I get a lot of letters, in such volume that I can't possibly answer all or even most of them: but occasionally one arrives that strikes at the very heart of an issue, and sets me to thinking – like this thoughtful and heartfelt missive from Alan Lewis, published in today's "Backtalk." I deal with it here because the letter is not only intelligently written, but also because it so perfectly expresses the anguish and confusion of antiwar activists in the wake of the 9/11 atrocity.
The author writes in response to my column, "The Peaceniks," in which I take the leftist-dominated peace movement to task for its apparent inability to come up with some real answers to the questions bedeviling Americans, such as: how do we defend ourselves against terrorism? Alan took particular umbrage at my point that it is a moral outrage to put the US on the same moral plane as Osama bin Laden & Co. "Ah," writes my correspondent, "but the issue of putative 'moral equivalence', as you well know, has not to do with the current action in Afghanistan, but rather the cumulative actions of the U.S. over decades, as well as of policies leading up to 9/11 (and of course still in existence). And on that score said equivalence is debatable – in no way clearcut or a matter of one side being 'grossly immoral' and the other benign."
This is very interesting because the whole concept of "cumulative" guilt is rather like a leftist interpretation of the concept of Original Sin: in this version, the US bears the burden of its guilt, like a cross, from the eradication of Native Americans to the slaughterhouse of Vietnam. According to this doctrine, America, as a nation, is inherently guilty, and thus any action it takes is bound to result in unmitigated evil.
The unacknowledged premise behind this argument is that we have no right to defend ourselves – no, not even when we are attacked on our own soil. Some, I fear, would take this idea to its logical conclusion, and hold that we were attacked because we deserved it – a view that is not openly expressed in America, but is commonplace throughout the Third World (and also pandemic, I suspect, in Europe). In any case, the idea that neither "side" is either grossly immoral or benign is a) not true (Bin Laden's grossness is indisputable), and b) utterly beside the point. For there is one "side" wholly and entirely benign, and that is the side of all the Americans grossly murdered that day in September.
To put the events of that horrific day in an historical context is not to shift blame from the actual perpetrators of the deed, but is necessary in order to prevent a reoccurrence. For, as we are learning, the US and its allies – particularly the Saudis – certainly enabled Bin Laden and his gang to gain access to arms, money, and power. Al Qaeda bears a "Made in USA" stamp just as clearly as the weapons used by Israel to keep their Palestinian helots in subjection. Far from getting Bin Laden off the hook, however, this only makes his destruction all the more urgent: the sooner this Frankenstein is destroyed by angry pitchfork-wielding villagers, the better. For the monster has already tasted blood, and having clearly developed a taste for it, is sure to kill again.
The leftist theory of "cumulative" collective guilt does not hold up when looked at under a microscope fitted with a libertarian lens. What it evades is that the 6000-plus victims of the 9/11 atrocity were not soldiers in an invading army, but ordinary Americans going about their business on what they thought was an ordinary day. While my correspondent would no doubt be properly horrified by the suggestion that the death and destruction visited on the twin towers was in any way deserved, neither does he seem all that concerned with administering justice to the likely perpetrators. I am taken to task for complaining that we get no answers from the official antiwar movement to the vital question of what to do about Bin Laden. My correspondent sees no need for answers, however:
"And indeed why should we? Virtually 100% of the population, as well as our political leaders, are brimming with variously-aggressive military 'answers'; it is not a question of whether someone is going to get their asses kicked, only when, how, for how long, with what total force, and involving how much 'collateral damage' (quite possibly extending to the greater part of central Asia and the Middle East, or even beyond, before this is over). And at this moment I am not saying that military answers are a bad thing; only that they are inevitable and, as such, the need for more such 'answers' from the ANSWER people is not very great, wouldn't you say? Yes, of course whoever is guilty of this heinous crime (bin Laden or other) should be hung up by their toenails; do you really need to hear another voice saying that?"
We don't need just another voice, we need the voice of the peace movement to ring out loud and clear that justice, in this case, is the prerequisite for peace, and that for all practical purposes there will be none until this is accomplished. If, by the standards of the antiwar movement, 6,000 American lives are not worth the trouble of finding and punishing the perpetrators, then why would the same people object to the wanton killing of Afghan civilians – unless, of course, it's okay to kill Americans, but not anyone else. To fail to emphasize this concept of justice is to lose all moral credibility and surrender to the War Party the very important task of deciding just what this justice shall consist of. Failing that, we have no standing to properly criticize the war as unjust if and when Bush takes it to Iraq, or Syria, or wherever.
