Days Like These
In a macabre co-incidence, at the same time as officials in New York announced the death toll in the destruction of the World Trade Center towers had dipped below 3,000, news sources around the world were announcing that casualties in Afghanistan had exceeded 4,000. For those who had invoked the rational of "an eye for an eye," the score ought to have been settled and then some.
Capitalist war and capitalist peace. Largely unnoticed though are the thousands who die daily through starvation, from preventable diseases, from the indifference of governments large and small.
With the installation of Hamid Karzai as the interim leader of Afghanistan, the cycle which began so spectacularly on September 11, 2001 begins a new phase. It remains to be seen how quickly Afghanistan will be forgotten by the US-led coalition as its attention shifts back to Iraq, Somalia and other so-called rogue states. Doubtless, the oil pipeline so desired by the US will now be built. Yet, despite the glorious crusade , it should be remembered that the atrocity of September 11 was not the unique occurrence which many commentators have portrayed it as being. The names of cities such as Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and My Lai, not to mention the death camps and gulags of totalitarianism litter the political landscape of recent memory. Whether carried out by states under the "justifications" of war or national self- defence, by national liberation or other armed organizations, the use of terror against civilian populations has an all too common feel to it.
What was new in the events of September 11 is that this terror took place in the heart of the United Stares, signaling that the world's leading imperialist nation and only remaining superpower will no longer be excluded from the horror that has been a reality for so many other nations for so long.
In the domain of media opinion it has become unfashionable to point to the US' record, and the implication is that any attempt to explain the background to the bombings is somehow blaming the victim.' But it is? As capital has pushed across the globe, its social policies have been responsible for creating global shanty towns of hopelessness; themselves spawning grounds for the politics of desperation and hatred displayed on September 11.
The growth of anti-Americanism in Pakistan, long a US client state in the region, is attributed by many to the US abandonment of Pakistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union lessened its importance as a regional power.
In the case of Bin Laden, there is a certain grim irony: It has become common knowledge that he was the creation of the US proxy war against the USSR in Afghanistan in the 1980's. Allegedly Pakistani intelligence services hit upon the idea of a member of the Saudi Royal family leading the jihad against the Soviets. However, when no prince saw fit to volunteer, Bin Laden, a friend of the Royals, stepped up to the plate. Likewise the Taliban militia. Although partially the creature of Pakistan to forward their interests in the region, the Taliban was initially supported by the US against the Northern Alliance, as they were seen as being more likely to support US interests. But like Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega, the Bin Laden puppet and his Taliban protectors learned to walk without strings.
So instead of asking the forbidden "why," the actions of September 11 have been attributed to "evil" men who must be made to pay. The natural outpourings of grief and sympathy for the victims of September 11 has been pushed into a sinister direction. Shortly after September 11, US President Bush announced "You're either for us, or you're for the terrorists."
Across North America the cry was not whether civil liberties would be curtailed in the "war against terrorism," but by how much. Although "terrorist groups" are allegedly the focus of the Patriot Bill and its blander Canadian cousin C-36, states will not waste time turning their suspicious eyes toward any organizations deemed insufficiently patriotic or sufficiently troublesome.
In Ontario, even before September 11, the state and cops publicly referred to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty as a terrorist group; meanwhile the Canadian government has recently bestowed on one time "terrorist" and former South African President Nelson Mandela honourary Canadian citizenship. Terrorism it seems is only a matter of dates. Although a symbol of capitalism was destroyed, life has gone on. Not a day has gone by when a firm laying off thousands of workers has not solemnly declared "everything has changed since September 11 . . . " and that's why we're firing you. Shortly before Christmas, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, despite making huge profits, announced a round of savage lay-offs. Remaining employees were summoned to a pep rally to explain the new reality: During the rally workers were treated to speeches peppered with references to September 11, while the theme from the movie Rocky filled the room.
Despite the rhetoric of recession, reality shows otherwise. Retail merchants reported an increase in sales (charges on VISA set new records in December), the real estate market continued to grow and despite the cries from the airlines, it was still difficult to find a seat during the holiday season: Oil prices jump, the airline industry sheds massive numbers of workers, banks show record profits. Capitalism continues.
The war against terrorism in Afghanistan was, by all accounts, incredibly successful. While nay-sayers looked to the failure of the British and the Soviets in subduing Afghanistan, the US has had no such trouble. While many expected a repeat of Viet Name, what they got was a repeat of the Gulf War.
A high tech war, with little in the way of ground troops and a highly controlled media campaign; the most noticeable from the Gulf War being that the US network CNN had switched from being someone independent to becoming the most fawning supporter of the US-war effort.
True, there were demonstrations in opposition, but in comparison to the opposition to the Gulf War, by and large the protesters were drawn from the broad left milieu.
Opposition to the war in Afghanistan fell largely into two reciprocal groups. The most popular approach was to argue that "war is not the answer." In other words the tired old slogan of negotiation and sanctions. Many who argued that bombing Iraq was not the answer to the invasion of Kuwait readily agreed to support sanctions. Sanctions, that are still in place and have cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Ironically some of those who call for "peace" are secretly revolutionaries. In the US, the Workers World Party (WWP) formed its own anti-war coalition, Act Now to Stop War & End Racism (ANSWER) which, at a demonstration in San Francisco carried signs proclaiming "save American Lives [!] by stopping US Aggression abroad." Similar sentiments were found in Canada. The October 24 issue of Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the International Socialists in Canada, reported as Canadian troops sailed to the Middle East members of the IS joined a protest carrying peace signs. They wrote "we were a presence both in solidarity [!] with the troops themselves and against Canadian involvement in the war.".
The other position taken by some on the left has been to say "Defend Afghanistan against Imperialist Attack." The Spartacist League and the International Bolshevik Tendency have quite rightly criticized other leftist groups for their back- handed support of the CIA-backed Mujahadeen fighters in the 80's, who today include both sections of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Ironically, in the name of a curious "anti-imperialism" they have switched sides in the conflict; even though few groups have been willing to call the Taliban "anti- imperialist" who can deny they were fighting an imperialist power?
Despite the apparent difference between these two positions they are in reality merely a reflection of the same world view A re-division of the world according to a new imperialist balance of power. Yet capital is not a system that plays favourites. Capitalism is a global system. It will not alter the balance of forces to support larger or smaller imperialist powers. Yesterday's "anti- imperialist nations" are today's exploiters, breakers of strikes, and corrupt dictatorships.
Global exploitation, crisis and war are not unpleasant features of capitalism that can be removed by electing different officials, by supporting different policies or by choosing sides in wars. These are features of capitalism and can only be ended by uprooting the system itself. Since September 11, much of the world has argued everything has changed; unfortunately, this is not true. Everything is still the same. And only by making that change can there be hope for the future.
Published in Red & Black Notes #14, Janaury 2002