason and emotion came to be deemed mutually exclusive, and cleaving to the former an act of disloyalty. The implicit proposition — that the degree of one’s sympathy should be influenced by the spectacular character of the event or the number of cable channels covering it — is truly immoral. Nevertheless, it has become the official attitude. As Douglas McQueen-Thomson notes this is a war as constituted in language as any war that ever occurred, yet to ask the question of what a ‘war on terrorism’ really means is to invite the charge of ‘appeaser’. The idea is meaningless and the fact that various government and military figures talking about it being a ten, thirty or hundred years’ war indicates its true character. It is a blank cheque that the US and its closest allies — our government included — are writing themselves to give US power an unlimited pretext to abuse the sovereignty of other peoples in the name of protecting its own. It is a unilateral abolition of other people’s borders at the same time as one’s own are made into fortress walls. Our government is also dipping its toe in this water with the manufactured refugee ‘crisis’. Fortress Australia is being sandbagged with places such as Nauru whose independence has been de facto abolished using the leverage of their bankruptcy. The US has now abandoned any distinction between private terror organisations and the states within which they are located, yet this too will be selective. Pakistan continues to host Kashmiri terrorists, autonomous Kosovo, Albanian ones. Both may go quiet for a while, but only as a tactical maneouvre. The ruling as to who is in and out of the war will be as capricious and partial as the old freedom fighter–terrorist distinction.

The shocking nature of the Twin Towers attack has given the exercise of American power a new domestic strength. A peace movement has begun, but many middle of the road liberals who would support, say, an end to sanctions against Iraq, will find themselves lining up with the US government. As Kimberley Serca notes, the most high profile ‘left’ figure to line up with US power has been Christopher Hitchens who has figured the Taliban–bin Laden nexus as ‘Islamic fascists’ in a conscious recall of the popular front of the 1930s, but he is only the most eloquent of many who would have a similar disposition. Nor can one retreat into any easy blanket pacifism on this issue. Mohammed Atta and his cohorts were clearly acting as a self-contained group who had planned the attack over several years. Yet it also seems likely that they were partially funded and mentored by bin Laden’s Al-Qaida group — and it is clear that Al-Qaida is thoroughly intertwined with the Taliban — one of bin Laden’s wives is the daughter of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. Now that bin Laden has replied to US actions with the promise of new attacks on the US mainland and a call to the Muslim world to launch war on the US, there is clearly scope for some legitimised US action. One could put it another way — the US now has the sovereign enemy it needed for a war. It may soon have many others.

The moral impossibility of supporting the war as it is being conducted is clear, even for those of us who are not pacifists. The bombing of civilian populations is unacceptable in any circumstances other than as defence against total attack by a whole sovereign power and this has clearly not occurred in the case of desperate Afghanistan. The Taliban’s hosting of bin Laden would have given the US the right to call on a UN force to bring him to an international court of justice — had, as Andy Butfoy notes, the US not embarked on an unprecedented effort to destroy international authority in recent months and years — but it no more sanctions an attack on the whole society than would Cuban exile raids on Havana give Castro an excuse to strike at the United States.

The issues of ‘host’, ‘sponsorship’ and ‘territory’ are far more complex than it would be convenient for the US government to admit. Yet looking at the still smoking hole in Manhattan and a city whose communal life has become dominated by funerals the question comes back at the nascent peace movement: what is to be done about terror?

