The motives behind the Bush administration’s latest terror scare by Jerry White

Dandelion Salad

by Jerry White

Global Research, July 30, 2007

World Socialist Web Site

Over the last two weeks the Bush administration has orchestrated yet another campaign to sow fear and anxiety among the American people with unsubstantiated claims that signs are mounting of a looming Al Qaeda terrorist attack.

Not a day goes by without suggestions by Bush or top Homeland Security officials that an attack perhaps on the scale of 9/11, or worse, is being prepared. As always, the mass media dutifully report such claims as authoritative, without questioning the lack of evidence beyond the bald assertions of intelligence and other government officials.

The deliberate cultivation of a climate of fear is a basic modus operandi of the Bush White House. Can it be an accident that Bush is once again resorting to scare tactics at a time when his poll numbers are dropping to record lows, popular opposition to the war in Iraq is rising, and the administration is openly declaring that its war policy will not be bound by elections or debates in Congress? The sudden reemergence of Al Qaeda as a supposed threat to the safety and security of every American coincides with a political counteroffensive in which critics of Bush’s military escalation are branded as either dupes or aiders and abettors of the terrorists.

The terror scare serves three basic political functions: to divert public attention from the disaster in Iraq and the social crisis within the US, to justify a foreign policy based on militarism and war, and to provide a pretext for police state measures at home.

What has happened over the last two weeks?

* On July 10, Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff gave an interview to the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune in which he said the US was facing a heightened threat of attacks this summer. He gave no evidence of such a serious risk, other than saying he had a “gut feeling” an attack was being prepared. Why America’s top anti-terrorist official—who has at his disposal vast resources, including information gathered by US spy agencies around the world—would have to rely on a his gut, rather than concrete evidence, Chertoff did not say.

* On July 17, the Bush administration released an unclassified summary of its National Intelligence Estimate, which claimed the US was facing a “heightened threat environment” for terrorist attacks because Al Qaeda had found a safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas, from where it could plot such attacks. The Bush administration immediately seized upon the report, ominously entitled “The Terrorist Threat to the Homeland,” as a pretext for possible military intervention in Pakistan and a justification for his war policy in Iraq as well as further domestic surveillance measures at home.

* On July 24, Bush gave a near-hysterical speech at a South Carolina air force base, where he insisted that the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq would result in terrorist attacks on the US. He repeated the absurd claim that US troops in Iraq were “fighting bin Laden’s Al Qaeda” and said that following the advice of those advocating a draw-down of US troops in Iraq would be “disastrous for America.”

* The same day, Air Force General Victor Renuart, who heads the US Northern Command, established by the Bush administration to oversee military operations within the US, told the Associated Press that the American military needs to triple its domestic military forces to counter the growing threat from Al Qaeda, which, he claimed, was actively preparing another terrorist attack in the US. “I believe there are cells in the United States, or at least people who aspire to create cells in the United States,” Renuart said.

He called the National Intelligence Estimate a “summary of drumbeats, and the drumbeats are getting more prevalent out there. You cannot afford to ignore that.” Asked if he was concerned about an attack in the US this summer, he replied, “I have to be concerned that it could happen any day.”

* Over the past few days, television news broadcasts have prominently featured a recent alert issued by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), warning federal air marshals and other law enforcement agencies to look out for terrorists practicing to carry explosive components onto aircraft. The July 20 warning was based on the seizure of “curious” items found in the luggage of a handful of passengers over the last year, including “wires, pipes or tubes, cell phone components and dense clay-like substances,” such as blocks of cheese. Security officers were instructed to keep any eye out for “ordinary items that look like improvised explosive device components,” because they might be used to test airport security.

The agency admitted, however, that none of the passengers with any of these items were found to have any connections to criminal or terrorist organizations. TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe subsequently downplayed the story, saying Tuesday, “There is no credible, specific threat here. Don’t panic. We do these things all the time.”

Her remarks follow a well-established pattern. The government issues dire warnings which are given sensationalist coverage by the media. In most cases, there follow acknowledgments that the government has no concrete evidence of a specific terrorist plot. Why, then, the gratuitous alarms? The media never bothers to ask a government official to explain.

