More Talking Points on the WTC/Pentagon Attack

1. Flexibility is key.

We are in the middle of vast and perhaps long-lasting changes in the political climate in the U.S. What it will all look like when the smoke clears won't be evident for some time to come.

Still, the striking changes that which have already occurred call for an equally dramatic flexibility in our thinking and our strategies. One immediate example of this is the sea of American flags everywhere we look. Sure, much of this flag-waving is the expression of dangerous nationalist sentiments. But for millions of others it's a way to express solidarity with the victims of the attacks. We can't afford to make the flag our battleground for now. If the meaning shifts again in the drive toward war, we can deal with it then.

We will do ourselves a great disservice if we fall into the ultra-left “everyone is against us” thinking which is far too comfy for many radicals. We’re hearing reports all over the country that while many people are fuming and calling for military action, many (some of them the same people) are also voicing concern about the potential fallout and want to prevent more killing. Instead of falling into a bunker mentality, our fundamental approach should be to unite with the positive sentiments among the masses wherever possible, at the same time we struggle against the desire for retribution.

We are likely to find that we have to make tactical retreats in some areas (like around the flag). At the same time, we should also be on the lookout for and take advantage of new openings, such as a rise in the discussion within the mainstream about just why people hate the U.S. so much. This is what flexibility is all about. If we merely rely mechanically on the same old slogans, strategies, and mindsets, we set ourselves up for isolation and defeat.

2. Retaliation is the main question facing us now.

We need to understand the issue, take a stand on it, and develop an approach to convert that stand into political activity. This may seem self-evident, but two points must be made. First, it is the main question because it has, inevitably, become the focus of the crisis around the explosions. For the rulers of this country, this was a devastating blow which did incalculable damage to their financial center, Wall Street, and to their military center, the Pentagon. What’s more, it represents a frontal challenge to the global dominance of the U.S. As a result, they are determined that the attack must be punished and any repetition prevented. For the majority of the U.S. people, the horror of 5,000-plus deaths and the repeated viewing of the attack on and collapse of the World Trade Center towers seems to call for “closure” and for the elimination of further threats.

Second, standing in the way of the drive for retaliation will not an easy thing for activists. Many of us may instead be tempted to devote our main efforts to the essential task of defending individuals and communities against racist anti-Arab/anti-Muslim violence here in the US, to the exclusion of building resistance to retaliation. It’s a clearer issue and easier to organize around. That’s because the front against bias attacks is far broader, and the politicians and media are extremely concerned that racism not mar the alliances they are trying to build here and internationally. In the meantime, there is no pole in the mainstream media to rally people around against violent retaliation. We will have to build it ourselves.

3. We need to oppose all forms of retaliation, not just war.

Bush has said the country is at war. Congress has passed an enabling resolution allowing him to use force against the perpetrators of the attacks. And a growing movement has hurriedly begun to organize against war. There are, however, problems with making war the main target of our opposition.

Surely we are opposed to war, with the inevitable consequences of civilian deaths, destruction, and suffering. Why, then, not make war the focus? The answer is simple–retaliation may not take the form of war.

Many other possibilities are being discussed in the media. One is murderous Iraq-style sanctions directed at states “harboring terrorists.” Pakistan’s government is already being bullied by US diplomats into cutting off all aid to Afghanistan, a country in the fourth year of a massive famine, an act which will quietly murder far more innocent men, women and children than the recent explosions. Others retaliation possibilities include attempts at surgical strikes to kill or capture the organizers of the attack, and pressuring the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia to cough up suspected 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden so he can be given a show trial in the U.S. and executed.

4. We are opposed to retaliation for a number of reasons.

In a just world, the accomplices of the people who committed this act would be brought to justice. (In point of fact, the people who actually did it are dead.) But we don’t live in a just world. In the world we live in, bringing those responsible to justice will almost certainly be a case of the cure is worse than the disease.

Most importantly, retaliation continues and reinforces the cycle of violence. Far from guaranteeing the safety of U.S. citizens and residents, it puts us more at risk. The lessons of the Israeli government’s attempts to crush the Palestinian struggle in the occupied territories over the last thirty-five years prove this. Neither collective punishment nor precisely targeted assassinations of leaders have stopped the struggle. New fighters come forward and desperation gives rise to anti-civilian tactics.

Another reason is the law of unintended consequences. The best recent example of this is Osama bin Laden himself. As is well known, at least in the movement, bin Laden is a direct product of the U.S. program in the 1980s in which the CIA armed and trained Islamic Mujahideen forces to drive Soviet occupation troops out of Afghanistan.

