The Face of Terror

While conditions for most Iraqis continue to deteriorate, as the country slips even more deeply into an environmental and health crisis, George Bush and his supporters danced to country music on the evening of election day, celebrating the War President’s reelection. This image has haunted me over the last few weeks, as people in Fallujah have had to endure a military assault, without electricity and without access to clean water, food, and medical care. Upon reflection, that celebration, if not exactly dancing on Iraqi graves, is close enough to create the same revolting effect. Anyone, it seems to me, who stands so squarely beside this president and his administration does so in the face of a continuing legacy of U.S. brutality in Iraq.

Of course, the graves are several thousand miles from Washington, D.C., in Fallujah, Najaf, Samarra, Amara, and every other city and town in Iraq. But White House rhetoric aside, whatever else we can say about U.S. military actions in Iraq over the last 20 months, surely they aren’t stamping out terrorism. Freedom is not on the march in Iraq. This seems so self-evident that my fingers resist spelling it out on the keyboard. Freedom is dying in Iraq, a long, draw-out death, and U.S. foreign policy is at the root of its demise. This isn’t to pretend that Saddam Hussein’s regime wasn’t a brutal military dictatorship. Of course it was. But the invasion and occupation of Iraq are spreading terrorism, not diminishing it. The siege of Fallujah, like the siege of other “rebel strongholds,” is like using dynamite to rid a lawn of Bermuda grass. You may succeed in creating weed-free craters, but the weed roots, scattered by the blasts, will colonize elsewhere, bringing their poisonous growth wherever they happen to land, multiplying themselves predictably. The end result is counterproductive in the extreme.

The metaphor doesn’t fit perfectly, of course, because the violence in Iraq cannot be simply summed up by the term “terrorism.” But there can be little doubt that US military actions in Iraq – raiding mosques, killing civilians, aerial and ground assaults on entire cities – are bound to generate hatred, despair, and violence. Terrorism isn’t a cultural mindset inculcated from youth, but a strategy borne of, and sustained by, unjust conditions. Take away the injustice, and terrorism starves. In the case of Iraq, the unjust conditions include 13 years of brutal economic sanctions, during which the U.S. was deaf and blind to the suffering in Iraq and to international cries to alleviate it. They include over a decade of continuous, illegal military reconnaissance over Iraqi airspace and frequent bombing from the so-called “no-fly zones,” in what was the longest air campaign since the war in Vietnam. In 1999, I stood in a hospital in Najaf three days after a U.S. bomb fell alongside a remote roadway, killing 14 people and hospitalizing 18. The people I met that day were furious. “Your president,” one of them said, “is a coward, because he attacks people who are unarmed.” They wanted an explanation. Over and over I was asked, “Why is your country doing this?” people seeking reason in what must have seemed totally mindless violence, literally “out of the blue.” After all, what threat could these people – poor farmers, mechanics, laborers in a grain silo – have actually posed to the United States?

The unjust conditions also include six months of a massive military buildup of equipment and personnel on Iraq’s borders and the deliberately enlarged threat of “shock and awe,” sufficient, in and of itself, to terrorize Iraqis. I know this firsthand from a visit to Iraq in October 2002, but surely I didn’t have to travel there to imagine how people in Iraq must have felt to have the full strength of U.S. military might pointed at their country, and with their finger collectively at the trigger, U.S. leaders actively opposing every non-military approach to the mounting crisis. The people I met in Iraq at that time – professionals, academics, shopowners, businessmen, housewives, students – to a person believed that a U.S. invasion was inevitable. “The U.S. will find a pretext to invade,” they told me, and more than a few of them used me as a sounding board to vent their righteous anger at the U.S. for preparing to attack a country without provocation. It reminded me of the people in Najaf three years earlier. Was there fear behind their anger? You can bet on it: massive fear.

And then the invasion itself, sold as an extension – the long right arm – of our concern for our sisters and brothers in Iraq. And the failure, now 20 months old, to rebuild Iraq. Instead, as we know, the invasion has transmogrified into an occupation and opened the country to widespread violence and despair.

When George Bush nominated Condoleezza Rice to replace Colin Powell as secretary of state, he said that hers should be the face to “represent America” to the rest of the world, the face of “strength, decency, and grace.” In Iraq, sadly, the U.S. has shown only strength devoid of decency, devoid of grace – the face, from all appearances, of terrorism itself.