i recently found myself at a toronto meeting of anti-globalization and anti-poverty activists. The topic of discussion was the "events of last Tuesday." I was hoping for a thoughtful debate about how the situation had shifted and what new strategic issues this opened up. Maybe thoughts on how to defend the democratic space in a time when it is going to come under attack. Maybe how to build an anti-war movement in a very dangerous situation. But what I got instead frankly distressed me.Only occasionally did the meeting slip into outright gloating over the assault on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center -- one militant got enthusiastic applause when he described the "body blow that left capitalism reeling, first with a blow to one strategic lobe and then to the other" -- but the whole thing (with the exception of a couple of thoughtful interventions, one by an Iranian socialist who asked people what they actually stood for and also got some applause) smacked of knee-jerk politics and moral evasion.
The general tenor was that the most important task for the left was to defend communities of colour against a racist backlash. Several speakers portrayed the general populace as duped by racist propaganda coming from an undifferentiated "media," mere cannon fodder for war-mongering politicians. Fair enough (and absolutely necessary) to take a strong anti-racist position, but the starting point for any kind of popular engagement has to be an unequivocal denunciation of what happened. This was, after all, a mass public execution. If people on the left don't start with this, they will (and should) quickly lose any credibility with ordinary folk, most of whom are neither as reactionary nor as gullible as they are often portrayed to be. Such credibility is a prerequisite for any effective anti-war resistance.
The subtext of the whole discussion was that, unfortunate as it might be, "the U.S. was getting what it deserved. What else did it expect?" This notion of the "U.S." is an abstraction worthy of George Bush's pronouncements about an attack on "liberty."
Who, in fact, died is not "the U.S." but people from the fire service, clerks, secretaries, receptionists, cleaners, etcetera. Flesh-and-blood people who had children, lovers and grandparents. Probably a majority were women, many were people of colour and some were Muslims.
As with any act of terrorism, the goal was symbolic, leaving intact (and perhaps leading to an authoritarian strengthening of) the underlying lines of power and control.
The notion that "the U.S. is getting what it deserved" is underwritten by a recitation (accurate enough) of the atrocities of empire: Guatemala, Plan Colombia, the Middle East and eventually going all the way back to Vietnam, Chile and Indonesia. This is further underlined by talking about starvation and debt. It is a sordid history that cannot and should not be forgotten.
But there is another history that the left is all too quick to forget -- its own association with the politics of mass public execution. This is also a sordid history, ranging from flirtation to capitulation to a series of butchers dressed in "anti-imperialist" garb: Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, General Menguistu of Ethiopia and dozens of others. Parts of the left dutifully mounted the barricades in defence of all these butchers. These ugly secrets shadowbox with the atrocities of empire as part of a sad Cold War legacy whose logic still hangs over us.
So when mass public execution is the issue of the day, we on the left need to be both modest and careful in our pronouncements. The notion that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" led the CIA to train Osama bin Laden to fight the Russians. It should not now lead us to sympathize with the "anti-imperialist" motives (if not actions) of his followers. Politics involves ambiguity and contradiction, not simple either/or choices. Selective amnesia and moralistic posturing should be left to the right. Militancy needs to be leavened with intelligence and humanity or it will simply degenerate into a politics of childish self-righteousness. We have been there before, and it ain't pretty!
Richard Swift is co-editor of the New Internationalist magazine.