The right to rights

Brendan O’Leary
17 September 2001

These atrocities have affected all of us – for example, the niece of the friend I have just stayed with in Vermont is missing. And, these atrocities are not just national, they are international. The victims were international (two of the plane flight victims were from the city of my birth), the causes were very likely international, and the impact will be international. This is not just about America or ‘America under attack’.

We must all think, and not be driven by our immediate collective passions, not least because these will have been anticipated. We must think, and avoid words like ‘senseless’ and ‘mindless’ – which only show our bewilderment.

Who did this? No one here knows for certain. Discussions of the usual suspects fill the airwaves, but we lack certainty. We know it is highly unlikely to have been a government, or authorized by a government. The risks of an American and NATO counter-reaction would have been too high for any barely rational government.

We know that it was organized: planned, trained for, and executed with remarkable efficiency – it seems that only heroic resistance on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania prevented all these missions’ objectives from being wholly fulfilled.

But what was the purpose of these missions? These are dumb crimes, by which I mean that these atrocities have so far not been justified by speech, by arguments explaining why the relevant organization carried out these deeds. Think about this.

Justice and justification

The political violence of nationalist movements is almost automatically accompanied by claims of responsibility. ‘We did this to remove your empire, and its soldiers from our land’. We are familiar with these voices, and when we are not from the relevant empires, we may both understand and sympathize with them.

The political violence of secular ideological movements is also replete with words, whether these movements be fascist or anti-capitalist. They name their targets, explain why they are enemies, and glory in their successes.

Nationalist movements use violence instrumentally, to break the will of the empire that holds them. They may engage symbolic targets, but usually conduct their warfare to avoid deliberate civilian casualties, because they wish to win support for their actions in their constituencies, and externally. They try, fitfully, to fight just wars. If they don’t, they erode their own support bases.

Secular ideological movements are usually weaker than nationalist movements – indeed, the weaker a nationalist movement is the more likely it is be deeply ideological. Ideological secular terrorists rarely enjoy mass, active or diffuse support – as we know from post-war Germany and Italy. They use violence symbolically – hitting centers of power to deflate and humiliate the incumbents, to show their vulnerability.

Many of you will have concluded that these suicide missions were ideological – and you may be correct. The Pentagon, the World Trade Center, and the White House – that was not hit, respectively symbolize the military, financial and executive power of the United States. But perhaps that is not the whole story.

These acts have not been publicly justified – why not? Is it the prudence of the organization’s leaders? Is it to avoid the consequences of a US and NATO ‘search and destroy’ mission of possibly apocalyptic proportions? Is it to avoid antagonizing those who harbour them – to use President Bush’s ambiguous phrase? These explanations have certain plausibility.

But it is also possible that these acts have not been justified, because they are considered self-evidently right, a mass killing of personnel who man the institutions of evil – in which case these acts have been religious in character: value-rational, not instrumentally rational; the acts of holy crusaders, and not of those who negotiate, albeit with menaces.

I say this not to be provocative, but to ask you to think about how these suicide killers might have seen their actions.

For make no mistake, this was not another Pearl Harbour – as many fools, including Dr. Kissinger, have thoughtlessly said. No plan of territorial seizure accompanies these atrocities: no government, no ambition of conquest, except perhaps moral conquest.

The people who organized these atrocities were probably motivated by the world-religion that is most secularization-resistant, and from the peoples who feel most humiliated and outraged by western power, and its leading state, the United States of America.

If this is so, it should make us think. The USA, NATO and their allies cannot sensibly go to war against Islam, or against Islamic believers, and to start to engage in public discourse of that type would simply make it more likely to lead to extensive repetitions of what has just occurred.

Three ways forward

Having come from a part of the world that may just be coming out of thirty years of political violence, of a nationalist rather than of a religious character, let me suggest some things that should be thought about in three domains.

First, think about appropriate external policy. These acts were criminal: they have violated both US law, and international law. The US must organize with its allies to bring the perpetrators to justice – using all the savvy and skills of which America is capable.

But think carefully before supporting large-scale retaliatory jihads – recall that at least twice in recent memory the wrong locations have been hit by US forces, and the wrong peoples have been aerially murdered.

I do not speak as a pacifist: I welcome an interventionist America, from the Balkans to Africa, depending, of course, upon the purposes of the interventions. But, through rage, an incensed America may act against its long-term values and interests. Killing civilians is wrong, and that applies both to terrorists and to governments – and governments are generally the biggest killers of all.

In the medium and longer term the US must also appraise its policies in the Middle East and the Islamic worlds – these are, of course, not homogenous territories, and policy has not been homogenous or consistent. But it must be asked why hatred of the US is so fierce in these locations. It is of course true that these hatreds are not spontaneous, and often have little basis in fact. They are often irrational, and the USA is absurdly scapegoated and demonized. But US foreign policy before and after the Cold War has propped up authoritarian regimes. And it has, to the abiding humiliation of the Islamic world, supported Israel, right or wrong – and Israel is not always right.

Second, think about being normal as a way of standing up for yourself and your values. Be normal, as much as possible. Do not let your normal rhythms be disrupted. You are still more likely to be killed on the road, or by a fellow citizen than by externally organized paramilitaries. Keep a sense of proportion, despite the magnitude of the horrors unfolding. Don’t close universities – make them places where people talk and argue about these questions; don’t run extra fire-drills; don’t encourage mass anxiety – there will be enough of it.

Third, there must be much thought about better internal prevention in the USA – preventing such things from happening, or from so easily happening again. That will involve security measures.

Your airports, domestically, are the laxest that I have experienced – that is because your decision-makers have put commerce ahead of personal security, and because they have chosen not to have rail networks that would make you less dependent upon planes. Be prepared to argue for slower planes and more trains. Your immigration and border-controls, and internal surveillance mechanisms, must no doubt be enhanced. But be careful; make sure that you do not suffer from the illusion of ‘fortress America’. Prevention is very difficult. And avoid antagonizing your Canadian and Mexican neighbours – who have also lost co-nationals.

Above all, ensure that your internal controls and surveillance do not lead to witch-hunts of those associated with ‘harbouring’ activities, or to special emergency regimes of detention. This is right, because it is right – the human rights of all should be protected. But, it is also prudent – if you make whole populations the targets of your security policies they will be less likely to co-operate with you voluntarily.

On Monday, over 99.9999 repeating per cent of Americans of Islamic faith or of Arabic or Central Asian origin would have co-operated in reporting to the authorities anything they knew of these planned atrocities. The test of a good security policy is that they will feel exactly the same way in the future. Do not do to Muslim and Arab Americans what was done to Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbour.

Protect your human rights protections, because they are your human rights protections.

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