Many voices in anti-war movement

By Robert Jensen

with Rahul Mahajan

Published in Austin American-Statesman · November, 2001

[This article appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, November 13, 2001, p. A-15.]

If the antiwar movement is as marginal as some pundits say, why is so much time spent denouncing it?

As it becomes clearer that this “war on terrorism” won’t solve the problem of terrorism, why so much effort to keep antiwar voices marginal?

To many in the news media, it seems we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. When the antiwar movement agrees on general principles, we are criticized for marching in a mindless ideological lockstep. When there is healthy disagreement about specific strategies, we are accused of incoherence and lack of a clear message.

Although antiwar activists have put forward serious analysis, commentators prefer to pretend that we offer nothing but slogans. It’s as if pundits have decided to evaluate the movement by looking only at the first and last lines of speeches, ignoring everything in the middle. The treatment of the few antiwar voices on radio and TV reinforces this — detailed criticisms of U.S. policy often get cut off by bellowed expressions of disgust and declarations of our irrelevance.

The problem isn’t that antiwar activists’ feelings are hurt, but rather that there is little serious coverage of a view held by millions of Americans, based on historical analysis and widely shared ethical principles.

Antiwar activists, while not a monolith, agree on much:

++The bombing is killing hundreds of innocent civilians directly. It exacerbates an existing humanitarian crisis by making aid distribution far more difficult. Millions are at risk; UNICEF has estimated that an extra 100,000 children may die this winter. These victims had no involvement in the 9-11 attacks, and killing them is no more justified than killing the people in the World Trade Center.

++The war violates international law. The United States claims the right to attack in self-defense, but that right can be invoked only in response to immediate threats of direct attack. Since people currently in Afghanistan can mount no credible threat to U.S. targets, the U.N. Charter requires that any use of force be under the auspices of the Security Council.

++The bombing is unlikely to harm Osama bin Laden and other important members of al-Qaeda, who went to ground long before it started. It is dramatically less effective in apprehending or eliminating such people than the ongoing criminal investigation. The war also breeds further terrorist attacks by arousing the anger of the entire Islamic world.

There is also clear agreement on some components of a solution:

++There must be an international investigation based on genuine international cooperation, not on U.S. browbeating or bribing of other countries. People involved should be tried for crimes against humanity. Any settlement in Afghanistan should be under U.N. auspices, with participation from as many sectors of Afghan society as possible.

++The root causes of terrorism must be addressed. Nobody wants to appease terrorists or negotiate with them. But we must address the anger among ordinary people in the Islamic world over the sanctions on Iraq, which have killed over 1 million people; U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, enforced by attacks on civilians with tanks, helicopter gunships and F-16s; and the U.S. military presence in the Gulf and a long record of support for corrupt, theocratic, feudal and absolutist states.

Few in the Arab and Muslim world consider those to be reasons to attack Americans, but that anger provides a source of recruits to terrorist ranks and cover for existing terrorists. To root them out, the active cooperation of the people — not just governments — is necessary, and that cooperation requires policy changes.

Last month we wrote about this emerging analysis, noting that work was needed to forge different components of a solution into a compelling overall framework. This was quoted in some newspapers to suggest that the antiwar movement thinks it has no clear message. In fact, it was part of the process of self-critical, reasoned dialogue necessary to shape an analysis.

These attacks on the antiwar movement hint at a bias; no one suggests that the often-heard claim that “war is the only way to deal with terrorists” is unsophisticated, nor do disagreements on strategy among people supporting the war become evidence that the argument for war is incoherent.

One wonders whether the misrepresentation of antiwar views suggests that proponents of war are not so sure about their own analysis.