It is hard to see how at any point in American history, whether it’s the Civil War, World War One, the Cold War or the War on Terror, it’s hard to see how these infringements on the right to dissent, infringements on basic civil liberties actually have any military value whatsoever. Does anybody think that Germany would have won World War One if Eugene Debs had been allowed to speak in the United States? Or is it really the case that we can’t allow people basic civil liberties, the right to a trial, the right to see the evidence against them, because otherwise Osama bin Laden is going to take over the world? – Eric Foner, professor at Columbia University and president of the American Historical Association
Necessity is the excuse for every infringement of human freedom. – William Pitt
Since its inception, the state has existed to make war. In this age of imagined liberty, some people expect certain rights. They believe, for instance, they have the right to say what they want on the internet without being targeted by law enforcement. But during war, the state does not permit rights. The age of imagined liberty is in fact the Age of Perpetual War. Along with fighting fabricated enemies abroad, the war has been expanded to the home front, and every dissenting group is targeted.
What Professor Foner does not point out is the actual reasons the state took away all our liberties during the various wars. Among others, dissent from the official line, especially loud, public dissent (such as that of Eugene Debs), undermines the state’s power to wage the war. The state, at all times but especially in war, desires uniformity of thought, as getting the masses to tow the official line enables the decision makers to do as they please. During the 1960s in the US, young people protested the war on Vietnam. The state cracked down on them violently for protesting, but dissent grew. What did Richard Nixon do? He declared war on his home-front detractors—not on demonstrations but on drugs. Smoking pot was common among those who opposed the war. Nixon found it politically useful to escalate violence by claiming marijuana would destroy the country, and not enough people defied him to reject his policy and humiliate him. Since Nixon’s resignation, other power-hungry people have given the War on Drugs a life of its own, with the purpose of attacking the lower classes or entire racial groups, as well as the politically unpopular.
Naturally, the US government’s attacks on dissent go back to its founding. Consider the Alien and Sedition Acts, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Wilson’s Espionage Act and his jailing of dissenters. But while those measures established the precedent that war would mean no freedom, they were temporary measures. Today, war is not meant to end, and freedom is not meant to return.
The War on Terror has been even more destructive of liberties. The Patriot Act and the NDAA instantly bring to mind the practices of torture and indefinite detention to anyone who has been paying attention. The US government has suspended the Bill of Rights and the Geneva Conventions indefinitely. The NSA’s extensive spy network and the drones over American skies—that’s 30,000 drones by 2020—ensure the state knows if you are violating any one of its millions of statutes. The police have been militarizing since 9/11 (or before, thanks to the War on Drugs), ostensibly to combat the miniscule terrorist threat but probably to prevent any kind of insurrection. The FBI uses blatant entrapment to jail and destroy the lives of otherwise innocent people for life under trumped-up charges and spread the lie that the terrorists are everywhere. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here, for example.) It has harassed activists its clients do not like, such as anarchists, Greenpeace, PETA and Antiwar.com. The state legitimizes its war on you by claiming it needs to defeat an enemy that exists largely in our imaginations—“the terrorists”. It has claimed complete control over you in its endless war. (See more here.)
The state’s unwitting accomplices in the legal war on freedom are the millions of Americans who never cease to yell at anyone who disagrees with what the military is doing. These people repeat the state’s line about the wars’ being about freedom and security and democracy, not realizing they have in fact got it backward. They believe the US as a nation (represented, of course, by the US government) has a divine purpose to spread these things around the world. Their job as loyal citizens is to lash out verbally (and sometimes physically – see here) at anyone who does not believe the gospel. (See this page for countless examples.)
As such, anyone who thanks soldiers for securing their freedom has it backwards. Soldiers make war possible, and war is the excuse to take away freedom. If soldiers want to fight for freedom, they can stop going to war.
Atheism is spreading. People who have realised religion has harmful effects have taken it upon themselves to spread the word against God. So far, I have no problem. However, millions of the same people are willing to use the state to force others. They have no problem with the growth of the state (or if they do they do not voice their concerns), as long as no one lets religious beliefs guide it. Is that the right way to prevent the damage caused by religion? More importantly, does it strike the root of the problem?
