People around the world are still in a state of disbelief. Children ask parents if this was real or a movie. For days we all walked around in a kind of surreal fog, asking ourselves from time to time if this was not a bad dream that we were having, hoping that we would wake up the next morning and find ourselves in a state of normalcy – planes flying overhead, teachers offering their normal subject matter, and discussion in the media of the tax rebate, social security, prescription drugs, etc.
But the unthinkable was real. People in the United States had their sense of security, derived from living in the most militarily and economically powerful country on earth, swept out from under them. They became afraid in ways they had not experienced since World War II. They became saddened at the death of so many people, so many “mommies, daddies, brothers, and sisters,” in the words of the pupils of my cousin who teaches second grade. So many lives, so much future potential happiness and achievement lost because terrorists were convinced that their cause justified such a heinous taking of life. In some, anger overtook sadness and fear, or perhaps became a way of dealing with those emotions. Many were angry that this had been done to American citizens and American property. America’s pride had been damaged, and there were calls to fly theAmerican flag and to retaliate on a grand military scale even though there was no conclusive evidence of who actually was behind the attack.
All of these reactions are understandable. How can any of us not feel the most profound sorrow for those who are no longer here, and for those surviving family members who are so terribly impoverished by the loss of their loved ones? How can any of usnot feel less secure, knowing now in a way we did not realize before that there can be no absolute protection against people who are clever and willing to die for their cause? And surely we can understand the anger at such a callous use of other peoples’ lives, especially civilian lives, to advance political objectives.
Why a Human Rights Issue?
The key here is what we mean when we say ‘us’ and ‘we’. Our individual and collective anger has largely been channeled into an aggressive patriotism, a call for a vast retaliatory military response by the United States which fails to see the real significance of this terrorism. The terrorism was an act against human rights, a violation of the rights of all humanity.
If one looks at human rights from the bottom up – that is, from the perspective of the victims of human rights violations – then it makes sense to think of such violations as the failure to recognize the right of the victims to develop their lives and potentialities to the fullest extent possible. Political and economic domination serve to impede this development, but certainly the most immediate way of doing it is the termination of human life, especially when it is a collective act done for political motives such as terrorism or genocide. Thus the appropriate conception of the affronted and violated ‘us’ is not the partial ‘us’ as American citizens, but the ‘us’ representing humanity as a whole.
If you have difficulty looking at this as such an affront, simply consider the victims. They were not only US citizens. People from a wide variety of countries were on the planes that were highjacked, and in the offices of the World Trade Center in New York. Indeed, the Bush administration is appealing to the governments of countries around the world for support precisely on the grounds that this is anissue of concern not merely to the United States but to everyone, regardless of nationality.
Protecting Rights Without Destroying Them
Certain conclusions flow from understanding the issue as one of human rights. One is that we must be sure that in trying to bring the perpetrators of this act to justice and in trying to eliminate terrorism generally, we do not utilize mechanisms that undermine civil liberties and human rights. Sometimes it is difficult to reconcile such values as liberty and security, but our dedication to freedom and democracy must lead us to take precautions against excessive curtailment of rights in order to secure rights. If we don’t, then what are we really protecting and why? It is all too easy to fall into the mode of a garrisonstate in which dissent is no longer tolerated; in which some of our citizens are persecuted and even incarcerated; in which our right to support or contribute to political groups is compromised by the completely discretionary decision of the Attorney General to declare it a terrorist group; and in which privacy goes by the wayside as the government monitors our phone calls and e-mails and even intrudes into our homes with sound-detecting equipment.
In US history we have experienced, among other excesses, the draconian Espionage and Sedition laws used during World War I that was purportedly fought in the name of democracy; the incarceration of the Japanese Americans during World War II; the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s; and the FBI’s COINTEL program, which involved extensive infiltration in an effort to destabilize both the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Patriotism understood as an inclusive and critical concern with the health of the body politic is a positivething. But too often patriotism is understood in intolerant and exclusive ways, in which any difference and opposition is seen as being akin to disloyalty. Framing our understanding of the terrorist acts and our response to them in terms of human rights would help oblige our government to avoid repetition of the repressive mistakes of the past and to protect minority people in our midst, in this instance especially Islamic people who have already come under attack in several cities.
The human rights understanding also has implications for how we behave abroad. First, we must not react in a military way that would kill or injure many innocent people in other countries. To consider them merely acceptable ‘collateral damage’ is in fact unacceptable. The perpetrators need to be brought to justice. But this is not a matter of some sort of patriotic need to seek revenge as Americans whose pride has been hurt. The terrorists have offended the entirety of humanity. Justice, not vengeance, requires that they be apprehended through an international effort, but one that is as peaceful as possible. Finally, befitting the affront to all humanity and the interest that all humanity has in securing justice and discouraging further terrorism, the terrorists should be tried before an international court of competent jurists.
