Tackling the tough questions
Special to The Seattle Times
Last week's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., have left all of us hurt and angry, and I sincerely hope that we find those responsible and bring them to justice. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. This attack was wrong!
No one can approve of an attack on innocent lives. But as we move forward, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions: Where did this attack come from? Why did it occur? Was America targeted because, as President George W. Bush proclaimed, "we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world"?
The United States is a great country, but it is not that easy. If only it were that simple and clear.
The United States was targeted due to its foreign policy and actions in other parts of the world. This does not justify the act. But it helps explain why we were attacked and the level of hostility that could bring about such actions. As the Department of Defense noted in 1997: "Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States."
The United States is an empire. It is the greatest power in the world and it projects its power globally in both military and economic terms. Most Americans have no problem with this and believe that the presence of the United States in other parts of the world in either form is good for those nations. Given that, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon can only be understood as an irrational act, an action of pure evil, and the response appears clear and simple: retaliation by force without any thought to the root causes.
But what we have seen this week is what the CIA coined years ago as "blowback": the unintended consequences of policies and usually secret actions by the United States and people acting in its name. In the name of national security and under the guise of a sophisticated knowledge of a complex world, the United States has supported right-wing dictators and violent, undemocratic forces around the world in the name of anti-communism, stability and the fostering of U.S. economic interests. Inevitably, this has come back to haunt us. Just a few examples.
• In Nicaragua, the United States supported the dictatorial dynasty of the Somoza family only to have that end in revolution and the Sandinistas coming to power.
• In Iran, the United States supported the coup in 1953 that put the Shah of Iran into power only to see him overthrown in a revolution that led to seizure of the American embassy in Tehran and the establishment of the Islamic Republic under the Ayatollah Khomeini.
• In opposition to Iran, the United States supported and sent arms to Iraq and Saddam Hussein throughout the 1980s, only to find itself mobilizing for war in 1991 after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
• During that same decade, the United States sent support to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the CIA provided support to Osama bin Laden, as they fought against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul.
In all of these cases and more, many innocent people have been killed in the name of the United States' interests and its national security. These American actions have led to resentment and the creation of enemies — this is the true complexity of the world that too often U.S. policymakers fail to understand or acknowledge.
Last week's attack stems from U.S. actions in other lands that are real, done in our name, that violate our principles and ideals, and are usually done in secret without our consent or knowledge. Again, this does not justify the terrorists' attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. Those cannot be justified. But knowing this can help us understand our attackers and how to combat them.
I fear this event is leading the nation in the wrong direction in its search for solutions. There is the growing illusion that an ultimate security can be found by adding money to the military, increasing our intelligence operations, removing restrictions on covert actions, and building a missile-defense system that would have been completely irrelevant in this situation.
We also now face the danger that our leaders will accept a crackdown on our civil liberties and freedoms in the name of national security. We are headed toward restrictions on speech, increased powers of government agencies to watch people, and presumptions of guilt before innocence of those who fall into suspect groups.
This is not how we should respond to this national tragedy. If we give up on our democratic values and constitutional process, our principles and ideals — no matter how imperfectly they have been implemented — to an illusion of security, then the terrorists win.
We can only overcome this horrific action by holding to our most cherished principles, by holding our government to our best and truest values, despite our anger and fear, and by building a foreign policy that is based on these values: human rights, self-determination and the upholding of treaties and law. If, and only if, these are applied consistently, can the United States build on its strength and be the voice and influence in the world for peace. The United States must, finally, lead by example and not by command.
Yes, we must know who attacked us and punish them. But we must also understand why, and to do so means to examine our policies and actions. If we do not change, we will continue to create enemies and continue to face growing terrorist attacks and crises like we suffered last week.
Our security is best served by a foreign policy that upholds our values and ideals, not an angry and indignant response that relies solely on force.
David F. Schmitz is the Robert Allen Skotheim Chair of History at Whitman College in Walla Walla. He is the author of "Thank God They're On Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921-1965."