[Last update: 14 September 2001]

Bernie Ward Interviews Phyllis Bennis

Bennis: . . . crisis when we escalate the patterns of more and more and more violence.

Ward: At this point in time most Americans would say how could they escalate it, I mean, if you didn't respond militarily, wouldn't that be worse than in fact responding?

Bennis: Well, I think the very worst thing would be responding militarily to the wrong country, as the U.S. has been known to do, not too long ago, in fact, when it knocked out a vaccine company in the Sudan claiming that it was tied to Bin Laden and only six months later saying, whoops, I guess we got the wrong place. And in fact, settled with the owner of that factory for having destroyed it, not to mention destroyed the one factory in central Africa that was producing crucial vaccines for children in that impoverished part of the world. So we have to be very careful. And yes, I think it would be worse to respond militarily than to be cautious and to say let's use this to do what is so difficult at a moment like this, when we're horrified by the human toll, the human tragedy, to say let's stop for a moment and think about why is it that people around the world, so many people, are starting to hate symbols of the U.S. as symbols of oppression.

Ward: Well, now you know that you are in a huge minority tonight when you suggest that one of the things we ought to take from this is to ask the question of why committed terrorism against the United States to begin with, and most Americans are simply going to say, "Who cares?" most Americans are going to say, "It was whoever it was and we're going to go get them," and most Americans at least in the polls already that have been released, say that our support for Israel is very crucial and that, you know, this is just going to solidify . . . you, you are in a huge minority when you suggest that part of what happened today might be connected to foreign policy decisions that we have made in other parts of the world.

Bennis: But, you know what Bernie, you may be right that I am in a minority, but I think these words have to be said. We've had too many years of experience of answering these kinds of attacks with more violence. And you know what? It hasn't worked. If we're serious about ending attacks like this, we have to go to the root causes.

Ward: And what are the root causes?

Bennis: To me it's a question of the arrogance of the U.S., the policies around the world, not only in the Middle East, although that's obviously a big component, but our policies of abandoning international law, dissing the United Nations, refusing to sign conventions and international treaties that we demand everybody else in the world sign on to, whether it's the prohibition against anti-personnel land mines, support for the international criminal court, the convention on the rights of the child, for God sakes that should be a no-brainer, only the U.S. and Somalia have refused that one, you know, when countries around the world and people around the world look at this, not to mention the most recent stuff about abandoning the Kyoto treaty, threatening to throw out the ABM Treaty, that's been the cornerstone of arms control for, you know, twenty-five years, they say, "Who is this country? Why do they think they're so much better than everybody else in the world just because they have a bigger army?"

Ward: So do we deserve what happened to us today?

Bennis: No, no one deserves what happened. There's no justification. . .

Ward: Did we ask for it?

Bennis: The question is: How do we stop it? The question is how do we stop it. And military strikes are not going to stop it. Ward: All right. So the example of terrorism certainly is if we look at Israel, the example is that when you respond with violence for violence it does not stop the terrorism.

Bennis: Absolutely right.

Ward: And in fact we saw for the first time yesterday or the day before an Arab Israeli citizen who committed a suicide bombing, meaning obviously that even buffers between them and the West Bank aren't going to make any difference one way or the other. Bennis: Right. Ending occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem might make some difference. But certainly what isn't working is responding with more violence.

Ward: But aren't the extremists, Osama Bin Laden has declared war on this country, , there's an interesting article in Salon.com about how this is a very different kind of terrorism than the terrorism of the P.L.O. and Black September and others in the sixties and the seventies and the eighties, that they see this as a war of attrition, that if they can wear down the American people, if they can get them so worried about this that they'll be willing to make compromises. Is it a war? Is that an accurate term today?

Bennis: I don't know if it's a very useful term. Again, we don't know that this was Osama Bin Laden having anything to do with the events of today. I think that we have to be a little bit cautious when we hear U.S. officials and former U.S. officials, as we've been hearing all day tonight, talking as if, number one, they knew it was Osama Bin Laden, number two, that this is what Henry Kissinger and so many others today have said is just like Pearl Harbor and the U.S. should respond . . .