Setting an Example
While the apprehension and trial of those responsible for the September 11 acts of terrorism is an international matter, there is something that the United States can do onits own. That is to bring its foreign policies more into line with international standards of human rights than they have been. I have already alluded to some domestic policies in the United States that have violated basic human rights. But the peopleand government of the United States need to take a critical accounting of US policy during the past century. In that it will improve both the quality of our civic life and our moral standing abroad, such a self-examination is patriotism in the most positive sense of that term.
Using human rights as the criterion, we need to reexamine our past and present policies in several areas. One is our government’s refusal to accept the international consensus that there are economic and social human rights that go beyond the private property rights of corporations and individuals and are based on equity and social welfare concerns. A first important step would be the Senate’s ratification of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,which President Jimmy Carter signed but which has languished in the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee ever since. Additional concrete steps would include forgiveness of debts that poor countries have no hope of really paying off anyway, and an end to the structural adjustment and privatization policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These policies are inconsistent with many of the economic rights stipulated in the 1966 Covenant.
A second desirable move would lie in becoming more even-handed when judging the human rights records of other nations. The Middle East is a prime example of failure in this regard. Israel, which provided a haven from anti-Semitism for victims of one of the most horrendous human rights violations in history, is the major recipient of US foreign aid. The US government has not hesitated to denounce terrorism directed by some Palestinian groups against civilian targets in Israel, including deadly attacks on school buses. But it has either looked the other way, or else lightly reprimanded, such abuses committed by Israel as the torture of Palestinian prisoners (which was only recently ruled to be illegal by Israeli courts), the use of deadly force against stone-throwing demonstrators, the assassination of Palestinian political leaders, and the demolition of Palestinian homes either as a collective punishment or in order to make way for Israeli settlement. The fact that the US government provides the funds for Israel’s military imposes a special obligation on it to curtail such Israeli abuses of human rights. We will not gain respect in the Middle East until we are willing to condemn human rights violations on the part of both of the parties in this terrible conflict, and adjust our policies accordingly.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to examine critically the record of our own government in overthrowing more rights-respecting and democratic governments and supporting in their place regimes that terrorize, torture, and kill any opposition in their wake, as in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and Chile in 1973. In the light of renewed media discussion of assassination as a possible tool available to US decision-makers after the recent acts of terrorism, we need to look back at our government’s own role in the assassination of foreign leaders, such as Patrice Lumumba in what was then called the Congo and became Zaire under the US-supported dictator Mobuto, and General Rene Schneider who was loyal to President Allende in Chile. We also need to examine our government’s history of training and supporting terrorist forces, such as the murderous Salvadoran officer corps trained in the School of the Americas, and the anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan Contras, the vast majority of whose victims were civilians.
It is very discouraging that the new Bush administration has brought into its ranks people who have been directly implicated in these policies. One is Elliot Abrams, a former Assistant Secretary of State in the Reagan administration who now, despite having been convicted by a court of lying before Congress about US policy, serves as Special Assistant to the President and, ironically enough, Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and International Operations in the National Security Council. Another is John Negroponte, who as ambassador to Honduras when the Contras were being trained shares some responsibility for the atrocities committed by both the Contras against Nicaraguans and the Honduran military against its own people. Under Ambassador Negroponte’s watch, the US-trained and financed Honduran army was killing human rights workers and people critical of the government’s and the military’s policies.
Especially disturbing was the very recent approval by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of Negroponte’s nomination as US ambassador to the United Nations. It apparently passed so easily (by a 14 to 3 vote on September 13) only because the Senatecommittee was eager to give President Bush virtually everything he wanted after the terrorist attacks. Republican senators supporting his nomination were reported by the New York Times to have told the Democrats that “it was time for the United States to put the past behind it.” (New York Times, 14 September 2001, B3)
Finally, the United States government itself very recently targeted a building containing civilian workers for destruction. At the same time that it apparently mistakenly attacked the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, it also deliberately hit the building that housed the television studio in Belgrade, killing journalists and technical staff. A very bad precedent indeed.
It is never time to put terrorism and other human rights violations behind us, as urged by the Republican senators at Negroponte’s confirmation hearing. Whether we are talking about terror inflicted by non-state groups or terror inflicted as a matter of state policy, we are talking about human rights violations for which there should be no excuse, no forgetting, no putting behind, and no statute of limitations. Such human rights violators should be brought to justice whenever they can be apprehended, whether they are Chilean General Pinochet, the terrorists who just struck in the United States, or past or present office holders in the American government. The US, once again the odd man out internationally, must stop blocking the attempt of other nations to create an international criminal court where such human rights violators could systematically be brought to justice.