Good evening, and thank you very much for inviting me to speak with you this evening. I am honored to be here this evening, and view this as a means of beginning a much needed dialogue between the NAACP and TransAfrica Forum.
I wish to address the theme “Everything has not changed since 9/11.” In order to address this issue, however, we need to start with 9/11 and its significance.
The actual event—the 9/11 attack—was a criminal act carried out by forces I would describe as clerical fascists. Their views have little to do with Islam, and in that sense I would not describe them as Muslim extremists. They have a view of the world which is very male supremacist, very hierarchical, anti-West, and interestingly, pro-capitalist. They seized on real grievances shared by millions, if not billions, of the world’s people in order to conduct a terror attack, but their objectives were far from honorable.
It might be quibbling over words, but I would not describe 9/11 as an “act of war,” except, perhaps in a metaphoric sense. The bombing of Pan Am 103, for instance, was a terror act; a criminal act; a murderous act, but not an act of war. 9/11 was highly symbolic, and obviously quite brutal and heinous. It was not carried out by another country nor was it part of a broad-based mass movement. We may disagree on this assessment. Nevertheless, in focusing on this incident, it is very easy to lose sight of the context. More importantly, for those of us in the USA, it is easy to ignore a very disturbing fact: The USA is hated around the world and that hatred provides a certain level of mass support for criminal actions such as 9/11.
Now if we listen to George W. one would conclude that the USA is hated because we have such a great life here and that the world’s people are jealous.
I would frame the problem a bit differently. 1 billion people in the world exist on less than $1/day. Roughly another 1 billion exist on under $2/day. Drinking water is being depleted such that millions of people do not have clean sources of water. The USA, with only a small portion of the world’s population, uses somewhere around 25% of the world’s resources. On top of this, environmental degradation is moving at full speed, with cases in point including the collapse of the ice shelf in Antarctica—clearly related to global warning—as well as the use of Africa as a toxic waste dumping ground for the global North. To all of this, much of which is not limited to the USA but includes the policies of the global North as a whole, one must add US foreign policy. It is important, in light of 9/11, and the new interest in foreign affairs, to keep in mind that foreign affairs has generally not attracted the attention of the average citizen. But let me go further. In the face of atrocities committed around the world in OUR NAME, large portions of the US population have remained silent.
Let us consider only a few examples. Late 1940s: in order to suppress left-wing led trade union movements, an alliance was forged by agencies of the US government with the Corsican Mafia in France in order to neutralize the union movement in Southern France, and an alliance with the Yakuza in Japan in order to decapitate the, then, quite militant Japanese trade union movement.
Let us jump forward a few years. 1964: Britain and the US worked together to overthrow the duly elected government of Cheddi Jaegan in the then British Guiana. 1965: with the active cooperation of the CIA, 500,000 to 1 million Indonesians are murdered in a military coup, an event characterized by, I believe, Time magazine as a great victory in the Cold War. September 11, 1973: The CIA once again conspired with right-wing elements and overthrew the duly elected government of Chile. Thousands were murdered and Henry Kissinger dismissed this aggression by simply noting that the US should not be constrained by the mistake of the Chilean people in voting for a Marxist. Of course, during this entire time, the Indochina War was underway in which 3 million Vietnamese lost their lives and I have no idea how many Laotians and Cambodians perished. 1975: with the active approval of Henry Kissinger and then President Ford, Indonesia seized East Timor and proceeded to carry out a genocidal massacre that barely received any attention in the Western world.
The problem we have to address is that masses of people in the USA were silent during these events. We took a pass. These events were not considered to be of critical domestic importance in many cases, until and unless it directly affected us, e.g., the draft and the Indochina War. The difficulty is that other eyes have been watching and watching very carefully.
Let’s jump to the 1980s because there was a classic situation that shows why the USA is not trusted. As you may remember, when the Sandinistas won their long struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, the newly elected Reagan Administration decided to carry out a policy of destabilization because of its opposition to the policies of the new government. By arming the notorious former Nicaraguan National Guard forces—known as the Contras—the US encouraged acts of violence…acts of terror against military and civilian targets in that country. Farms, power stations, water treatment plants…were all considered open targets. Keep in mind that such assaults are currently called terrorism when conducted by other people. THEN the US mined Nicaraguan harbors. That seems to me to be an act of war. What did the Nicaraguan government do? Did they retaliate militarily against the USA? No, they did what they were supposed to do. They went to the World Court. They not only went to the World Court but they won at the World Court. The Court found AGAINST the USA. What was the response of the US government??? They ignored the decision.
So, we have a problem. The USA wants it both ways. Do what the US government says or you get blasted. Follow international law only if it benefits US policy. The people of the world have been watching this carefully. Which is why it should not surprise us that there were actually people out there who supported the 9/11 attacks, but more importantly, that world opinion is solidly against the so-called war against terrorism.
What 9/11 has changed, and what we should take note of, is that the right-wing political agenda of the Bush Administration has been advanced very rapidly. Things that they could not have conceived of moving on September 10th have been moved with swiftness. The USA Patriot Act, which opens up a wide spectrum for surveillance and repression, was passed, and any critic was dismissed as being soft on terrorism, or otherwise irresponsible. In fact, it feels more and more like we live in a cross between the beginning of World War I and living in the midst of the McCarthy era. Or consider the growth in the military budget? Or, more ominously, the open discussion about the use of tactical nuclear weapons in a way that has not existed for decades. This simply could not have happened, at least at the speed that it has transpired, had it not been for 9/11. The political Right has been and continues to play on our fears and insecurities as a way of eroding our rights and advancing their political AND economic agenda.
