by Adam Jones
September 17, 2001
Published in Spanish translation in Bucareli 8 (Mexico City), 1 de octubre de 2001
The terrorist attacks in the United States last week have generated unprecedented media coverage and global concern. Here
are three stories that have been all but lost amidst the sound and fury.
On September 13, two days after hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvanian countryside, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmed John D. Negroponte as the U.S.'s new ambassador to the United Nations. Mr. Negroponte's nomination had been the focus of strong criticisms, in the U.S. Congress and some media. In the aftermath of the terrorist assault, however, reservations were set aside. "This isn't a time for us to slow things down ... or hold things up," said Barbara Boxer, a Democratic senator from California. Even one of Negroponte's most vocal critics, Senator Paul Wellstone, acknowledged that he "would make no effort to block this [nomination] in committee or on the floor. These are extraordinary circumstances."
In a civilized world, Mr. Negroponte would not be a candidate for high public office; he would be on trial for crimes against humanity. As U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, he oversaw the supply mission for U.S.-trained "Contra" terrorists, based in Honduras, who waged war against the people and government of Nicaragua. Part of that campaign involved ensuring that the regime in Honduras received hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military and economic aid, despite its dismal human-rights record. Thus, when Battalion 316, a CIA-trained body of the Honduran army, slaughtered hundreds of alleged dissidents and kidnapped and tortured hundreds of others, Mr. Negroponte turned a blind eye. In reports to his government, he consistently claimed that the Honduran regime bore no responsibility for the wave of atrocities unleashed in that country. This week, Mr. Negroponte, an architect of terror and the illegal violation of state sovereignty, will be confirmed as the U.S. representative to a forum - the United Nations - whose Charter is based on respect for the sovereignty of all countries, whether rich or poor, and which claims to safeguard the rights of all human beings, whether powerful or powerless.
Around the time that Mr. Negroponte was receiving the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's seal of approval, Paul Watson of The Los Angeles Times reported on the lingering aftermath of the tragedy at Bhopal, India. On December 3, 1984, in the world's worst-ever industrial disaster, a chemical reaction caused a holding tank to overheat at the plant of Union Carbide, a U.S.-registered company. The tank "spewed out a poisonous cloud" that transformed the night "into a swirling chemical vapor of at least 65 gases, including hydrogen cyanide. Within hours, at least 2,000 people were dead." Today, the official death toll of the tragedy stands at 5,000 - approximately the number of people killed in the three attacks last week. But according to Watson, "activists say the number of deaths from gas-related illnesses is closer to 20,000." Tens of thousands of others have suffered debilitating injuries.
The United States government has been eager to intervene internationally to guarantee the "right" of U.S. corporations to conduct business as they please - with little or no consideration given to the devastation caused by unrestricted industrialization and economic "globalization." But that government never considered the results of the Bhopal tragedy to be worth its time or lobbying efforts. Union Carbide continues to conduct business worldwide. It has never formally accepted responsibility for the disaster. Nor has the U.S. government pressured it to increase its farcical compensation payments to survivors. These average US \\$580 each; Watson reports the complaints of survivors that this money "cannot even cover loans [that] many took out to pay medical bills, funeral costs and other expenses." (The Indian government, of course, shares responsibility for this negligence: "Activists suspect India's government is keeping payouts to the bare minimum so that foreign investors will see cheap labor comes with a bonus: low liability for industrial accidents.") Even today, as workers struggle to clear the wreckage from the disaster sites in New York and Washington, no plan has been announced for the clean-up of toxic waste from the Bhopal site, which still finds its way into the drinking water of the nearby population.
