by Alexander Cockburn
Amid the elegies for the dead and the ceremonies of remembrance, seditious questions intrude: Is there really a war on terror; and if one is indeed being waged, what are its objectives?
The Taliban are out of power. Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, blooms once more in Afghan pastures. The military budget is up. The bluster war on Iraq blares from every headline. On the home front the war on the Bill of Rights is set at full throttle, though getting less popular with each day as judges thunder their indignation at the unconstitutional diktats of Attorney General John Ashcroft, a man low in public esteem.
On this latter point we can turn to Merle Haggard, the bard of blue collar America, the man who saluted the American flag more than a generation ago in songs such as the Fighting Side of Me and Okie from Muskogee. Haggard addressed a concert crowd in Kansas City a few days ago in the following terms: "I think we should give John Ashcroft a big hand ...(pause)... right in the mouth!" Haggard went on to say, 'the way things are going I'll probably be thrown in jail tomorrow for saying that, so I hope ya'll will bail me out."
It will take generations to roll back the constitutional damage done in the wake of the attacks. Emergency laws lie around for decades like rattlesnakes in summer grass. As Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch points out to me, one of the main legal precedents that the government is using to justify detaining "enemy combatants" without trial or access to a lawyer is an old striking-breaking decision. The government's August 27 legal brief in the Padilla "enemy combatant" case relies heavily on Moyer v. Peabody, a Supreme Court case that dates back to 1909.
The case involved Charles Moyer, president of the Western Federation of Miners, a feisty Colorado trade union that fought for such radical reforms as safe working conditions, an end to child labor, and payment in money rather than in company scrip. As part of a concerted effort to crush the union, the governor of Colorado had declared a state of insurrection, called out the state militia, and detained Moyer for two and half months without probable cause or due process of law.
In an opinion that deferred obsequiously to executive power (using the "captain of the ship" metaphor,), the US Supreme Court upheld Moyer's detention. It reasoned that since the militia could even have fired upon the strikers (or, in the Court's words, the "mob in insurrection"), how could Moyer complain of a mere detention. The government now cites the case in its Padilla brief to argue that whatever a state governor can do, the president can do better. As Mariner remarks, next thing you know they'll be citing the Japanese internment precedents.
Right under our eyes, as former top CIA analyst Bill Christison describes, a whole new covert ops arm of government is being coaxed into being by the appalling Rumsfeld, who has supplanted Powell as Secretary of State, issuing public statements contradicting official US policy on settlements and Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Rumsfeld has asked Congress to authorize a new undersecretary of defense overseeing all DoD intelligence matters, also requesting that the DoD be given greater latitude to carry out covert ops. Wrap that in with erosion or outright dumping of the Posse Comitatus act of 1878 forbidding any US military role in domestic law enforcement and the silhouette of military government shows up ever more clearly in the crystal ball.
The terrorists in those planes a year ago nourished specific grievances, all available for study in the speeches and messages of Osama bin Laden. They wanted US troops out of Saudi Arabia. They saw the US as Israel's prime backer and financier in the oppression of Palestinians. They railed against the sanctions grinding down upon the civilian population of Iraq.
A year later the troops are still in Saudi Arabia, US backing for Sharon is more ecstatic than ever and scenarios for a blitzkrieg against Saddam Hussein mostly start with a saturation bombing campaign which will plunge civilians in Iraq back into the worst miseries of the early 1990s.
Terror against states springs from the mulch of political frustration. We live in a world where about half the population of the planet, 2.8 billion people, live on less than two dollars a day. The richest 25 million people in the United States receive more income than the 2 billion poorest people on the planet. Across the past year world economic conditions have mostly got worse, nowhere with more explosive potential than in Latin America, where Peru, Argentina and Venezuela all heave in crisis.
Is the world impressed with America's commander-in-chief? The answer is mostly, No. But wars need leaders, and for George Bush it's been a wobbly slide downhill from the terse defiance of that first emergency joint session of Congress, to the strange on-again, off-again proclamations about an attack on Iraq.
Can anything stop these proclamations from being self-fulfilling? Another slump on Wall Street would certainly postpone it, just as a hike on energy prices here if war does commence will give the economy a kidney blow when it least needs it.
How could an attack on Iraq be construed as a blow against terror? The administration abandoned early on, probably to its subsequent regret, the claim that Iraq was complicit on the attacks of September 11. Aside from the Taliban's Afghanistan the prime nation that could be blamed was Saudi Arabia, point of origin for so many of the Al Qaeda terrorists on the planes.
Would an attack on Iraq be a reprisal? If it degraded Saudi Arabia's role as prime swing producer of oil, if it indicated utter contempt for Arab opinion, then Yes. But does anyone doubt that if the Bush administration does indeed topple Saddam Hussein and occupy Baghdad, this will be truly a plunge into the unknown, one that would fan once more the embers of Islamic radicalism that peaked as long ago as the end of the 1980s, and amid whose decline the attacks of September 11, 2001 were far more a coda than an overture.
Would Iran sit quiet while US troops roosted in Baghdad. And would not the overthrow of Saddam be prelude to the downfall of the monarchy in Jordan, with collapse of the House of Saud following thereafter?
Islamic fanatics flew those planes a year ago and here we are with a terrifying alliance of Judeo-Christian fanatics, conjoined in their dreams of the recovery of the Holy Lands of the West Bank, Judaea and Samaria. War on Terror? It's back to the late thirteenth century, picking up where Prince Edward left off with his ninth crusade after St Louis had died in Tunis with the word Jerusalem on his lips.
Alexander Cockburn is the author The Golden Age is In Us (Verso, 1995) and 5 Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (Verso, 2000) with Jeffrey St. Clair. Cockburn and St. Clair are the editors of Counterpunch, the nationís best political newsletter, where this article first appeared.