Ten years ago this month al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger planes in the USA. They flew two of them into the “Twin Towers” buildings of the World Trade Centre in New York, another into the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed into a field after the passengers attempted to retake it. This AWL editorial, written two days after the attacks and before al-Qaeda had declared itself responsible, was our initial response.
Click here for a full archive of AWL statements and articles from the time.
To use civilian planes, full of people, to attack buildings full of civilians, mostly ordinary workers, is a crime against humanity, whatever the supposed aims.
What cause could the hijackers have been serving when they massacre thousands of workers in New York? Not "anti-imperialism" in any rational sense — whatever anyone may pretend or imagine — but only rage against the modem world. Only on the basis of a dehumanised, backward looking world-view could they have planned and carried out such a massacre. Such people are enemies for the working class and the labour movement as much as the US government is. In fact, more so.
Modern capitalism includes profiteering, exploitation, and imperialism, but it also includes the elements of civilisation, technology and culture which make it possible for us to build socialism out of it.
Lenin, the great Marxist advocate of revolutionary struggle against imperialism, long ago drew a dividing line between that socialist struggle and reactionary movements such as (in his day) “pan-Islamism” [in our day, Islamism]: “Imperialism is as much our mortal enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperial-ism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism.”
We, the socialists cannot bring back the dead, heal the wounded, or assuage the bereaved. What we can do is understand the conditions which gave rise to the atrocity; see how they can be changed; and keep clear critical under-standing of the way that the US and and other governments will respond. Here the recent history of three areas of the world is crucial.
Some Palestinian Arabs in the Israeli-occupied West Bank were among the very few people in the world who rejoiced at the massacre.
The official Palestinian leadership condemned it strongly, but amid the despair and frustration of recent years radical Islamic-fundamentalist groups have gained ground among the Palestinians — groups to whose philosophies such mas-sacres are not at all alien so long as they are directed against supposed “Zionists” or “imperialists”, and who are likely to see any Jew as a “Zionist”, any American as an “imperialist”, and the two as almost interchangeable.
The Palestinians have been dispossessed, harassed, oppressed. In 1948 the Jewish community in what had been the British colony of Palestine declared independence. The surrounding Arab states invaded. Over 700,000 Palestinians, who naturally sided with the Arab armies, fled or were driven out by the Jews. The new state of Israel would not let them back in; the Arab states would not integrate them economically, or undertake negotiations with Israel which might get them a livable settlement. About 600,000 Jews fled, or were driven out from the Arab states and into Israel over the following years.
The Arab states tantalised the Palestinians with promises that they, the Arab states, would soon “drive the Jews into the sea” and restore the Palestinians to their land. From those promises came only further catastrophes.
After the 1967 war the Arab states — and the Palestinians — rejected negotiations to make the West Bank and Gaza some sort of Palestinian territory. Israel established, and continued, military rule there.
Slowly and painfully, the Palestinians developed a movement of their own. From 1988 they launched an uprising in their territories which Israel had seized in 1967 and began to propose a positive programme to take the peoples of the region forward — two states for the two nation Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews.
In the early 1990s the Israeli government started negotiating. But it has double-crossed the Palestinians again and again, combining general promises that the Palestinians can eventually have their own state in the West Bank and Gaza with a vigorous drive to construct Israeli settlements in those areas and assert a framework of Israeli control.
Two states for two nations — meaning, immediately, Israeli military withdrawal from the occupied territories, and an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel — is the only basis on which to begin to drain the poison.
Immediately, the New York massacre is not only a human disaster, but also a political disaster for the Palestinians. The backlash against an Islamic-fundamentalist atrocity which so much outstrips, in its ferocity and scale, the Israeli military’s crimes in the occupied territories, will greatly reduce the pressure on Israel to reach a democratic settlement... Socialists must reject the “politics of the last atrocity” and argue for Palestinian rights.