The question cannot be ducked but that does not mean it needs to be accepted in those terms, either in principle or in practice. Principle first. The current and ongoing role of the US in the global South makes it morally impossible to line up with. Palestine and Iraq are the two causes which serve as the pretext for bin Laden’s activities, yet the more serious crime has been the US government’s active and zealous enforcement of the IMF/World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs and the WTO provisions which allow for the transfer of wealth from South to North. The human cost of this process in unnecessary suffering and cultural destruction over the last twenty years dwarfs anything thrown up by the fascism, Nazism, Stalinism or first-wave colonialism in the rest of the twentieth century. It is done by bankers and bureaucrats who are explicitly aware of its human cost. It is presented as an inevitable consequence of development and globalisation, but there are humane alternatives available, even within the development paradigm — most notably a global protection of labour rights to organise and global support of convivial technology and financing (small-scale banking) — so the moral–political choice is real. The dead are not shot or exploded, they die — as did most of those in the Gulag — through overwork, malnutrition and preventable disease. The universality of the neoliberal market gulag — it will take anyone as raw material — obscures the common roots it has with the more explicit tyrannies. The horror of the Twin Towers attack and the fact that its agents were devoted believers in a premodern form of religion that had nothing to say about this dimension of America’s global role has led many commentators to call criticism of the US hackneyed or irrelevant — as if it were a fashion for less volatile times. The role of the US does not in any way justify the Twin Towers attack or anything like it by any organisation, but that is not at issue. The issue is whether the Left can morally line up with the state, as the British Left could in September 1939. The answer here is that, unequivocally, it cannot.

The dilemma of the American Left in these circumstances is similar to the dilemma of an anti-Nazi German in WW2. In retrospect resistance to one’s own government was the only moral course of action — at ground zero, facing the British, French and Soviets without illusion of their magnanimity would have made this course of action somewhat less shiningly clear. As the US gets deeper into the war and the possibility of uprising in Pakistan or elsewhere, or the use of chemical or biological weapons, or a dozen other scenarios become more plausible, the dilemma for the American peace movement will deepen. But here the practical buttresses the principle. There is no path to security for the US public through the war on terrorism.

The degree to which the American attack on central Asia will destabilise various Arab regimes is unknowable. At the end of WW2 Orwell argued that a third world war would be preferable to a nuclear stalemate, as the latter would cement a power system that could last indefinitely. The prospect of Arab uprising in a number of states is looked upon by many with a similar uneasy ambivalence, since the alternative is virtually uncontested US power with the tang of easy victory in its nostrils. Yet the record of the sort of groups that could make such an uprising, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, are blood-chilling (as it should be noted is the virulent anti-semitism and Hitler-worship which disfigures some of the Arab press). But such groups will be rubbing their hands with delight as the US pushes increasing numbers of Arab and central Asian peoples to a fundamental solidarity.

For Australians the call to solidarity with the US comes on several grounds — that the states of the world have to defend themselves against free-floating terror; that bin Laden and his organisation want to dominate the world and impose a particular form of shar’ia; that solidarity should be based on cultural and historical connection. The last of these has no validity whatsoever — since there is no sign that the US would come unequivocally to our aid in the face of threats to us from any other powers. One week after the Howard Government signed a blank cheque of support to the US government, Congress signed its own blank cheque — in the form of an unprecedentedly huge amount of subsidies to American farmers. This further example of free trade globally/protect locally is a measure of our special relationship.

Nor has the second of these propositions been established. Bin Laden has expressed a desire to destroy America, but mainly because America is — as he sees it — actively humiliating and oppressing the Muslim world. His concerns are overwhelmingly with the ‘purity’ of that world. Those who align themselves unquestioningly with the US will unnecessarily make themselves a target. Australia’s relative insignificance should, in this respect, be a source of security, not talked away.

But it is the first of these propositions — lining up with the state (or a coalition of states) against free-floating terror — that is the skein from which power and positions are currently unravelling. The ‘war on terror’ has thematised the big T, the twentieth century’s shadow, as its enduring enemy yet it is, as always, unlicensed terror that is subject to eradication. Alluding to some of the themes explored here by Angela Mitropoulos we can say that it is not violence itself but legitimacy, sovereignty that is in question.