It is precisely because of the possibility – or likelihood – that the conflict will spread that anti-interventionists must separate themselves out from the few pure pacifists by working to limit the war – now that it has actually begun – as much as possible. By absenting ourselves from the debate about what action to take, we open the road to the superhawks, who would love to take it all the way to Baghdad and beyond. And the so-called "peace movement" is helping them by failing to argue for a limited response, and instead sticking to a sectarian pacifist position of no response. It is one thing to rail against the moral obscenity of "collateral damage" – but it would be immoral to pass up the opportunity to mitigate the extent and suffering of a war my correspondent characterizes as "inevitable."
Many of Antiwar.com's writers have criticized past conflicts in which America was engaged on the grounds that they did not fit the criteria for a just war. But the clear implication of the view taken by my correspondent is that there can be no such thing as a just war, at least where America is concerned – or, at least, we must not say so in public. By dissolving and denying the difference between the justum bellum and a war of aggression, anti-interventionists cut out the ground from under their own feet: they cede the victory to the utilitarians and the consequentialists who claim that war exists outside of morality – and therefore any action during wartime is justified as long as it results in victory. The quasi-pacifism of the no response crowd is just the other side of the same coin: they too believe that war is entirely outside the province of ethics, although from this they draw the opposite conclusion.
"For God's sake," writes my correspondent, by now clearly frustrated and even a little angry, "why not give some benefit of the doubt to the utterly marginalized few who would offer any resistance at all to the rampant jingoism?" My unwillingness to cut my fellow peaceniks any slack is chalked up to, in the writer's words, "a latent right-wing revulsion for all things left," which "suddenly got activated – bigtime." This, I am told, is my real motive for firing off "a gratuitous, rabid assault."
I wouldn't say revulsion so much as horrified fascination, and certainly even my semi-regular readers know there's nothing latent about it. On the contrary, I rather like leftists, really, on a personal level, and often find them far more interesting than right-wingers whose views are far closer to mine. The reason is that, until very recently, libertarians have tended to live in a world of abstract ideas and floating concepts not moored any actualizing institutions or strategies. Leftists, on the other hand, have always been passionately interested in strategic questions, and indeed have spent most of their time arguing about it with one another in a kind of perpetual civil war. But the moment the twin towers collapsed, so, it seems, did their political sense, and with it the tactical flexibility that Lenin saw as the indispensable tool of revolutionaries – successful ones, that is.
The reason only the "marginalized few" are rallying 'round the antiwar banner is due to the marginalizing arguments employed by that movement and its spokesmen to date. Many people fear the prospect of a wider war, and would be prepared to oppose a protracted military conflict in the Middle East – but not at the price of appearing to support America's avowed enemies, even implicitly.
Speaking of the marginalized few: Here is one charming missive, sent by a certain Steve from Seattle, that embodies anti-American know-nothing-ism to a tee. In response to my column on "The Peaceniks," Steve wrote:
"Down, down, down the toilet goes Justin, straight into the pit of the State Department. You may as well resign from the staff of Antiwar.com, Justin baby. You've finally come home to your Uncle Sam."
Hey, I got news for you, buddy: I never abandoned Uncle Sam for Uncle Joe Stalin, Uncle Ho, or Uncle Fidel. And as far as a force for restraint in this conflict, I would place my bets with Colin Powell and the US Department of State over a gaggle of bourgeois Commies and aging hippies anytime. It is well-known that Powell has used his considerable influence and persuasive powers to push for a tightly focused and limited mission, while defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, have argued for widening the conflict into a regional war. And Powell has – so far – won. No thanks, I might add, to the so-called peace movement. To them, Powell is just another "warmonger," a pawn of US imperialism, the Enemy personified. Never mind that he has, almost single-handed, held at bay the dogs of a much larger and more destructive war.
