Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for September 16th, 2011

Ten years on, media commentary on 9/11 is legion, while other events, equally horrific, are quickly forgotten. Three days after the 9/11 attacks, Howard Zinn, the distinguished American historian and author of A People’s History of the United States, wrote: “The images on television horrified and sickened me. Then our political leaders came on television, and I was horrified and sickened again. They spoke of retaliation, of vengeance, of punishment. I thought: they have learned nothing, absolutely nothing,  from the history of the twentieth century, from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war, a hundred years of terrorism and counter-terrorism, of violence met with violence in an unending cycle of stupidity.”

Zinn continued: “We need new ways of thinking. A $300 billion dollar military budget has not given us security. Military bases all over the world, our warships on every ocean, have not given us security. Land mines, a ‘missile defence shield’, will not give us security… We should take our example not from our military and political leaders shouting ‘retaliate’ and ‘war’ but from the doctors and nurses and medical students and firemen and policemen who have been saving lives in the midst of mayhem, whose first thoughts are not violence, but healing, not vengeance but compassion.”

Since Zinn penned those words, the U.S military budget tripled to nearly a trillion dollars, and American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which have claimed far more lives than were lost on 9/11) have squandered the deep sympathy for Americans that was widespread immediately after the attacks on American soil. Despite the killing of Osama bin Laden, the US and Western Europe are no less vulnerable to terror attacks than they were ten years ago.

The New York Times of 31 December 2007 carried an editorial insisting that the United States could no longer be called a “democratic” society. The editorial listed a succession of state-sanctioned abuses of American citizens, including eavesdropping, illicit body searches, arbitrary arrests, torture by the CIA and repeated violations of the Geneva Conventions, all done by government officials without apology and under the aegis of waging a “war on terror”. Other governments took a leaf out of the Bush administration’s book and re-described all their civil conflicts as “wars on terror” which justified introducing or extending draconian “emergency laws” and brutal policies of repression against any dissidents.

It is incumbent on governments to provide security for their citizens. But when “national security” overrides all moral considerations, one is forced to ask whether such a society is actually worth defending. If my “security” is obtained at the cost of harming, degrading or endangering the lives of innocent others, then I should be willing to forego that security. Security obsessions are inexhaustible and insatiable; and once we go down that path, whether as individuals wanting to live in “secure environments” (e.g. gated condominiums) or governments pursing every potential “security threat’, it is difficult to change direction. Groups and persons targeted as “threats” are turned into objects and excluded from the moral universe. They can be the targets of “pre-emptive” eliminations, unilaterally undertaken.

The only people who are ever arraigned before war crimes tribunals are those on the defeated side. Victors have never had to answer for war crimes and other abuses of human rights. (If the Sri Lankan regime is ever arraigned by the UN for war crimes, as is currently being threatened, it will be a historical “first”!). The inquiry into the Abu Ghraib outrage never reached the top echelons of the American military command; let alone the top men in the political administration who sanctioned the use of torture.

In an interview with an online American journal in late 2008, I was asked what difference Obama’s election as the new American President would make worldwide. I said that, while Obama’s election was a good thing for US domestic politics, it would not make an iota of difference to foreign policy. Look back over the past sixty years and you will not observe much difference between Republicans and Democrats where U.S military and corporate interests are concerned.

Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration has refused to prosecute any members of the Bush regime who were responsible for war crimes, including some who admitted to torture. Obama has claimed the right to assassinate anybody, including American citizens, suspected of belonging to terrorist networks, merely on grounds given by the CIA, something Bush never claimed publicly. Also, the US has greatly expanded the use of unmanned drone attacks in Afghanistan and Northwest Pakistan, violating humanitarian rules of engagement by shifting the risks to non-combatants away from American military personnel.

US “exceptionalism” is deeply paradoxical. On the one hand, you have a nation, the first liberal democracy in the world, with a great Constitutional tradition recognizing natural human rights.  On the other hand, however, it is the single biggest cause of cynicism about human rights and the single biggest obstacle to the implementation of those rights by governments around the world. The cynicism is prompted not only by the vast gulf between rhetoric and reality within the US; but also by the way the US, while denouncing other governments’ human rights records (excepting, of course, Israel), refuses to abide by key international human rights conventions, shields its own officials from prosecution, and consistently invokes national sovereignty and American “national interest” over the global common good.


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