Bill Maher made an authoritative list of his problems with religion: “most wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11, arranged marriages to minors, blowing up girls’ schools, the suppression of women and homosexuals, fatwas, ethnic cleansing, honor rape, human sacrifice, burning witches, suicide bombings, condoning slavery and the systematic fucking of children”. (I would add religious dogma that denies science.) Let us go through this list and see if we are attacking the root of the problem.
-First, most wars, the Crusades and the Inquisition. Wars are started because powerful men want to expand or maintain the territories and the people on them they consider their possessions. In the past, religion was indeed used frequently to justify going to war, and the Crusades are only the most obvious example. But we need to distinguish between wars that religious people take part in (which is most or all, since most of the world’s people can be considered religious) and wars started by invoking religion. Nowadays, religion has been largely replaced by nationalism as the source of appeals to go to war. Nationalism is far deadlier in the present moment, and it is no less a religion than Christianity. Conflicts between groups that seem to be of different religions, say in Israel/Palestine, are often better understood as colonial, racist and nationalist in nature. Different forms of division and oppression tend to feed off each other. Religion is one means people in power use to oppress, of course, but it is also used by those on the bottom fighting for their rights. As long as no one has a monopoly on interpretation, people can use religion for “good” as well as “evil”.
Moreover, the War on Drugs has killed more people than any religious conflict going at the moment. It is a war that could be ended with the stroke of a pen. Religion takes centuries of education to eradicate. Why would we not concentrate on the former if we wanted to help people?
Condoning slavery is the same. Scripture gave religious justification for slavery, of course. Slavery is a very old institution. Any books written thousands of years ago and used to control people will include slavery. It is possible the reason it took so long to eliminate slavery was religion. But systematic slavery has been wiped out in much of the world and the religions continue to exist. That is because, contrary to what religious and irreligious people believe, religions change with time. Certain parts are emphasised at different times and places. Since we agree slavery is wrong, why not work to end debt slavery in your own city?
The deadliest religious conflict going at the moment is probably the fighting between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. Nigeria is a very poor country with a poor education system. While poor education itself does not cause conflict, it facilitates manipulating people into attacking each other. When education is controlled by a corrupt state, it is the state who is to blame for poorly-educated citizens. Of course, the conflict is more complicated than I am making it out to be. I merely wish to point out that religious differences do not necessarily lead to violence.
-9/11 was probably the work of religious fanatics who had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. But was it religion that led them to destroy those buildings? People who make this claim have only Osama’s pronouncements from the Quran to back them up. But a closer look at the evidence reveals the attacks as what is often called “blowback”, or revenge for US foreign policy. To say Islam is what flew 19 men into two buildings begs the question, as it does not explain the millions of Muslims who denounced the attacks or the 1.5-or-so billion Muslims who have never committed any act of terrorism.
-Arranged marriages to minors, blowing up girls’ schools, the suppression of women and homosexuals, honour rape, human sacrifice, burning witches and suicide bombings are not institutions of religion. Bill might have added male and female circumcision to this list. They are things that take place in some religious societies and some societies with different religions. Many anti-theists do not take the time to research the different cultures that comprise “Islam” and “Christianity”. If they did, they would see beyond the lenses their cultures provide to the fact that it is ignorance, not religion, that unites these practices; and while religion keeps us ignorant, so do state schools and propaganda. Many religious people would find all of these practices abhorrent and can point to places in the scripture to justify their positions. War is human sacrifice, and religion is just as likely as atheism to make someone oppose war.
Suicide bombing, in particular, has little to do with religion. We tend to see it as something justified by Islam, but only if we do not look at the reasons behind it. (Indeed, Islam forbids suicide and the killing of innocents.) Robert Pape has done comprehensive research into this field, having looked at every suicide bombing that has taken place. He has concluded that, while religion may be a recruitment tool for suicide bombers (even though the irreligious Tamil Tigers were the pioneers of suicide bombing), nearly every such attack has had the same causes: an indigenous population feels under threat from occupation by an illegitimate foreign military, nearly always that of a democracy, and suicide bombing is an effective tool for making the foreigners withdraw. It is not a phenomenon of Islam, or religion, but merely a weapon of war. If we want to end it, we should end foreign occupation, not religion.
-Fatwas are religious legal opinions and are non-binding. Until the scholars begin enforcing their fatwas with police, the rule of law should be the target of all who are against arbitrary violence initiated to protect the elite. It matters to an extent who make the laws, but most lawmakers, now and throughout history, do whatever they can to further their own interests. The more laws and police to enforce them, the more restrictions there are on you, the more easily you can go to prison, the more money it is going to cost you and the more powerful the lawmakers and the people they work for get if the masses do not rise up against them.
