Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 September 2001

The ramifications of the vile outrages in New York and Washington are immense: on that everyone agrees. But what will happen next is anything but obvious. As I write, the United States and its allies are preparing for action, but what exactly it will comprise is unclear. It seems most likely that we will see an armed attack on targets associated with Osama bin Laden, along with a determined effort to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that has given him sanctuary.

But an all-out assault on Iraq, apparently given serious consideration by the Bush administration last week, cannot be entirely ruled out. Then there are the possibilities of a social explosion in Pakistan or the Occupied Territories, or the use of weapons of mass destruction. And what if there are further terrorist atrocities in the US – or France, or Germany, or Russia, or Britain?

In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the left throughout the west has been jittery. The mainstream left response to the September 11 attacks, in Britain as elsewhere, was one of horror at the inhumanity of the terrorists and sympathy for the victims. A handful of cretino-Leninists and anti-globalisation activists – and, to its eternal shame, the New Statesman – celebrated imperialist pig Amerika getting its comeuppance at the hands of the oppressed, but these were marginal voices, as they deserve to remain.

In the fortnight and more since those shocking, spectacular pictures appeared on the world’s television screens, their full impact has sunk in. The rhetoric of the politicians, for a change, articulates a mood among the whole population. This was an attack on our very civilisation, in that it targeted and destroyed the sense of safety that we took for granted most of the time in most of the developed world. Now, we dream nightly of dying in terrorist outrages – or of our children or our friends or our parents dying – and our feelings of disgust and empathy have been edged by doubt and fear.

The biggest worry is that America will do something stupid that makes matters even worse – which on past experience is far from unlikely. Over the past 100 years, the period in which the US has been the world’s greatest power, America has on occasion been the shining beacon to the world evoked by the leader-writers of the Times and the Telegraph – most importantly in the 1940s, when it played a key role both in defeating Hitler and in containing Stalin in Europe, but also more recently in the Balkans, where without its intervention Slobodan Milosevic and his vile cronies would now have established an ethnically cleansed Greater Serbia.

The US has also, however, been a cynical villain, supporting at different times a plethora of vicious right-wing regimes, anti-democratic coups d’etat and terrorists. And even when it has acted on the international stage with the best of intentions, its efforts have often had effects radically different from those it desired. Its support for Israel’s right to exist, for Afghanistan’s right to national self-determination or for the containment of Saddam Hussein since the Gulf war – to take just the three examples most relevant to the current crisis – cannot be dismissed simply as imperialist power-projection. All were, and remain, worthy causes.

But the means used by the US in their pursuit – backing Israel uncritically, arming the most fanatical mujahedin, imposing sanctions that hit the Iraqi people rather than the regime – have had massive unintended consequences: the growth of Hamas in the Occupied Territories, the rise of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, the consolidation of Saddam’s position in Iraq.

It is by no means inevitable that the “war on terrorism” declared by George Bush and subsequently joined by Britain and dozens of other countries will rebound so terribly. As long as military action by the coalition is precisely directed at Bin Laden and other perpetrators of terrorism – in other words, as long as civilian casualties are minimal – it is entirely possible that there will be few if any bad unintended consequences. On the other hand, it is all too easy to imagine a scenario in which the terrorists are unharmed and indiscriminate killing of civilians provokes a wave of anti-western indignation throughout the Islamic world, recruiting thousands to the fanatics’ ranks who unleash a wave of terror that makes September 11 seem puny.

At least some members of the US administration are aware of the dangers – notably Colin Powell, the secretary of state – as indeed are Tony Blair and the other European leaders that have rallied to America’s side.

So far, thankfully, it seems that their pressure for restraint has been successful. How long it will remain so is, however, unclear. We live in nerve-racking times.

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