The Americas React to Terror

September 25, 2007

The View from New York City and Reaction to the September 11 Attacks from Around the Americas

By JoAnn Kawell

The wind was blowing from the east on September 11, and the thick clouds of dust and smoke that drifted across the river into Brooklyn from lower Manhattan also carried pieces of letters, checks, computer printouts. For the stunned Brooklynites who gathered in parks and on sidewalks and roofs to gaze toward the spot where, just that morning, two giant monoliths had stood, these bits of paper falling from the sky were horrifyingly tangible evidence of the people, the lives and work, that were snuffed out when the monoliths tumbled down.

We still don’t know precisely how many died; we are told we never will. The remains of many victims will never be recovered; some of the living will be haunted forever by the thought that perhaps, perhaps, their loved one is not dead, but only—disappeared. We have been reminded by our friends from other countries, in particular by our friends from Latin America, that we are hardly unique in such suffering. Indeed, it might be said that the attacks have made us more truly American, not in the limited sense of the flag-waving nationalist pride that the attacks have so evidently aroused in the United States, but in the sense that we are for the first time experiencing en carne propia—in our own flesh—some of what our fellow citizens of the Americas have long experienced at the hands of terrorists. And terrorists they should be called, even if many of them were employed by the victims’ own governments, trained and funded by our government. Excerpts from some of those commentaries are collected here; translations are by NACLA except as noted.

There are two things on which nearly every one of us Americans newly baptized in the realities of terrorist violence would agree: Those responsible for the September 11 attacks must be brought to justice and new attacks must be prevented. The more difficult question is how to do both without, in the United States, undermining constitutional rights and personal liberties or, in the international sphere, fueling the U.S. drive for worldwide hegemony that helped lay the groundwork for the attacks in the first place. To argue that past U.S. actions helped create the conditions that feed terrorism is not in any way to justify the terrorists’ deeply reprehensible acts. It should not be necessary to point that out, but in the current wartime climate, where any criticism of U.S. action is seen by many as tantamount to treason, perhaps it is necessary.

Some commentators have noted that the September 11 attacks destroyed a kind of innocence, a sense that the United States is separate from the world and immune to the violence that reigns elsewhere. But it does not seem to have destroyed another kind of national innocence, the notion that U.S. actions in the world are always for the good and always further much-cherished values like democracy. For many of us who came of age during the Vietnam War, that conflict marked the end of our own personal innocence on that score. NACLA was born in the same era, dedicated to investigating and reporting on the U.S. role in a Latin America where a string of U.S.-backed dictatorships were just taking hold.

Such investigations have become less popular in the intervening decades, but now they are more necessary than ever. Many Latin American commentators on the September 11 attacks cite the proverb: "He who sows the wind reaps the whirlwind." As this is being written, the United States is bombing Afghanistan for a second day, and people in the United States are being warned to expect new terrorist attacks here. If the whirlwind of September 11 is not to grow into a vortex of violence that sucks in all of the Americas along with the rest of the world, we must work to ensure that the next winds blowing from Manhattan and Washington and the rest of the United States carry the seeds of fresh attitudes and fresh policies instead of news of destruction.

The Flag in New York

By Fred Rosen

Below, a young man holds a flag to commemorate the dead. On the following pages the flag accompanies photos of missing World Trade Center workers and missing firefighters; it is hand-drawn by Manhattan schoolchildren; it is wrapped around an Army-Navy store mannikin and flown as an all too-familiar symbol of unthinking aggression.

In the weeks after the terrorist attacks, the American flag is everywhere in New York, and has taken on multiple meanings. It is a flag of mourning, a flag of solidarity, a flag of commemoration, a flag of gratitude, a flag of self-defense, a flag of aggressive patriotism. The flag mourns the death of working people—nationals of several dozen countries—killed in the attack on the country in which they were working. It commemorates the deaths of community servants—mostly firefighters—killed in the attack on the community they were serving. It is displayed by many to say "We too are members of this community; don’t confuse us with the enemy."It is waved by superpatriots to call for war, revenge and triumph.

Over the past few decades, the superpatriots have claimed the flag as their own, but it has long had broader meanings. It was a potent symbol of the U.S. civil rights movement. In archival photos, the flag accompanies marchers from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in March 1965; Dr. King addresses the crowd at the end of the march; the demonstrators, 25,000 strong—3,000 of whom had walked four days from Selma—are nearly lost in a sea of flags.

Then came Vietnam; then came the invasion of Santo Domingo; then came the overthrow of Allende; then came the mining of the Nicaragua’s harbors in defiance of the World Court; then came Iran-Contra, all under protection of the flag. No matter how many times we visited the Lincoln Memorial, sang at the ball game, gave blood at the public hospital, the flag had become the property of the flag-draped GI Joes, of the "kill ‘em all" flag wavers.