-Seeing ethnic cleansing on the list makes me wonder if Bill (and Richard Dawkins in the God Delusion) is clutching at straws. Any differences in identity, whether religious, ethnic or national, can be the reason we claim for committing acts of violence. But how does religion actually cause it? The problem here is the politics of identity. I am just as opposed to religious identity as I am to any other form of collectivism. People commit acts of ethnic cleansing in the name of their group, whatever the group. We should not be more or less opposed to it when religion is the excuse.
-The rape of minors by priests is indeed a problem and we are right to oppose it. However, it is a problem with a specific part of a specific religion. If it were possible for priests to get married, it is unlikely children would suffer anymore. Religions can be reformed, as time has shown us, and enough pressure on the Vatican could end this vile practice in our lifetimes. Someone who works against the priesthood for raping children but remains silent on or approves of drone strikes that kill children is a hypocrite.
Anti-religious statists also display hypocrisy with relation to the esteem the religious hold for the written word. They lament and mock following religious texts while believing in constitutions and the rule of law. What is a constitution but a legal holy book? What is a holy book but an old constitution? Those who say holy books are invalid because they condone war and slavery but consider more recently made laws legitimate (perhaps because of democracy) need to consider what principle their beliefs are based on. As Lysander Spooner said, “whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.”
My main problem with religion is its emphasis on scripture, rather than science, as the method for ascertaining truth, and providing certainty where there should be mystery. All that means is humans, with their capacity for both fantasy and reason, should emphasise the latter over the former. That goes for the militant atheists as well. The question I pose to them is, what is truly important?
We see places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where religious people have taken over, and we see the excesses of the state in forcing people to act in certain ways, and we blame religion. But if they had no power to force people, what would be the problem? People could still practice their religions and yet would not harm others. Any ideology can be warped when it is used by the state for legitimacy.
I liken the hatred of religion to the hatred of communism. In its time, communism needed to be opposed for the sake of freedom. Today, such worrying almost seems quaint. The truly dangerous ideas of today are statism, the rule of law and nationalism, which millions of people claiming to be atheists hold in awe. If they have principles besides merely ruffling feathers, they should end their religious views of politics and oppose all violent ideologies.
Drawing on sources from political science, history, media and the psychology of nationalism, this paper explains how the Bush administration used what Americans perceive as the virtues of their nation and its foreign policy–freedom, democracy, peace, humanitarianism and God–to win support for its invasion of Iraq.
In this post, I will outline the evidence that 9/11 was an “outside job”. If that upsets you, consider the following. I do not rule out the possibility that it was also an inside job. There is evidence that it was, and it is wrong to close one’s mind to evidence. I do not know if the terrorists were found or trained or paid off by some CIA operative. Because of government secrecy, it is extremely difficult to know the complete truth. Neither am I an engineer, least of all a demolitions expert, so it is hard for me to know which engineers are right and which are wrong. This post presents the evidence that a small group of radicals swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, believed the US and Israel were at war with Islam, and took it upon themselves to destroy a symbol of American power, hoping to lure the superpower into a cosmic war in which Islam would prevail.
Ron Crelinsten, a terrorism expert at the University of Victoria, says that terrorism is about communication. Every terrorist attack sends a message. It is important to listen to them, or else how are we supposed to stop terrorism? Terrorists are not irrational. They are not crazy. Those accusations are a smokescreen designed to make you listen to the government and Thomas Friedman for explanations rather than the terrorists themselves. But the terrorists can tell you why they are angry, and if we had listened to them, we might not have witnessed their anger in September of 2001. Let us look at a timeline of events that could have given clues to those paying attention that something was going to happen.
May 31, 1996: Four Saudi men were executed for the bombing of a US military mission in Riyadh the year before. The attacks were aimed at American “infidels”, 6 of whom died. Three of the four men executed had fought in Afghanistan, and one had fought in Bosnia. This is where you could trace their radicalisation to. They all claimed to have links to Osama bin Laden. They felt that Islam was under attack worldwide, and that they were part of what they believed was a global jihad. They had discussed the Saudi state and were disgusted that it embraced secular law, rather than Quranic law, and how the ulema, Islamic scholars supposed to be independent of lawmakers, “were conspiring with the state to undermine Islam….Saudi Arabia [was] an infidel state.” Many Saudi dissidents believe the ulema should have a strong consultative role in politics, as this would mean policies along Islamic lines.
