Two weeks after September 11

By Jan Oberg, TFF director and Jorgen Johansen, TFF associate

Originally published by TFF, September 25, 2001 

Constructive thoughts two weeks after September 11

Can something positive come out of the terrible events in New York and Washington on September 11? Can the innocent victims of many nationalities and walks of life be honoured by hard thinking about a more peaceful world? Can this particular violence teach us something about the civilisational necessity to reduce violence before it is too late?

Two weeks have passed. We mourn the tragedy in New York and Washington. Innocent lives were taken by mad men who could not find intelligent, non-violent ways to make their point. No civilised goals can ever be promoted by such methods. No ideology and no religion in the world can justify them.

There are those who argue that, at this very moment, the discussion should only be about “Who” (guilt) and “How” (technique) and not about “Why” (causes). Some consider it inappropriate to ask whether, over the years, the United States foreign policy establishment and other Western governments have contributed in some ways to a tragedy like this and, if so, what role it may have played in the minds of the madmen.

Some consider such discussions insensitive in a time of deep national mourning, and some add that it is ‘anti-American’ to raise such issues. Others — among them President George W. Bush — argue that “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” But this is a false dichotomy that serves only to polarise people and cultures and quell a much-needed debate.

We must both mourn and get to the root causes

However understandable such arguments may be given the shock and grief, we do not agree with them. We believe that it is possible to respect the suffering and mourning while simultaneously discussing the causes and – – logically flowing from that – – move forward by asking what must now be done. We tend to believe that all these people will have died in vain if we do not even try to learn from the events. To prevent a spiral of escalating violence from this event, as well as reducing or ridding the world of terrorism requires an understanding of its underlying causes.

In short, the United States and the rest of the world share the need for mourning, diagnosis, prognosis and healing. But we do not share any need whatsoever for an all-out, long-term, multi-dimensional “war against terrorism” that cannot but increase the general level of polarisation and hatred, as well as direct, structural and civilisational violence throughout human civilisation.

And what is potentially at stake is nothing less than human civilisation.

We do not share the argument that the United States has only itself to blame for this terrible event because:

a) it is a simplification, not true and unfair;

b) it endorses the violence of the terrorists;

c) it will stall dialogues with many Americans and other nationals whose compatriots were killed, and

d) it ignores the fact that those who committed the crime on September 11 are responsible for their acts, for choosing such horrendous means.

Military action is not the only way to deal with this terrorist act. Counter-terrorism is also terrorism. Healing must not be confused with revenge. The cry “Do something!” must not automatically translate into planning to kill more innocent people in far-away countries or ten-fold “do-unto-them-what-they-did-unto-us.” That is not civilisation, it is high-technology counter-terrorism with equally low respect for the sacredness of human beings.

Should it turn out that Western societies and their leaders cannot come up with politically and morally superior policies that – – more than the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon – will mark a world order turning point, and we could well be descending into uncontrollable chaos.

Make our feelings and opinions heard for the people not to have died in vain

We need to make our voices and proposals for non-violence heard in as many places as possible, the voice of protest against all forms of revenge. Under terrorism lies a conflict and the challenge about any conflict is to ask: how can we handle it with as little violence as possible? A doctor can never justify spilling more blood or causing more pain (violence) to a patient than is absolutely necessary to treat the disease and help the patient recover. The same applies to the work for conflict-resolution.

We, the authors, urge you to write and speak up, dialogue with everyone you meet, challenge what we are told, and accept no attempts at limiting the open debate. If you fear what may happen in the world, like we do, do not remain silent but share it and tell decision-makers. And you can do something for instance by signing the excellent petition at:

TFF associate David Krieger of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation states:

“The US response to the attacks should adhere to three basic criteria: it should be legal, moral and thoughtful. It should be legal under both domestic and international law, sanctioned by the United Nations, and multilateral in scope. It should be moral in not taking more innocent lives. And it should be thoughtful in asking why this has happened and what can be done to decrease the cycle of violence.”

This summarises the constructive approach and within such a framework so many steps and initiatives can be taken. It should be pretty clear how it differs from destructive approaches.