Then came the horrors of September 11; the flag is once again public property.

Reaction from Latin American Press

This commentary by Mexican historian Adolfo Gilly was written as events were unfolding. Entitled "The Faceless Enemy," it was published in the Mexican daily paper La Jornada on September 13. We reproduce it here in its entirety.

They were many thousands, the White House doesn’t even dare say how many, the dead from the terrorist attack against the twin towers. They were office workers: not the rich who live in their beautiful suburbs, but the employees and workers of the rich, the everyday women and men. That is how they appear in the devastating photos of the financial center streets after the attack. U.S. citizens or not, it is for all of them we grieve today, as we live, work and are like them and like all the civilian victims of all the cities bombed by the militaries of these times.

To kill those who work on Wall Street in cold blood is as stupid and as appalling as blowing up a Ford factory full of workers to punish the corporation, or as bombing Baghdad to punish Saddam Hussein. All terrorism is appalling, as is the unspeakable crime against the twin towers.

But to understand it, it doesn’t help to start by looking for the culprit. The first question is not, "Who did it?" but "Why did this happen?"In cases like this, conspiracy theories don’t explain anything. It doesn’t seem to make sense, given the state of things, to imagine an internal plot within the dark forces of the United States. The enormity of the affront to the national pride and the magnitude of the humiliation suffered by its government excludes that bold hypothesis. That President Bush should go seek security in a military base in Nebraska, instead of going to New York, where people awaited and demanded his presence, is another sign of his turmoil (and, by the way, of the stature of leaders born in a gilded crib and educated on golf courses). The tragedy of the twin towers and the suicide attack that blew out part of the Pentagon do not stem from a high-level conspiracy. It is, on the contrary, a product and an image of the present state of the world.

The global politics dictated by the international financial powers, whose symbol is Wall Street, sustained by the military power of the Pentagon and applied by the men and women of the White House, has cultivated innumerable human and material disasters around the world. It has pulverized rights, has destroyed or weakened people’s organizations, has imposed capitalism’s inhuman law in the name of "markets." How many times do we hear ourselves say that this measure or that policy is impossible because "the markets" won’t permit it. And when we ask where are they, who are they, how to argue with "the markets," we only get an invisible hand, a faceless ghost, nothing, no one: The governments don’t know, the businessmen can’t know, the politicians don’t dare, because this is the way things are and nothing can be done.

Many people, every day more in the world, have tried to influence this state of things, to defend the rights of human beings, to dialog with those leaders and those technocrats for whom the dictatorship of "the markets" speaks—the dictatorship that provokes famine, wipes out jobs, pulverizes salaries and destroys social rights everywhere. The last attempt at mass mobilization was in Geneva. More than 200,000 protesters peacefully united to make their voices heard. A few hundred desperate members of the Black Block, soon marginalized by the protesters, resorted to violence. Berlusconi’s police beat, kicked, jailed, brutalized the protesters and dissolved the demonstration, leaving the playing field to the violent and desperate, converting them into the symbol of the movement in the eyes of right-thinking people. The protesters had faces and belonged to organizations. The Black Block were anonymous, violent and without faces—they were not instigators, they were desperate.

But the leaders of the G-8 will not come face-to-face or discuss with organized social forces, who by nature are opposed to terrorism. Just like the anonymous "markets," these leaders prefer to face-off with the violent, faceless enemies engendered by their policies’ inhumane brutality. The enemies, real and authentic, serve to legitimate their own atrocities against those forces and against all human beings in the world, equal in their joys, their work and their troubles to those thousands and thousands that the faceless terrorism killed in the twin towers.

It took a great part of the nineteenth and all of the twentieth century to win the rights, the norms and rules that protected all sorts of workers in many countries. It took two world wars and many revolutions and rebellions to reach the balance of forces expressed by the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This counterbalance is a thing of the past, and the Pentagon had much to do with its destruction. It has fallen like the twin towers, leaving in its place scraps and the faceless dictatorship of the markets.

This dictatorship, which does not know or recognize any dialogue, has created as its twin tower a faceless enemy—terrorism at levels previously unheard of. This enemy, like "the markets," does not recognize borders and cannot be stopped. It regenerates everyday in the rubble of the social contract and rights of the past. The organizations destroyed by "the markets" struggled for rights and justice, which are its life source and reason for being. But when justice is denied and rights are replaced by private agreements, it makes room for vengeance. That is terrorism—mirror and offspring of the markets.

Humiliated, the U.S. government declares war. Against whom, for what? Does the most powerful government in the world have the right to lose its temper and claim vengeance against a faceless enemy? If those leaders are too blind and deaf to reflect on the state of the world, then it is our task to do so. Not to reflect on them and their madness, but on how to proceed creating the forms of organization and defense of social and political rights and liberties against the two faceless enemies: the market and its monstrous offspring, terrorism.