June 25, 1996, less than a month later: In Khobar, Saudi Arabia, an explosion killed 19 Americans and wounded hundreds more in a complex that housed foreign military personnel called the Khobar Towers.
It is around this time that Osama bin Laden begins appearing in the headlines. Naturally, after the 9/11 attacks, millions of Americans asked “why us?” Bin Laden had already outlined very clearly why, and if Americans had realised that, they might have been less likely to use words like “evil” and “senseless” after the attacks.
Journalist Robert Fisk met with bin Laden three times, in 1993, 1996 and 1997.
When I met him again in Afghanistan in 1996, he was 39, raging against the corruption of the Saudi royal family, contemptuous of the West. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Bin Laden told the House of Saud that his Arab legion could destroy the Iraqis; no need to bring the Americans to the land of Islam’s two holiest places. The King turned him down. So the Americans were now also the target of Osama’s anger.
The House of Saud invited thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia as protection from Saddam Hussein. We can identify the first two causes of 9/11 here: the corruption of the House of Saud and the American military presence in the land of the Islam’s two holiest places.
In 1996, bin Laden said
When the American troops entered Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy places [Mecca and Medina], there was a strong protest from the ulema [the religious scholars] and from students of the sharia law all over the country against the interference of American troops… After it insulted and jailed the ulema 18 months ago, the Saudi regime lost its legitimacy….
The Saudi people have remembered now what the ulema told them and they realise America is the main reason for their problems. The ordinary man knows that his country is the largest oil producer in the world, yet at the same time he is suffering from taxes and bad services. Now…our country has become an American colony… What happened in Riyadh and Khobar is clear evidence of the huge anger of Saudi people against America. The Saudis now know their real enemy is America.
What bin Laden was saying was basically truthful. Most Saudis objected to the presence of non-Muslim troops in the land of Islam’s holiest places, even though they had been asked by the House of Saud to come to protect them from Saddam Hussein, and they weren’t actually in the holy places themselves. But by 1996, the threat from Saddam was gone. He was under sanctions, no fly zones and bombing raids. But American troops were still there, just like they are still in Germany, Spain and Japan, long after the threat from a powerful army is gone.
In 1990, there were 31,636 US troops in Saudi Arabia.
1991: 14,943 troops
1993 and 4: fewer than 2,000
By 2001, it was clear that the US had not got the message the terrorist attacks over the 1990s had attempted to convey.
In 1997, bin Laden told Robert Fisk he would turn America into a shadow of itself.
We declared jihad against the US government, because the US government is unjust, criminal and tyrannical. It has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous and criminal whether directly or through its support of the Israeli occupation of the Prophet’s Night Travel Land [Palestine]. And we believe the US is directly responsible for those who were killed in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. The mention of the US reminds us before everything else of those innocent children who were dismembered, their heads and arms cut off in the recent explosion that took place in Qana [Lebanon]…. The US government hit Muslim civilians and executed more than 600,000 Muslim children in Iraq by preventing food and medicine from reaching them….”
At a different time, bin Laden called the war and sanctions on Iraq “the oppressing and embargoing to death of millions…the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known”.
Now we are adding reasons for 9/11: support for Israel and its war in Lebanon, the sanctions on Iraq that crippled the economy and the people. I do not know if 600,000 children and millions of other people truly died as a result of these policies, but it is not truth that makes decisions but perceptions. Most Americans had no idea about any of this, and were every time misled by their representatives. For nearly twenty years after the first Gulf War, Bin Laden issued specific demands, such as “get US troops out of Arabia” and American politicians responded with “stop trying to force our women into burkas”. As a result, we have millions of people believing that “the terrorists” cannot be reasoned with and must be killed. Their solution is to escalate the wars that are, in fact, the causes of the anger and hatred that might lead to another major terrorist attack. They are wars that do not make anyone safer or freer. They kill and terrorise innocent people, including Americans, for the purpose of strengthening the US government overseas and domestically.