Dialogue aiming at reconciliation North-South and inside the West

We want to propose a process of dialogue and, through that, reconciliation. The Germans have been able to reconcile with the eighteen states that occupied them in 1945. South Africa is well into a process of reconciliation with the former apartheid regime. Reconciliation is one of the possible ways for the US as well.

Media, schools, civil society organisations and numerous institutions can promote debates and solidify the basis of democracy. It must be focussed on human needs and rights, it must be a people-based and globalising debate, one that is not shaped by or limited to military-industrial, elite political, and mainstream media interests.

Any psychiatrist knows that in times of catastrophe and the death of loved ones, the best remedy is talking, telling one’s story, and sharing emotions to slowly recognise and learn to live with what has happened. In this light it is deeply troubling that political, military and media elites have already hijacked and monopolised the story, the explanations and, implicitly, devised the only right way to deal with the situation and the mourning: a huge counter-strike.

American citizens and groups could start a process of reconciliation with those many individuals and organisations around the world who have suffered under the destructive aspects of US military, political and economical influences for so many decades. The initiative could be taken by liberal religious groups in the United States, the peace movement, the women’s movement, parts of the trade unions, some of the political organisations, the war-veterans and human rights groups.

This is the North-South dimension, so to speak. The same actors and their counterparts and sister-organisations within the West (NATO countries in particular) could build alliances and non-violence networks that rapidly gain strength to struggle for constructive alternatives to US military revenge and for addressing the root causes of terrorism.

Let it be a completely open process, let it take time, invite more and more to join as the process moves forward, invite facilitators to help in difficult moments and expand the group from the American side as time goes by. Let editorial groups from many parts of the involved countries (including the United States of course) collect and publicise results of such a globalised reconciliation process.

Much can be done quickly via the Internet, of course. But we must protect the Internet and other elements of modern dialogue and globalising democracy against any clamp-down by people who believe that democracy must be curtailed during the ‘war on terrorism.’ We need the opposite: to strengthen and deepen democracy since terrorism is also a sign that people do not feel they have access to democratic processes.

New history books and truth and reconciliation commissions: increase awareness about “the others”

Let the voices of citizens in the receiving end of the US empire voice their opinions at truth and reconciliation commission tables rather than through violence in the streets. The United States is a global power, the only super power; it has a global reach that is unique in human history. It seems that many in that country as well as the rest of the West have little opportunity to learn how the non-Western world – – 70 per cent of the human family – – look at the West and how they are affected by the consequences of its policies.

This lack of other-awareness has to do with a certain media structure; for instance, our newspapers have foreign policy pages but no global pages; and in spite of globalisation, media coverage of international affairs have shrunk the last decade or so.

Global understanding leaves a lot to be desired. Most citizens in the West know little about global military affairs, about intelligence agencies and their covert operations. They know little about the global economic facts that make it possible for them to buy and consume the way they do. We may be happy to eat exotic fruits and buy cheap shirts, but show little interest in the people who live and die in the regions from where these everyday products reach us. Likewise, it is time to recognise that there are connections between their lives (and suffering) and our lives in the rich parts of the world.

We in the West hear, see and learn much less about the rest of the world than the rest of the world hears, sees and learns about us. Globalisation must imply a better balance; it must promote a sense of world citizenship rather than strengthen national identities.

After all, there is only one global society, one community. We must share it with those like us and those different from us. Or perish at some point in the future.

After having ventured into a broad global dialogue and understanding process, UNESCO could be asked to publicise a series of history books in which the global military, political, cultural and economic impact of the United States (and other Western nations) is documented. Good sides as well as bad sides, of course, as told by locals, by witnesses and victims.

Authors should work in groups with representatives from several countries in each. These books should be made available at a low price for all who want to know. They should be made available over the Internet. Schools and libraries world-wide should be provided with copies free of charge. Later, CDs, videos and theatre plays should be produced based on these books and reaching the many who cannot read and write.

Elements will be revealed in such a process that many Americans (and other Westerners) will find difficult to digest. The point, however, is not to point fingers or apportion guilt – – which has to do with the past – but to enable us all to take stock of the very serious state of the world and orient our feelings, creativity and policies to a better future.