I cite Steve's letter to not only demonstrate that there are left-wing yahoos just as boorish and ignorant as the rightist variety, but also to underscore the only possible strategic orientation for the anti-interventionist movement. This requires the immediate retraction of one remark made in my "peacenik" column to the effect that the peace movement must discard its "unusable past." I was wrong to say that because there is an important sense in which this "new" war is rather like the old war, the one we lost in Vietnam.
In that war, too, a large section of the elites in the media, business, and in the government itself never envisioned such a long-term and costly commitment, in spite of John F. Kennedy's pledge that we would "pay any price, bear any burden" in pursuit of the cold war global crusade: as the war escalated, they turned against it. Today we are starting out with an American Secretary of State clearly taking a minimalist position at the outset. The real peace party is headquartered not in the "International Action Center," but in the US Department of State. For if all that stands between the Middle East and a decade or so of "collateral damage" is some Trotskyite waving a placard, then may the immortal gods take pity on the peoples of the region, for they are truly lost.
There is much more to this very interesting letter, and more that I could say in response, but I'll save that for the "Backtalk" page, where you'll find the full text and a continuation of my reply. But to get back to the question of strategy and our usable (or unusable) past: once again, as in Vietnam, we must seek to split the elites by taking advantage of preexisting fissures. The peace movement should be arguing for a narrowly targeted response – one that is proportionate, strictly defensive, limited in time as well as intensity, and aimed at the actual perpetrators of the original aggression. I hadn't seen the the excellent statement issued by the national committee of the Libertarian Party before I wrote this column, and I am surprised – and very pleased – to see that it reflects my own views so closely.
Much of the left, of course, cannot buy into this, on account of the theory of "cumulative" guilt, and also because they apparently don't care about the vital issue of deterrence. Failure to respond except by announcing that we deserved it, and we're sorry, would incite yet more terrorism from Al Qaeda – and so the famous "cycle of violence" that left-pacifists are always talking about would not be broken by a US policy of inaction. Far from ending the terrorist campaign, such passivity would surely embolden Bin Laden, and invite more deaths, perhaps on a scale similar to the twin towers catastrophe. In that event, the pro-war backlash would sweep aside the peace movement and anyone else who got in its way, and an all-out war would quickly ensue. Such a war could well turn into a worldwide conflagration, the Ragnarok (or Armageddon) of the West.
In emergencies, one takes extraordinary measures – and certainly these extraordinary times constitute an emergency for opponents of global intervention. I think we have to take the position that was amply spelled out by the "President" of Pakistan, General Pervaiz Musharraf, who toppled the elected radical Islamic government in 1999 with implicit US support. In a conversation with reporters from CBS Radio and USA Today that he later denied, Musharraf said the Americans have to "take out" Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Afghan head of state, and then go after Bin Laden:
"Get Mullah Omar and Osama won't be able to operate. He'll be on the run. You must take out the center of gravity. That's what I would do if I were running this campaign."
There's no doubt that he would do a lot better job of it. The Telegraph reports "Pakistan's impatience was underlined by a statement from the foreign ministry that the length of the US offensive would be high on the agenda for talks" between Powell and Musharraf. With his strategy of taking out the bad guys, and then getting the Americans out of there as quickly as possible, the General looks like a winner to me: then we can turn the war over to him, and wish him good luck and Godspeed. Musharraf put it well, last week, when he said that he hoped the US military campaign would be "short and sharp." He was echoed by his foreign minister, Abdul Sattar:
"I think the longer this operation lasts, the greater the damage – collateral damage. And the larger the number of Afghan refugees that enter Pakistan, the greater will be the worry and concern in Pakistan."
World War III hasn't started – but we're getting perilously closer with each passing day. Either the "peace movement" wakes up from its sectarian slumber, or else all – and I do mean all – is lost. Not only many thousands of lives, but the last remnants of the our old Republic, which will give way, at last, to a full-fledged Empire. But it isn't too late to stop the militarist juggernaut, save what is left of our civil liberties, and live to fight another day: this "new war" is not yet a massive military intervention on the scale of the Gulf War, the Kosovo war, or any of Clinton's other numerous military adventures. It is still essentially a police action – one that could cross the line at any moment. And that suggests the only real and morally useful function of a peace movement worthy of the name: to draw a line in the sand and make sure the War Party doesn't cross it. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of lives would be saved – and that's the central idea of a peace movement, isn't it?
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