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Did We Learn a Thing From the Failed War on Terror?
The next phase of the Israel-Palestine conflict is ethnic cleansing. We cannot let it happen quietly.
Every day this week I’ve thought about Barbara Lee, the lone voice out of 535 members of Congress who said we shouldn’t immediately launch a war against an entire country in retribution for 9/11. Just three days after the tragedy that shook America, that changed the course of our history and the history of the world, she bravely stood before the House of Representatives, knowing full well that she was utterly alone, and spoke in opposition to the invasion. She quoted a member of the clergy, who had delivered remarks at the national memorial for the victims of 9/11, saying “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”
I also think, every day, about what came next. The United States, and allied troops, rolled into Afghanistan. Then, less than two years later, George Bush, Dick Cheney, and other war-mongers lied to this country and in doing so got a mandate to start another war. One that is not yet over. The war in Afghanistan lasted 20 years, and is a near-universally agreed upon failure. There is the often cited fact that the Taliban once again control the country, as they did in 2001, and there is the equally or more profound fact that the U.S. military caused mass death and committed unspeakable atrocities.
Most important are the lives that have been lost. Even the most conservative estimates say that half a million people died as a direct result of these endless wars. At least half of them civilians. And less conservative estimates place the total number at a million or more, with upwards of 4.5 million deaths across the world linked directly or indirectly to the “war on terror” according to a study from Brown University. And right now all of that seems to be forgotten.
Right now we are seeing war-mongering and genocidal rhetoric unlike anything I can remember since the early years of the “war on terror.” Lindsey Graham is going on CNN and saying “level the place” in reference to Gaza, and getting no pushback. Marco Rubio is openly and repeatedly talking about elimination and eradication, and using terms like “sadistic savages.” Joe Biden himself is repeating the unverified story about Hamas cutting off babies' heads, saying he personally saw the photos, before the White House released a statement saying that he had not in fact seen any such images.
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These examples are just the start. Baseless, racist, and fear-mongering comments are swirling in an environment that feels disturbingly familiar to anyone who was conscious in the years following 9/11. Utterly nonsensical comments from rabid far-right accounts, and from people like former GOP Speaker Kevin McCarthy, are circulating, warning everyone in the West to be very afraid after Hamas called for global jihad. Never mind that Hamas has no history of these sorts of attacks outside of Palestine-Israel. What matters, to the purveyors of this fear, is that we are whipped up into a frenzy of hatred for an enemy that is already up against a nuclear power and high-tech military which is bombing Gaza to dust as we speak, blockading two million people into hunger and blackout, and bombarding the one viable exit from Gaza to Egypt.
But for reasons that I at times struggle to wrap my head around, those who love to beat the drums of war want more, and more. Of course there is the military-industrial complex, the contractors who profit from war. They’re having their “best days in years” in the midst of thousands dying in Israel and Gaza. But there’s more. For one, the willingness to assume the worst stories imaginable about Hamas and Palestinians, without verification, while readily believing every word from the Israeli military shows the racist bias that is ever-present in this country. That Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment was instantly tapped into after 9/11, when Muslims were racially profiled, surveilled, and harassed across the United States, unconstitutionally but also without consequence. Without consequence for the police forces doing this dirty work, that is. There were ample, devastating, and traumatizing consequences for the Muslims, Arabs, and Sikhs who were mistreated.
That same racism is present and easy to see right now. In a Democratic caucus meeting just yesterday, one member expressed that some Muslim clerics might not want to attend a Jewish-Muslim prayer vigil at this moment. According to reports, Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer responded, “It’s because they’re guilty.” This deplorable outlook is sadly still present. It’s the same belief that animates conservatives who want to flatten Gaza, and which animates the broader status quo that says we should send money to weapons to Israel as they bomb civilians. This outlook, when combined with the label “terrorist” instantly turns so many into unthinking cheerleaders for further violence, ready to escalate another conflict, regardless of the civilian toll. It appears these people have learned nothing from the complete and deadly failure of the endless “war on terror.”
Hamilton Nolan recently wrote about one of the steps we can take to end this violent madness. He aptly said, “Retire the word ‘terrorism.’ Also ‘terrorist,’ and ‘terror’ as a descriptive label. Decades of evidence show that the more the media pushes this concept, the more warped the public understanding of global events becomes.” And he’s right. This label effectively functions as a shortcut to excusing horrendous crimes and unspeakable atrocities. It enabled Abu Ghraib, it excuses Guantanamo, and it led to thousands and thousands of civilians being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have to, absolutely have to learn from the mistakes of the past, or thousands more will die.
Thousands more are already dying, in fact, with U.S. permission and even encouragement. On Monday, after Israel had already killed hundreds of civilians in Gaza, Netanyahu said they were “just getting started.” The latest reports say he and Israel have now displaced 400,000 Palestinians in Gaza, many of whom were already refugees. At least 4,250 have been killed in Gaza as well, with hundreds of thousands of Israeli reserved called up and poised to strike. Over 1,300 Israelis have been killed so far, but it appears all but certain that the next phase of this deadly conflict is the ethnic cleansing of Gaza while the world looks on.
I have a perspective on Israel-Palestine, and I won’t pretend otherwise. I’ve written about being a Jew opposed to Zionism and will continue to do so. But, whatever your exact position is, please don’t get caught up in the bloodlust we’re seeing all around us. Please don’t look to those who justify the mass slaughter and displacement of Palestinians just days after they decried the killing of Israelis. The United States is the single country best positioned to pressure the Israeli government to cease fire, to stop flattening apartment buildings, to stop bombing so indiscriminately that they kill hundreds of children, and even UN personnel. Please apply pressure. Jewish Voices for Peace has made it easy to contact your Congressmembers and urge them to de-escalate. Please take action.
We can’t look on as more killing is justified and packaged for our consumption and even encouraged. We must act. We must do what we can, no matter how little it may seem, to save lives. A ceasefire is the first step. For any of us to abdicate from our responsibility to act is to once again go along silently in the stream of bloodshed. Right now is the moment to swim against the current, even if it’s difficult, even if we know there may be a price. As Hillel said, “If not us, who? If not now, then when?”
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