Bin Laden issued a fatwa, a religious opinion on Islamic law by an Islamic scholar. (Incidentally, bin Laden is not an Islamic scholar and is thus not qualified to issue fatwas.) He called the US military presence in the Arabian Peninsula crusader armies spreading like locusts through the Muslim world and gobbling up its resources. “First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.” Second, he claimed that the “crusader-Zionist alliance” had killed more than a million Iraqis through war and embargo. (Bin Laden often refers to “crusaders” when talking about the US, in order to show that he sees little difference between the Crusades and current US foreign policy regarding the Muslim world. Right after the 9/11 attacks, George Bush called the War on Terror that was about to begin a crusade. Probably wasn’t the ideal choice of words for winning Muslim hearts and minds.) Third, “the aim is also to serve the Jews’ petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there. The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab state, and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel’s survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula.”
Why did he mention Jerusalem? What is so special about Jerusalem? Jerusalem is the third holiest site in Islam, because it is where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. And many Muslims in the world consider Jerusalem and all of Palestine under occupation by foreigners, supported by the US.
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. Here is what bin Laden said about it in 2004.
The events that affected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them in that…Many were killed and injured and others were terrorised and displaced. I couldn’t forget those moving scenes, blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents, rockets raining down on our home without mercy. The situation was like a crocodile meeting a helpless child, powerless except for his screams. Does the crocodile understand a conversation that doesn’t include a weapon? And the whole world saw and heard but it didn’t respond.
He is not just making stuff up. The US has been indirectly responsible for the deaths of many innocent Muslims at the hands of Israel.
April 18, 1996: During its occupation of southern Lebanon, Israel shelled the village of Qana, killing 106 civilians and injuring around 116 others who had taken refuge there to escape the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. I’ll spare you the pictures. Look them up if you are not faint of heart.
Lawrence Wright, in his 2006 book The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, says that Mohamed Atta, one of the masterminds of the attacks, signed his will during the operation against Qana, because he was enraged and wanted to offer his life in response. So Israel was a major factor in perceptions of injustice against Muslims and desecration of Palestine and Jerusalem.
Bin Laden’s anger had foundation, and Muslims around the world knew it. Most Muslims do not support terrorism, but at least as many have the same complaints as the jihadis. For instance, though most Saudis do not like al-Qaeda, 95% of those asked wanted American troops to leave Saudi Arabia. Terrorists are supported by communities. If the communities are sympathetic to the terrorists’ causes, they will fund, shelter and supply them with recruits. People support al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and whoever else not because they are under some misapprehension but because they have seen injustices before their own eyes and they know who did it.
Also in 1998, a memo from Mohamed Atef, al-Qaeda’s military chief, said that al-Qaeda was aware of negotiations between the US and the Taliban on a UNOCAL oil and gas pipeline through Afghanistan, and that a terrorist attack would be the way to draw the US in to Afghanistan, otherwise known as the graveyard of empires. Both Clinton and Bush administrations negotiated with the Taliban. After the embassy bombings, the Clinton administration imposed sanctions and continued talking to the Taliban, mostly pressuring them to hand over bin Laden.
In another response to the embassy bombings, Bill Clinton signed off on Operation Infinite Reach, a series of US cruise missile strikes on terrorist bases in Afghanistan and Sudan. Operation Infinite Reach took place in August 1998. Does anyone remember anything else that was going on at this time? The Monica Lewinsky scandal. It has been speculated that Operation Infinite Reach was a way of deflecting attention from Clinton’s sex life and raising public opinion of him by killing terrorists. Anyway, one of the attacks destroyed al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. The US claimed the factory was making VX nerve agent and its owners had ties to al-Qaeda. The US State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research said the evidence was highly dubious. Noam Chomsky and other critics say that tens of thousands of Sudanese civilians died because they would not have the drugs they needed.
In 2000, a suicide attack on the US Navy destroyer the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen. 17 US sailors were killed and more were injured. Al-Qaeda proudly claimed responsibility. Bill Clinton declared, “If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act. We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable”. (That said, being an attack on a military target, the USS Cole bombing does not actually meet the official US definition of terrorism.) The 9/11 Commission Report says that bin Laden supervised the bombing, chose the location, and provided the money, and that an unidentified source said bin Laden wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something bigger. (By the way, bin Laden has been indicted for the USS Cole bombing but not for the 9/11 attacks.) The Report goes on to say that he
instructed the media committee… to produce a propaganda video that included a reenactment of the attack along with images of the al Qaeda training camps and training methods; it also highlighted Muslim suffering in Palestine, Kashmir, Indonesia, and Chechnya…Portions were aired on Al Jazeera, CNN, and other television outlets. It was also disseminated among many young men in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and caused many extremists to travel to Afghanistan for training and jihad.