This has been the stock-in-trade of the Bush administration since the 9/11 terrorist attacks—an event which itself has never been seriously investigated and for which no accounting has been given of supposed intelligence lapses that point to the possible complicity of the government itself.

At numerous points in Bush’s tenure, terror warnings have been issued in the midst of damaging revelations and political events that shook the administration. For example, two days after the May 18, 2002 revelation that Bush had received a presidential briefing five weeks before 9/11, warning of a terrorist attack within the US, FBI director Robert Mueller announced more attacks were “inevitable.” The next day, officials declared that US railroads and key New York City monuments were threatened.

In the days following Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 2003 speech at the UN, where he claimed the US had incontrovertible evidence that Iraq had WMDs, and mass international anti-war demonstrations on February 15, a US official warned of potential bio-terror attacks and advised Americans to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting to protect themselves.

Similar unsubstantiated warnings followed the Abu Ghraib revelations of US torture of Iraqi detainees, the revelation of CIA doubts about false pre-war claims that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Niger, the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion that the attacks were preventable, and news that Karl Rove might be indicted in the CIA leak case.

The Bush administration has set out to make fear and anxiety over terrorism the center of public life. It hopes to appeal to the confusion of more backward sections of the population in order to bludgeon popular opposition to its agenda of militarism and political repression at home.

In so doing, Bush has enjoyed the support of the Democratic Party, which, far from exposing this cynical attempt to manipulate public opinion, has fully embraced the so-called “war on terror.” The Democrats have frequently attacked Bush for not going far enough in “securing the homeland.”

There is no doubt that the brutal neo-colonialist foreign policy of the US government has placed the American people in danger of another terrorist attack. However, the greatest threat to the democratic rights and safety of the American people, and the people of the world, comes not from Islamic extremists in the Middle East, but from US imperialism and the warmongers in Washington.

 Global Research Articles by Jerry White

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Al Jazeera: An illegal immigrant’s life in the US (video)

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The US is toughening its immmigration laws. New fees will come into effect which include a 66 per cent price hike for citizenship applications. For illegal immigrants already in the country the situation is already dire-with many living in fear. Al Jazeera spoke to Jose – an illegal immigrant from Honduras about what it means to live and work in America.

Football Succeeds Where Politics Fails By Ali al-Fadhily

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By Ali al-Fadhily*
Inter Press Service
July 29, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jul 27 (IPS) – An Iraqi football victory seems to have united Iraqis across the country where politicians only divide it.The Iraqi football team defeated South Korea 4-3 in Malaysia Wednesday to gain entrance into the finals of the Asian Cup. That set off a wave of celebrations across the capital and most of the country.

Tens of thousands of overjoyed Iraqis swarmed the streets of Baghdad, waving Iraqi flags and firing into the air to celebrate. Not even two car bombs that killed more than 50 people dampened all of the enthusiasm.

The football team is one of the last remaining symbols of national unity, because it includes mixed sects and ethnicities — a rarity under an occupation that has fractured the country along ethnic lines and along sects within Islam.

For a brief time it appeared that the people of Iraq suddenly had suddenly forgotten those differences.

“This is a punch that came right in the nose of anyone who says we are divided,” Mahmood Farhan of the Iraqi Journalists League in Baghdad told IPS. “Look how we swept off the dirt of occupation politics and, hand in hand, won each other’s love.”

Iraqi security forces were taken off guard by the spontaneous burst of celebrations, and for a brief time the capital appeared the old, crowded, noisy Baghdad.

“Our hearts beat together, and let the occupiers go to hell,” shouted a young man on a bicycle on the streets of the Sadr City area of the capital. Many people gathered around the IPS correspondent when they figured their celebrations were being reported to the outside world.

A man who referred to himself as Hussein who was visiting Baghdad from Basra, told IPS amidst the celebrating crowd in Sadr City: “Iraq only, no Shias, no Sunnis and no Kurds. Down with divisions. Down with sectarian attitudes.”


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Good News is No News: Profitable Ignorance of Extremist Recantations by Chris Floyd

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Written by Chris Floyd
Sunday, 29 July 2007

An important development has been taking place in the real “war” on terror — not the profit-making, fear-and-domination machine of the Bush Administration’s devising, but the genuine struggle to quell the violence of Islamist extremism. Yet despite the great potential of this breakthrough, an overwhelming majority of Americans have never heard of it. Certainly it has not been featured — or even mentioned — by the corporate press and government PR engines in the United States. And why not? Because it is a breakthrough toward peace — and peace, as we all know, is not boffo box office.

