Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 2:46 pm 
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Though it seems that the US's Afghan war has moved much quicker than expected, it's hard to feel reassured by anything that has happened in the past few weeks or, for that matter, since September 11. Have the Taliban crumbled completely, or will they wage guerrilla war out of the mountains with support from Pakistan for a year or years, as some have predicted? They left Kabul when they wanted to rather than when they had to, before a stable governing coalition was established, and the Northern Alliance's entry into the city thereafter, against US plans, only underlines how uncontrollable and dangerous, not to say criminal, this "enemy of our enemy," the Northern Alliance, is, and how unstable Afghanistan is and will now remain (see article by Nyier Abdou in Al Ahram Weekly. This Tuesday (November 13, 2001, p. B1) the NYTimes published a sequence of vivid color photos by Tyler Hicks showing how the Alliance handles prisoners of war. But that is only one of the problems.

Al-Qa'ida's camps in Afghanistan may be decimated and bin Laden may be hemmed in and close to capture or death, but this only brings back the original question: will any of this contribute to winning a "war on terrorism," or will it merely inspire more and more of the overwhelmingly youthful male population of the Middle East to seek to become martyrs by terrorizing the West? Al-Qa'ida itself is a multinational organization; you can't end it by killing one leader in one place. Dick Cheney wants a multinational war, but that will only turn a small victory into a large defeat and destabilize more and more countries.

Meanwhile the US has moved closer to being a police state without becoming noticeably a safer place. Al-Qa'ida's operatives may be turning their attention to different means of attack than hijacking anyway, but the US has yet to make decisive improvements in airport security. The anthrax scare remains an unsolved and decidedly unsettling mystery which has revealed further shortcomings of the FBI. Perhaps if the US had some kind of national health service it would be better able to deal with a bonafide bioterrorist attack. Airports and bridges—some of them, anyway---are full of young national guardsmen with loaded machine guns. The mainstream media eagerly exercise self censorship. The number of unidentified "suspects" of Middle Eastern origin has grown from a hundred to two hundred to over a thousand cut off from families and lawyers and uncharged. Now the plan is to move in on five thousand more. Many of Ashcroft's Draconian measures to curb civil rights have been accepted by the Congress. Confidentiality between lawyers and clients is to be violated. Most terrifying of all and most threatening to the Constitution, Bush plans to try "terrorists" in secret by military tribunal. Does all this make you sleep any easier?

The left misspoke when it said that September 11 was "the chickens coming home to roost" and that we "brought it all on ourselves," because al-Qai'da and other jihad groups hate everybody, not just us, and they want to bring down Arab governments at least as much as they want to kill Americans. These are not desires that we would ever want to satisfy. The 1998 fatwa of bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, et al. calls for the killing of Americans, but the Islamic fundamentalists' ultimate dream is to make all the world a Moslem one ruled by a caliphate, making the "ummah," or nation of Islam, a political as well as spiritual reality (see the extensive Islamist website, The immediate aim of attacking America is to punish it for its presence in Saudi Arabia near the holy places and for supporting Israel, but the long term aim of these attacks is to create disorder throughout the world and especially among the secular Arab states. The "over eighty years of humiliation" bin Laden refers to means the period since the end of pan-national Islamic control that came with the dissolution of the Ottoman empire. A close look at the jihad groups that have spread over the past decade and the politics and demographics of the Moslem world doesn't put one more at ease. The whole issue of Islam becomes more and more delicate when one realizes that not only are the most dangerous of the world's Moslems indeed out to kill us but the Moslem public tends to see America's attack on Afghanistan as a war against Moslems, and this is exactly what bin Laden wanted: "This war is fundamentally religious," he has said (Nov. 3 address broadcast on Al Jazeera). But this is fundamentally untrue. Bin Laden represents a lunatic fringe of the Moslem world. It remains important to remember that Moslems died in the Twin Towers, that the Moslem world is not at all a world of terrorists, and that al-Qa'ida and terrorism are worldwide and not exclusively Moslem movements. We need to avoid the racism and paranoia sadly exemplified by famous Italians such as Berlusconi and Oriana Fallaci.

Granted that things are not visibly better, is there anything that can be done? Terrorism is a virus that attacks from within - within the US; within the Saudi royal family; within ourselves - even if triggered from without. As Robert Fisk wrote in The Independent on November 11, bin Laden so far has won. The terrorist attacks of September 11, cataclysmic in New York, horrible in Washington, have had enormous effect, an effect in which America and much of the world has fully cooperated with the terrorists in making things happen beyond their wildest dreams. In a brilliantly provocative essay in Le Monde November 3 (Le Monde reprint) , the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard says that terrorism only succeeds because it finds strong echoes within us. That we imagined and even desired the destruction of the Twin Towers, Baudrillard argues, is exemplified in disaster films. Moreover, symbolically the towers themselves "committed suicide," self destructing in complicity as neither the hijackers nor the engineers could have foreseen. Terrorists indeed count on our inadmissible (because immoral) complicity in their dreadful deeds. The loss of the Twin Towers in itself would have had a significant impact on US financial transactions, and the tragedy of Ground Zero did force the New York Stock Exchange to close, but other reactions of dubious value followed. Any degree of overreaction is potentially self destructive. Though emotionally it might have been unthinkable, the best thing for Americans to have done would have been as much as possible to have done nothing. Everything we have done has been what the terrorists wanted. Perhaps we should speak not of what to do but of what not to do. As Baudrillard points out, that one horrendously successful day of terrorism has made us into terrorists, touching off a chain reaction in which we seem unable to stop what may undoubtedly be satisfying emotionally (to close doors, to strike back, to take prisoners, to drop bombs) but only increases our own paranoia and puts us in more danger.

The terrorist achieves maximal effect with minimal means. The state, in responding, does the reverse. But a positive definition of jihad is inner conquest. Perhaps that's what we need. The Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying upon returning from a military campaign, "This day we have returned from the minor jihad (war) to the major jihad (self-control and betterment)" (see

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