In addition, a process like this would definitely reduce the hate, the feeling of marginalisation and the despair on which terrorism (also) thrives and gains support. Keeping on living in fear of terrorism will, all said and done, be much more painful than such a global awareness and reconciliation process.

Inter-religious dialogues and education in religion and peace everywhere

Religious people of all denominations must now rise to the occasion. There is a very serious threat that this conflict, whether intended or not, will turn into a “war of religions” or a “clash of civilisation” — the latter phrase based on a pretty bad book but banal enough for some to function as a political recipe and, thus, self-fulfilling prophesy. We should see to it that Christian and Muslim leaders meet and undertake dialogue with each other, speaking and acting out against all violence.

We need serious Christian people distancing themselves from Christian fundamentalism and the same for Muslims. Then, gradually invite others, non-Western in particular, and learn from them – Buddhists, Hindus, Gandhians, etc. – to create a world-wide spiritual movement against militarism and war and for reconciliation and peaceful co-existence.

And it is high time Western schools devote more time to non-Western philosophies, cultures and religions than they have done. That’s what globalisation ought to be about! And there must be a new emphasis on education in conflict-resolution and non-violence with a touch of spirituality and knowledge on how various cultures deal with non-violence.

We have come to the end of an epoch where the West just taught others with a missionary zeal. Now is the time for mutual learning to secure co-existence, tolerance and survival for all.


Global brainstorm on a humanity-oriented Western policy

Imagine that we begin a global brainstorm where people of all walks of life can contribute their opinions freely on questions such as: how can the United States, and the West in general, make a more efficient contribution to a world in peace, justice and human development?

What new forums do we need — in the fields of politics, religion, education, culture, etc — to balance the globalisation in the economic sphere? How must we re-structure the world system to promote global democracy and democratic governance (for, by and with the peoples) to benefit all and not mainly Western people?

We are talking about a new global policy for us all and not just for the biggest countries. We are talking about taking the idea of a global human family seriously when making decisions at home. We are talking about reducing the violence done to other people, other cultures and to Nature by Western countries. If the West could show the way to global reform it would encourage others to also reduce those types of violence and create a more humane, benevolent and mutually respectful world.

And we are talking about developing unity in diversity and not about unity through standardisation or Westernisation. To try to shape the world according only to Western/US values and norms is a deeply provincial and parochial idea, as bad for the world as nationalism is for a country.

Is it only the West that must change? Of course not! Lots of problems are caused by certain leaders and policies outside the West. But if we believe that the West is both strong and civilised, there should be nothing to fear if the West invites the rest of the world to comprehensive and sustained dialogues about real global reforms aiming at developing a much more tolerant, participatory, just and non-violent world.

There are many ways to defeat terrorism

It is highly likely that the US will strike and strike very hard against what its leadership considers the culprits. (So far no evidence has been presented). If so, we are not with the United States leadership — but neither are we with the terrorists as George W. Bush would have us believe. One can be against private small group terrorism as well as state terrorism. It can be argued that counter terrorism by (or on behalf of) the civilised, strong and rich is more ugly than terror by (or on behalf of) the weak and poor.

A very measured, moderate and proportional strike would be wiser and more acceptable to the world. Meeting the one-time use of four civilian planes on a part of one country with hundreds of war planes and thousands of strikes against one whole or several countries will be out of proportion. It will be neither legal, moral or thoughtful; it will be abhorred by millions including friends of the U.S., and it will create martyrs and future terror. The wisest, in a long-term perspective, would be a reform in the overall foreign and security policy of the United States.

To put it crudely: do not devote that much energy to conducting a military “re-action”, spend far more resources and human creativity on developing ideas and concrete steps the United States must take together with its allies to contribute to the reduction of hate.

TFF associate Richard Falk, Princeton University, defines terrorism as “political violence that lacks an adequate moral and legal justification.” We believe that terrorists can only be defeated and disarmed by means that, in the eyes of the world, have moral and legal justification.

Neither counter-terrorism and covert operations nor the planned “war against terror” that is likely to kill thousands of innocent civilians fall in that category.