A final news story has been with us for more than a decade, but has attracted only a tiny fraction of the attention devoted to last week's mass murders in the United States. It is the ongoing campaign of economic sanctions against the people of Iraq. Since the Gulf War of 1990-91, Iraqis have seen their country go from being one of the most developed in the Middle East to one of the poorest in the world. The best estimates are that more than one million Iraqi civilians have died from malnutrition, lack of sanitation and water purification, lack of access to proper health care, and abject poverty. Under the modified sanctions regime of the last few years, the suffering has continued unabated. It may well be the case that as many innocent civilians as were savagely obliterated in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania are dying in Iraq every three weeks from the effects of sanctions. I believe this atrocity meets the United Nations definition of genocide: "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group." With the exception of sporadic but much-trumpeted "policy reviews," however, it has passed virtually without comment.
Over the weekend, while absorbing the coverage of walls and lampposts in New York adorned with the innocent faces of the missing, I conducted a mental experiment. I replaced those haunting faces with the imagined faces of the Iraqi civilians, about half of them young children, who have died under the sanctions regime. I wondered what the response would be, in the U.S. and around the world, if we were exposed to saturation media coverage of Iraqis' plight: the crowded morgues and graveyards, the emaciated bodies, the barely-equipped hospitals, the children drinking from streams turned into open sewers. These victims are no less innocent than those who succumbed in the terrorist horror of last week. When they die, as they have died by the hundreds of thousands in recent years, they are no less dead. They deserve to be mourned no less deeply, unless our capacity for sympathy is hopelessly distorted by our national and "civilizational" allegiances. And those still alive and suffering have no lesser claim on our solidarity.
The nomination of John Negroponte as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is a signal from the Bush administration that the U.S. policy towards Central America in the 1980s was in fact a noble one. (Two other leading figures in the campaign to illegally supply the "Contras" - Elliott Abrams and Otto Reich - have also been appointed to high posts in the Bush administration.) This was a policy, let us recall, that contributed to outright genocide in one country (Guatemala) and killed tens of thousands of others in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Will it now be acceptable not only to validate it, but to repeat it?
For its part, the enduring repercussions of the Bhopal tragedy suggest that in the "Holy War" to come against terrorism, both sides will be in the grip of religious fanaticism. For Osama bin-Laden and his allies, the war will be one of the forces of Islamic righteousness against the decadent and imperialist West. For the West, in particular the United States, it will mean the further entrenching and expansion of another fundamentalist religion: that of neoliberalism and the "free market." Heaven forbid that, with Americans suffering as they have in the last few days, anyone should question the need to extend the American way of life to every corner of the earth, by whatever means necessary! This can only strengthen economic and social policies that have resulted in enormous, but largely invisible, suffering among the millions of victims of "structural adjustment," "privatization," and "austerity."
Lastly, the continuing tragedy in Iraq reminds us that when the United States and its allies seek to confront "dictators" and "fanatics," the main victims are likely to be thousands of innocent civilians who have no control over the actions of their governments, or the terrorist forces those governments may harbour. If, as appears likely, the richest country in the world is now prepared to unleash its military and economic might against one or more of the poorest countries in the world, we can expect the tragic death-toll of New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania to be magnified many times over, and rapidly.
To point to U.S. complicity in genocide, terrorism, and war crimes is in no way to justify the terrible carnage inflicted on Americans, and people of many other nations, last week. Rather, it is to emphasize the long-term challenge that lies ahead. That challenge is to construct and fortify an international system in which justice exists for the poor and oppressed of the world, as well as for the rich and free. In such a system, terror and genocide can have no place.
We have seen many heroic examples of help and solidarity from ordinary Americans in the wake of last week's attacks. What is required now of the world's only superpower, and of other western countries, is a vision of help and solidarity that reaches beyond the moral isolation fuelled by a sense of special and personal victimization. The vision must be one capable of recognizing, condemning, and confronting both the monstrous deeds of terrorists in America's heartland, and the vast suffering that the U.S. and other wealthy countries continue to inflict on near-defenseless people around the world. At the very least, we must ensure that confronting the former evil does not take the form of perpetuating the latter, and greater, evil.
Copyright Adam Jones, 2001. No copyright is claimed for educational and other non-profit purposes, if the author is acknowledged and notified.
Last updated: 18 September 2001.