Significance for African Americans of the Attacks of September 11, 2001*

African Americans have a unique perspective, which flows from the following realities. Black Americans resemble the peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Our black ghettos constitute an extension of the developing world inside the borders of the United States. Huge gaps exist between whites and Blacks in median per capita family income and wealth, in indices of health, unemployment, business ownership, and political representation. Incarceration, racial profiling and police violence are virtually Black experiences. Over half the prison population in the United States is African American. In the 1990s, the prison population of Black women increased by over 800%. Even within the military, African Americans experience greater rates of incarceration in military stockades and higher rates of dishonorable discharges than their white counterparts. Save for the Army, African Americans are underrepresented in the other armed services and especially in their officer corps. This contemporary reality is built upon a history of slavery, racism, legal and extra-legal terror in the form of lynching, race riots, debt peonage, the chain gang, and the color bar in employment. African Americans have been terrorized by America from the beginning. Now white people are just beginning as a result of the Attacks of September 11 to feel something of what we live with every day: but not only us, all the people in today’s world who have been under the falling bombs, inside the bulldozed houses, and running from the ground zeroes of the world in terror.

African Americans have mixed feelings about the contemporary patriotic fervor. For African Americans, war and its attendant super-patriotism have always meant less civil liberties, less tolerance of dissent, and an environment that condones racism, jingoism and racial profiling.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in taking his principled stand against the war in Vietnam, alleged that that war was symptomatic of a “malady within the American spirit.” He went on to indict the U.S. government as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”  Malcolm X, in one of his most famous speeches, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” addressed the question of Black citizenship and patriotism with the following controversial phrases:

No, I’m not an American. I am one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I am not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag saluter, or a flag waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.

We cannot trust the political leadership of this country. During periods of national crises and wars, it has demonstrated a predisposition to lie to us. The list of liars includes former Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara and presidents Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton.

The Bush Administration is illegitimate. Bush stole the presidency in three ways. First, through massive vote fraud and Black disenfranchisement. Second, through the intervention of the Supreme Court, which substituted their selection for that of the people. Third, through the operation of the Electoral College, an institution established to protect the interest and power of slaveholders against the popular will.

Before September 11, this administration pursued policies against the interests of African Americans, the poor and peoples of color worldwide. It has refused to discuss the question of the nature of slavery, the slave trade, and colonialism as genocidal crimes against humanity. It has dodged the question of reparations for these crimes and attempted to torpedo their discussion in international forums. Most recently a low-level U.S. delegation walked out of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. This followed hard on the heels of U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto Accords on global warming. The United States, which says that treaty is flawed and would be harmful to the U.S. economy, was the lone dissenter when 178 other countries endorsed it. Moroccan minister Mohamad Elyazghi stressed the importance of the issue, particularly for Africa, which has been afflicted by a rainfall shortage since the end of the 1980s.

The Bush administration has indicated its desire to unilaterally abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and proceed to operationalize a white-elephant “Star Wars” system which according to renowned physicist Michio Kaku will cost over $100 billion but has yet to intercept anything. This on top of a defense budget which runs annually around $340 billion. How can social justice be procured when the government’s budget is so distorted by such a monumental exercise in waste?

What is Bush’s stance on the death penalty, a sanction that has been demonstrated statistically to be enacted disproportionately against African Americans?  As of December 7, 2000, 152 people had been executed during Bush’s tenure as governor.  This made George W. Bush the most-killing Governor in the history of the United States. In this regard, the recently appointed Director of Homeland Security, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, has a similar profile.

The administration’s attorney general, John Ashcroft, was particularly unsympathetic to crucial Black concerns. While a Senator, he opposed 12 of 15 legislative proposals strongly endorsed by the NAACP. He opposed the confirmation of Judge Ronnie White, the first African American member of the Missouri Supreme Court. Ashcroft gave a sympathetic interview to and declined to criticize directly the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan that published statements supporting Robert E. Lee and ran ads praising the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Ashcroft also refused to rule out future speaking engagements at Bob Jones University, which barred interracial dating; he gave the 1999 commencement address at that South Carolina College.

National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell, while African Americans, have no real links to either the black community or its struggles. Similar profiles of insensitivity to African American concerns can be generated for Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The United States is guilty of state terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism abroad. For decades the United States has been involved in low intensity warfare against its ideological enemies and against the aspirations of many peoples for self-determination. It has used non-conventional forces and special operations groups to assassinate popular leaders; it has trained death squads at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. Through the CIA, it has sponsored subversion and coups d’état against popular nationalist and progressive regimes in Iran, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, and elsewhere. U.S. armed forces have invaded countries and caused widespread havoc and death on the most specious of pretexts, as in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989. Thousands of black people died in both those invasions.

The Indonesian military was armed by the United States. With those arms it killed three quarters of a million reputed “communists” upon its ascension to power under General Suharto. When the Portuguese colonial empire collapsed and their former colony of East Timor expected independence, the Indonesian military with U.S. weapons invaded that colony and unleashed a reign of terror which cost over 200,000 lives.

The United States has on several occasions been found guilty of aggressive and illegal actions under international law. The International Court of Justice found the United States guilty of aggression against Nicaragua for mining its harbors and giving military aid to the Contra rebels. After both the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the U.S. aggression was condemned in resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly and, in the case of Panama, also by the OAS.

The United States is associated with atrocities committed by the Israeli Defense forces in the occupied territories of Palestine, in southern Lebanon, and in Beirut during the 1982 invasion, when widespread murder was committed against defenseless women and children in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. It is impossible for the U.S. not to be associated with these instances of state terrorism when it gives more military aid each year to Israel than to any other country in the world.

