Archives > Next Story

 Terror and History
 Mitchell Plitnick, USA
 October 15, 2002
As the momentous debates in the United States Congress over whether or not that body would abdicate its constitutional responsibility and hand over to a radical right-wing president a free hand in launching a full-scale war on Iraq rambled on this week, another event in and around the US capitol managed to top it for some of the headlines. I refer to, of course, the sniper who has been shooting people in random locations in and around the Washington, DC area. No pattern has yet been detected as to whom the shooter would target next. Thus, the residents of Washington, Maryland and parts of Virginia are described, as I heard in more than one report, as being "terrorized."

Indeed, the phenomenon of being terrorized is all too familiar. Of course, not all the residents of that part of the United States are necessarily terrified to leave their homes. But the threat is there, and, according to reports, many of those people are feeling a real fear at just going out and about. What a horrifying feeling that must be. And how much more familiar it is becoming for Americans. The September 11 crimes brought that feeling of being terrorized to many Americans, as attacks on the Oklahoma Federal Building, the World Trade Center (in 1993) and others had done in the past. The response of the Bush Administration to the 9/11 crime brought that same feeling to the people of Afghanistan, a people who have, sadly, felt that feeling all too often in the recent years, decades. So many Israelis know that feeling as well. That fear of going to a billiards hall or a pizza shop or just getting on a bus, not knowing when the next suicide bomber will strike. And then we must ask how does a Palestinian, living in the West Bank or Gaza, feel, never knowing when the next entry of IDF soldiers will occur, with its concomitant showers of bullets, rumbling of tanks and crashing down of homes under the tracks of a bulldozer. And how does an Iraqi parent feel, never knowing when an American attack may come and a smart bomb that failed its IQ test may destroy the home where her or his children live.

People in many different places, and in very different living conditions, live in terror, for many different reasons. Some are frightened to leave their homes, or go to public places, while for others their own home provides no sense of security from the threats they face. And perhaps the saddest, or at least the most baffling part of this dynamic is that the perpetrators of terror, be they militants, or heads of states, invariably bring similar violence upon their own people. This cycle has been demonstrated time and again, and only in very few cases is that sort of boomerang effect not apparent. That leaders continue to pursue those tactics begs the question of whether the best interests of their people is really at the heart of their decision making. That others continue to support leaders following this destructive path speaks to a lack of understanding of history.

In Israel, there has been decade after decade of attempts to settle the conflict with the Palestinians with violence. While most Israelis have realized and continue to recognize that, after all these years of futile killing, there is no military solution, support for various "reprisals" and reluctance to compromise nationalistic ideals continue to stoke the flames of violence. Little difference is seen among Palestinians, who also recognize, in poll after poll, that politics, rather than violence will ultimately be the road to the recognition of their rights and dispossession; yet whose rage continues to lead to support for armed reprisals, albeit support that wavers across the polls. The United States has made of itself a global icon of threat.

In the recent deliberations over the question of whether Congress would, as it did during the devastating war on Vietnam, abdicate its responsibility as the appointed voice of the American people on a declaration of war, the specter of "history" was repeatedly raised. In particular, it was the doctrine of "appeasement," simplistically cited over and over, where Britain’s Neville Chamberlain surrendered some concessions to Hitler, which were then believed to have emboldened Hitler to intensify his drive to dominate all of Europe. The reality of that situation was considerably different (Britain had extremely unsteady support for military action against Germany at that point, and Chamberlain is widely believed to have made his pact with Germany in order to buy England and her allies the time they needed to prepare for a full-scale war, among many other details), and far more complex, but however one interprets that episode, the lack of critical examination of the metaphor of Nazi Germany to Saddamís Iraq is stunning.

It is important to bear in mind one similarity—just as much of the Western elite saw in Hitler's fascist ideology a potentially powerful buffer against advancing Communism in Europe generally and Germany in particular, so did much of the Western elite see in Saddam, for many years, a potentially powerful buffer against the spreading of the Islamic revolution that had occurred in Iran, a country which once rivaled Israel as the most powerful Western ally within the scope of the Muslim world. But there remains, despite the advanced histrionics in Congress and from the White House, little if any evidence that Saddam Hussein has the military capability to act in any way similar to Nazi Germany, in pursuing political or military conquest. A specious reading of history is employed to substitute for that evidence. As one-time UNSCOM weapons inspector (and self-described "card-carrying Republican" who voted for George W. Bush), Scott Ritter has repeatedly pointed out, the Bush Administration, and its obedient partner Tony Blair, have done nothing but spout rhetoric and assumptions in support of their drive to war with Iraq. The evidence that Iraq poses a credible threat, which should be considerable if we are to further devastate a country we have bombed and starved into enormous strife over the past decade, simply has not been presented. This is not a Nazi juggernaut, prepared to launch a massive war across a continent, but a largely disarmed and forcibly impoverished country, whose ability to threaten anyone, let alone the United States, is, from the best evidence currently available, very slight.

In the absence of evidence justifying an attack on Iraq, George Bush and many members of Congress have used a sort of "historical terror tactic," repeatedly raising the specter of the devastation caused during World War II across Europe and much of Asia to frighten Americans into supporting a war that is clearly not justified by anything solid our government has presented to us. In the US and in England, protests against this planned onslaught have been widespread, although even the American protests have gotten much wider coverage in Britain than in the USA. Yet history does have much to teach us in this situation, especially about what not to do. History does demonstrate to us that punitive sanctions that devastate a country’s economy, as the penalties imposed on Germany after WW I did, lead to even greater problems down the road. History does show us that great military power may give a country the ability to smite its opponents, but that action neither protects it from violence nor brings a resolution of conflicts any closer, as we have seen in Israel/Palestine for the past century. History does teach us that the US Congress giving the President a blank check to wage war, even on a specific target, leads to foolish decisions, unchecked American rampage and presidential deceptions, as we saw in the case of Vietnam. And the long human history (certainly not confined to the West) of conquest and battle surely by now must teach us that violence is self-perpetuating.

Both the United States, as regards Iraq and other potential targets; and Israel, as regards the Palestinians, are in the grip of the extreme right-wing forces in those respective countries. Those forces are not just kindred spirits, but are compatriots and allies. In both countries, although the circumstances are decidedly different in each, voices of moderation, indeed the voices of most of the populace, have been shunted aside as the governments in each country have stepped up their rhetoric and violence. But above all else, history teaches us that war is the ultimate terror. There has never been a more important time for people of conscience to set aside their differences and join hand in hand to stop terror.

Mitchell Plitnick is the Newsletter Editor of A Jewish Voice for Peace.

From the weekly newsletter of A Jewish Voice for Peace, October 15, 2002.