rn:Questions of War (Must We Destroy to Save?)


Jan Slakov

Dear RN,

Dan Brook, whose e-mail list I can recommend highly, sends us a thoughtful
message below. I especially like that it asks some very obvious but
difficult questions, and in a way that I hope will reach people who have
been in agreement with this war up till now.

all the best, Jan
Date: Fri, 21 Dec 2001 16:44:21 -0800
From: CyberBrook <•••@••.•••>
Subject: Questions of War

Questions of War
Dan Brook

We need some answers.

I keep asking certain questions about what the US is doing in and to 
Afghanistan, because I’m the inquisitive sort, but the answers I get, when 
I get any at all, are uniformly lacking. I’ve asked the hawks, including 
those who fully support Bush and this war du jour, and those who 
reluctantly do so. I’ve asked the doves, including those who are pacifists 
and those who don’t support particular wars. It shouldn’t be so difficult 
to get answers to questions about matters literally of life and death, but 
it is.

Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking:

—Why didn’t people who support the war do so before 9/11, rather than 
waiting until Bush announced it? Are people who support the war just being 
reactionary in the face of terror, supportive in the face of perceived 
powerlessness, or acquiescent in the face of Bush? Surely the Taliban, a 
despicable and fascist biophobic gang of male thugs, was no more horrible 
in October 2001 than it was in May 2001, when the Bush administration gave 
them another $43 million on top of the perhaps $100 million already doled 
out. I’ve heard of corporate welfare, but terrorist welfare, misogynist 
welfare? It seems to me that the best way to have stopped totalitarians and 
terrorists like Al Qaeda and the Taliban was to not create them, not 
support them, not fund them, not give them weapons and explosives, and not 
glorify them, all of which the US did. I guess my curse is that I refuse to 
forget history, especially very recent history. Taking Santayana seriously, 
I don’t want us to repeat it.

—If people now support the bombing of the Taliban for their atrocious human 
rights record and their harboring of terrorists, do they also currently 
support the bombing of other countries that have similar qualifications? 
Here I’m thinking of Saudi Arabia (e.g., 15 of the 19 hijackers on 
September 11th were Saudi, as is Osama bin Laden, and Saudi Arabia refuses 
to release evidence of who financed that terrorism; it also heavily 
subsidizes moujahedeen training camps, Hamas, and other terror 
organizations), Pakistan (e.g., Pakistani General Mahumd reportedly wired 
$100,000 to hijacker Mohammed Atta), Uzbekistan (which harshly suppresses 
freedoms and dissent)—need I go on?—the UAE, Kuwait, Syria, Iran, Iraq, 
Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Russia, China, Indonesia, 
Turkey, Algeria, and Colombia, to name a few, and indeed the US itself. 
Tragically, all these countries qualify, as does the Northern Alliance. How 
willing are people to extend their beliefs to their logical conclusions? 
How willing are people to fight, or send their children to fight, in the 
wars they support? How willing are they to become its victims?

—Is support for this war following or creating some principle, to be 
universally followed, or is it merely ad hoc, applying only to this case 
(just like the Supreme Court’s improper and infamous decision in Bush v. 
Gore)? If there is a principle involved, I’d like to hear it and, more 
importantly, hear it discussed. If, more likely, people are merely 
supporting this war as it steamrolls along, then it is more a case of 
responding to legitimate fear, government-induced hysteria, and military 
vengeance, with its kill and overkill, rather than responding with 
practical policies, legal strategies, and moral justice.

—Does might makes right? If so, how can democracy and the rule of law be 
justified? If not, how can terrorism and war be justified? Might does not 
make right—whether by terrorists against civilians, nation against nation, 
majorities against minorities, men against women, bosses against workers, 
adults against children, humans against animals. Might makes force and 
power, but it does not confer authority and legitimacy. Indeed, it only 
makes more wrongs, more injustice, more alienation, and more suffering. 
Millions of people in the US and many millions more around the world easily 
recognize this basic reality. In fact, much of what motivates terrorists is 
exactly this phenomenon. Terrorists, frequently retaliating against 
previous use of force by a larger power, too often the US, in turn also 
illegitimately and immorally use violence. In both cases, almost 
invariably, ordinary people suffer for the crimes of others.

