I live and work part of the time within two miles of the site of the World Trade Center. The magnitude of the horror and human tragedy is especially visible here. The attack's impact on New Yorkers is no doubt unique. Many people here remain shaken by the event and will remain so for a long time to come. The gruesomeness of the act, the scale of the grief, and the immediacy of the terror keep many preoccupied and disoriented.
Being in this environment makes it clear to me that progressives cannot afford to skirt the question of the need to combat the forces of international terrorism in the here-and-now. And surely we cannot content ourselves with easy, smug pronouncements about "chickens coming home to roost" or "the United States getting a taste of its own medicine." Such assertions are simply not credible to the people we need to win over.
Yes, U.S. attacks on Libya and Sudan, the daily assault on the people of Iraq, and Israel's brutalization of Palestinians amount to state-sponsored terrorism. Those actions and practices, along with many other less dramatically lethal ones, have certainly earned the U.S. government vast numbers of enemies all over the world.
That said, we must support efforts to bring to justice those responsible for September 11 and to neutralize such international networks of terrorist activity as do exist. That doesn't mean applauding the Bush Administration's global ambitions. But it does mean endorsing the use of internationally coordinated law enforcement efforts to identify and apprehend terrorist groupings and dry up their lifeblood of material and logistical support.
We know that such loose networks of terrorist activity exist within the extremist right wing, both domestically and internationally. There's no reason to doubt that those or others also may overlap with some strains of Islamic fundamentalist militancy and twisted variants of anti-imperialism.
I recognize this is a tricky proposition. It could carry us that much closer to an international neoliberal security regime.
It's not too far-fetched to imagine a global antiterrorist alliance morphing into a new "Red Squad"—or worse—that targets any opposition to the International Monetary Fund. And Attorney General John Ashcroft is chomping at the bit to use the excuse of a "war against terrorism" to undermine civil liberties in this country and trample human rights elsewhere.
The global alliance against terrorism could become a contemporary version of the nineteenth century British campaign against the slave trade: a high-sounding instrument for legitimizing the imposition of imperial power.
But we don't have many options available to us. The only real alternative seems to be the cowboy-style military adventurism that our government has made its all-too-familiar trademark. Not only is that adventurism visiting devastation on innocent people in Afghanistan and wherever else it may go; it is also making people in this country more vulnerable to retaliatory terrorist attacks.
The reality is, however, that at this point whatever we propose is most unlikely to have any impact. This situation underscores the pitiable weakness of the left in this country. We should understand our discussions of appropriate responses not as serious interventions in a national debate that could be effective in guiding or restraining the U.S. government's actions. Nor should we see them simply as exercises in which we search for the correct moral stand.
We must look beyond the moment to consider how we might try to build a broader base for a foreign policy consistent with the goals of global and domestic social justice. We will do that less by issuing statements and staging demonstrations, important though those may be, than by engaging with friends, relatives, neighbors, and co-workers in face-to-face discussions about the issues that are at stake, about what makes us vulnerable to horrors like September 11. Those issues range from privatization of responsibility for airline safety to the real substance and effects of the corporate-driven U.S. foreign policy. These discussions can draw the links between the assaults on working people's lives here and abroad.
When George Bush the Elder, during the orgy of militarist enthusiasm he stirred up on the eve of the Gulf War, proclaimed a "New World Order," he neglected to mention he was opening an accounts payable line for the rest of us in this country. He and his successor, the no-less-adventurous Bill Clinton, were aided in this sleight of hand by the corporate media and pundit class, which increasingly function as press agents for whoever is in power.
If the United States is to maintain its self-appointed role of primary enforcer of this New Order, the Pinkertons for global capitalism, then this country necessarily becomes a target for those opposed to, and bulldozed by, it. We've never had anything approximating a national discussion of this downside of the "One Superpower" rhetoric that national elites and their mass media steno pool have been exulting in since the end of the Cold War. Now, in the wake of this frightful attack, more Americans may realize that we'd better have it.
While it's important for us to speak out against Bush's warmaking in Afghanistan and in other targeted nations to come, it may be more important ultimately for us to refocus on the problems that confronted the United States on September 10. The most effective way, perhaps the only way, for us to build a popular movement against military adventurism is to link that objective to the issues that will continue to dominate most people's everyday concerns.
The foreign policy that makes this country a target of terrorism is an arm of the same global economic regime that lowers wages, benefits, job security, and working conditions in the United States, that leaves forty million people in this country without any access to health care and untold more with inadequate access, that feeds the national crisis in affordable housing, that denies many people access to quality education, that replaces social welfare with corporate welfare, and that degrades the environment.
As the roster of casualties in the World Trade Center attack shows, working people are among those who suffer the direct effects of terrorism. At least 1,000 union members and an uncounted number of temps were killed on September 11. Of course, they and their sons and daughters are also those who will be called on to risk their lives in any likely military response.
It's telling that business interests haven't skipped a heartbeat in taking advantage of the distraction of public attention and the calls for patriotism and unity to demand huge sums of corporate welfare. And they did not hesitate to pass on the costs they claim to have incurred to their workers. (Note that the airlines refused to give severance pay to the tens of thousands of workers they laid off, even as the CEOs lobbied for, and received, billions of dollars in bailouts.)
It is equally telling that our more-than-ever bipartisan government has rushed to provide these bailouts while offering not much more than Band-Aids to those who bear the real burdens of corporate retrenchment.
The instantaneous provision of the federal government's largesse demonstrates clearly who counts for how much. The $20 billion originally requested for relief for New York City would have been nearly enough to pay all tuition and fees for all full-time students at all public higher educational institutions in the country. The additional $20 billion Congress added on its own would have gone much of the way toward resolving the crisis in affordable housing.
This is not to say that the emergency reconstruction expenditures are unjustified. My point is simply that political will is the ultimate determinant of spending priorities. There's always money available for war and corporate bailouts; there's rarely money available for social programs.
Magically now, the Bush Administration seems to have found an additional $65-$70 billion lying around for an economic stimulus package, much of which will probably go to tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy.
I found one hopeful way of proceeding at a meeting of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE!) civil rights committee that I attended two weeks after September 11.
The participants—roughly sixty local union activists from the South, Northeast, Middle Atlantic, Midwest, and Southwest—were completely focused on the message to take back to their shops, neighborhoods, and circles of friends. They empathized with people's fears and concerns, while not succumbing to the false unity of corporate sham patriotism. And they were committed to not losing sight of their overarching objectives: building the struggle for rights and dignity and social justice for working people in the U.S., and honoring and protecting the lives and interests of working people all over the world.
In the longer term, the efforts of those rank-and-file working people and others like them all around the country will be what take us where we need to go.
Adolph L. Reed Jr. is a professor of political science on the graduate faculty at the New School University in New York City and is a member of the Interim National Council of the Labor Party.