War Whoop of Folly
September 21, 2001
George W. Bush's speech to the nation Thursday night was one of the most bellicose ever delivered.
Macho in rhetoric, endless in scope, the speech will go down in history as a war whoop of folly.
In front of a Congress that abdicated its own war-making responsibilities, Bush went well beyond even the extraordinarily loose parameters Congress set last week when it authorized the use of force.
Congress said Bush could retaliate against those "nations, organizations, or persons" that he determines were involved in the September 11 attack. But Bush doesn't feel bound by that.
"Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there," he said. "It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated."
Bush has assumed regal powers. Like emperors of old, he is sending his legions to the farthest corners of the world, daring anyone to step in his way.
"Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," he said.
He blithely acted as though U.S. allies were, by definition, lovers of democracy. "This is the flight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom," he said, heedless of Saudi Arabia's repressive monarchy and Pakistan's military rule.
"From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime," he warned.
How many nations will the United States attack?
How many innocent people will the United States kill in the process?
And what will the consequences be?
For every terrorist the U.S. kills, two terrorists may arise in his place.
For every innocent person the U.S. kills, five or ten terrorists may arise.
And the suicide attacks will proliferate, and the disproportionate responses from Washington will proliferate, and around and around we'll go.
"Returning hate for hate multiplies hate," Martin Luther King Jr. wrote. "Violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction."
We are about to go down that spiral of destruction.
War is a combustible and unpredictable thing, and warmakers rarely calculate the potential consequences of their actions. "The men who have embarked on wars in this century repeatedly, almost exclusively, substituted their interests, desires, and preconceptions for accurate assessments of the most likely possibilities once they began," historian Gabriel Kolko wrote in "Century of War: Politics, Conflicts, and Society Since 1914" (New Press, 1994).
What will Bush do if some of Pakistan's 140 million Muslims overthrow General Musharraf?
What will Bush do if allies of the Taliban take control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons?
What will Bush do if the other shoe drops in Saudi Arabia, and the House of Saud falls because of the havoc Bush's war has wreaked with its 21 million Muslims? Saudi Arabia, remember, controls 25 percent of the world's oil supplies.
What will Bush do if the most rightwing Muslim fundamentalists wrest power in Egypt, Algeria, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan? Is the Pentagon prepared to invade all of these places, and Iraq, too?
Bush is rushing headlong into war, cheered on by a Congress overcome with grief and drunk with patriotism. Meanwhile, the media serve as the drum and bugle corps of the Pentagon.
I do not want to belittle the grief, pain, and anger that members of Congress, the media, and the American people feel.
Who could not have those emotions in the face of the horrific attack of September 11? All those poor people in the planes and in the buildings. All the courageous firefighters, police officers, and EMTs who risked their lives in rescue missions. All the families waiting and waiting for word of their loved ones. Six thousand funerals! It is almost too much to fathom.
But to respond rashly out of grief, pain, and anger is not the wise course.
The wise course is not to multiply the horror but minimize it.
The wise course is to view the attack of September 11 not as an act of war but as a mass murder or a crime against humanity.
The wise course is to apprehend and prosecute, either in U.S. courts or before an international tribunal, all those who were involved in this slaughter.
But rather than exhaust every legal effort to prosecute the suspects, Bush prefers to act as judge, jury, and executioner. And rather than exhaust every diplomatic effort to extradite Osama bin Laden or to bring him before an international tribunal, Bush has made the Taliban an offer they had to refuse.
The Administration had previously been demanding simply the release of bin Laden, but Thursday night Bush upped the ante with three more demands, including giving "the United States full access to terrorist training camps."
It was clear that Bush doesn't want peace. "These demands are not open to negotiation or discussion," Bush said.
I was reminded of the "nightmare scenario" of Bush's father back in 1991, when he gave Saddam Hussein an ultimatum to leave Kuwait--or else. The nightmare was that Saddam would actually withdraw and peace would break out!
George W. appears to have had a similar nightmare: that the clerics in Kabul would cough up Osama bin Laden. To sleep more easily, Bush kept adding to his list of demands.
Bush the father said to the Iraqis, "Our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people."
Now Bush the son has said to the Afghanis: "The United States respects the people of Afghanistan." These are the rattles of the snake. The people of Afghanistan should get ready for the strike.
And we should all beware because Bush said he will use "every necessary weapon of war." He did not forswear nuclear weapons.
And we should all beware the war on civil liberties. Bush vowed "to give law enforcement the additional tools it needs to track down terror here at home." Those tools will chisel away at our most cherished freedoms. Attorney General John Ashcroft seems to delight in the prospect.
As far as context goes, Bush gave the most simplistic answer to the question: "Why do they hate us?"
"They hate our freedoms," he said.
He gave no indication (and the media have given precious little) that U.S. policies could have had anything to do with driving some people to terror: the policies of propping up the Saudi monarchy, or imposing murderous sanctions on Iraq, or unconditionally supporting one oppressive act after another by Israel.
As Robert Fisk of the London Independent said in a phone interview with WORT radio in Madison, Wisconsin, on Friday, "I can well imagine someone thinking, 'We have suffered enough. It's about time they suffered like us.' "
Fisk properly denounced this kind of reasoning, and called the September 11 attacks "a crime against humanity." But he said America's "one-sided, double-standard policies in the Middle East" have created conditions that give rise to terrorism. As one example, he cited the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when Israeli forces killed 17,500 people, almost all of them civilians.
Fisk, by the way, was the first Western journalist to interview bin Laden, and he has interviewed him three times, once in the Sudan and twice in Afghanistan. "He wants Americans out of the Gulf," Fisk said.
But the United States will be in the Gulf more than ever once Bush's war begins. And where it ends nobody knows.
The Pentagon's name for this war initially was "Infinite Justice." It won't bring justice-the killing of innocent people never does-but it may, indeed, be infinite.
Now Defense Secretary Rumsfeld appears to be backing off that name after people brought to his attention the theological connotations. (Only God is supposed to have the power to exact infinite justice, and the phrase echoes "God, in his infinite wisdom.")
But make no mistake: Bush's theological views color this warmaking.
He ended his speech by twice invoking the deity, a peculiar thing to do when bin Laden invokes the deity to justify his own acts.
Said Bush: "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them."
And he closed by saying, "May God grant us wisdom, and may he watch over the United States of America."
Bush's divine invocation will lend credence to those who fear that his "crusade" against terrorism is really a holy war.
"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed," William Butler Yeats wrote some 80 years ago.
The terrorists of September 11 have dimmed the tide red. And George W. Bush is ready to dim it some more.