—Are American lives, even three thousand of them, worth more than thousands 
or millions of Afghan or other non-American lives? Are the facts that the 
US has and uses weapons of mass destruction, supports and engages in 
terrorism, and breaks and flouts international laws simply to be ignored 
because it is the US and not another country? Can only “foreign” nations, 
following State Department dictates, be “rogue states”? Ethnocentrism and 
nationalism are powerful cultural and political forces. These deadly 
ideologies cause us to exaggerate others’ sins, while minimizing or taking 
for granted one’s own. Is this fair and just? How much should we blame and 
punish others for what we ourselves do?

The people of Afghanistan are not fully responsible for their government’s 
actions in the same way that Americans are not fully responsible for 
theirs. There is absolutely no justification at all for someone to bomb US 
cities, regardless of what the US government is doing or has ever done. 
There are unequivocally no circumstances under which, as citizens and 
residents of America, our towns and cities could be legitimate targets of a 
terrorist attack or a bombing campaign. That type of terrorism would be 
wholly unacceptable. Likewise, there is positively no justification for 
bombing villages and cities in Afghanistan to achieve political goals, 
which is indeed the definition of terrorism. Same goes for Vietnam, Iraq, 
Israel, Palestine, and everywhere else. Worse still, the US use of 
radioactive depleted uranium ammunition and chemically-toxic bombs may also 
condemn future generations of humans and animals to disease and premature 

—Does it make sense to terrorize Afghanistan and to Talibanize the US in 
order to fight terrorism and the Taliban? Does the US have to act as 
viciously and violently as Osama bin Laden in an effort to vanquish him? 
Bush is launching a crusade against a jihad, making war abroad to bring 
peace, abrogating freedoms at home to bolster democracy. Which part of this 
Orwellian “logic” makes sense? In the war against Afghanistan, the US has 
bombed the UN (it was four UN minesweepers, in a country of some ten 
million mines, who were the first victims of the US bombing of 
Afghanistan), the Red Cross (which was hit twice, destroying food and 
clothing), mosques (one was hit on the first night of Ramadan), various 
villages, old age homes, people’s houses, and other civilian sites of 
everyday life for ordinary people, destroying their lives, families, and 

In the US, there is a different sort of threat. Bush’s belief that “there 
ought to be limits to freedom” and his simplistic and polarizing warning of 
September 20th declaring that “either you are with us, or you are with the 
terrorists” sets the harsh tone for the rest of the administration, and 
indeed the country. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer followed up 
on September 26th, with his threat “to all Americans that they need to 
watch what they say, watch what they do”. Attorney General John Ashcroft, 
not to be left out of the fascistic fun, admonished people concerned about 
rights and liberties on December 6th. Speaking to a Senate committee, he 
said: “to those who scare peaceloving people with phantoms of lost liberty, 
my message is this: Your tactics aid terrorists, for they erode our 
national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s 
enemies, and pause to America’s friends.” What a baseless, horrible, and 
anti-democratic charge to level against citizens exercising their 
fundamental rights. This is precisely why we have, and should highly value, 
our First Amendment. How authoritarian and cruel to say to people who 
disagree or dissent, who are fearful or are already victims, that what they 
may be doing is comparable to terrorism and treason!