Things were heating up, and not just for al-Qaeda.
The Report also says that during spring and summer 2001, US intelligence agencies received a stream of warnings that al-Qaeda was planning something huge, CIA Director George Tenet saying that “the system was blinking red.” Between January and September 2001, the FBI issued 216 internal warnings about the possibility of an al-Qaeda attack.
The form it did take was a kind of suicide bombing. Suicide bombing is a pretty new phenomenon in terrorism, going back about 30 years. Why suicide bombing? Under what conditions does suicide bombing occur? Since the most visible and horrific acts of terrorism are suicide bombings committed by Muslims, it might seem obvious that Islamic fundamentalism is the central cause. But it is not. Robert Pape has compiled a database of every suicide attack around the globe since 1980.
The data [for all attacks between 1980 and 2003] show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions. In fact, the leading instigators of suicide attacks are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more suicide attacks than Hamas.
Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.
Nearly all suicide attacks are parts of organised campaigns; democratic states are most vulnerable to suicide terrorists; they have a strategic objective: trying to establish or maintain political self-determination by compelling a democracy to withdraw from the territories they claim (nationalist, not religious, goals); their goals, if not necessarily their tactics (taboos on suicide exist in every culture, especially Islamic ones), are supported by the distinct national community they represent (enough people must think them worth defending that they will allow them to recruit, help them hide and consider them martyrs) (for instance, as I said, almost all Saudis want US troops out of the country); loyalty among comrades and devotion to leaders; suicide terrorism is more lethal than non-suicide attacks, which are used for a wider variety of goals; and finally, they work, at least sometimes.
To sum up the causes:
-The perceived occupation of Saudi Arabia
-The “infidel” House of Saud
-US support for Israel
-The 1991 invasion of Iraq and the sanctions that hurt Iraqi civilians
-And the conclusion from all of this that Islam itself was under attack.
Ten years ago today, these factors combined to cause the most spectacular terrorist attack in history.
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
(I have written extensively on the problems of nationalism elsewhere. See here for the logic for individualism.)
The root of opposition to immigration, along with the root of war and other statist evils, is nationalism. Nationalism is the irrational belief that one’s country is superior to all others. It places the nation above the individuals that make it up, meaning that if for any reason the nation is in trouble, the individual must lay everything on the line for it. And it must go.
I agree with Professor Stephen Walt that nationalism is the most powerful force in the world today.
“[M]odern states also have a powerful incentive to promote national unity — in other words, to foster nationalism — because having a loyal and united population that is willing to sacrifice (and in extreme cases, to fight and die) for the state increases its power and thus its ability to deal with external threats. In the competitive world of international politics, in short, nations have incentives to obtain their own state and states have incentives to foster a common national identity in their populations.”
And today’s strongest states, including the US and China, are ones where nationalism is mainstream and highly valued.
Do you feel pride in your country? Does your heart swell when you see a flag or hear a national anthem? I have trouble understanding why someone would feel anything. A country is not a person; it is just an idea. If you like the idea, live there. But why is it we feel deep affiliation with people from the same country rather than some other of the millions of characteristics that make us who we are? Why don’t we build the community of other people who like reggae? Why don’t we form armies to defend people of the same shoe size? Because we have chosen a different arbitrary distinction from others to kill for. To me, it’s all the same nonsense. And if your heart still thumps an extra beat because of a flag, well, as George Carlin said, symbols are for the symbol minded.
Reactions to the Olympics are a great example of why nationalism is ridiculous. Wow, my country won a gold medal. No. Someone from within the same line on a political map as you won a medal, through his or her own hard work. There may be nothing that is more obviously an individual effort than winning a gold medal at the Olympics (notwithstanding the coach, or the team, whoever is involved). The people from the same country have absolutely nothing to feel proud of. They didn’t do anything. Tribalists find validation in the actions of others from their chosen group, and weak people take credit for other people’s accomplishments. Besides, if I consider myself a citizen of the world (and by the way I do, it is not just something cool to say), shouldn’t I feel proud if ANYONE wins a medal? Whichever country wins the Olympics, it is my country!