Iran became a centre of Islamic fundamentalism after 1979, when the Islamic clerics there took power on the back of a huge popular revolution against the Shah’s dictatorship and then quickly consolidated total control.
The dislocations, the mesmerising promises and deceptions, of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in the country; the fact that the Islamic clerics had been the only section of society able to organise autonomously under the Shah; and the failures of secular nationalism — those were the background.
The clerics largely represented old social classes, like the bazaar merchants, threatened and displaced by the top-down capitalist reforms of the Shah: their regime is, to a significant extent, the revenge of the traditional ruling classes.
Throughout the Middle East, the rational use of the region's huge oil wealth, to enable a good life for all rather than to bloat some and taunt others, is the socialist precondition for undercutting the Islamic reactionaries.
In Afghanistan, an economically-underdeveloped, mostly rural society was thrust into turmoil in the late 1970s. The PDP, a military-based party linked to the USSR, tried to modernise, with measures such as land reform and some equality for women, but from above, bureaucratically. Islamists became the ideologues of a land-lord-led mass revolt.
In December 1979, seeing the PDP regime about to collapse, the USSR invaded. It spent eight years trying to subdue the peoples of Afghanistan with napalm and helicopter gunships. It was the USSR’s Vietnam.
The USSR’s war had the same sort of regressive effect on society in Afghanistan as the USA’s attempt to bomb Cambodia “back into the Stone Age”, as part of its war against the Vietnamese Stalinists, had on that country. In Cambodia the result was the mass-murdering Khmer Rouge, which tried to empty the cities and abolish money; in Afghanistan, it has been the Islamic-fundamentalist regime of the Taliban.
The US government will respond to the New York massacre with bombing raids abroad and a clampdown at home.
Its aim will be to make a show of retaliation and retribution. It will not and cannot mend the conditions which gave rise to this atrocity, conditions which the US government itself, capitalist and imperialist, has helped to shape. Probably ordinary working people who live in “terrorist” states will be the victims.
Civil rights will come under attack both in the US and in other countries, including Britain.
These blows at civil rights will do far more to hamper the labour movement, the only force which can remake the world so as to end such atrocities, than to stop the killers.
Repression may well, on the contrary, increase support for the most desperate and dehumanised groups.
Public opinion will lurch towards xenophobia. The basic democratic truths must be recalled: not all Arabs are Muslims, most Muslims are not Islamic fundamentalists, most of those who are Islamic-fundamentalist in their religious views do not support Islamic fundamentalist militarism. To seek collective punishment against Muslims or Arabs is wrong.
The first, and still the most-suffering, victims of Islamic fundamentalist militarism are the people, mostly Muslim, of the countries where the lslamists are powerful.
The only way to defeat the Islamists is by the action of the working class and the labour move-ment in such countries, aided by our solidarity.
Refugees seeking asylum in Britain do not in any way share blame for the New York massacre. In fact, many of them are refugees because they are fleeing Islamic-fundamentalist governments. To increase the squeeze on already-wretched refugees would be macabre and perverse “revenge”.
We must remake the world. We must remake it on the basis of the solidarity, democracy and spirit of equality which are as much part of human nature as the rage and despair which must have motivated the New York attackers.
We must create social structures which nurture solidarity, democracy and equality, in place of those which drive towards exploitation, cut-throat competition and acquisitive-ness and a spirit of everything-for-profit.
The organised working class, the labour movement, embodies the core and the active force of the drive for solidarity, democracy and spirit of equality within present-day society. It embodies it more or less consistently, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how far we have been able to mobilise ourselves, assert ourselves, broaden our ranks, and emancipate ourselves from the capitalist society around us.
Our job, as socialists, is to maximise the self-mobilisation, self-assertion, broadening and self-emancipation of the organised working class.
That is the battle to which we must rededicate ourselves. That is the battle in the name of which we will oppose all moves by the governments of the big powers to make spectacular retaliation or to restrict civil rights.