Like everyone in the United States and around the world, I shared the deep sadness at the deaths of thousands.
But as I listened to people around me talk, I realized the anger and fear I felt were very different, for my primary anger is directed at the leaders of this country and my fear is not only for the safety of Americans but for innocents civilians in other countries.
It should need not be said, but I will say it: The acts of terrorism that killed civilians in New York and Washington were reprehensible and indefensible; to try to defend them would be to abandon one’s humanity. No matter what the motivation of the attackers, the method is beyond discussion.
But this act was no more despicable as the massive acts of terrorism — the deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes — that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime. For more than five decades throughout the Third World, the United States has deliberately targeted civilians or engaged in violence so indiscriminate that there is no other way to understand it except as terrorism. And it has supported similar acts of terrorism by client states.
If that statement seems outrageous, ask the people of Vietnam. Or Cambodia and Laos. Or Indonesia and East Timor. Or Chile. Or Central America. Or Iraq, or Palestine. The list of countries and peoples who have felt the violence of this country is long. Vietnamese civilians bombed by the United States. Timorese civilians killed by a U.S. ally with U.S.-supplied weapons. Nicaraguan civilians killed by a U.S. proxy army of terrorists.
Iraqi civilians killed by the deliberate bombing of an entire country’s infrastructure.
So, my anger on this day is directed not only at individuals who engineered the Sept. 11 tragedy but at those who have held power in the United States and have engineered attacks on civilians every bit as tragic. That anger is compounded by hypocritical U.S. officials’ talk of their commitment to higher ideals, as President Bush proclaimed “our resolve for justice and peace.”
To the president, I can only say: The stilled voices of the millions killed in Southeast Asia, in Central America, in the Middle East as a direct result of U.S. policy are the evidence of our resolve for justice and peace.
Though that anger stayed with me off and on all day, it quickly gave way to fear, but not the fear of “where will the terrorists strike next,” which I heard voiced all around me. Instead, I almost immediately had to face the question: “When will the United States, without regard for civilian casualties, retaliate?” I wish the question were, “Will the United States retaliate?” But if history is a guide, it is a question only of when and where.
So, the question is which civilians will be unlucky enough to be in the way of the U.S. bombs and missiles that might be unleashed. The last time the U.S. responded to terrorism, the attack on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, it was innocents in the Sudan and Afghanistan who were in the way. We were told that time around they hit only military targets, though the target in the Sudan turned out to be a pharmaceutical factory.
As I monitored television during the day, the talk of retaliation was in the air; in the voices of some of the national-security “experts” there was a hunger for retaliation. Even the journalists couldn’t resist; speculating on a military strike that might come, Peter Jennings of ABC News said that “the response is going to have to be massive” if it is to be effective.
Let us not forget that a “massive response” will kill people, and if the pattern of past U.S. actions holds, it will kill innocents. Innocent people, just like the ones in the towers in New York and the ones on the airplanes that were hijacked. To borrow from President Bush, “mother and fathers, friends and neighbors” will surely die in a massive response.
If we are truly going to claim to be decent people, our tears must flow not only for those of our own country. People are people, and grief that is limited to those within a specific political boundary denies the humanity of others.
And if we are to be decent people, we all must demand of our government — the government that a great man of peace, Martin Luther King Jr., once described as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” — that the insanity stop here.
Mr. Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.