Last week, the Guardian’s Ian Black reported on “a remarkable recantation” by one of the founding figures of the modern jihadist movement, Sayid Imam al-Sharif. A former comrade-in-arms of Ayman al-Zawahiri — al Qaeda’s own Dick Cheney, the “deputy” who actually runs the gang — Sharif was the mastermind behind the Islamists’ first great “spectacular”: the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Now Sharif, imprisoned in Egypt, is finishing a new book “that undermines the Muslim theological basis for violent jihad” and is already creating fissures throughout the Islamist movement, the Guardian reports.

Sharif is now repudiating the very jihadist methods that his group, Islamic Jihad, helped pioneer, instead citing the Quranic precept, “Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress the limits; for God loveth not transgressors.” In a letter from prison indicating his new line, Sharif declared: “We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that,” reports Asharq Alawsat, the London-based Arabic daily. “Armed operations [are] wrong, counterproductive, and must cease.”

Sharif’s earlier work, “Basic Principles in Making Preparations for Jihad,” is considered “the jihadist movements’ constitution and all researchers use it as a reference. It lays down the rules of jurisprudence for combat operations for all jihadist groups. Al-Qaeda regards the book as its guide for combat,” says Asharq Alawsa. And while hundreds of jihadis have embraced his new principles, Sharif’s old colleagues in al Qaeda have been stung into a response, the Guardian reports.

Zawahiri has tried to pre-empt Sharif’s book, releasing a video debunking Sharif’s “conversion” as the product of Egypt’s notorious torture cells (where Zawahiri himself was tortured.) The CIA has also had a crack at Sharif since his capture in Yemen in 2004. But as the Guardian reports:

“…Egyptian and western experts, government officials and former jihadis agree that Sharif’s shift is both genuine and highly significant.
“People will say things to stop being tortured, but this is the result of a long process of reflection and debate,” insists Muntasir al-Zayyat, a lawyer jailed for Islamic Jihad membership in the 1980s. “When the book comes out there will be a furious reaction from Zawahiri and the global jihadi movement. It is clear that Sayid Imam will call a halt to killing operations in Egypt and abroad.”


FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog may contain copyrighted material. Such material is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues, etc. This constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in Title 17 U.S.C. section 107 of the US Copyright Law. This material is distributed without profit.

Diesel-Driven Bee Slums and Impotent Turkeys by Chip Ward (Engelhardt)

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By Tom Engelhardt
July 29, 2007

It’s true that no single incident or development — no matter how out of the ordinary or startling — can straightforwardly be attributed to climate change. Nonetheless, it seems strange that the massive flooding in England, of a sort last seen more than 60 years ago, led the TV news and made front pages here with hardly a mention of global warming. You certainly won’t see a headline like this one from the British Telegraph: “Floods show global warming is here.”

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Slim Chance of Mideast Peace By Liam Bailey

If Blair applies the same principles as he did to Northern Ireland… All parties must negotiate a lasting peace.

Dandelion Salad

By Liam Bailey
featured writer
July 28, 2007

Some say that making the second most hated man in the Muslim world, Tony Blair, the envoy to the region with the highest Muslim population in the world, is like making an ex klu-klux clan leader a liaison to the black community. If Blair sticks to his pro-American roots he will be as much use as Middle East envoy as an indoor wind-farm. Current American policy is, as usual, exactly the same as Israel’s policies for dealing with the Palestinians and Arab states, favouring Abbas’ Fatah and trying to isolate and squash the more-popular-because-they-are-more-militant-Hamas.

Blair brokered the Northern Ireland peace process by realizing that peace would only last if all parties were involved in negotiations.

So if Blair realizes that his pro-Americanism was responsible for his fall from grace, which I think he must, his personality and character dictating that he seek to do well in his new job, should mean he will start going against America and applying the same principles to the Middle East as he did to Northern Ireland.