Terror — not merely violence — is central to the question of the state and power. Violence is graded and allocated to citizens to varying degrees from sport to self-defence to private security. Civil life is contoured with different degrees of violence. Terror is held to be the preserve of the state alone. Private use of it tears a hole in the fabric of power and the rip can extend indefinitely. Though bound up with warfare from the earliest times, modern terror begins when the wholesale slaughter of civilian populations — the scorched earth policy of Roman, Tartar, Inca and Conquistador alike — shifts to the killing of randomly chosen representatives of a social group. The technique comes to fruition in the European empires (Captain Arthur Phillip’s capture and execution of six Aborigines, rather than an entire group, as punishment for raids for example). Terror installs death and power at the heart of life, rather than simply killing. The terrifying Other is then permanently at home in the psyche of the terrorised, and autonomously polices them. What came to be called terrorism in the nineteenth century — especially as practised by Russian radicals — we now know as assassination, since the principal target was the Tsar. He was targetted not merely as the symbolic personification of the state, but as its actual keystone, whose shattering would cause a collapse of the whole structure.

The intertwining of unlicensed terror and technology pushed the activity into the centre of Western political life and fears — as measured by two classics of turn of the century literature, Conrad’s Secret Agent and Edgar Wallace’s Four Just Men. (The use of dynamite to dispatch one Tsar and US President McKinley so shocked its inventor Alfred Nobel that he invented the peace prize to make amends.) Terror thus haunted the imagination of civil society as the other side of technology — even though the actual risk it presented was vanishingly small. Three innovations transformed it into a weapon of unparalleled effectiveness. In 1916 IRA leader Michael Collins moved from a guerrilla strategy to one of urban terror in which enemy figures targetted were not the leaders — whose identity and sense of self was bound up with enforcing British rule — but the small-fry. British informers, sycophants and camp followers were killed for no reason other than being who they were — for precisely the fact that their particular death would make little real difference. Terror was thus pushed towards a general condition. Anyone pro-British was a combatant. Collins’s strategy was the template for modern terror and of such success that one of the next innovators took the names of the IRA leader as a codename — Michael for Yitzak Shamir. Shamir, with Menachim Begin, developed a strategy of outrage with the Irgun and the Lehi groups during the fight to establish Israel in 1948, employing not only ethnic cleansing (the massacre of the Palestinian village of Dair Yassen) but also excluded middle — the assassination of Folke Bernadotte, UN negotiator for the mandate — the extension of the definition of combatants (the dead in the blown-up King David Hotel included numerous non-military stenographers and office staff) and the pornography of death (the execution/murder of two British sergeants was filmed and the film delivered to Mandate authorities). The tactics outraged the mainstream Zionist armed group the Haganah, and they exterminated most such groups. To little effect — the British quit the mandate before a two-state solution could be negotiated, which had been the Irgun’s aim. Begin’s insight was that terror could live off the horror of its friends as much as its enemies — that it relentlessly and irresistably shifts the ground of politics, that anyone ruthless and desperate enough to use it will be rewarded — in Ireland and Israel’s case with statehood. When George Habash and Wadi Hadid of the PFLP defined all Israelis as combatants by virtue of their nationhood and the Japanese Red Army put this into practice at Lod Airport they effectively completed terror’s universalisation.

A grisly history, yet mild compared with the history of state terror — whether Red or White in 1917, the Nazis at Guernica, or the bombing of Cambodia. Non-state terror looms large on the social psychological horizon because it is purely rogue — not only is it unattached to any form of other power, it is resorted to when that power seems most absent, when the enemy seems all powerful. The attack on the Twin Towers took terror further into the territory of everyday life by its use of spectacle and icons. The venerable avant-guardist Karl-Heinze Stockhausen called it the ultimate piece of performance art. He was saying honestly what media outlets were acknowledging through their acts. Three days after the event, the US government had to ask the networks to stop playing the multiply angled footage of the event.

People can’t look at terror, but they can’t look away from it. It achieves the total presence in an enemy society, that the enemy assumes in the society of the terrorist. It turns everyday life against itself and reminds people that they are, at the bottom of it all, pure carbon to be blown apart at the will of the Other. The state’s great propaganda victory of this century has been to convince people that terror in uniform is not terror at all.

