Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn
Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn
Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn

September 20, 2001

Panic and Indignity:
The Currency of Revenge

"We should melt the sand," snarled one four-star Air Force general to a friend of mine three days after the September 11 attacks. His fury is echoed hourly on TV and radio. The predictable eye-for-an-eye frenzy has built up its usual lethal head of steam with predictable rapidity. The outstanding question is: how many eyes for an eye. Count 5,000 dead in the Trade Towers, the four hijacked planes and the Pentagon. How many dead does this require in Kabul, or Baghdad or elsewhere in the hinterlands of terrorist Islam?

The traditional valuation of one white American to members of the brown races usually runs at about 500 to one, and the western press is mostly incapable of rating Indians or Chinese in units of under 5,000. Such equations would require a minimum revenge killing of 500,000, a pretty tall order, given that the "revenge window" (meaning the period in which public opinion is sufficiently fomented to exclude all moral qualms about mass murder of innocents) is not permanently ajar.

The only quick way to achieve killing on this scale would be with a substantial nuclear device on a city. Given this requirement, we may applaud the restraint of Thomas Woodrow in the Washington Times on September 14, though his moderation is salted with the pusillanimous phrase "at a bare minimum." Woodrow recommends that "at a bare minimum, tactical nuclear capabilities should be used against the bin Laden camps in the desert of Afghanistan. To do less would be rightly seen by the poisoned minds that orchestrated these attacks as cowardice on the part of the United States and the current administration."

Though there are certainly some hotheads among the President's counselors eager to endorse such a tactic, the balance of opinion would doubtless argue against this course at the present time, on the grounds that it might excite criticism abroad and further perturb the chances for any long-term global coalition (the world's White Citizens Council) against terrorism by the brown races.

Absent dropping a Big One, how can the necessary revenge be exacted? Cruise missiles, used by Bill Clinton as a way of expressing his displeasure at Sudan, may be useful for destroying pharmaceutical factories, hospitals, even defense ministries, but the body counts are not robust. Certainly not brawny enough to satisfy a man like retired Army Colonel James McDonough, who told the Washington Post last weekend that "The near term will help unleash the terrible anger and outrage Americans unilaterally feel. It will be swift, total, bloody, and compelling." Given such requirements, a symbolic revenge sortie like the Doolittle bombardment of Tokyo after Pearl Harbor won't be enough.

So how about large-scale bombing? Here again, experience tells us that protracted bombing is required, and though the death count on the ground can be most satisfactory, the risks to the aviators can also become substantial. The bombing of German cities by the Allies in World War Two did yield a total of 250,000 civilian deaths. Less well known is the fact that for every two German deaths thus achieved by bombs, there was one dead or captured Allied airman: 125,000 in all.

The first sortie in any bombing campaign may yield satisfactory results in terms of civilian deaths, but the target populations soon learn to go to ground in shelters, or evacuate to the countryside. As an infant, the present writer spent the first portion of the Luftwaffe's blitz of London on the platform of St. John's Wood subway station (one of the deepest in London) and the latter in Northumberland, during which time the Cockburn home at number 5, Acacia Road, northwest London, was leveled by one of Werner von Braun's rockets, with no loss of life, though a severe shock for the cat. Casualty rates from NATO bombs in Yugoslavia were not very high, and neither were those immediately consequent upon the bombardments of Iraq in 1991.

But who or what is is there to bomb in Afghanistan? The Russians have already done their best. A pathetically poor country in the first place, Afghanistan is only marginally ahead of Mali, in terms of available infrastructure to destroy, with far more challenging terrain.

A land invasion in force, a blitzkrieg sparing nothing and no one? Afghanistan is famously the graveyard of punitive missions embarked upon by the Great Powers, as the British discovered in the nineteenth century and the Soviets in the 1980s. The mere mounting an expeditionary force would take would be a difficult, possibly protracted business, landing the United States in a prodigious number of diplomatic difficulties, given the mutual antagonisms and stresses of adjacent or nearby states such as Pakistan, India, Russia's dependency Tajikistan, and China.

One familiar way extricating oneself from confrontation an unsuitable foe is to substitute a more satisfactory one. Though it is highly likely that Iran was the sponsor of the downing of Panam Flight 103, in revenge for the downing of the Iranian Airbus by the US carrier Vincennes (whose crew was subsequently decorated for its conduct in shooting down a planeload of civilians) the US preferred to identify Qaddafi's Libya as the culprit, as a more easily negotiable target for revenge. Already there's a lobby, the most conspicuous of whom is former CIA chief James Woolsey, pressing Iraq's case as possible sponsor or cosponsor of the World Trade Center attacks. So sanctions against Iraq could be strengthened, its cities bombed and perhaps even another invasion attempted.

Obviously aware of the difficulties surrounding speedy, adequately bloody, retribution, Bush's entourage have been talking in Mao-like terms about "protracted war," or a "war in the shadows," with the inference that America's revenge will be exacted for years to come in the back alleys of the world, cold steel between the ribs of each Muslim terrorist on a moonless night. The purely nominal ban against US Government-sponsored assassination (there have been numerous CIA-backed against Castro since the mid-1970s ban, if you believe the Cubans) will be lifted, as will the supposed inhibition against the CIA hiring unsavory characters, meaning drug smugglers, many of them also trained in the flying schools of southern Florida.