We are too proud already. Pride in your own efforts leads to narcissism as much as collective pride leads to collective narcissism. But individual narcissism is not fueled by history text books that gloss over facts and make people believe fairy tales about how wonderful their country has always been. Like collectivism, individual narcissism can lead to war, but only when it comes from a psychopath in power and nationalists follow him blindly. I simply do not see anything to feel proud of aside from one’s own results. But maybe those results are only worth being proud of if they benefit others. So how about we consider everyone in the world when acting, rather than just our country?
Is it ever nationalism that motivates people to improve their community? I doubt it. Some nationalists have that sense of responsibility and some don’t. But if people are aware of the rest of the world, they are just as likely to go somewhere else to help people. Nationalism cannot be moral because it is exclusive, and morality depends on universal values. Obviously, there is nothing more moral about helping people in your own country than helping people elsewhere, since all people are of equal worth, equally deserving of the application of morality such as the non-aggression principle.
But to a nationalist, some people are simply superior. The people in our exclusive club are the best, and the people allied with our country are pretty good (though not to be trusted), and the people we are told are our enemies are evil. It is so easy to manipulate nationalists. Take Americans’ reactions to 9/11. It was immediately assumed that “our country is under attack”. Leaving aside the fact that there was only one attack and it ended, what connection did people in Maryland and Florida and Nebraska have with the people who were killed? None whatsoever. They might well have hated each other if they had known each other personally. And if they had died in car crashes, they would have been completely ignored. But instead, the people went into a frenzy of fear, anger and despair for people they never would have met. Likewise, what did American Muslims (and other minorities) have to do with 9/11? Still nothing. Yet the Center for American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., counted some 1,700 attacks on Muslims in the five months following September 11. Nationalism is used to spread hate, which is good for politicians but bad for minorities and taxpayers. Americans approved of the invasion of two countries that had nothing to do with the attack because they were told that the country and “national values” were at stake.
Those values are largely illusory, however, because they are things like freedom and justice, which people of all cultures want. And belief in the superiority, or just the distinctiveness, of our own tribe blinds us to the many, many things that make us all human and all equally deserving of compassion and respect and almost the same everywhere. And taking pride in an exclusive part of humanity ignores that fact.
The Adventures in Space programme and the Olympics are further products of nationalism. Hosting the Olympics is a big source of national pride, so some people are willing to put up with any number of billions of dollars (a number that is continually revised upward) taken to pay for it. Space travel used to be a source of pride, during the Cold War, when the Soviets launched a couple of rockets out of Earth’s atmosphere and the US spent tens of billions of dollars to feel good about itself again.
Nationalism is also about discriminating against minorities. Politicians benefit from providing the people with an enemy, because an enemy is a reason to give money and power to them. They will protect you from the Jews, Huguenots, Gypsies, or whatever group you have been told you hate recently. They might see others as “dangerous to our way of life”, competing for “national resources” or otherwise a threat to our precious possessions. To people who can be taught to hate others for what they are, power is a zero-sum game among ethnic groups. And all the civil wars we have seen have been caused by this kind of thinking, from Yugoslavia to Rwanda. Everyone different from us is a potential enemy.
As such, minorities, largely or entirely locked out of power, might take to terrorism to achieve freedom from an oppressive majority (separatism) but get tarred as evil terrorists who cannot be reasoned with. The truth is that they keep coming back because they have been denied their freedom. Nationalism requires the integrity of the nation state, which means that anyone wanting to separate must be eliminated. As a result, we get terrorism in Turkey, Sri Lanka, Israel and Spain, heavy repression in Tibet, a highly militarised standoff in the Taiwan Strait, and a strong state wherever terrorism can be used as an excuse to expand it. Nationalism on both sides created the separatist terrorists. As Ilya Somin notes, “playing with nationalism is like playing with fire. It’s not inevitable that you will get burned, but the risk is high…[and] a small nationalistic flame can often turn into a conflagration that burns down the whole neighborhood.”
Governments also like nationalism because they want to be able to sign a deal at the top and assume that it is legitimate for the entire group each party represents. Nationalists believe we need representatives because we are a coherent community. A “free trade agreement”, for example, will contain various handouts to the loudest of special interest groups and it will be imposed over an entire national economy because some people at the top claimed to speak in the name of everyone underneath them. Nationalists might accept the agreement because, though the agreement benefits some individuals at the expense of others, it is all for the elusive “greater good”.