I hope he does so soon. This week, U.S. foreign secretary Condoleeza Rice has said “there will be a Palestinian state” and there is talk of U.S. President Bush pushing both sides to find an agreement before he leaves office early 2009. Israel’s Prime Minister Olmert said he thought it was necessary to pull out of the West Bank and made Abbas an offer to discuss the principles of a Palestinian state, such as its institutions and government – leaving final status issues such as borders and refugees to the end of negotiations.

This just days after Israel released 250 Fatah prisoners from its jails, was undoubtedly another attempt to bolster support for Abbas’ new emergency cabinet currently controlling the West Bank, but also a possible sign that Israel is realizing the occupation can’t go on forever.

There is much hype about the planned peace conference later this year, scheduled to see all the major players, Abbas, Olmert and leaders of the neighbouring Arab states, everyone except Hamas. Some would ask why Hamas would be needed; if an agreement were reached surely the Palestinians would force Hamas to go along with it?

Fatah have lost all credibility in the eyes of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian people don’t trust Abbas, any agreement would be met with scepticism. Palestinians would think he had betrayed them behind the scenes, in order to reach a favourable deal and line his pockets.

Also, for any deal Israel will need to give up control of the land taken in the 1967 war, Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, creating a Palestinian state therein. Although a land-swap agreement where Israel gives back some of its land in order to keep Palestinian land where it is thought to be necessary for security or to encompass settlement blocs. Israel agreeing to this will hinge on the Palestinians guaranteeing Israel security. Without Hamas on board they would likely wage a terror campaign throughout the negotiations, as we saw during the Oslo process. This would prevent the Palestinians making any such guarantee.

What’s more, Israel knows that the Palestinians can’t guarantee their security unless all the parties are behind any cease-fire or peace-process. So, their current attempts to prevent Hamas from taking part in any thing democratic or peaceful back-up those that say Israel is trying to prevent peace.

On the bright side, if Blair manages to wangle Hamas and Islamic Jihad a seat at the peace conference table, a Palestinian guarantee of Israeli security can be believed. Obviously Israel won’t trust them but hopefully the international community and Blair will make them give the benefit of the doubt. What’s more if a deal is reached, it will have the trust and support of all Palestinians — who know Hamas won’t sacrifice their rights — making cessation of attacks even more likely.

With Northern Ireland, once thought to be the most intractable conflict, now enjoying peace and prosperity, hopefully Blair can shake off his American-poodles tail and end the world’s truly most-intractable conflict.

Liam Bailey is a U.K. freelance journalist. He writes regularly for the Palestine Chronicle, Arabic Media Internet Network and is an advanced blogger on the Washington Post’s Post Global. He runs the War Pages blog and you can contact him at:

Liam is on Myspace, too.



Time for an Independent Counsel by Prof. Marjorie Cohn

Alberto Gonzales’s testimony before Congress: a criminal investigation is warranted

Dandelion Salad

by Prof. Marjorie Cohn
Global Research, July 30, 2007

Congressional leaders are calling for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate possible perjury charges against Alberto Gonzales. As we saw during the Watergate scandal, the executive branch cannot be counted on to investigate itself.

Watergate led to the enactment of the Ethics in Government Act. Three years after Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment, President Jimmy Carter asked Congress to pass a law authorizing the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute unlawful acts by high government officials. The bill empowered the attorney general to conduct a preliminary 90-day investigation when serious allegations arose involving a high government official. President Carter, who signed the bill in 1978, declared, “I believe that this act will help to restore confidence in the integrity of our government.”

Under the act, the attorney general could drop the investigation if he determined it was unsupported by the evidence. But if he found some merit to the charges, he was required to apply to a three-judge panel of federal court judges who would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate, prosecute, and issue a report.

The referral clause of the independent counsel statute provided, “An independent counsel shall advise the House of Representatives of any substantial and credible information which such independent counsel receives, in carrying out the independent counsel’s responsibilities under this chapter, that may constitute grounds for an impeachment.” But Congress, reacting to Kenneth Starr’s witch hunt which led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, allowed the independent counsel statute to expire by its own terms in 1999.

With the death of the independent counsel statute, the pendulum had swung back. By failing to renew the act, Congress returned the investigation of high government officials to pre-Watergate policies. Once again, the power to appoint an independent counsel would rest with the executive branch, that is, the attorney general. The Department of Justice drafted a set of regulations to guide future investigations.