Ward: Yeah. I don't like that analogy and I can't tell you why I don't like it, but I don't like it.

Bennis: I'll tell you one reason why maybe you don't like it, and it's one of the reasons I don't like it either. It's that one of the first things the U.S. did after Pearl Harbor was to round up all the Japanese-American citizens and put them in concentration camps - in this country. Now I hope that that's not what anyone in the U.S. is thinking about when they talk about responding the way we did to Pearl Harbor. But it's a very dangerous precedent. We've already heard about death threats against Arab Americans and Muslim organizations in the U.S. That kind of hysteria is already on the rise. And we have to be very cautious and conscious about the dangers of that. We have to be very cautious when we hear someone like James Baker, the former Secretary of State, claiming that he thinks there would be ninety-nine to one hundred percent support across the U.S., that's what he said today, for "taking out" a person who heads an organization like Bin Laden's and getting rid of the legal prohibitions against that.

Ward: Well, I think that's going to go, to be quite honest with you, I think there's going to be legislation maybe even as early as tomorrow to eliminate that or get rid of that prohibition against assassinations.

Bennis: You may be right. But I think that we can guarantee it's not going to work. It's not going to stop events like this. Ward: Let me put you into a bigger minority. Bennis: O.K.

Ward: Make the case for why the U.S. would be so hated in the Middle East.

Bennis: I think it's hated in the Middle East because, number one, it's uncritical support to the tune of between three and five billion dollars a year in unconditional support to Israeli occupation, including providing the helicopter gunships, the F-16s, the missiles that are fired from the gunships, that are used to enforce that occupation. It's hated, number two, because it has armed these, these, repressive Arab regimes throughout the region, in Saudi Arabia, In Egypt, in Jordan, throughout the region, that have suppressed their own people, that have taken either oil money or arms to build absolute monarchies in which citizens have no rights and where the U.S. claims to support democratization of every government in the world, don't seem to apply when the U.S. seems to think it's fine when one absolute monarch dies and passes on the baton to his son, you see every U.S. official and all of their European and other Western allies flocking to the funeral to say "The King is dead, long live the new King." We see it in Saudi Arabia, we see it in Morocco, in Jordan, throughout the region. And there's enormous resentment of that kind of support. So those two sectors alone, support for the Israeli occupation and the arming of these repressive Arab regimes is enough. Now that doesn't even get to the question of the impact of U.S. imposed sanctions on the civilian population of Iraq, the bombing of Iraq, that's been going on for ten years now, all of these are things that have dropped off the radar screen of the media coverage in the U.S. but are very much front and center in Arab consciousness in the region.

Ward: Would you be surprised if I told you a poll has come out in which a very large majority of Americans say they're willing to give up civil liberties in order to "fight terrorism," and that there may be legislation introduced in Congress tomorrow to in some cases suspend habeas corpus and other things in the cause of fighting terrorism?

Bennis: Would I be surprised? No. Because I think too many people in this country have been misled by politicians and by the media to think that somehow that's going to work. That if you have more profiling based on race and ethnicity, if you identify Arabs and don't let them on planes, if you do what the multi-agency task force in 1987 and 1988 tried to do, which was to actually round up citizens of seven Arab countries plus Iran on a preventive basis and put them in a concentration camp in Oakdale, Louisiana. It would not be surprising that that's something very much on the minds of policy-makers. It would be, I hope you're wrong to say that it would be supported by most people in this country, but unfortunately I could understand why it might be because of that misleading, what I would call propaganda, that has led people to think that somehow that would work, that that would make people safer, that if you didn't allow Arabs on the airplanes, somehow it would be safe to fly. You know, this is the kind of illusion that is bred by racism. And it's a very dangerous tendency in this country. And I do hope that we don't have our political leadership in Washington tomorrow or next week moving towards this kind of an approach ostensibly as a way of providing safety for American citizens.

Ward: Phyllis Bennis, I really appreciate this. I hope we can keep in touch and maybe invite you back on again.

Bennis: I look forward to it.

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