A Radical Approach to Justice for 9/11*

Prior to the September 11 assaults, there were distinct signs of a Left revival.  Its most conspicuous expressions were the international protests that now routinely greeted conferences of the world’s economic and political leaders.  The authorities responded by trying to insulate themselves: in Quebec City in April, and again in Genoa in July, physical barriers were erected to keep demonstrators at a great distance from the meetings.  Similar precautions were planned for Washington in late September, all under the pretext that the problem lay not in what the demonstrators were trying to say, but rather in an alleged physical threat that they posed to conferees.            

Wartime conditions are serving to aggravate this response.  Opposition to the World Trade Organization is now being linked to destruction of the World Trade Center.1  New repressive legislation in the United States will give the federal government vast discretion in identifying groups that it chooses to consider sympathetic to terrorism.  An authentic catastrophe is thus being used as cover for shoring up an agenda of global domination ironically, the very agenda that stoked the religiously framed hatred driving the 9/11 terrorists.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. ruling class is thus bent on entrenching even further the policies that exposed its people to danger in the first place.  Never has the contrast between security for the general population and security for the interests of capital appeared so sharp.  While security for capital remains bound up with U.S. geopolitical projection, security for the rest of us will ultimately require apart from the inescapable precautionary measures that this country give up its distinctive global military role.

The Left thus faces a paradoxical situation.  On the one hand, wartime conditions heighten the objective antagonism between rulers and ruled, while also impelling people to give more attention to the “big questions” and to world events.  On the other hand, these same conditions generate a dangerous mix of patriotic hype as in the Bush/Blair ultimatum, “Either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” and a vast increase in the government’s repressive powers.

How to respond?  This will be a matter requiring the highest level of creativity, awareness of precedent, and openness to diverse popular constituencies.  Discussion and debate at every level are the order of the day.  Many voices will have to be heard and integrated.  The first challenge facing the Left, however, is to go beyond reiterating its insight into the roots of the problem and its related long-term alternative vision of a world freed of imperialism to address the widespread demand for a course of action that responds directly to the 9/11 attacks.

The classic problem of linking reform to revolution appears here with a new twist.  Revolution would entail doing away with imperialism.  Reform corresponds, in the present instance, to dealing with a terrorist network that is at once a creature of imperialism and the executor of what purported to be a devastating blow against the imperialist center.  This defining contradiction in the attackers needs to be stressed.  Spawned in the brew of a U.S.-driven mission to give the coup de grâce to socialism,2 and spurred on by an ultra-reactionary religious ideology whose most notable previous role was in the 1965 anticommunist massacre in Indonesia,3  the 9/11 terrorists have only hurt the anti-imperialist movement.  It could hardly be otherwise.  Lacking a class analysis, and animated instead by a manichean identification of imperialist oppression with the entire population of the oppressor-regime, they committed an act which, at least in the short run, could only solidify this population behind its rulers rulers who, in terms of their actual social agenda, represent the very opposite of popular priorities.

This understanding suggests at least the first step in the Left’s short-term response, namely, an unqualified condemnation of the attacks.  Although such condemnation has already been almost universal, it is important that we see it not just as a matter of humanitarian revulsion (although it is that), nor just as a tactical ploy (which it should not be), but also as a matter of political principle, grounded in an awareness that you don’t unravel a deeply institutionalized system of oppression by carrying out acts that reinforce the legitimacy of those who stand at its head.

At the same time that we condemn the attacks, however, we must acknowledge that the stated concerns associated with the threat of their continuation namely, opposition to U.S. military bases, to U.S. support of the Israeli government against the Palestinians, and to the U.S. siege of Iraq reflect widely shared popular demands in the affected region; demands which we wholeheartedly embrace.   The problem for the U.S. Left is how to build a constituency in the United States in support of these demands.  But this is part of our broader anti-imperialist vision.  It still leaves unresolved the question of a political response to the demand for “justice” for the victims of 9/11.

The inappropriateness of the U.S. military response, which places millions of Afghans in imminent danger (if not of bombing, then of starvation), has already been widely noted by progressive commentators.  The U.S. attacks quickly foreclosed any peaceful handing over of the presumed 9/11 mastermind, Osama bin Laden.  While they may eventually bring about his death or capture, Washington has already made clear that the logic of its strategy will not stop there, but will drive it toward other targets.  There will be a built-in rationalization for such expanded targeting, because the war itself will lead to a proliferation perhaps in unexpected places of the kind of terrorist acts that it was supposedly designed to eliminate.  The exercise of overwhelming military might will moreover guarantee the nurturance of a whole generation of successors to the 9/11 hijackers.  On top of all this, the war will perpetuate and intensify at home as well as abroad longstanding social hardships and environmental breakdown.