Now the attorney general, not a three-judge panel, has the authority to appoint and remove special counsel to investigate top government officials. He exercises power over indictments and other prosecutorial actions, and the special counsel remains accountable to the attorney general. He can block “any investigative or prosecutorial step” he deems “inappropriate or unwarranted.”

Justice Department regulations call for the appointment of an outside special counsel when (1) a criminal investigation of a person or matter is warranted, (2) the investigation or prosecution of that person or matter by a United States Attorney’s Office or litigating division of the Department of Justice would present a conflict of interest for the Department, and (3) under the circumstances it would be in the public interest to appoint an outside Special Counsel to assume responsibility for the matter. When these three conditions are satisfied, the attorney general must select a special counsel from outside the government. (28 C.F.R. 600.1, 600.3 (2007).)

In light of material inconsistencies in Alberto Gonzales’s testimony before Congress, a criminal investigation is warranted. Gonzales, who is suspected of committing perjury, has a conflict of interest. The public interest requires that the highest prosecutor in the land be brought to justice.

Congress should appoint a permanent special counsel to investigate and advise Congress about misconduct by high government officials, beginning with Alberto Gonzales. That procedure should lead the House Judiciary Committee to initiate impeachment proceedings against Gonzales.

Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and President of the National Lawyers Guild. Her new book, Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law, was just published by PoliPointPress. Her articles are archived at


Marjorie Cohn is a frequent contributor to Global Research. Global Research Articles by Marjorie Cohn

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Bill Moyers: The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis (must-see video; 1987)

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replaced video May 16, 2020 on February 24, 2012

Moyers: “The Secret Government is an interlocking network of official functionaries, spies, mercenaries, ex-generals, profiteers and superpatriots, who, for a variety of motives, operate outside the legitimate institutions of government.”

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Republicans! Come to the Red State Update Debate!

Dandelion Salad

July 29, 2007

Republican Candidates, Jackie and Dunlap understand your reluctance to appear on a CNN YouTube debate. So why don’t you stop on by our place for a good old fashioned Red State Update Debate! Drinks are on them.


Republicans: Too “Important” for YouTube Debate? (video)

Bush’s Real Agenda in Palestine By Ramzy Baroud

Dandelion Salad

By Ramzy Baroud
07/28/07 “ICH

The Hamas government crackdown on Mohamed Dahlan’s corrupt security forces and affiliated gangs in the Gaza Strip in June appears to mark a turning point in the Bush administration’s foreign policy regarding Palestine and Israel. The supposed shift, however, is nothing but a continuation of Washington’s efforts to stifle Palestinian democracy, to widen the chasm separating Hamas and Fatah, and to ensure the success of the Israeli project, which is focussed on colonising and annexing what remains of Palestinian land.

It’s vital that we keep this seemingly obvious reality at the forefront of any political discussion dealing with the conflict: the occupied Palestinian territories represent a mere 22 per cent of historic Palestine. Currently, Israel is on a quest to reduce this even further by officially conquering the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem. Gaza is only relevant to this issue insofar as it represents a golden opportunity to divide Palestinians further, to confuse their national project and to present a grim picture of them as an unruly people who cannot be trusted as peace partners to the far more civilised and democratic Israelis.

By prolonging Gazan strife, thus the Palestinian split, Israel will acquire the time required to consolidate its colonial project, and to further rationalise its unilateral policies vis-à-vis matters that should, naturally, be negotiated with the Palestinians.

Moreover, one must not lose sight of the regional context. The Israeli lobby and its neo- conservative allies in the US administration and in the media are eager for a military showdown with Iran, which would weaken Syria’s political standing in any future negotiation with Israel in regards to the occupied Golan Heights, and which would obliterate the military strength of Hizbullah, proven to be the toughest enemy Israel has ever faced in its decades-long conflict with the Arabs.

Thus, its was of paramount importance for Hamas’s “rise” to be linked directly to its relations with Iran; such ties, although greatly exaggerated, are now readily used as a rationale to explain Bush’s seemingly historic move from backing Israel from a discreet distance (so as not to appear too involved) to initiating an international peace conference aimed solely at isolating Hamas, which would further weaken the Iranian camp in the Middle East.