Seven years ago in the south of Mexico, the Zapatista rebellion issued a warning. Mexico’s leaders have not wanted to hear it; they have closed paths; they have made fun of the Zapatistas’ ability to make politics and of their will to preserve rights, life and peace. More than once, Marcos told them that after the Zapatistas would come those from the dungeons of society, the faceless, nameless explosion of the humiliated, the offended, those ignored by the governments of the officials, the rich and the smug. Once again, Fox’s government manipulated, lied and made fun of agreements and commitments: "Never mind, if they don’t want to accept what we have given them, they can go away. Life goes on," say his officials.

This is the same government that, without having the least idea of the state of the world, wants to tie Mexico as a junior partner, confident in and subordinated to the world power that generated this state of things and which appears to be disposed to drag us all into a violence without borders. Common sense and history suggest doing the opposite: Take care of the country and keep a respectful distance from those who use power or terror to substitute rage for reason and revenge for justice.


Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman has just published a novel, Blake’s Therapy, which anticipates the current U.S. dilemma about intervention. The following are excerpts from his commentary, first published in Spanish the week of September 17. The translation is his.

I have been through this before. During the last 28 years, Tuesday September 11 has been a date of mourning, for me and millions of others, ever since that day in 1973 when Chile lost its democracy in a military coup, that day when death irrevocably entered our lives and changed us forever....

The resemblance I am evoking goes well beyond a facile and superficial comparison for instance, that both in Chile in 1973 and in the States today, terror descended from the sky to destroy the symbols of national identity, the Palace of the Presidents in Santiago, the icons of financial and military power in New York and Washington. No, what I recognize is something deeper, a parallel suffering, a similar pain, a commensurate disorientation echoing what we lived through in Chile as of that September 11th. It is a most extraordinary incarnation—I still cannot believe what I am witnessing on the screen—I see hundreds of relatives wandering the streets of New York, clutching the photos of their sons, fathers, wives, lovers, daughters, begging for information, asking if they are alive or dead, the whole United States forced to look into the abyss of what it means to be desaparecido, with no certainty or funeral possible for those beloved men and women who are missing. And I also recognize and repeat that sensation of extreme unreality that invariably accompanies great disasters caused by human iniquity, so much more difficult to cope with than natural catastrophes. Over and over again I hear phrases that remind me of what people like me would mutter to themselves during the 1973 military coup and the days that followed: This cannot be happening to us. This sort of excessive violence happens to other people and not to us, we have only known this form of destruction through movies and books and remote photographs. If it is a nightmare, why can’t we awaken from it? And words reiterated unceasingly 28 years ago and now again in the year 2001: We have lost our innocence. The world will never be the same.


From a commentary by writer Eduardo Galeano, in Brecha (Uruguay), September 21

There is a lot of similarity between homemade terrorism and high-tech terrorism, that of religious fundamentalists and that of fundamentalist believers in the market, that of the desperate and that of the powerful, that of crazies on-the-loose and that of the military in uniform. They all share the same disdain for human life; the killers of the 5,000 people cut to bits under the rubble of the Twin Towers, which collapsed like sand castles, and the killers of 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly Indians, who were exterminated though television and the newspapers didn’t pay the slightest attention.... All these lovers of death also share an obsession with reducing social, cultural and national contradictions to military terms. In the name of Good against Evil, in the name of the Only Truth, all of them resolve everything by killing first and asking questions later.


From comments by Carlos Basombrío Iglesias in ideele (Peru), September 13

We citizens of those countries that have suffered the crazed acts of terrorist groups capable of making indiscriminate attacks against the civilian population, as in Peru, have some experience with how easy it is to make mistakes in situations that create great emotional upheaval; these are just those mistakes that fanatical terrorists want us to make in order to strengthen their position and gain some legitimacy for their crimes.
Some reflections:

1) There are no easy and immediate solutions... It’s not possible to protect everyone everywhere at the same time.

2) Great military superiority is not enough....When a poisonous spider bites someone, it doesn’t help to fire a mortar at it; worse yet if the spider knows how to hide itself in your clothes.

3) Vengeance is no solution....You have to isolate the extremists, leave them standing alone, by building the widest possible political coalition to combat them, an alliance which [in this case], for reasons of justice and of effectiveness, must include the majority of the Arab world.

4) You have to defend the values which are attacked and not destroy them in the name of fighting the enemy. In Peru, Shining Path proposed the destruction of the bourgeois state, read: a profoundly imperfect democratic regime, but one which we were painstakingly trying to move forward. Shining Path was defeated by a combination of police intelligence and rejection by organized campesinos. Nevertheless the official history claims, and it has to be admitted that many Peruvians still believe it, that Shining Path was defeated because democracy was abolished and human rights were violated. But let’s think about this a minute: If it’s necessary to get rid of democracy which is what the terrorists wanted in order to get rid of terrorism, they would in some way be achieving their goals.