For the most part, this judgement has hinged upon the bombing of civilian populations. Prior to the 1930s this act was seen as the ultimate barbarity of the burgeoning doctrine of ‘total war’. Hitler’s use of it in Spain and Mussolini’s in Ethiopia deepened that identification, but it was also used by the British in Afghanistan, of all places. Churchill, who had been an enthusiastic proponent of both civilian bombing and the use of gas was the prime mover behind Britain’s WW2 practice of carpet bombing whole cities. At the time it was a major moral issue, with many Americans arguing that the practice rendered the UK morally equivalent to the Nazis, and obliged people of conscience to become conscientious objectors. Dozens of war movies have normalised the strategy as part of a general reinterpretation of the war as a crusade against the Holocaust —falsely of course. About the only part of the Nazi empire the Allies didn’t bomb was the rail lines to the camps. The WW2 model has served as the ground for the moral division between state and non-state terror ever since. The victims of terror fade to invisibility beneath the shadow of the bombers. I suspect I am not the only one who has had dismaying conversations with good-hearted friends willing to see ordinary Afghan people blown to pieces in their name — in order to make the world a place where civilians are not exposed to random airborne death.

The terror unleashed on 11 September has been as effective as any in history because of the unprecedented degree to which people’s lives are dependent on the technologies which have been turned against them. Whatever governments may say people know that hypermodernity is inherently indefensible. The current anthrax scare in the US is an indication of the widespread awareness that a further attack may produce casualties of five rather than four figures. Echoing a theme picked up by Paul James, it is the new willingness of people to achieve such destruction with their own bodies that makes most vulnerable the uniquely disembodied power structures of contemporary globalisation. And any attempt to lock down global society in the manner in which Israel is locked down would slow the velocity of global capitalism to a degree disastrous to its smooth working. As John Hinkson notes, the current set up is balanced precariously on hitherto unimaginable systemic risk, as expressed in contemporary insurance and banking funds. Confidence is as much a target as buildings.

The people of the United States wonder if life will ever be normal again. Yet for many across the world the presence of sudden death — albeit in a less spectacular form — is normality, and it was surely a part of the terrorists’ intention to bring this fact home to the American people.

The people they purport to avenge — the Palestinians and Iraqis — face a more mundane but no less lethal annihilation. When a globalising power has the capacity to visit such annihilation on people, such totalitarian destruction, it produces total opposition — those who believe they have no choice but to die fighting in order to live. Thirty years ago Arab resistance was expressed through the movements of nationalism and Marxism. Both these have been supplanted by a militant form of Islam which offers a transcendental, a spiritual, grounding for struggle that those other movements could only partially achieve. Thirty years ago suicide bombers were a rarity — now there are hundreds. Push hard enough and there will be suicide societies whose resistance is total. A form of Islam may steel such people for certain death, but that is not so different from the many people who have faced virtually certain death because they felt that they had no alternative that would still allow them to be a human being. The Vietcong are one example; the British crews of WW2 bomber command — the first suicide bombers, with virtually no chance of surviving a tour of duty — are another. Refusing to endorse someone’s ruthless disdain for the innocent is one thing; to believe, as many conservative pundits believe, that analysing the motives and contexts from which such people work is tantamount to dishonouring the dead is foolishness distilled. As Geoff Sharp notes, the fundamentalism of the terrorists has been called out by a fundamentalism inherent in the US version of globalisation itself — the relentless manner in which it seeks to make over all existing ways of life in its own image under the brand of ‘choice’.

The need to guard the security of hi-tech globalisation has made it inevitable that the liberal political sphere would come under pressure sooner or later. Attempts to extinguish it altogether will be a feature of the years to come, especially if the conflicts now occurring slide towards a more comprehensive global war. The peace movement that has now begun across the world has sprung in part from the global social movement that has rocked the cities of the world from Seattle to Melbourne to Genoa. In Australia it has also had confluence from the refugee action movement, to create a broad campaign based on expanding the principle that recent events have been only the most visible aspect of a rising global conflict. Such a conflict will only be resolved through genuine global justice, which will only come from a global movement above and beyond the official national and international bodies. Whatever is to come will be determined in part by our resolute actions, and anything is possible. We cannot know whether the best or the worst, reconciliation or destruction, will occur, but we can say for certain that whatever it is, it will be mutual.

Guy Rundle is co-editor of Arena Magazine.

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.