World needs to step aside from retaliation, violence

President George W. Bush is intent on using military force to exact revenge, not justice, and New Zealand should have no part of it, writes NICKY HAGER*.

As the pressure comes on New Zealand to support war in Asia, let’s not fool ourselves that we would be fighting on the side of right.

The issues look black and white when we are inundated with American news coverage: an organised group has committed a ghastly act of terrorism, the fanatics behind this violence must pay for it, terrorism must be stamped out.

An organised group has indeed committed a ghastly act of terrorism, but what is being planned in response is basically the morality of the lynch mob. Before our Government gets swept into supporting even greater violence we should consider the ethical issues at stake.

We owe it to ourselves to do this, because this first war of the 21st century will define the world we live in for many years to come.

The first point to consider is the difference between vengeance and the pursuit of justice. Nothing can be done to bring back to life the people who died last week in the attacks. Dropping bombs on other people’s families will not bring comfort to the families of the dead. So what can be achieved by the United States going to war?

The official line is that the goal is to bring Osama bin Laden (or others) to justice. Yet, if we are honest, we have no way of knowing whether bin Laden was involved at all.

CNN has been screening alternating shots of the New York attacks and bin Laden, as if guilt was proved. His is trial by television. (CNN has also, incidentally, removed from its profiles of bin Laden the fact that, like Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Manuel Noriega of Panama, his military-terrorist career was built with the support of the CIA.)

For all we know, the attacks were masterminded by bin Laden. But in that case, the proper approach is to collect evidence before trying to arrest him. And, even then, would it be justified to attack a whole country to attempt to capture him?

Think about the various American-supported dictators and strongmen who ended their careers living comfortably in the US – eluding being brought to justice – when their reigns of terror were over.

Some of them had far more blood on their hands than bin Laden, and had stolen billions of dollars from their citizens. But would we support those countries attacking the US to bring them to justice?

If proof can be found that bin Laden planned the attacks, the international community should act together to bring him to an independent court, as has happened with Slobodan Milosevic. But getting bin Laden to court is not what George W. Bush has in mind at all.

The haste with which the US is preparing military attacks suggests that the aim is not justice but revenge, including large-scale bombing of a sad, poverty-stricken country (or countries). It may or may not include the extra-judicial killing of bin Laden.

Months after the carefully media-controlled attacks are over we will learn how many innocent people have died – adding greatly to the New York death toll.

The grotesque irony is that the attacks on the US were themselves acts of vengeance in retaliation for American foreign policy elsewhere in the world. So the planned American retaliation is, morally, much like the acts they seek to punish.

The urge for revenge arises from natural feelings of shock and violation, combined with a powerful need to restore the sense of national superiority. We are familiar with this attitude in news coverage in which one American death can get attention equal to hundreds or thousands of people killed elsewhere.

This “exchange rate” in the supposed value of lives means that a truly horrific level of killing will be required to “balance” last week’s American deaths.

The American reaction is also motivated by understandable fear. The trouble is that violence and repression in other countries are not going to make Americans safer. The only sane approach is understanding the causes of the terrorism and dealing with them.

Calling the attackers terrorists, fanatics and cowards gets in the way of understanding. Cowards? They were appallingly brave soldiers fighting what they see – not without cause – as a violent and unjust empire.

They, and many other people in the world, are acutely aware of the gross inequalities of wealth and of the arbitrary way that the US showers missiles and bombs into other countries with impunity whenever it wishes.

Tragically, innocent people in New York reaped what their Government had sown.

Many people fear a Muslim holy war. I fear any holy war, including an Old Testament American President who thinks you can fight evil with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

A less evil world can only be built with a New Testament approach, by which the suffering of New York people moves us to want to stop others having to suffer the same. People who see their families hurt or killed in Afghanistan, Iraq or Palestine feel the hurt no less deeply than people in rich countries.

It is morally repugnant to act as though some people’s rights and suffering are more important than those of others and as though there are different rules for the powerful than for the rest.

Helen Clark seems to understand these ethical issues well. Yet there is intense pressure to back violent retaliation. If we care for the American victims of violence, it is argued, we should rally behind the US in any military action it launches.

The Prime Minister has offered diplomatic assistance, which is appropriate as long as it does not just mean moral support for whatever the US does. She has also offered intelligence assistance, her blind spot in the pursuit of international security.

The striking thing about American intelligence is that, as usual, it gave no warning of the attacks. The hugely expensive spy systems, to which New Zealand contributes, are easily evaded by terrorists, coupmakers and such people.

Instead, their main function is to intrude into every nation on earth to advance American interests, which means maintaining the highly unequal world order that is the root cause of the terrorist attacks.

Worst of all, there is talk of sending New Zealand SAS troops to take part – openly in this role for the first time since Vietnam. Handed over into American command, they would implicate New Zealand in all the deaths of innocent people that are inevitably coming (and, by taking sides, make us a potential, albeit minor, target, too).

The sad thing is that if the SAS is sent, it will be more from fear of US Government pressure than from sympathy for the victims of recent and future terrorism. We would be backing a future in which “security” means greater surveillance, repression and militarisation. Human rights will be expendable. Just listen to George W. Bush.

There is another way. Now, more than ever, the world needs countries prepared to step aside from revenge and violence.

It is easier to see conflict as inevitable and even support it. But the only hopeful road lies in confronting the injustice and inequality from which the conflict springs.