“Bring Them to Justice!”
But Who Do You Trust To Do It?

by Charles Walker

In the U.S. there is broad agreement that the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 calamities should be brought to justice. President Bush says so, a unanimous Congress says so (including Rep. Lee[1], Dem., Calif.), much of the antiwar movement says so, and most importantly, the American people of all classes, races, and creeds undoubtedly agree.

The fact that such otherwise disparate and contentious segments of the American population can agree on a political issue is most unusual. That “agreement” undoubtedly signifies that not everyone has the same thing in mind when they say, “Bring Them to Justice!”

So it is no surprise that there have been heated protests by a budding antiwar movement incensed over Bush’s bombing and anticipated invasion of Afghanistan. But the antiwar protesters are not only at odds with Bush. The protesters’ calls for peace and an end to American-led aggression are also at odds with many Americans’ fear that that the perpetrators may strike again and still more innocent American lives (perhaps their own) may be lost.[2]          

Antiwar activists want to win a majority to their position and replicate the success of the anti-Vietnam War movement. But they may not be successful at least until the population’s fear of another Sept. 11 catastrophe becomes far less immediate and tangible. If that’s so, then the antiwar movement may remain a minority movement for some time

That seems true, even if bin Laden is captured or killed. For Bush and Co. are gearing up for an open-ended, whatever-it-takes “War On Terrorism.”  And who can really doubt that the Bush administration will use both real threats (Osama bin Laden’s broadcast praising the perpetrators and forecasting further terrorist actions), and what Orwell would think is a euphemism just too precious for words, “disinformation,” to mobilize ever-fresh support for its actions, both at home and abroad?

Unlike other antiwar movements of the distant and recent past, today’s activists must fight for peace as though one arm was tied down. That seems true because the demand “Out Now!” or its equivalent[3] seems to sidestep what concerns the majority of Americans. Although the antiwar movement has cogent proposals for eliminating the social and political wellsprings of political terrorism (imperialism and its first cousin, racism), the antiwar movement hasn’t addressed what’s specifically driving widespread anxiety among the American people. To repeat, many, if not most, Americans have a plausible fear that the Sept. 11 perpetrators may strike again.

It is not clear that the antiwar movement can fashion a convincing and principled proposal on how to halt or apprehend the surviving Sept. 11 plotters. By “convincing” is meant something that would cause Americans generally to conclude that a repeat of Sept. 11 was unlikely. By “principled” is meant that imperialism would not make new or strengthened inroads into neocolonial countries. No proposals yet advanced from any quarter fit the bill. Proposals from most antiwar liberals[4] and from part of the anticapitalist left would at best postpone the immediate capture of bin Laden (I personally don’t assume that Bush is chasing the right folks, but bin Laden’s televised statements certainly put him and his backers and followers in a bad light) until an international tribunal renders its findings and, if called for, enlists a police/military apparatus to enforce its judgment.

For many Americans (a huge majority, I’d say) postponement is not an option. But even if it were, the makeup of the likely antiterrorist posse is going to draw the opposition of at least the larger part of the U.S. antiwar forces. That’s simply because those nations or that combination of nations likely to be at the call of an international tribunal have dirty hands. From the Korean War to the Congo to the former Yugoslavia and many other places at other times, international military forces drawn from the world’s dominating powers could not possibly be mistaken for some kind of Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Not only would the traditional makeup of an international military force draw worldwide opposition from parts of the left, it would be sure to inspire at least the suspicions (if not the antagonism) of majorities throughout the “Third World.” 

Some antiwar activists delude themselves if they think that most Americans are ready to accept their proposal to call the Sept. 11 skyjacking a “criminal act”—rather than an act of war—to justify empowering a tribunal both to try and to round up the guilty while the U.S.-led military stands down. While some call for an ad hoc body to implement the proposal, others say that the United Nations[5] and/or the UN’s World Court should be relied on to take the responsibility.

But others recall United Nations support for the Truman administration’s intervention in the Korean civil war and, after Truman, the UN’s failure to halt U.S. intrusions in Cuba, Grenada, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, and so forth; also, the UN’s more recent acquiescence to U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf and the former Yugoslavia. These activists rightly say the UN doesn’t have clean hands and can’t be relied on to serve the interests of the world’s majority. (Parenthetically, has anyone noticed if UN General Secretary Kofi A. Annan has spoken out about the four unfortunate UN workers slain by the U.S.-British bombing of Afghanistan? Has Annan even “soberly consulted” with the U.S. about the ‘collateral carnage’? Is that why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? Was it because he knows when to keep quiet about certain things?)[6]

Even if the world had no experience with international tribunals, wouldn’t it seem, at best, problematic that an impartial ad hoc tribunal sufficiently resolute to withstand imperialist pressures and earn widespread support of the world’s neediest and oppressed could be fashioned from the obvious judicial sources? And of course there is the huge problem that a tribunal would need to rely (as does the UN) on at least one state to provide the “police power” and logistics necessary to run down the suspects. If the suspects were Muslims, none of the major powers, including Russia, would be viewed by much of the Islamic world as trustworthy. Nor would the military forces of many of the smaller nations qualify due to their ruling classes’ comprador and normally subservient relations with the imperialist nations. Nor would an Islamic country quickly step forward, if Pakistan’s current internal instability, in the wake of its support of Bush’s war on Afghanistan, is any indication.

