David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
To End Terrorism, We Need Truth
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (9/16/01) - The magnitude of the catastrophic loss of innocent lives in the recent terrorist attacks should be reason enough to look deeply at their origins. The still greater danger of further suicide missions, involving possibly weapons of mass destruction, make an examination even more imperative. Congress has given the President virtually unlimited war powers, and ex-Defense Secretary William Cohen proposes even the use of nuclear weapons against terrorists. These steps could lead to the loss of millions of lives, and terrible consequences from which our planet might never recover.

If, as they say, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have changed everything, then perhaps we may be willing to find their historical roots. We are being called on to declare war against an enemy who still cannot be named - to sacrifice civil liberties for security, to spend on the military even more money desperately needed to solve our social problems. A look at historical truth can help us decide how we got here, who those enemies might be, and whether the overarching framework of U.S. policy has been responsible, at least in part, for creating them.

Other countries facing similar traumatic changes wrenching them from the past have pioneered a way to examine their own history, and answer questions like those we should now ask ourselves. In El Salvador, Guatemala, South Africa and elsewhere, truth commissions were established to allow each country's real history to become publicly acknowledged. Such acknowledgement is a necessary step towards change.

The U.S. is no stranger to this process. After the end of the Vietnam War, Senator Frank Church held watershed hearings, in which some of the Cold War's ghosts were brought before the public eye. But the process was cut short, the policies responsible for Cold War atrocities never fully questioned, and as a result, the ghosts were never laid to rest. Today we still live with them, and in New York and Washington, thousands died for them.

The massive social upheaval at home following the Vietnam war forced that examination, after the deaths of over a million Vietnamese and 40,000 US soldiers. Before the people of this and other countries pay a similar price we need to reexamine that history.

The roots of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington lie in the Cold War. Without truly ending it and untangling its consequences, there will be no security for the U.S. people.

It seems very possible that the groups now accused of responsibility for these attacks have roots in the forces assembled in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union. That much, at least, has become public knowledge. But why did US policy seek to bring these forces together, including Osama Bin Laden, then an upper-class Saudi youth.

In the 1970s a moderately reformist government came to power in Afghanistan, a leftwing populist movement seeking to democratize Afghan society. It mounted literacy campaigns, and built schools and clinics in rural areas. It sought to end restrictions on women in education and employment, and discouraged the use of the purdah. It talked, although often little more than that, about land reform.

That was enough to earn it the enmity of traditional elements of Afghan society, who began organizing armed attacks on government officials, literacy workers, and people associated with the values the government promoted.

Perhaps in another era, those internal conflicts might have been resolved among Afghans themselves. The forces of rightwing religious extremism might not have come out the better for it.

But Afghanistan's common border and friendly relationship with the Soviet Union made it an attractive target for Cold War destabilization. British and US intelligence agencies funneled money to those groups opposing the government through the Pakistani intelligence service. When real civil conflict broke out, the Afghan government appealed for Soviet military help, and the war was on. From that point forward, the US spent more money building training camps for the fundamentalist forces, and supplying them guns and missiles, than it spent in the contra war in Nicaragua and the counterinsurgency in El Salvador combined. Intelligence services dreamed of extending that war into Soviet Central Asia itself, and after the Soviets' fall, the conflict did in fact spread north.

Those who wanted a secular Afghanistan and social progress and justice for its citizens, were murdered or driven into exile or silence. Meanwhile, military leaders, bent on using Soviet troops to pursue their side of the civil war, replaced reformers.

U.S. aid fueled a philosophical movement which combined conservative religious doctrine with nationalism. Having defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan, this movement is now directed against the U.S., using resources originally supplied by our government, by people formerly viewed by U.S. intelligence agencies as "assets," including perhaps even elements of the Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence. It is fueled by the growing U.S. military presence in the mideast and the oil interests it protects, its suppørt for Israel, and the bombing and sanctions against Iraq.

What questions, then, would a truth commission, arising from the current tragedy, ask? And who might give answers?

Was a policy bent on destabilizing the Soviet Union sufficient justification for the U.S. decision to support a war against a government which shared more of our professed values than those we armed to fight against it? Will those former national security advisors who made that decision now answer for its consequences?

In a supposedly post-Cold War world, the military interventions which characterized Cold War policy seem far from over. Is this policy basically unchanged in Yugoslavia, Iraq, eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam, Korea, Colombia and elsewhere? Are today's interventions as likely to produce terrorism as the war in Afghanistan?

And behind the soldiers and the guns, whose interests are being defended? Are we supporting those in other countries seeking social equality and social justice, or those fighting against them?

For the countries which have served as battlegrounds, like El Salvador, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Iraq and even Afghanistan itself, what must be done to repair the damage of those decades, helping to create stable societies which function for the benefit of the vast majority of their citizens?

The U.S. could help to rebuild the destruction, rather than bomb Afghanistan back to the stone age, to use the old Cold War idiom. It could end support for free-market policies which impose poverty on millions of people. Or we could continue the Cold War's history of military intervention, in support of those very policies.

Which would be the better defense against terrorism?

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