It also explains the abundant support offered by autocratic Arab regimes to Abbas, and Arab leaders’ warnings about the rise of an Iranian menace. On the one hand, eliminating Hamas would send an unambiguous message to their own political Islamists; on the other, it’s a message to Iran to back off from a conflict that has long been seen as exclusively Arab-Israeli. The irony is that to ensure the relevance of the Arab role in the conflict, some Arabs are making historic moves to normalise with Israel, and in return for nothing.

Similarly, to ensure its own relevance, Abbas’s Fatah is actively coordinating with Israel to destroy its formidable opponent, which represents the great majority of Palestinians in the occupied territories and arguably abroad. For this, assistance is required: money to ensure the loyalty of his followers, weapons to oppress his opponents, political validation to legitimise himself as a world leader, and new laws to de-legitimise the legal, democratic process that produced the Hamas victory of January 2006. In a conflict that is known for its agonisingly slow movement, nothing short of a miracle can explain how Abbas received all of these perks at an astronomical speed.

The moment Abbas declared his arguably unconstitutional emergency government, the suffocating sanctions were lifted — or more accurately, on the West Bank only. To ensure that no aid reaches anyone who defies his regime, Abbas’s office revoked the licences of all NGOs operating in Palestine, making it necessary for them to submit new applications. Those loyal to Abbas are in. The rest are out.

Weapons and military training have also arrived in abundance. Palestinians who have been denied the right to defend themselves, and for decades described as “terrorist”, are suddenly the recipients of many caches of weapons coming from all directions. Israel announced a clemency to Fatah militants; the freedom fighters turned gangsters will no longer defend their people against Israeli brutality, but will be used as a militant arm ready to take on Hamas when the time comes.

As for regional and international legitimacy, the Bush administration “decided” to change its policy to one of direct engagement, calling for an international Middle East peace conference. The conference will be about peace in name only, for it will not deal with any of the major grievances of the Palestinians that have fuelled the conflict for years, such as the problem of refugees, Jerusalem and the drawing of borders. Israel is of course willing to “concede” if these efforts will reframe the conflict as exclusively Palestinian, and as long as there is no objection to its illegal annexation of Palestinian land in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The reality is that there has been no change in American foreign policy regarding Palestine. The US, Israel and a few Arab regimes are pursuing the same old policy, which is merely being adjusted to fit the new political context.

While Abbas and his men might bask in the many bonuses they are receiving in exchange for their role in destroying the Palestinian national project, the future will prove that Israel’s “goodwill gestures”, the support of the Israeli lobby in Washington, and the latter’s generosity will not last. Abbas could as easily find himself a prisoner in the basement of his own presidential compound, just like his predecessor, if he dares assert the legitimate rights of his people, by far the ultimate losers in this shameless battle.

Ramzy Baroud is a Palestinian-American author and editor of . His work has been published in numerous newspapers and journals worldwide, including the Washington Post, Al Ahram Weekly and Le Monde Diplomatique. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London). Read more about him on his website:
FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog may contain copyrighted material. Such material is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues, etc. This constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in Title 17 U.S.C. section 107 of the US Copyright Law. This material is distributed without profit.

The least useful reaction to terrorism is to dismiss it as an inscrutable evil By Jenni Russell

A blind faith in the moral superiority of our own way of life will only hinder efforts to tackle violent extremism

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By Jenni Russell
07/27/07 “The Guardian

When I was 19 I spent a fortnight travelling around Kenya with an exiled Eritrean revolutionary. He was a charming PhD student, who had been given political asylum in Holland. He could have led a comfortable life among the Dutch, whose generosity to stateless foreigners never ceased to astonish him. Instead he dedicated his time to securing Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia.

His task in Kenya was to tour the expatriate Eritrean community, collecting tithes from small backstreet shopkeepers and the owners of dusty restaurants to fund the struggle. The opportunities for corruption were limitless, since all his fundraising was done by stealth, and no one else could check on the money he was stowing in his leather satchel. But neither personal comfort nor wealth motivated this man. He travelled third class on the crowded, grubby trains, and he stayed in youth hostels or bedbug-ridden hotels. He was driven by the conviction that he should fight in the war of liberation for his country, and nothing else had the same importance. That purpose gave his life meaning.

