We are “winning the war on terror.” I learn this from George Bush’s State of the Union Address. “Our progress,” he said, “is a tribute to the might of the United States military.” My hometown newspaper, The Boston Globe, is congratulatory: “On the war front, the Administration has much to take pride in.”
But the President also tells us that “tens of thousands of trained terrorists are still at large.” That hardly suggests we are “winning the war.” Furthermore, he says, there is a “grave and growing danger.”
Bush singled out Iran, Iraq, and North Korea because they may be building “weapons of mass destruction.” And that’s not all: “Terror training camps still exist in at least a dozen countries,” he says.
The prospect is for a war without end. In no previous Administration has any President ever talked about such a war. Indeed, Presidents have been anxious to assure the nation that the sacrifices demanded would be finite, and as each war went on, we were told, as in Vietnam, there was “light at the end of the tunnel.”
No light is visible in this war on terrorism, for, as the President says, “These enemies view the entire world as a battlefield, and we must pursue them wherever they are.”
It seems necessary for the nation to remain frightened. The enemy is everywhere. “The campaign may not be finished on our watch,” Bush says. He will pass on the job to the next President, and perhaps the next and the next.
This is an elusive enemy, whose defeat will require an endless war. And so long as the nation is in a state of war, it is possible to demand of the American people certain sacrifices.
Immediately, we must sacrifice our freedoms (although the war is presumably to protect freedom). “We choose freedom and the dignity of every life,” the President said. But we cannot choose freedom now. For now, we must give up the freedoms promised by our Bill of Rights.
Thus Congress has passed legislation to give the government sweeping new powers to keep watch over us, enlarging its right to spy with wiretaps and computer surveillance, and allowing officials to conduct secret searches of homes and offices.
The Secretary of State can designate any organization as a terrorist organization, and his decision is not subject to review. The USA Patriot Act defines a “domestic terrorist” as someone who violates the law and is engaged in activities that “appear to be intended to . . . influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion.” This could make many activist organizations subject to designation as terrorist organizations. As for noncitizens–and there are twenty million of them in the United States–they can now be subject to indefinite detention and deportation.
So we now have all sorts of enemies to fear–noncitizens and dissidents at home, an infinite number of mysterious enemies abroad. We will have to concentrate not only our resources but our attention on that endless war. We will be looking everywhere in the world for our enemies.
We will not be paying attention to the thousands who die in this country not at the hands of terrorists but because of the profit system, the “free market.” When I spoke recently on a radio show in Madison, Wisconsin, a caller asked: Why, grieving as we all should for the thousands of victims of the September 11 action, were we not grieving also for the thousands of people who die on the job, in industrial accidents?
We could extend that question: Why are we not grieving also for the thousands of children who die every year in this country for lack of food and medical care?
The answer seems clear: To do that would call attention not to obscure foreign terrorists but to a system of corporate domination in which profits come before the safety of workers. It would call attention to a political system in which the government can fund hundreds of billions for its military machine but cannot find the money to give free health care, decent housing, minimum family incomes–all those requisites for children to grow up healthy.
It is right to mourn the deaths of 3,000 people who died at the hands of terrorists. But we should also know that every day, according to the U.N. World Food Programme, 11,000 children die of hunger around the world.
The bombs on Afghanistan and the talk of endless war deflect our attention from the millions in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, who die of hunger and disease, victims of a global market system indifferent to human needs.
The World Health Organization, in a report last year entitled “Determinants of Malnutrition,” said: “All too frequently, the poor in fertile developing countries stand by watching with empty hands–and empty stomachs–while ample harvests and bumper crops are exported for hard cash. Short-term profits for a few, long-term losses for many. Hunger is a question of maldistribution and inequality, not lack of food.”
The economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has written: “Global capitalism is much more concerned with expanding the domain of market relations than with, say, establishing democracy, expanding elementary education, or enhancing the social opportunities of society’s underdogs.”
The hundreds of millions of people in the United States and the rest of the world who are without medical care or food or work are the collateral damage of what Pope John Paul once called “savage, unbridled capitalism.” That damage is kept out of sight by the “war on terrorism.” The war not only provides huge profits to military contractors and power to the politicians but blocks out the conditions of people’s lives, here and abroad.
What shall we do? We start with the core problem: that there is immense wealth available, enough to care for the urgent needs of everyone on Earth, and that this wealth is being monopolized by a small number of individuals, who squander it on luxuries and war while millions die and more millions live in misery.
This is a problem understood by people everywhere, because it has a simplicity absent in issues of war and nationalism. That is, they know with supreme clarity–when their attention is not concentrated by the government and the media on waging war–that the world is run by the rich, and that money decides politics, culture, and some of the most intimate human relations.
The evidence for this is piling up, and becoming hard to put aside.
The collapse of the gargantuan Enron Corporation–with its wholesale loss of jobs and the sudden disappearance of health insurance and retirement pensions–points to an economic system that is inherently corrupt.
The sudden impoverishment of Argentina, one of the richest countries in Latin America, provides more evidence. We are seeing the results of “the free market” and “free trade” and the demands for “privatization” in the rules of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Instead of the public taking charge of basic services–water, heat, transportation–private companies took over, and the results were disastrous (as in Bolivia and other countries). In the case of Argentina, a French company took over the water system and quadrupled the fees charged for water.
While criticizing the war on terrorism and exposing its many hypocrisies, we need to realize if we do only that, we, too, become victims of the war. We, too–like so many Americans listening to the President’s frightening picture of enemies here, there, everywhere–will have been diverted from an idea that could unite Americans as surely as fear of terrorists.
That idea is a startling one, but immediately recognizable as true: Our most deadly enemies are not in caves and compounds abroad but in the corporate boardrooms and governmental offices where decisions are made that consign millions to death and misery–not deliberately, but as the collateral damage of the lust for profit and power.
It may be an idea whose time has come. We will need the spirit of Seattle and Porto Alegre, a reinvigorated labor movement, a mobilization of people across the rainbow, the beginning of global solidarity, looking to a long-delayed sharing of the fruits of the Earth.
Published in The Progressive • March 10, 2002