Rule of law must prevail
America's rhetoric of belligerence will only exacerbate the problem of terrorism
By Chua Lee Hoong, The Straits Times, 16 September 2001
EVEN as the world mourns the victims of the terrorist attacks in north-east America, another thing cries out equally for attention and redress - and that is the rhetoric of belligerence coming out of the United States.

An America that prides itself on the rule of law and the maxim of 'innocent until proven guilty' has rushed to judgment against a Saudi billionaire holed up somewhere in the wilds in Afghanistan, and the Taleban government currently in power there.

From President George W. Bush downwards, the administration has thrown diplomatic restraint to the winds. A President whose father led America and Nato forces into war against Iraq 10 years ago speaks of mounting the 'first war of the 21st century'.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was also involved in that campaign, affirms the presidential intention: 'I'm talking about war. The president is talking about war.'

Down the line, anger and wounded national pride sees quick translation into savage prejudice and blind talk of revenge. A serviceman in Quantico, home to the FBI's training academy, is reported to have said: 'Remember what we did in World War II, rounded up all the Japs? We need to round up all those Arabs!'

In Manhattan, a woman dismissed the calls for restraint coming from church pulpits, saying: 'I don't turn the other cheek. I take an eye for an eye.'

In Wyoming, a truck driver in his 60s declared: 'I know just what to do with these Arab people. We have to find them, kill them, wrap them in a pig skin and bury them. That way, they will never go to heaven.'

Military officers talk about retaliation, from assassination to bomb raids, embargoes and blockades. First they pointed the finger at Afghanistan, and then as the Taleban issued earnest statements defending themselves and Osama bin Laden, Iraq came into the virtual sights of these trigger-happy strategists without a target.

Yes, the need for revenge is understandable. Yes, it is only human to point the finger of blame at a known face rather than to wait till evidence is conclusive. But an America that aspires to be the conscience of the world cannot set itself lower standards than what it asks of others.

America has learnt from the 1995 fiasco in which a homegrown Timothy McVeigh proved to be the bad guy behind the Oklahoma bombing, but by not quite enough. Racial prejudice bred of plain ignorance remains a deep-seated but latent force, as does prejudice against the religions other people espouse or are born into.

To deal with current and pre-empt further backlash against ordinary Muslims, the American Muslim Political Coordination Committee had to rush to issue a statement affirming solidarity with non-Muslims: 'American Muslims utterly condemn what are apparently vicious and cowardly acts of terrorism against innocent civilians. We join with all Americans in calling for the swift apprehension and punishment of the perpetrators.'

Since the end of the Cold War, Americans have struggled to fill the vacuum left by the former Soviet Union as their Public Enemy No. 1. The entity of choice has been 'Islamic fundamentalism' and its companion in action, known variously as 'radical Islam' or 'Islamic radicalism'.

The emphasis on the 'Islam' in that equation is a convenient and misleading shorthand that masks the more important political motivations behind these groups.

It is convenient because the US needs to find a scapegoat rather than admit to the possibility that its Palestinian policy may have contributed to the tragedy of Sept 11 - a date which must have symbolic meaning for an America bred on emergency number '911'.

It is misleading because while thinking Americans will acknowledge that American foreign policy has its enemies and needs sophisticated recalibration, America as a whole is ill-served by rhetoric from its national leadership that simply reinforces prejudice and bigotry.

For Americans, many still recovering from the horrors of Vietnam, it must be difficult to understand that there could be people who hated their country so much they were willing to commit such acts of terror - and die in the bargain.

To call the actions of the suicide bombers, who brought low America's prestige symbols, an act of war is to hearken back to World War II, when the Japanese pioneered the use of kamikaze planes, which eventually sank 34 ships and damaged hundreds of others.

During the battle of Okinawa alone, kamikaze pilots killed almost 5,000 US servicemen. Heaven forbid that the battles of New York and Washington lead to new Nagasakis and Hiroshimas.

Only if the US obtains solid evidence that a state was behind the recent attacks can military action against that state be justified. So far, the events of September point more to anti-US fanatics - with no thought for future repercussions - than to state sponsors who must think beyond the immediate gratification of enemy destruction and international publicity.

The Bush administration is attempting to build a broad global coalition for possible pre-emptive strikes against states giving sanctuary to terrorists, but even if it succeeds in getting a coalition, will the strikes themselves succeed? Does the entire Afghanistan need to be razed to the ground before Osama can be found and removed?

And as Osama himself is reported as saying on the BBC a few days ago: 'Even if this Osama is killed, a thousand other Osamas will arise.'

Terrorism incidents have waxed and waned with the fortunes of competing political groups. In South-east Asia, East Timor is a case in point.

However bizarre it may be to outsiders and unpalatable to policy makers, terrorism is a problem which is political in genesis. Its permanent solution has to be political, too.

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