Scores of people deemed “other”—Arabs and South Asians, Israelis and 
Central Asians, Muslims and Jews—have been xenophobically harassed and 
attacked by the state, corporations, and vigilantes in the US. There have 
been approximately 1,200 people held in secret detention—perhaps 50 or 60 
of whom are Jewish Israelis—mostly held in solitary confinement and 
incommunicado, most likely with no connection to terrorism, all of whose 
names and charges are unknown to us, including one Pakistani who died in 
custody. Additionally, there is possibly 5,000 or more people—primarily 
Middle Eastern men, though anyone may be considered “fair” game—to be 

So secretive and duplicitous the Bush Administration has been that it won’t 
divulge the evidence against bin Laden it claims to have and promised to 
publicize. Even if we already reasonably assume his guilt due to 
circumstantial evidence, direct evidence and proof is still of course 
necessary. The administration also does not release the names, and other 
information, of those it detains, while the government alarmingly increases 
its powers of surveillance, search, and seizure.

Further eroding of civil rights comes in the form of military tribunals, a 
form of judicial martial law. Speaking of the executive order signed by 
Bush to establish secret military tribunals, Rogers M. Smith says that
The order allows military officials within the United States to arrest 
aliens on mere suspicion of terrorism, without having to show probable 
cause; to try them entirely in secret; to use any evidence against them 
that military officials judge to have ‘probative value,’ even if it is mere 
hearsay or illegally obtained; to convict them on simple preponderance of 
such evidence, rather than proof beyond a reasonable doubt; to convict them 
by a vote of two-thirds of the military judges, without a requirement of 
unanimity, much less trial by jury; and to sentence them to death, without 
appeal to the civilian courts. This is a grotesque Magna Charta for a new 
Star Chamber.

Additionally, it is Bush himself who personally decides who gets charged in 
these kangaroo courts and it is Secretary of Defense (sic) Rumsfeld himself 
who personally has to OK the defense lawyer, keeping in mind that Rumsfeld 
and Bush are also the commanders of the judge and the prosecutor. And, 
according to Attorney General Ashcroft during Congressional hearings on 
this subject, Bush and Rumsfeld are the appellate process. The Bush 
Administration is sounding more and more like a monarchy everyday.

William Safire, the conservative New York Times essayist, argues that each 
military tribunal would be empowered to “conceal evidence by citing 
national security, make up its own rules, find a defendant guilty even if a 
third of the officers disagree, and execute the alien with no review by any 
civilian court”. Cutting out the judicial branch of government altogether, 
it would be the executive branch alone that is the “investigator, 
prosecutor, judge, jury and jailer or executioner”. How convenient! This is 
what Bush calls a “full and fair trial”. This type of Orwellian 
authoritarianism is not entirely surprising, however, given that Bush has 
three times publicly said, as recently as last December 18th and this past 
July 27th, that things would be much easier if he were the dictator—for 
him, that is. Apparently, and ominously, things are starting to get easier 
for Bush, but that doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.

Many legal experts have criticized the use of military tribunals. A letter 
signed by more than 300 law professors, for example, describes the military 
tribunals as “legally deficient, unnecessary and unwise”. The Wall Street 
Journal simply calls Bush’s military tribunals “indefensible”, arguing that 
we shouldn’t be “shredding the Constitution—which applies to all ‘persons,’ 
not just citizens”. In 1866, other legal experts also took issue with 
military tribunals. In Ex Parte Milligan, the Supreme Court ruled that 
“martial law, established on such a basis, destroys every guarantee of the 
Constitution and effectively renders the military independent of and 
superior to the civil powers...Civil liberty and this kind of martial law 
cannot endure together; one or the other must perish...Martial rule can 
never exist where the Courts are open...”

Sent to Dachau by the Nazi Gestapo in 1938 and freed in 1945, Martin 
Niemoeller reminds us that

           First they came for the communists,
           And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist.
           Then they came for the trade unionists,
           And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
           Then they came for the homosexuals,
           And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a homosexual.
           Then they came for the Jews,
           And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
           Then they came for the Catholics,
           But I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
           Then they came for me,
           And there was no one left to speak up.