Play out some of the scenarios in the present situation. Many of them wind up embroiling the U.S. in a land war in Afghanistan. If the USSR, with a much larger military and much shorter supply lines, caught a Vietnam-style asskicking, what can be expected this time?

There are less obvious examples. Suppose the U.S. forces Pakistan to allow U.S. troops to be based there for military operations. Mass public support in Pakistan for Taliban-style Islamic fundamentalism could lead to the overthrow of the government. Alternatively, the Pakistani government could respond to the contradiction by trying to deflect mass anger into nationalism through a sharp escalation of its long struggle with India. The result? A showdown between two extremely hostile governments, both headed by religious fundamentalists, both with nuclear arsenals.

5. We should resist the temptation to make loud denunciations of terrorism.

Many groups and activists have been making the valid point that the U.S. government has engaged in and supported various forms of terrorism for decades, with a death toll hundreds of times as large as the recent attack. Further, this criminal behavior by the U.S. government has produced the hatred driving the WTC/Pentagon attacks.

The problem is that we do not get to define what terrorism is–the media do.

It’s nearly impossible to get even the most criminal U.S. actions defined as fitting into the term “terrorism.” It is even tougher to get groups like Palestinian organizations and the IRA, and tactical approaches like the Black Bloc, defined out. If we lock ourselves into militant opposition to “terrorism,” then we can more easily be jacked up at any time to speak against actions and forces we don’t oppose and then get denounced as hypocrites and supporters of terrorism when we fail to agree.

6. We are not alone in realizing and pointing out that what is really behind the bombing is a deep and deserved hatred of the U.S, on the part of a whole section of the world’s people.

Politicians like Bob Kerry are talking about the hatred for the U.S. that is out there and the need that these grievances get a hearing. James Robison, a prominent Texas-based televangelist, agreed with Jerry Falwell that the attack was a punishment for the country’s sins, but the sins he cites are arrogance in relationships with Third World countries, plundering other countries for resources while supporting their despots, and indifference to others’ poverty and pain. We have to unite with that kind of understanding and promote it widely among the masses.

Similarly, we have to take advantage to the US ruling class’s effort to stake out the moral high ground. The more that they talk about the innocent civilians killed in NYC and the Pentagon, the more problems killing innocent civilians in, say, Afghanistan will cause them. It will undercut the national unity they are trying so hard to create and alienate partners, both willing and coerced, in the anti-terrorist coalition they are trying to create around the world. We must hammer on the point that any action which kills innocent civilians abroad makes it clear that the U.S. government operates on the same level as those it says it wants to punish. This becomes an actual restraint on their strategic options.

7. Attacks on Arabs, Muslims and others perceived as falling into these groups are a real and dangerous phenomenon.

Several deaths have been reported. Some attacks are official–police profiling of people with turbans has resulted in several well-reported arrests and the subsequent quieter releases of Sikhs, who are rarely of Arab origin and whose faith is not Islamic. Many more are made by murderous, patriotic morons, like the drunk on Long Island who was arrested for trying to run over an Arab woman in a mall parking lot to “save my country.” Most dangerous is the potential for mob action, like September 12 in the Chicago suburb of Bridgeview, when 350 men and women, many of them teenagers, some waving flags, marched on a mosque in an Arab neighborhood there and were dispersed by the police.

We can take advantage of the fact that this is being posed as a battle for freedom and democracy. From the very beginning of the crisis, many political figures have spoken out strongly warning against vigilante attacks on Arabs, South Asians and Muslims, some citing U.S. mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Even Bush belatedly addressed this. The stronger this democratic current is in the country, the safer members of these groups will be and the more free they will feel to take part in actions to resist attacks on their home countries.

A particular contradiction faces those of us who are activists of color. There are contending pulls on the sentiments of our communities. One is solidarity with people facing brutal racism and violence all too familiar to African Americans, Chicanos and other Latinos, Asian Americans and others. The other is the implicit offer of being included as a full American when that means lining up to attack some other part of the world to “defend OUR country,” or scapegoating other people as not really American. It is significant that the only person in Congress to vote against the enabling resolution for military action was an African American woman, Representative Barbara J. Lee of California. It is also significant that the rest of the Back Congressional Caucus did not follow her courageous stand.

Union resolutions, leaflets, letters to the editor have a role to play in creating public consciousness. In many places defense of folks who are brown and “dress funny” will be an immediate task. For this kind of work, remember: big fancy city-wide response networks will not work anywhere near as well as locally-based community response teams and escort projects.

