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The causes and consequences of the assault on the USA

By George Thomas - posted Tuesday, 25 September 2001

The attacks against the centres of power in the USA were tragic. The deliberate killing of so many innocent American civilians in the cause of some vague and larger agenda against the United States was simply barbaric. While we mourn the tragic deaths of so many innocent lives, it is also important to ask what motivates such men to take such extreme actions while sacrificing their own lives. Unflinching and dedicated young men willing to be part of suicide teams is not cowardice, but suffering from a burning sense of injustice to the Muslim world. These men resort to extreme measures that are out of proportion to the injustice they see themselves. The answers, though not the justification, for the assault on America may be found in the arrogance of US foreign and military policy since it became the sole and unrivalled super power at the end of the Cold War.

The first thing to note is that the targets were the three symbols of America's power. The World Trade Center represents US economic power, the Pentagon its military power, and the White House (which was probably targeted by the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania), its political power. This kind of systematic and calculated targeting suggests a masterplan and a mastermind behind it. It is difficult to believe that Osama Bin Laden has the resources and logistics to carry out such an intricate and well-coordinated attack on such key US centres of power. There may be a larger network of willing and unsolicited radical Muslim volunteers who carry a sense of outrage against US policies in the Muslim world.

The two main sources of anger may be found in the routine and continuous bombing and sanctioning of Iraq, and perceptions of US support for Israel, or lack of support for Palestinians, on the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and the status of East Jerusalem. In the case of Iraq, sanctions have killed more than 1.5 million innocent Iraqis, mostly children, because of lack of immunization facilities, hospital care, clean drinking water, and general shortages of essential foods and other goods. This tragedy is blamed by the US on Saddam Hussein, a claim that is not accepted or believed by not only the Muslim world but also countries such as Russia, China, France and India. Directly or indirectly, American sponsored sanctions are the cause of it. Meanwhile, the US military routinely bombs Iraqi targets causing collateral civilian casualties. This too is shrugged off as Saddam Hussein's fault.


The second source of anger revolves around the close ties between the United States and Israel. Israeli policies are blamed on perceived US endorsement. There are extreme critics who believe that US foreign policy is made in Tel Aviv and not in Washington, and it is US support that produces Israeli intransigence. Beyond this, many Muslims believe that Washington supports corrupt Muslim monarchies, especially in Saudi Arabia. Osama Bin Laden's followers are particularly outraged that US forces are stationed on Saudi soil, a case of non-believers occupying holy Islamic land.

Before the United States retaliates in anger by bombing something for the sake of bombing something, it should consider the fact that the success of such acts of terrorism does not depend on the actions themselves, but on how the state responds to them. US retaliation that may cause more innocent lives to be lost in the Muslim world, will not only increase the anger of these radical Muslim groups, but will also attract more followers to the cause of Osama Bin Laden and other like-minded Muslim leaders. The US needs the support of the Muslim world before it chooses the time and target of its military response, which has to measured and selective. Bombing Afghanistan will be pointless. The suffering and misery of the people of Afghanistan cannot get any lower while only increasing the resentment and anger against the United States.

So much for National Missile Defense. It only took an airline schedule, some passenger tickets, and smuggling on board of some small knives with plastic handles to carry out the attack. The problem with dealing with such terrorism is that the enemy is unknown and in our midst, and the means of attack and the targets of attack are of their choosing. The next time it could be the poisoning of city water supplies, or an anthrax biological weapon or sarin chemical weapon attack in a crowded mall or closed dome. India may be worried that there may be copycat attempts to do the same by Kashmiri terrorists who are also sponsored by the Bin Laden group.

The long-term repercussions of this massive assault into the heart of the United States are likely to be economic. America was already on the brink of a mini recession. This will aggravate it. The airline industry will go into a downward spin causing severe negative multiplier effects on all other US industries and services that touch it. The US economy is dependent on communications of which business travel by air is one of the most important. Consumer confidence may go down which may mean that there may be no buying spree with further negative multiplier effects on all parts of the economy.

A downturn in the US economy will affect the rest of the world. The major Western economies are closely linked to the US economy and the repercussions here may be equally devastating. India's huge software export market in the US could be severely affected. Even more so, China's export market is mainly the United States with severe repercussions for this Asian giant as well. Indeed, much of the rest of world revolves around the success or failure of the US economy.

Steadying and stabilizing the US economy will have to be the main priority of the Bush Administration. Otherwise all the military retaliation against Osama Bin Laden and his followers will be pointless. Terrorism will have won.

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About the Author

Raju G C Thomas is the Allis Chalmers distinguished professor of International Affairs at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His most recent book is as contributing editor of Yugoslavia Unraveled : Sovereignty, Self-Determination, Intervention, Lexington Books, 2004

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