It is never an inopportune time to assert one’s rights and to “speak up” on 
behalf of justice. The attacks of September 11th were clearly “crimes 
against humanity”, especially based on their scope and scale, their horror 
and human toll, the number of people killed and from so many countries, the 
number of survivors still terrified. Bush, however, is treating the 
terrorist attacks as “acts of war”, even though he earlier and correctly 
compared Al Qaeda to the mafia. It is an instructive comparison.

When trying to stop and punish the mafia (not to mention mass murderers 
such as Kaczinski, Pinochet, McVeigh, and Milosovic), we appropriately 
attempt to locate, capture, arrest, arraign, impartially try, convict, and 
imprison the guilty people, giving them access to their accusers, the 
evidence, and an independent defense counsel, following the rules of law 
and the norms of justice. We do not, it should be needless to say, carpet 
bomb and destroy entire blocks, neighborhoods, towns, cities, and countries 
for the purposes of tracking down individuals or even groups of suspected 

The rule of law simply means that the rules need to follow the law—not the 
fear, not the fad, not the anger, and not the president—without exception.

—Are we really toppling the Taliban for the sake of women? The war in 
Afghanistan is being fought for women the same way that World War II was 
fought for Jews and other religious minorities, Gypsies/Romani, gays and 
lesbians, people with disabilities, and leftists. That is to say, it is not 
being fought for women, only to some extent in women’s names. RAWA (the 
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), one of the leading 
women’s organizations in that country and one of the bravest groups of 
people working under some of the harshest conditions, strongly opposes the 
Taliban, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the 
Northern Alliance, and the US bombing campaign against their country. Each 
of these, they assert, are violent and misogynist, regardless of whether or 
not the burqa is required. These Afghan women simply ask why more innocent 
women and others should have to suffer for the sins of criminal and 
illegitimate leaders—Bush, the Taliban, and the Northern Alliance included. 
They deserve an answer, but like me they do not get one. We probably 
wouldn’t like the answer anyway. It’s called “collateral damage”.

Women always seem to be collateral damage, both during war and peacetime. 
Many people look to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for example, where hundreds of 
thousands of US troops were stationed during the Gulf War, for “protection” 
and “liberation”, and are sorely disappointed to find that women still 
can’t vote in Kuwait and are still not allowed to even drive in Saudi 
Arabia, where schools are sex-segregated. Reuters reports that “Saudi women 
are generally barred from public life”. Amnesty International regularly 
writes of severe discrimination and rights violations for women in Saudi 
Arabia. Oil and geo-politics (read: capitalism and imperialism) are always 
more important than democracy and women, apparently, just as the security 
dogs in Washington, D.C. were considered more important and tested for 
anthrax before human postal workers, during the recent anthrax attacks. “A 
few privileged Afghan women have been caught smiling for AP cameras”, since 
the dislodging of the Taliban, Cynthia Peters reports, “but many Afghan 
women, men and children are silently dying behind the burqa of U.S. 
deceit”. We have a lot to learn from our government’s actions, regardless 
of its sometimes lofty rhetoric.

—Who pays the price of this war, a war that Dick Cheney and Osama bin Laden 
(both presumably hiding in underground bunkers) say may go on forever, or 
at least will probably exceed our lifetimes? Clearly it is not those who 
decide to go to war. Is the frightening, displacing, and killing of 
civilians due to war—fully expected and foreseen even if not fully 
intentional and strictly deliberate, essentially a case of negligent 
homicide or involuntary manslaughter rather than murder—any different that 
the frightening, displacing, and killing due to terrorism? Both involve 
violent attacks against people for political purposes, even when those 
victimized people have little or no control over their political situation. 
Afghans have been victims of the British, the Russians, the Northern 
Alliance, the Taliban, and now the US bombing, and then will probably have 
to again suffer the wrath of the despicable Northern Alliance. War is 
terrorism on a grand and international scale. And, because this so-called 
war on terrorism is understood to be unjust by much of the world, at least 
outside the US, it will almost undoubtedly increase the threats and 
realities of future terrorism.