Those who argue that it is psychologically understandable that citizens of the United States want to see some kind of forceful reaction (NATO’s leaders among them), owe us a clear answer to the question: what is acceptable and what is not? The psychological build-up during the last two weeks tells us that the risk is extremely high that we are about to witness a disproportionate over-reaction.

The authors advocate non-violent, and political measures only. In our judgement they will be most productive in the long run for the United States itself and for the world. A military “war against terrorism” without a simultaneous American initiative to open a global dialogue about the root causes behind terrorism and how the US and the West in general must contribute to prevent it, lacks every political and moral justification.

Imagine what the U.S. would do if it had much less military power: suggest political changes

Imagine that the United States had a “normal” defence apparatus, that it did not have nuclear weapons, enormous numbers of fighter planes, naval aircraft carriers, C3, a global base system and a world-wide intelligence and covert operations apparatus. What would it do then? What would we hear a responsible American president say then?

It would force decision-makers to think in completely different terms. If you have the arsenals of violence at hand, it is the easiest thing in the world to meet violence with (more) violence. But if such arsenals are not at hand, one is forced to stop and to think.

Here follow some proposals – – for anyone to discuss, develop and expand on – – of what the United States could do to politically undermine terrorism. Everything cannot be done at once. Even single changes may take years to prepare and implement. What is important right now is a declaration that the United States, its citizens and leaders, are willing to discuss with the rest of the world how to take steps such as these:

– pay its dues to the United Nations and, until something better exists, respect this organisation as the only “international community”;

– sign and ratify a number of international treaties (catchwords such as land mines, Kyoto and biological weapons);

– scrap the national ballistic missile defence (BMD) system and spend some of the saved billions of dollars on researching and implementing solutions to some of the major global problems;

– take the first step to abolish nuclear weapons and work for no-first-use of nuclear weapons also within NATO;

– reduce and finally abolish its exports of bigger and smaller arms, torture technology, etc;

– accept another mediation process and another mediator, the UN, in the Middle East conflict;

– lift a series of sanctions, particularly those which hit innocent citizens and are therefore comparable to mass-destructive weapons and terrorism;

– in general, adjust to and support the emergence of a multi-polar and multi-cultural global community, give more space to others in international organisations and see the United States as one great nation among others, and not as the only one or number one with rights different from all others. (Number 1 usually believes he has nothing to learn, whereas Number 2 or 3 know they have always something to look up to);

– promote mutual learning and co-operation and symmetric bonds rather than centre-periphery structures;

– sign and ratify the treaty establishing an international criminal court;

– withdraw from a series of bases which are no longer necessary and cause harm to the local people; this applies in particular to bases in the Middle East which is a thorn in the sides of so many;

– take steps to share wealth, offer debt relief and pursue a policy of basic human need satisfaction for all, before we, the already rich, continue our materialist life-styles. We cannot hope to combat terrorism in a world where 58 individuals own as much as the poorest half of humanity.

September 11 can be a turning point for a better world, if…

A United States/West that wants to lead must listen more actively. Its foreign and security policy elite must lead by compassion, creativity, diplomacy and by setting a good example. It has by far the largest arsenals of violence and can safely take the first steps toward a much less violent world. The rest of the world will increasingly see America as an anachronism if it believes that might-makes-right and rules by counter-terrorism, by militarism and arrogance. Its immense wealth, its cultural and scientific power must be employed to radically reduce global human suffering and increase human welfare, not warfare.

Historically, empires dissolve through a combination of over-extension, over-militarisation, decreasing legitimacy and loss of relative economic strength. If the U.S. chooses a predominantly ‘hard’ policy that increases hate, insecurity and various types of violence, September 11, 2001 could well imply an acceleration of such a dissolution process.

The events of that date can also be met with humility and soul-searching, with political and legal means, and in a ‘soft’ mode. Rather than being hated by more and more and rapidly decaying, the United States would then be respected and admired by many around the world.

Due to its global power, the United States – – more than any other actor — has global responsibilities. September 11 undoubtedly marks a historical turning point, either toward rapid descent into chaos or towards a new sensibility, a new more humble way of thinking – – indeed a new deal with the rest of the world.

25 September 2001

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Posted in In English, Political comment and analysis

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