8. Until it becomes clearer what attacks on U.S. democracy the administration is preparing to launch, this may remain a side skirmish in the resistance we are building to the government’s current drive toward retaliation.

That assault will come in full force later, so it is good to warn against it now and to be on the lookout for government and media attacks on democratic rights now.

More important, we must be aware of how our movements are affected by the new political climate, and adjust our tactics to meet the situation. New assaults on immigrants, amnesty and the right to immigration are already underway, and this will have huge repercussions for immigrant communities in the coming period. The new movement for global justice is already being attacked by right wing commentators as being objectively allied with Osama bin Laden and the hijackers.

Some repercussions aren’t as obvious. Take work around Mumia Abu-Jamal, for instance, With a tidal wave of sympathy for the dozens of police who died in heroic rescue efforts, this is not the easiest time to introduce new people to the case of a convicted “cop-killer” with an Islamic sounding name.

9. Most ordinary people have very complex reactions to the September 11 attacks, a “mixed consciousness.”

Often reactionary, moderate and progressive sentiments co-exist in one person. The first spontaneous mass response was the desire to help–to donate blood, donate supplies, help dig in the rubble, but not all this help could be used. Then people started flying or carrying American flags or wearing flag pins, accelerated by Bush’s call for flag display on Wednesday.

Again, the flag display is not necessarily jingoistic, but as people feel the horror of this loss of life and can’t find any way to help, the bourgeoisie is in a better position to mobilize this impulse in a chauvinistic direction than we are in an anti-militaristic direction. At least in NYC, a more spontaneous mass form of dealing with the catastrophe-candlelight vigils–dwarfed the display of flags. This included the erection of small altars at every firehouse in the city and in thousands of other locations as well. Many had sheets or cardboard panels for people to write their feelings and reactions on.

Much reason for hope comes from the spontaneous vigils and community meetings all across the country, even before Bush’s call for a national day of mourning. At several vigils in New York, ordinary people described themselves as moving from an initial impulse for revenge through prayer to recognizing that more violence against innocent people is not the answer. These are sentiments to build on, and clergy (many of them near exhaustion from non-stop work to console and conduct rites for grief-stricken people) can play an indispensable role in helping people take the ethical higher ground. Even some relatives of victims have been on TV voicing peace sentiments, including a New Jersey widow who said her husband believed in peace and human rights and would never have wanted his death to be a reason for bombing people. These individuals, maintaining perspective and compassion in their sorrow, can also play a crucial role in winning over masses of people to oppose retaliation.

Around the country, too, public opinion is much more varied than the media is portraying. A friend in Milwaukee attended a 300-person town meeting called by his congressperson and found to his surprise that there was a solid consensus for “Slow down; don’t engage in thoughtless retaliation; don’t risk innocent people anywhere in the world; don’t start a war.”

To stay with the people, it’s also extremely important that we never counter-pose an anti-retaliation message or action to mourning the victims and honoring the rescuers. We should especially unite with the ceremonies that honor the rescue workers, who really are heroes. Such rituals counteract despair by celebrating what is most admirable and unselfish in human beings. As progressives or radicals or socialists, we need to celebrate this too–as part of the basis for building a truly human future.

10. We need to recognize and deal with our own–and other people’s–emotional realities.

It seems that many people–those who didn’t suffer a deep personal loss and whose world view is not prone to superpatriotism–have been going through five states of dealing with this social disaster: (1) denial/minimization-“What is this, some War of the Worlds re-run?” (2) panic-“Will they bomb right here or use nukes? Where are my friends? Is it WWIII?” (3) relief-“It seems to be over for now and my loved ones are safe” (4) existential despair-“How can you comprehend suffering and death on this scale? How can people do this to each other? Is there any hope for humanity?” and (5) somber re-commitment to deeply held values. For progressives, this might be, “Since my kids need me and I’m not ready to jump out a window, nothing makes sense but to keep struggling for global justice in some way.” People with more right or center worldviews may alternate between existential despair and turning outward to desire revenge.

A few things to keep in mind to do our work better: No matter how sophisticated we think we are about the role of U.S. imperialism and the causes of world unrest, this attack at home affects us emotionally. Some activists become hyper, super task-focused and irritable with anyone who’s not responding to events quickly enough, while others of us have a hard time doing anything, feeling that everything is pointless.

