There was a lot of junk written in the days immediately following 9-11. With the distance of time, I can admit that this piece falls into that category. I initially wrote this on September 15th following the attacks, and just sent it out as an e-mail to everyone I knew as a way to get it off of my chest. (As I was stuck in the Japanese country side at the time, I didn't have a lot of other ways of discussing the issue). Later I sent this piece as an article to "The Torch" (the newspaper of the Young People's Socialist League--of which I was a member at the time). They printed it, and it was sent out as part of the newsletter to all the members. Additionally it was on their website for a couple years following, until they re-did their site and took down all the old articles.
I hate to blame too much on my circumstances, but because I was relatively isolate in the Japanese countryside, and had limited internet access, I thought I was being a lot more original in this essay than I actually was. I didn't realize people like Chomsky were already making these same points a lot better than I was.
The recent tragedy on September 11 has had a devastating effect on the American people. As we have been divided on so many issues in the past, now we are united in our horror over what has happened. It doesn’t matter how one might feel about the situation in the Middle East, or even how one might feel about the American government’s role in the Middle Eastern conflict. These terrorists, whoever they were, decided to use the lives of thousands of innocent people as a way to advance their cause. No matter how great their cause was, or how much they can argue that their people have been oppressed by the American government, no one would argue that this was an appropriate action. Instead, the question everyone has in response to this act of terror is, “How can people be so evil?”
It is ironic that these sentiments exist in a country that still defends the dropping of not one, but two atomic bombs on Japanese civilians. Although World War II may seem like ancient history to most Americans who, like myself, were born after the fact, the issue is still a relevant one. Not too long ago the Smithsonian Museum set up an exhibit on the Enola Gay, which raised questions about the morality of the atomic bombs. The outcry from the American public was so great that the Smithsonian had to change the focus of the exhibit, concentrating instead on the fascinating subject of how the plane had been maintained over the years. Even more recently there was an attempt to commemorate the bombing of Hiroshima on a postage stamp. It appears that even as Americans are strongly revolted by the recent act of terror, many are just as strongly convinced that to question the atomic bombings is unthinkable.
Of course the atomic bombings aren’t the only examples in American history to which one could draw parallels. One could also compare the massive bombing of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Or more recently one could look at the way the United States government has starved Cuban and Iraqi civilians in order to strike at Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro. But the atomic bombings are the most vivid parallel. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not military targets. They were large civilian centers. The Japanese people who were killed by these atomic bombs were not the same Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor or fought at Midway. To argue that they deserved to die simply because they were Japanese is to argue that the Viet Cong would have been justified in setting off a bomb in New York to avenge the My-Lai massacre.
And 1945 was a long time after 1941. Japan had not officially surrendered, but it had obviously lost the war. It was no longer pursuing aggressive action, but trying at this point solely to prevent an invasion by the United States.
The primary purpose of dropping two atomic bombs on Japanese civilians was not to weaken Japan militarily, but to inflict enough suffering, death and misery on the Japanese people that the Japanese government would be forced to give in.
There are of course arguments that waging war on the Japanese civilians was the only way to achieve our objectives in the Pacific. The arguments have gone back and forth ever since the atomic bomb was dropped, and I do not intend to recycle through all of them in this column. But it is worth noting that these terrorists, whoever they are, so firmly believed in the righteousness of their cause that they were willing to sacrifice their own lives along with all the innocent civilians.
Terrorism is a word we have heard a lot in the past few days, but it is difficult to define. Is terrorism an attack on civilian populations? If so, the United States is guilty of it. Is terrorism an attack on civilian populations when war has not been declared? If so, the United States is again guilty of it. We have not officially declared war on any country since World War II. And Osama Bin Laden, if he is behind these attacks, has certainly by now I think made evident his intentions to wage war against the United States. So is terrorism defined as violent actions by non-state entities? If so, we need a new definition of terrorism. Violent acts by governments are no less horrific and no more justifiable than violent acts by individuals.
If we accept the premise that violence against civilian populations is acceptable under certain circumstances, then hat we have seen this past week is simply that premise carried to its logical conclusion. We cannot dictated to the world that the United States alone can decide when violence against civilians is acceptable, and when it is not. If terror is the premise we operate under, then we have opened the door for those like Osama Bin Laden to draw their own conclusions about when and where violence against civilian population centers can be used. Until we fully acknowledge the errors of the past, the world is doomed to repeat them again.