         It is no less a figure that Dwight Eisenhower, first a general and 
then US president, who eventually realized that
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, 
signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not 
fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not 
spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius 
of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

Terrorists are generally motivated by injustice, both real and perceived. 
Further injustice only fans the flames; justice would dampen the fire.

—Who decides if the price of war is worth it? I guess people like Secretary 
of State Madeleine Albright does. When she was asked in May 1996 about the 
harsh sanctions against Iraq and the fact that some half a million kids had 
died due to them, she responded that “the price is worth it”. Many more 
have died since and presumably the price is still worth it to Bush, Cheney, 
Powell, Rice, and the others who organize and support this war. Historian 
Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of the United States, asks “how can the 
judgment be made if the benefits and losses cannot be balanced because the 
losses are either unmentioned or mentioned quickly?” “We can all decide to 
give up something of ours”, Zinn challenges, “but do we have the right to 
throw into the pyre the children of others, or even our own children?” 
Besides being morally disgusting and outrageously cruel, Albright’s casual 
remark flies in the face of democratic theory which suggests that those 
affected by a decision have a say in that decision. At the very least, 
democracy requires informed consent. We have to decide—while we still 
can—whether we want to be a democracy. And remember: if we don’t decide, 
others most certainly will.

—Why are people so unimaginable, and so quick to beat the drums of war, 
when there may be other and more effective courses of action? Anti-war 
activists do not oppose action. We just oppose the destructive paths of 
action chosen by the Bush Administration. Instead, we prefer paths of 
action that are consistent with the power of law not the law of power, with 
democracy not authoritarianism, indeed with justice not vengeance. 
Madeleine Bunting worries that “US ruthlessness may turn out to be a 
greater threat” than the fanaticism and terrorism of foreigners. Many of us 
should worry too, but only to the extent that our worry motivates—rather 
than paralyzes—us to take action.

One major way that American citizens can help stop terrorism is to get our 
government to stop supporting and engaging in it. The US has actively 
supported—often politically, financially, and militarily—Osama bin Laden 
and the Taliban, the Northern Alliance (members of whom Cheney said are 
“not the kind of people we would invite to dinner or we would want as 
neighbors”, probably because of their recent and repugnant record of 
murder, torture, rape, sex slavery, child abuse, and drug dealing, as the 
US government well knows), the Saudi royal family, Kuwaiti dictators, Uzbek 
tyrants, Colombian human rights abusers, Pakistani Taliban-wannabes, 
Nicaraguan contras, Mozambiquan Renamo, Angolan Unita, Honduran military 
torturers, Salvadoran death squads, Indonesian genocide, Noriega, the Shah, 
Suharto, Marcos, Somoza, Batista, Mobutu, Savimbi, Duvalier, Pinochet, Pol 
Pot, Sharon, Saddam Hussein, and tragically many other brutal dictators and 
terrorists, both foreign and domestic.

There are, of course, other ways to stop terrorism, but getting the US out 
of the game would no doubt go a very long way in the right direction. 
Present policy will unfortunately and almost certainly guarantee future 
repeats of dictators and dictatorship, terrorism and terror, war and 
warmongering, death and destruction. I am not predicting the future so much 
as reading the past. It’s there for all to witness.

One of the other ways to stop war and terrorism is to take the words of 
some of our most acclaimed scholars seriously. In a statement recently 
signed by 100 Nobel laureates on the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize, 
it says that if “we permit the devastating power of modern weaponry to 
spread through this combustible human landscape, we invite a conflagration 
that can engulf both rich and poor. The only hope for the future”, it 
continues, “lies in co-operative international action, legitimized by 
democracy”. The statement concludes by cautioning us that “to live in the 
world we have transformed, we must learn to think in a new way. As never 
before, the future of each depends on the good of all”.

One last question remains, then: Must we destroy something in order to save it?

We need answers. It’s a matter of life and death.