In short, the demand that Bush halt the bombing and allow some still-to-be-arranged international tribunal and some unnamed nation or nations to bring the perpetrators to justice is not likely to seem to fearful Americans as potent an answer to their concerns as relying on Bush’s coalition (sometimes called an international lynch mob) to do the job.

If ever there was a problem that illustrated the truism that not everything can be done under any and all circumstances, the problem of how to apprehend the terrorists, end Americans’ apprehensions, and at the same time not give political support to U.S. imperialism is it.  The pressure on principled opponents of imperialism is enormous. Fortunately, there is a world of experience to draw on. While the scale of the first and the second world wars are vastly different from Bush’s “war on terrorism,” the nub of the problem then and now is the same.

The world’s labor movement failed both the test of World War I and World War II. Only a handful within the radical or revolutionary labor sector kept workers’ historic class interests in mind and resisted all pressures to bend and break, yield and kneel.

Like Lenin during the “war to save democracy,” the Fourth International and the Socialist Workers Party during WWII gave not an inch of ground to national chauvinism, or social patriotism. They resolutely stood on a platform of anticapitalism and formulated their own principled program to defeat fascism. Naturally, they paid a high price: Imprisonment and sometimes something much worse. The Fourth Internationalists couldn’t wring the necks of the leaders of the interimperialist war, but they could and did point a way forward for humanity, even during the darkest years.

When I began these remarks, I hoped that my gut feeling was wrong. I hoped that I might stumble across some insight, some lodestar to serve as a guide out of the immediate predicament that impedes the antiwar forces as they attempt once again to rally majority opinion behind them. It didn’t happen. For now I guess the antiwar activists must resign themselves to talking past the larger part of the population. Here SWP leader Jim Cannon’s advice is worth remembering. Live right, and the breaks will come. Till then, “Stop the Bombing!” “No More Victims!” “Bring All the Troops Home, Now!”

October 18, 2001

[1] Rep. Lee’s vote on Sept. 14 opposing the “use of force” resolution and her statement on the floor of Congress were not, on their face, strictly consistent. Lee’s statement seems to contemplate backing future U.S. military action in response to the Sept. 11 skyjackings.  For Lee said, in relevant part, “… let’s step back for a moment and think through the implications of our actions today—let us more fully understand its consequences…. we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target. We cannot repeat past mistakes.” The press has since reported that following the initial attack on Afghanistan, Lee is taking a wait-and-see position.


[2] Barbara Garson, author of MacBird, writes: “…[O]ur official enemies in the global era—Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Osama Bin (sic) Laden and the Taliban—have been men who don’t flinch at bringing more misery down on people near to them. They also don’t mind murdering me. Now that I know they can reach me, I want protection.” (Znet)


[3] The largest and most successful antiwar movement to date, the Russian revolution, simply called for “peace,” along with bread and land.


[4] An exception is Marc Cooper, a contributing editor to The Nation, who criticizes the antiwar forces as being ineffective and immature. Cooper supports “limited military action” against the “atavistic, religious fascists whose world view is diametrically opposed to all humanitarian and progressive morality.” At the same time Cooper says “…the American left has had reason to be skeptical [!] about the deployment of U.S. military power… [For] American military might has often seemed little more than the sulphuric expression of imperial hubris.” (Los Angeles Times, Oct. 14, 2001.) Cooper’s endorsement of “limited military action” brings to mind Max Shachtman’s support of the “labor contingents” in the invading force at the Bay of Pigs.


[5] Surprisingly, the Cuban government and President Fidel Castro envision a role for the UN, despite that organization’s failure to protect the small island nation from U.S.-initiated attempts at invasion and assassination.


[6] From the UN’s web site this statement carried in the U.S. press can be found: “15 October — The Secretary-General today said that every effort must be made to protect the lives and integrity of the civilian population within Afghanistan as well as of those Afghan and other humanitarian workers still operating in the country. He voiced his dismay at reports that Afghan aid workers have been beaten by the Taliban, and exhorted all parties to take all possible precautions to minimise civilian casualties.”