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So Far We Took The Low Road But ... The Road Less Traveled May Yield Success for America

5 November 2001

Our war on terrorism may miss Osama bin Laden and kill democracy.

At home, the civil liberties that give this democratic republic its unique flavor are threatened by ominous legislation, the USA Patriot Act, recently signed into law by President Bush. Abroad, our bombastic diplomacy endangers the prospects of a democratic future in emerging Islamic countries.

Among other things, this new bill--officially titled the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act--gives the government enhanced powers to conduct secret searches in cases that may be unrelated to terrorism; leaves the definition of terrorism in the right-wing hands of Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft; reduces judicial oversight of phone and Internet spying; allows the government to jail non-citizens based on mere suspicion and more.

Although this panic-driven legislation (referred to by some as the "Ashcroft Police State Act") has jeopardized many civil liberties, the 1st Amendment has survived. Permit me a few rude questions and observations before that constitutional protection is withdrawn as well.

Why are we bombing Afghanistan? None of the terrorists who commandeered the four aircraft that flew into history on Sept. 11 were Afghani. Nor are Afghanis among the leaders of the network allegedly responsible for those terrorist attacks. Instead, our reckless assault (we've bombed several civilian enclaves, at least one mosque, a Red Crescent dispensary and even an International Red Cross building--twice) is not just killing innocent civilians, it's also making it difficult for so-called Islamic moderates to win the ideological clash with the radical theocrats. That battle of ideas is the most important struggle. How can they tout our pluralistic values while our bombs are shattering the bones of their innocent Muslim brethren?

America's fierce military action in Afghanistan also is having a destabilizing affect on many other countries; including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nigeria, Malaysia, Egypt and others. Meanwhile, bin Laden's Al Qaeda network (the alleged perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack) continues operating in places like Hamburg, Paris and London.

If our mission is to root out and destroy that terrorist network, why are we dropping cluster bombs on people who have nothing to do with those networks?

Cluster bombs spray dozens of explosive bomblets that have only two purposes: to kill and maim.

The bomblets that do not explode on impact lie on the ground like de facto land mines.

Instead of helping to win the first war of the 21st Century, our bullying, blundering ways hark back to the wars of centuries past--when our gunship diplomacy helped squash independence movements in colonial territories from Asia to Africa, to South and Central America. Just as our wrongheaded policies once made romantic heroes of groups like Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, or Peru's Shining Path, our miscues now are burnishing the image of bin Laden's Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The millionaire sheik and his defiant protectors have caught the fancy of a Muslim world in dire need of inspiration. And rather than furthering the long-term goal of ending terrorism, our policies are fertilizing the ground for a new crop of Islamic radicals.

Since our attacks on Afghanistan have had such perverse effects, why do we persist? We keep bombing because war creates its own calculus. We're now preoccupied with our state of hostilities with Central Asia's poorest country, and we've become oblivious to the context.

The world was on our side after Sept. 11 but by resorting to military might rather than moral high ground, we've blown the opportunity to parlay that global empathy into a genuine assault on terrorism. Mounting an aggressive, international police action in several countries, and focusing more intently on drying up the terrorists' financial sources, could have ferreted out Al Qaeda more effectively and with much less damage to our tarnished image.

This would have been the high road; taking it would have deprived Americans the emotional catharsis of striking back at something, anything. But it would have garnered America the kind of global respect worthy of a secure superpower. More important, it would have provided a model worth emulating to those fighting for Islamic democracy.

Unfortunately, we took the road most traveled by the colonial West. The road of arrogance and military might, where suspending civil liberties and bombing civilians seems logical--the low road.

The road less traveled is still open.

Salim Muwakkil.
Published in the Chicago Tribune.
2001, Chicago Tribune.

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