History is populated with men and women like my companion: intellectuals and professionals who turn their backs on easy lives because they prefer to fight for whatever values they believe in. When we share those values we look at such people and describe them as heroes. When we don’t, our imagination appears to fail us. Not only do we condemn them, but we often refuse to understand anything about their motivation. In doing so, we deny ourselves the ability to see the world as it is, rather than as we would like it to be.

Last month the alleged would-be bombers of London and Glasgow were found to be doctors. The general reaction was one of incredulity. Similar feelings were evoked by the university students convicted earlier this week of possessing material for terror purposes. Earlier British bombers had been more marginalised men. Even if guilty, these men were successful professionals, and people who had taken oaths to heal, not to harm. The realisation that those oaths could be overridden by a deeper imperative was a shocking one. Underlying the disbelief was the assumption that no one leading a successful life in western society was likely to reject its values in favour of other beliefs.

That assumption is widespread, and fuelled by people like our former prime minister, Tony Blair. In one of his most breathtaking speeches, five years ago, he told the Labour party conference that: “Our values are not western values. They are human values, and anywhere, any time people are given the chance, they embrace them.” These sentences betrayed a total ignorance of the range of customs, convictions and prejudices that govern human behaviour in a multitude of different societies. Blair talked as if he thought that people around the world were essentially blank sheets, who would adopt all western values wholesale as soon as they encountered a can of Coke, a job in a clothing factory and a gender rights worker.

The mistake here is that the modern liberal belief – all men are equal – has been transmuted into the false idea that all people think the same. We don’t. Our metaphysical beliefs, the underlying assumptions about the world that govern our lives, limit how we react to it. From our earliest experiences and the culture around us we form often unspoken ideas about what is desirable or abhorrent, holy or impure, possible or impossible. Those ideas form the boundaries into which later concepts must fit for us to feel that the world makes sense. Metaphysical beliefs are extremely hard to shift, because they are not based on reason. They become our instincts. Indeed, Jung wrote that “one never possesses a metaphysical belief, but is possessed by it”. For instance, a Catholic may lose his or her faith, but find it impossible to lose the sense of guilt and duty that was instilled with it. Nor can one adopt a metaphysical belief by effort of will. I know people who are ashamed of their superstitions, but cannot change them. I myself admire the Buddhist philosophy of detachment from possessions and emotions, but in practice I am programmed to want pianos and clothes and strong relationships, and that overrides any intellectual flirtation with anything else.

Our belief structures drive us because they give us rules to live by, and a sense that there is order, purpose and personal significance in what is otherwise an alarmingly chaotic world. The difficulty for all of us is that we are happiest living in an environment that reflects our metaphysical beliefs, and profoundly uneasy if we are not. When the dissonance between our own powerful sense of what is right and the values of the society around us becomes too great, then some people are driven to act.

An ex-revolutionary from South Africa described the way in which she was drawn into acts of sabotage against apartheid 50 years ago. It was a short step from feeling, uneasily, that the system was evil, and discussing it with a tiny like-minded group, to thinking that something should be done – and why not by you? Once the group was formed, she said, it had its own dynamic. Everyone competed to show that they were good, and brave, and so they found themselves being pushed into more extreme positions by others. Lines kept being crossed and it was hard to know when to stop. All of them knew that they might well die or be executed for their actions. At the same time the adrenaline, the fear and the proud sense of a secret moral purpose were intoxicating.

The same sense of mission drives small groups now. They too are buoyed up by the belief that they are fighting for a better world, and that their sacrifice gives their existence meaning.

In the situation we find ourselves now, where a minority are so angered by the values of the west that they feel it right to act violently, the least useful response is to dismiss that reaction as evil or incomprehensible. It is imperative that we understand that other value systems have, whether we like it or not, their own deep appeal. After all, it’s not as if many of us can’t see the multiple ways in which competitive capitalist democracies leave people feeling anxious and adrift.

Fifteen years ago, when he published The Culture of Contentment, the economist JK Galbraith wrote about the complacency of powerful societies. All civilisations, from Rome to the French kings and today’s capitalism, ascribe moral virtue to the values that have allowed their elites to dominate others. They are all reluctant to read the warning signs that tell them their beliefs are not universally shared. A blind faith in the obvious moral superiority of our own way of life, and a refusal to recognise others’ search for meaning in their lives, is not going to provide any kind of answer to the question of why we now fear a terrorist threat.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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