The war in the shadows will be definition be shadowy (hence poor provender for the appetite for revenge), at least until some CIA-backed revenge bombing surfaces into public view like the attempted bombing of Sheik Fadlallah outside a Beirut mosque, sponsored by CIA chief William Casey, which missed the Sheik but which killed over a hundred bystanders, including many children.

The war in the shadows will naturally provoke counterattacks from groups intent on discomfiting America. This is recognized, rather comfortably so, by America's military men, quoted in the Washington Post: "Every war has two sides, and the U.S. public needs to expect reprisals, warned James Bodner, a former Pentagon official. "Future attacks against us will be planned, and some may occur," Bodner said.

As in no other American conflict, civilians are on the front line. That's especially worrisome because the public infrastructure of the United States – especially its airports and border controls – wasn't designed with a long military campaign in mind. "The safest place to be in this kind of warfare may be in uniform," noted retired Army Col. Johnny Brooks.

A moment's reflection instructs us that none of this is likely to yield the results sought in the short term (revenge) or in the long-term (victory over terrorism). America's official reaction magnified an already dreadful disaster and further exhilarated the foe.

On this point, be instructed by a fine, but sadly rare example. On the morning of September 11 Judge Henry Wood was trying, of all things, an American airline crash damage case in Federal District court in Little Rock, Arkansas. In the wake of the attacks there were orders to close the courthouse. All obeyed, except Judge Wood, aged 83, who insisted that jury and lawyers and attendants remain in place. Turning down a plea for mistrial by the defendant, Wood said, "This looks like an intelligent jury to me and I didn't want the judicial system interrupted by a terrorist act, no matter how horrible."

Wood's was the proper reaction. America could do with more of what used to be called the Roman virtues. Why shut the schools, and then proclaim counseling sessions, presumably, to instruct children that the world can be a bad place. And what is all this foolish talk about "vulnerability," "a change in the way Americans feel"? A monstrous thing happened in New York, but should this be a cause for a change in national consciousness? Is America so frail? People talk of the trauma of another Pearl Harbor, but the truth is, the trauma in the aftermath of the day of infamy in 1941 was far in excess of what the circumstances warranted, and assiduously fanned by the government for reasons of state. Ask the Japanese Americans who were interned.

Why, for that matter, ground all air traffic and semi-paralyse the economy for four days, with further interminable and useless inconveniences promised travelers in the months and possibly years to come? Could any terrorist have hoped not only to bring down the Trade Center towers but also destroy the airline industry? It would have been far better to ask passengers to form popular defense committees on every plane, bring their own food and drink, keep alert for trouble, and look after themselves. A properly vigilant democracy of the air. Remember, even if there were no x-ray machines, no searches, no passenger checks, it would still be far more dangerous to drive to the airport than to get on a plane.

Martyrdom is hard to beat. In the first few centuries after Christ, the Romans tried it against the Christians, whose martyrdom was almost entirely sacrificial of themselves, not of others. The lust for heaven of a Muslim intent on suicidal martyrdom was surely never so eloquent as that of St. Ignatius in the second century who, under sentence of death, doomed to the Roman amphitheater and a hungry lion, wrote in his Epistle to the Romans:

"I bid all men know that of my own free will I die for God, unless ye should hinder me. . . Let me be given to the wild beasts, for through them I can attain unto God. I am God's wheat, and I am ground by the wild beasts that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Entice the wild beasts that they may become my sepulcher. . . Come fire and cross and grapplings with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, hacking of limbs, crushings of my whole body; only be it mine to attain unto Jesus Christ."

Eventually, haughty imperial Rome made its accommodation with Christians, just as Christians amid the furies and martyrdom and proscriptions of the Reformation, made accommodations with each other. What sort of accommodation should America make right now? How about one with the history of the past hundred years, in an effort to improve the moral world climate of the next hundred years? I use the word accommodation in the sense of an effort to get to grips with history, as inflicted by the powerful upon the weak. We have been miserably failed by our national media here, as Jude Wanniski, political economist and agitator of conventional thinking, remarked in the course of a well-merited attack on "bipartisanship," which almost always means obdurate determination to pursue a course of collective folly without debate: "It is because of this bipartisanship that our press corps has become blind to the evil acts we commit as a nation."

A great nation does not respond to a single hour of terrible mayhem in two cities by hog-tying itself with new repressive laws and abuses of constitutional freedoms, like Gulliver doing the work of the Lilliputians and lashing himself to the ground with a thousand cords. Nor does it demean itself with mad talk of firing off tactical nuclear weapons at puny foes like bin Laden, himself assisted onto the stage of history by the Central Intelligence Agency. America has great enemies circling the camp fires and threatening the public good. They were rampant the day before the September 11 attacks, with the prospect of deflation, sated world markets, idled capacity, shrinking social services. Is ranting about Kabul and throwing money at the Pentagon going to solve those true national emergencies?

Copyright 2001 Alexander Cockburn

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Text-only printable version of this article

Alexander Cockburn, one of America's best-known radical journalists, was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland. An Oxford graduate, he was an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Statesman, before becoming a permanent resident of the United States in 1973. Cockburn wrote on the press and politics for the Village Voice, and, all through the 1980s, he was a regular columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He co-edits, with Jeffrey St. Clair, the lively Counterpunch newsletter, and is the author of several books, including Corruptions of Empire and, most recently, Al Gore: A User's Manual. His exclusive column appears fortnightly on Antiwar.com.

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Panic and Indignity: The Currency of Revenge

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