We cannot deny the unintended consequences or “Blowback” associated with our trafficking and supporting the most backward and reactionary groups on the planet including Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, Manuel Noriega, etc., all of whom were on the CIA payroll and owed their positions to that fact but later were deemed enemies of the United States.

American foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia is being driven by two related themes: the politics of Oil and the politics of Drug Trafficking. Agence-France Presse reported on October 7 the view of analysts that Washington urged key allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to back the Taliban’s bid for power in 1996, so as to see Afghanistan under strong central control for the benefit of a consortium, led by the California-based Unocal Corporation, that planned to build a multi-billion dollar oil and gas pipeline
The politics of oil makes for strange bedfellows. The Wall Street Journal of September  28 reported that Bush Sr., an oil executive in his own right, works for the bin Laden family business in Saudi Arabia through his membership in the Carlyle group, an international consulting firm. The senior Bush has met with the bin Laden family at least twice. Judicial Watch, the public interest law firm that investigates and prosecutes government corruption and abuse, says that this conflict of interest has now turned into a scandal as the President’s father, an ex-president himself, is doing business with a company under investigation by the FBI in the terror attacks of September 11.

Where does the drug traffic fit into this picture? Wherever U.S. covert operations and support to insurgents have ventured, a return flow of drugs ensued.  Interpol in 1997 described Afghanistan as the major supplier of heroin to Southwest Asia and beyond. In 1996, the production of illicit opium in Afghanistan skyrocketed to 4,600 tons. This was double the production of the year before. Afghanistan alone became the source of some 75% of the world’s illicit supply. Drug traffickers are looking for profit, and the profits in many cases provide the cash needed for the purchase of arms by groups seeking to destabilize legitimate government.

The link between drug trafficking and overall security is a very real one. The highest rate of heroin use in the world is now found in countries within this region. The social or cultural protective systems which various countries thought would protect them from drug abuse have one by one crumbled. This is the final element of the alarm that is being sounded.

Let us take note of the fact that the CIA and NATO have supported Muslim insurgents and Albanian Mujahedeen in the Kosovo Province of Yugoslavia as a way of breaking the back of the socialist state there and projecting NATO military power into the Balkans. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) developed out of the Albanian drug gangs, which Interpol has identified as the major traffickers bringing heroin from Central Asia into Europe. The KLA is now destabilizing the whole region through its irredentist extremism and violent methods. At the origin end of this pipeline are warlords affiliated with the so-called Northern Alliance. Whatever else may be said about the Taliban, they have been very severe in moving against drug traffickers, and have been credited with reducing the flow of heroin out of Afghanistan by 75%.

The innocent dead in the rubble of the WTC and the Pentagon deserve justice, however. How else are we to avenge their deaths and deter terrorism but by going after the perpetrators and rooting them out wherever they might be? Yes, this must be done but the means of doing so are constrained by international law. Article 2 section 4 of the UN charter outlaws war as an instrument of national policy. The self-defense provisions of Article 51 are temporary and must be in accord with obligations undertaken under the Charter. The Geneva conventions outlaw deliberate attacks on civilians. Despite these provisions, the Administration has seen fit to wage aerial warfare against unknown targets and on a government not designated as an aggressor by any international organization. Aerial warfare, despite advances in technology, is the most indiscriminate method of destruction available in the U.S. arsenal. In fact, the preferred method of attack today is the massive application of airpower, and the architect of this theory, Italian Air Marshall Giulio Douhet, is still cited by U.S. military strategists. Writing in 1921 in his book, The Command of the Air, Douhet argued that all people were combatants and their collective will had to be broken… most effectively by urban bombing. This means that the real target of the air war is the morale of the civilian population, which is attacked materially by targeting the economy and the infrastructure of the society, and psychologically by the actual terror of the bombing. This theory is now being applied in Afghanistan. Civilians and relief facilities have been destroyed.

Some say that in war some loss of civilians is unavoidable. The truth of the matter is that in all modern wars many more civilians than combatants die. The most prevalent damage in modern warfare is collateral damage to civilians. This cannot be papered over by verbiage or air drops of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The Afghans are not fooled about our true intentions and neither is the rest of the world. On October 9, the Nobel Prize-winning French humanitarian group, Doctors Without Borders, said that the U.S.-airdropped food packages are not in any way a humanitarian aid operation, but more a military propaganda operation, designed to make international opinion accept the U.S.-led military operation. “What sense is there in shooting with one hand, and giving medicine with the other?” (Associated Press)

Thus the lesson of the September 11 tragedy is that the innocents both here and abroad are the ones who ultimately pay the price for the sins of the high and mighty. The slogan United We Stand should be reinterpreted as a call for all peace-loving people worldwide to stand against any and all powers and forces that wage war against  the people, whether in pursuit of “democracy,” religious orthodoxy, petroleum profits, etc. African Americans must insist in the present crisis that the U.S. government uphold its international obligations and renounce war as an instrument of national policy generally and abstain from the aerial bombardment of the territories of any nation on the globe. In addition we must insist that the pursuit of terrorists will not be accepted as a rationale for massive diminutions of our civil liberties, nor will we accept that the damage done to the U.S. economy necessitates putting social welfare programs on the back burner while giving massive tax breaks to wealthy corporations and individuals.


*This article is adapted from a talk sponsored by the Student Association, School of Diplomacy, Seton Hall University, on October 30, 2001.

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