From a column by Mempo Giardinelli, Página 12 (Argentina), September 13

We have many friends in the United States and we know they have been devastated [by the attacks]. We, as Argentines, can understand perfectly because we’ve already suffered a genocide which cost 30,000 disappeared* and two atrocious attacks: the bombing of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the bombing of the Jewish Mutual Aid Society in 1994.

This despicable terrorist act should make all North Americans reflect about why so many people in the world wish them ill, and why so many hate them. This is an absolutely unjust sentiment towards many North Americans who only have in their hearts feelings as noble and friendly as those of any other people on earth. But it’s not necessarily unjust toward the leaders of these same people.

Here is the essence of the problem: It is the United States’ leading role that is ever more hated and that compromises the entire North American people, who don’t understand this, who are sincerely shocked by this generalized sentiment against them, and who probably have difficulty accepting a text like this one....

I write this in the pain of the moment and with the love of always: You, North Americans, are not to blame for these ugly feelings, but your arrogant leaders are to blame. Perhaps this atrocious attack will mark the hour when you begin to demand an accounting. From them, your leaders.

* a reference to the Dirty War against supposed subversives carried out by the Argentine military government in the 1970s.


From comments by Ricardo Stevens on Radio La Voz del Trópico (Panama) October 19

....for Panamanians the current sinister times might seem, paradoxically, far away and happening to others...these aren’t our dead, that’s why the terror seems distant and foreign. But how much alike these new victims are to the boys and girls, to those who were unable to be born that December 20 [1989] that they imposed on us in Chorrillo*; how much alike they seem to the mothers, the grandfathers and the little old grandmothers, all of them also innocent and anonymous deaths, whose terror was called Just Cause and the terrorist called liberator.

But these are grave times, too, because crude attacks are being made on ideas and on freedom, forcing the world to take sides; either you are with me or against me, U.S. leaders demand; either you are with freedom or you are with those who support terror, they say. How much it seems like those times of ours when they divided us between patriots and subversives, or between their supporters and collaborators with the narcodictatorship. These were expressions of intolerance, as are those which attempt to divide the world as if it were black and white without shades of grey, without independent criteria.

*The poor Panama City barrio Chorrillo bore the brunt of the December 1989 U.S. operation dubbed Just Cause, ostensibly carried out to capture Panamanian dictator (and ex-CIA payroller) Manuel Noriega in order to try him in the United States on drug trafficking charges. The number of civilian casualties from the brief U.S. invasion is unknown; but credible estimates run as high as several thousand.


From comments by Colombian historian-journalist Alfredo Molano, who called the attack a "criminal holocaust."

...It is also alarming that the hawks allied to the United States are dedicating themselves to searching out U.S. enemies in their own countries and have started pointing to Taliban members, Palestinians, Tibetans, Kurds, Blacks, Indians, residents of Caqueta [Colombia] and a large etcetera in order to stir up the domestic dogs of war. In our country Alvaro Uribe Vélez is dusting off his defeated and adventuristic military ideas to unleash them against the peace talks [with the Colombian guerrillas] while our military industrial complex applauds and won’t surrender in the face of the evidence.


From an editorial in Tal Cual (Venezuela) September 13

The idea that it is possible to create effective anti-terrorist measures by making use of postmodern technological marvels is, of course, absolutely illusory and vain. Nor are there military fixes. Today, for example, the Americans can use all of their formidable power against the base where the terrorists who attacked them are discovered; there is no power on earth to stop it. Nevertheless, the problem will be worse afterwards. The terrorism of the State has been sowing the wind. At base it’s impossible not to see the disquieting relation that exists, if we disregard the abyss that separates the two sides, between the surgical bombing, by mistake, of an innocent pharmaceutical laboratory in Sudan* and the kamikazi operation against the Pentagon and Twin Towers.

Either we seek real solutions for the giant pockets of misery, desperation and hatred that have been created in the world or the reaction of the victims will be increasingly unpredictable. This isn’t a matter of surrendering to terrorist blackmail but of understanding that when we are confronted by political agents who make their own death a determinant of the success of their acts, the threat of hunting them where they stand is almost ridiculous. The problem, then, as always, is basically political and the solutions are political or there won’t be any.

As simple as that.

*A reference to a 1998 U.S. air attack on a site which the Clinton administration had erroneously claimed was involved in chemical weapons production sponsored by bin Laden.

from La Jornada (Mexico) September 20 Flying (bombing) in
in circles: Horror doesn't justify horror"

JoAnn Kawell is the editor of NACLA Report on the Americas.

Fred Rosen is the publisher of NACLA Report on the Americas.

The other contributors' biographical details are included in the introductions to their respective pieces.

Tags: 9/11, war on terror, horror, violence, memory

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