To avoid either of these pitfalls, talk about your feelings with people you trust and with people in your community, workplace and mass organizations. The worst thing is to fixate on political tasks and imperatives in an abstract and un-feeling way. Remember that it won’t get better right away; feelings of despair, insomnia, physical distress and crying jags will probably recur, and people may recycle through the stages of response over the next weeks and months, in trying to master the horror.

11. The banner of national unity is already starting to fray a little, and through the holes can be seen corporate class interests and greed.

The idea that we are all in this together is a very powerful one, reinforced by the fancy America Under Attack logos all the TV stations devised within minutes of the plane crashes. With all of the official war talk come proclamations that in wartime, of course, all real Americans put aside their differences and stand as one.

In fact, though, different classes have different interests and the capitalist class is already starting to show just what its interests are. Different corporations and blocs of capital are being forced by the iron “expand or die” logic of the system to make their bids in the public eye. The airlines are in deep crisis and demanding at least $15 billion of the $40 billion that Congress voted for relief or they will go under. Midway Airline already has. Next at the public trough will be the insurance companies, who have also stated that insurance rates will be going up by 30% in the next year to help them cover their losses.

Will the interests of the working people be looked out for so intently? Perhaps in the case of the families of workers killed or injured in the explosions themselves, like the dozens of HERE members who were working in the Windows on the World restaurant. Certainly in the case of the heroic firemen, EMTs and cops who died in the collapse. But no one is talking about helping the workers who will lose jobs in lower Manhattan as the ripples of the explosions spread. No one is talking about setting aside billions in federal money for the thousands of workers the airlines have already announced they will be laying off directly to cut costs. It now seems more than likely that the country will be entering a recession. It was edging in that direction anyway, and the shockwaves from the explosion won’t help. If it does, the rhetoric of national sacrifice in wartime will doubtless be used to paint any struggles for job security, living wages or expanded unemployment insurance as unpatriotic.

And war itself, if the retaliation push takes us there, will be as classbound as any previous war. Once again, it will be rich old white men sending young men and women, overwhelmingly working class and disproportionately Black and Latino off to kill, to suffer and to die.

12. So out of this, what do we need to do?

At the local level, activists should get together meetings to sum up the state of the movement in your area. One important task is to weigh the local situation regarding anti-Arab/anti-Muslim assaults and develop appropriate plans for response. Another is to figure out how to unite with the forms spontaneously developed by the people, which seem to be vigils more than anything else. Also seek to put pressure on local politicos and media to make sure that anti-retaliation forces get a hearing.

On a national level, we need to develop the broadest possible national action or coordinated day of actions to focus and publicize anti-retaliation sentiment. And fast. Along with this, the movement could use a national campaign of petitions or letter writing, with a theme like Not in Our Name.

The key link in developing broad coalitions at the national and local levels both is religious activists. Faith-based communities, and clergy in particular, have played an incredible role in what has taken place so far. Hundreds and probably thousands of sermons on anti-war and social justice themes were preached last weekend. This is quite different from the buildup to the Gulf War where political organizations tended to take the lead from the outset. One factor in the difference may be that rabbis, ministers, priests, imams and other religious professionals are trained to deal with grief, fear and mourning. They recognized instantly from the situation and from the response of their flocks that something was needed.

Where folks don’t have these ties already, traditional peace organizations like the War Resisters League and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom may be able to provide entrée and play a crucial linking role. In any case, the Black Church and other religious institutions in communities of color have a crucial role to play here.

In general, we urge that slogans be kept simple and non-rhetorical. We suggest this set of slogans, based on those used by a coalition initiated by the NY Direct Action Network:

Retaliation Is Not the Answer.
Islam Is Not the Enemy.
Work for Global Peace and Global Justice.

Along the same lines, tactical elements should be considered carefully. What is appropriate at a standard-issue left demo may not belong at an event that has the character of a vigil or a strong component of mourning, for instance loud chants, organizational placards, etc. In general, care should be taken not to undermine the tone of events, whether stated or understood.

One thing this means is that we have to have some sharp struggle with folks who are slow to adjust to the new conditions we face and wind up acting as ultra-leftists. And of course there are the authentic ultra-leftists, who live to posture as the r-r-revolutionary and proletarian sector of whatever they are involved in. Such struggle can’t wait for the day of the action. No matter how annoying, these folks should be challenged in advance and persuaded, if at all possible, to respect the unity of activities they are participating in. They can do greater harm now than they might have done under more normal circumstances.

National Executive Committee,
Freedom Road Socialist Organization /
Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad

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