An effective alternative, in my view, would entail the political isolation of the bin Laden network.  This obviously cannot be accomplished by the United States,4 nor can it be accomplished by U.S.-identified governments.  If it is ever to come about, it will be through the mobilization of popular forces in the region, in the context of a broad agenda for the transformation of international relations.  The initiative for such an agenda will have to come from progressive forces throughout the world.  Those of us who are in the advanced capitalist countries will have to articulate our concern in the framework of a comprehensive review of national policies.  The institutional setting for this process would be the convening of public meetings with international representation at every level (including local) in all countries.  The energy for such an undertaking would have to come from a recognition that unless the currently dominant approaches are reversed, people everywhere will be at risk.  Spreading this recognition is the great educational and political task of the moment.

With specific reference to the question of “justice,” it will have to be understood that the scale of the problem is truly vast.  A direct solution, understood in the traditional “criminal justice” sense of arrest, trial, and conviction of the surviving culprits, may or may not be possible.  If it does not come about, it would certainly not be the first time. How many times have the US and its allies escaped “justice” for the atrocities they have committed?5  But even if bin Laden and his cohorts were to receive some form of punishment (with or without “due process”), how far would this go toward any real measure of justice?  Who would be imposing such punishment?  To what extent would they be acting on behalf of all humanity, and not merely on behalf of the forces that were most challenged by this particular attack?  How “just” is it for “justice to be done” only in this instance and not in those previous instances in which the victims’ cause was not embraced by the world’s supreme military power?

The U.S. has a long history of not only defying but actively sabotaging any effort at establishing international judicial bodies that it could not control.6  Responding in 1998 to the most recent in this line of projects, an International Criminal Court, Washington shamelessly protested against the danger of such an authority being applied to its own operatives.7  Clearly, the prospects for any more than a very partial justice “partial” in both senses of that word will remain severely limited so long as the class power embodied by Washington remains undiminished.  Is it not time, then, to recognize that the only meaningful kind of justice the only lasting tribute to the victims of 9/11, as also to all the earlier victims whom the attackers may have thought they were avenging would be justice understood as a reordering of power, putting an end to all forms of oppression?

To make this argument will be to develop the central link between the Left’s short-term and long-term agendas.

*I am grateful to David Gilbert for his comments on an earlier draft of this article.


1. Reginald Dale, “Terrorists Exploit Anti-Globalization,” International Herald Tribune, September 22, 2001.

2. The link is acknowledged by President Jimmy Carter’s National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in a 1998 interview in which he boasts of what had been officially denied at the time, namely, that CIA aid to the Mujahedeen provoked the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, unleashing a conflict which, as he gloatingly put it, “brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.”  Interview in Le Nouvel Observateur, January 15-21, 1998, cited in William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press, 2000), p. 5.  For more complete background on the Afghan cauldron, see the same author’s Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press, 1995), pp. 338-52, and John K. Cooley, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism, 2nd ed. (London: Pluto Press, 2000).  A poignant description of prospects at the time of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan is Val Moghadam, “Afghanistan at the Crossroads,” Against the Current, Nov./Dec., 1988.

3. On the role of Islamic militants in this massacre (of over 500,000 people), see M.C. Ricklefs, A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1300, 2nd ed. (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1993), p. 288; on U.S. support for their campaign, see Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (Boston: South End Press, 1979), pp. 205-17, and Blum, Killing Hope, pp. 193-97.

4. A striking expression of the U.S.’s own diplomatic isolation, on such matters, is the long record of its solitary or near-solitary dissenting votes on U.N. General Assembly resolutions.  See listing in Blum, Rogue State, pp. 185-97.

5. Noam Chomsky stressed this point in his October 18, 2001 talk at M.I.T. (available at http://www.zmag.org/),  mentioning especially U.S. rejection of the adverse 1985 World Court ruling on its ongoing campaign of terror against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.  This is just a recent instance of the sustained criminality implicit in the entire history of colonialism and imperialism, as highlighted just one week before 9/11 at the World Conference Against Racism, in Durban, South Africa.

6. See Christopher Simpson’s remarkable study, The Splendid Blond Beast: Money, Law, and Genocide in the Twentieth Century (Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press, 1995).

7. New York Times reports, cited in Blum, Rogue State, p. 77.

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