And no one ever seems to mention Florida anymore!
So, if all this has changed, what has not? Basic economic trends that started over two decades ago are still in force. Wealth polarization both domestically and internationally continues to grow. At an international level, 225 individuals have the combined wealth of the bottom 47% of the world’s population. In the USA, the upper 1% controls somewhere around 35% of the wealth. Think about what that means for issues of democracy.
Corporate America continues to aim to reduce the living standard of the average U.S. working person. This is accomplished through continuing job insecurity and active anti-unionism. It is striking that despite the so-called economic boom of the 1990s, opinion poll after opinion poll continued to evidence PROFOUND job insecurity within the workforce. Fear of job loss ran across the board. In addition, archaic labor laws have given an incentive to companies to fire workers who wish to organize trade unions, and restrict the collective bargaining ability of workers who have already joined or formed unions. Thus, at a time when workers should have been enjoying the benefits of a booming economy, for a good period of that time, their living standards remained virtually flat. Despite all the hype after 9/11 about how this tragedy brought us together and we could all look at each other as “Americans,” there is no evidence that the condition of African-Americans has improved at all. As the recession deepened, the same trends that we see in EVERY recession began to play themselves out: we are the ones who are laid off first; our unemployment rate is double…down the line.
Add on to this the fact that the impact of welfare repeal will be felt this year. Think about what this will mean for those who have recently started working, but remain low skilled and on the margins. What happens when they lose out and are cast off? This society is prepared to accept the redundancy of a large portion of its workforce, and equally prepared to accept the pauperization of that redundant sector.
I see no evidence that rogue police are acting less brutally toward us since 9/11. In fact, I was stunned when the officers convicted in the Abner Louima case were freed. What does this say except that justice is far from blind…it is peaking from under the blindfold.
And let me return to the international realm for one instance to reference something else that has not changed. The US continues down the path of unilateralism, and interference in the internal affairs of other countries: case in point Venezuela. Here we go again. Hugo Chavez followed the legal route: he ran and got elected in a multi-party election. He had a clear mandate. Yes, there were demonstrations against him, but so too have there been against US presidents. People got killed in the demonstration. That is horrible, but people were killed at Orangeburg, South Carolina; Kent State; Jackson State; Southern University, and no governor, let alone president ever resigned or was deposed as a result. Yet, in Venezuela, without benefit of an investigation and a trial, the President of the country was ‘convicted’ by the opposition media and their US supporters, and there was a coup. And, sisters and brothers, if you believe that the USA had nothing to do with that, then I have a bridge for you to buy in New York…AND I CAN GET IT FOR YOU CHEAP!!!!
Once again, it is either the way that the USA wants it, or you are out. When will we learn that this is a recipe for disaster? When will we learn that the people of the world are getting tired of this?
So, in sum, since 9/11 we have both the continuation of pre-existing trends as well as the leap into a brave new world of perpetual war, perpetual insecurity, and greater and greater moves toward a right-wing, corporate state where dissent will not be tolerated.
I cannot end these remarks here. I do not wish for you to start passing out the cool-aid. I would like to suggest that it is critical that we resist these shifts toward the political Right and that we speak up for democracy, self-determination, and multilateralism.
A few weeks ago there was an assassination in Italy. A minister in the conservative government of Berlusconi was shot, allegedly by the Red Brigades. I say ‘allegedly’ because these days you never know. Well, Berlusconi being the right-wing opportunist that he is, tried to play on this assassination in order to discourage people from participating in a planned demonstration being called by Italy’s trade unions. The demo was to counter efforts to remove many valuable rights that workers have. Instead of being paralyzed and caving in, over 1 million protesters showed up in Rome. They made clear from the outset that they opposed terrorism…but they also made it clear that they opposed the economic terror of the right-wing Berlusconi government.
Contrast that with the USA. After 9/11, progressive forces across the board were paralyzed. Despite intense economic attacks on workers; despite attacks on our civil and constitutional rights, there was a fear of protest. Too many people were afraid that others would construe protest as an unpatriotic act. Instead we remained silent as the flames from the political Right consumed our house.
I would suggest that now is a time of resistance, rather than silence. Yes, we must all oppose terror—that is the targeting of civilians for political purposes—but if we are going to do that, then history and morality DEMANDS that we are consistent in that stand. We must oppose the terror of the Al Qaeda, but we must also oppose the state terror of the US when it encourages and supports military coups. We must oppose the oppression of women in Afghanistan, but we must also oppose the oppression of women here in the USA. We must support the rights of minority ethnic groups when they are oppressed, as in the former Yugoslavia, but we must also speak out against the persecution of the Kurds in Turkey (Turkey being a key ally of the USA)…let alone, speak out against the persecution of minorities in the USA.
I am suggesting that one thing that has not changed since 9/11 has been the need for people of good will to be supporters of consistent democracy. This is not only about constitutional rights, but it is about human rights, sovereignty and the future of our planet. To do any less, I will suggest to you this evening, is either cowardice, or the height of hypocrisy.
The struggles that African-Americans have led for equality, power, against racist discrimination…our historic stands in solidarity with the anti-colonial movements in the Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, demand that we step forward now, at this critical moment. There is no room for hesitancy. There is only room for conviction and audacity in the face of oppression.
Should humanity survive this century, history will vindicate our stand.
Thank you very much.