At the extreme, when politicians and generals manufacture threats to the equally-elusive “national security”, nationalists buy in easily. They are thus more likely to sacrifice their money, freedom and lives for the nation. However, if the elites could not count on collectivist sheep, they would not have risked starting a fight in the first place. Journalists will often fall in line in times of “national crisis” (as if a real crisis could permeate or be confined to one country), as Dan Rather did after 9/11, equating “patriotism”, or unthinking loyalty to one’s country, with doing whatever the president told Americans to do. “I am willing to give the government, the president and the military the benefit of any doubt here in the beginning”, Rather said. In other words, he would give up the career of journalism, which means asking the tough questions and speaking truth to power, for that of cheerleading. Nationalism shuts up the minority that disagrees with the president’s war plans, calling them traitors and accusing them of siding with the enemy. Nationalism is thus a means for government control of the willing and coercion of the unwilling.
In the same vein, research finds that it only takes a few hours for us to be conditioned to fear and hate people only superficially different from ourselves. We do not need to know anything about someone else to discriminate against him or her; just being told he or she is different is enough. Being on a winning team (which to people who do not participate in teams or have achievements of their own could be a nation or race) is a source of self esteem, as is denigrating those on other teams. We can be given any number of reasons to believe we are better, and our criteria for what is good about a country tend to be entirely based on things we believe ours is best at. Freedom is the most important thing for a country; our country is the most free; therefore, our country is the best. This of course is uncritical ethnocentrism; and ignorant people fall into its warm embrace whenever the people on top need a favour.
One problem nationalism creates is that of borders—in effect, who owns what. Borders make sense when they are amicably agreed on by owners or negotiators appointed by owners. The borders of your property, for example, or unguarded borders in Europe that now demarcate cultural boundaries rather than the do-not-pass-or-we-shoot variety, actually delineate something. But when nationalism comes into play, and groups that, hundreds or thousands of years ago (before national boundaries were invented), used to control this territory, feel that it is theirs (and by extension, not yours), they are willing to kill each other to secure that border. These are our property and our people and our resources and our little lines drawn on the map.
But where is the logic of these boundaries? Even the idea that “we” used to control this or that territory, or have done for a long time, usually has no merit. Almost every (if not every) national boundary has been created by an empire. The empires of Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Russia, China, plus all the kingdoms that disappeared before the Treaty of Westphalia, all drew lines around their possessions. They needed to be clear what was whose. At the same time, these possessions contained people not native to the empire’s centre of power on them so they needed to keep them in line by inventing nationalities. Almost every (if not every) one of these borders did not reflect the cultural makeup of the people it enclosed: they were arbitrary. But when the empires left, instead of redrawing the borders, the elites decided they wanted to make everyone inside those borders think they were a cohesive group—a nation—because it would help them gain power. No government wants to relinquish control of part of its territory because it means less power; and less power is out of the question for anybody in it. So they invented myths about how everyone within the imperial borders has always been a nation, and since we are the political party who will help keep our nation together, support us. The story of post-colonial electoral politics in a nutshell.
Now, nationalism is an arbitrary expression of desire to kill and die for a space of land within whatever border the government claims to control, wherever the borders are, however many years ago they were set. Some form of tribalism is probably natural to humans, as we, like other primates, are territorial. First, however, we must not assume that something natural is something good. Second, man’s territoriality is an argument for individual property rights, not for nationalism. We all have something to defend against aggression, but to think we should defend an entire nation is to take the idea of property or tribe to ridiculous lengths. Your country is not your property. When I express this individualist point of view, collectivists ask me, “so what if one country was invading your country? Would you defend it with your life?” Quite simply, the answer is no. I would defend my friends and family to the death, and I would organise to ward off any attacks on other innocents as best I could. But my friends and family are all over the world. I have no deeper a connection to someone in “my” country that I do not know than I do to someone in Burkina Faso that I do not know.
Nationalism has always been dangerous, but now it is simply irrelevant. The only argument that is superficially plausible for the continuation of the nation state is the military and its defense of national security. It may have made sense when there were real threats to people from other nation states; hence the union of the Czech and Slovak people, or the Yugoslav republics, during the 20th century to protect against the predation of external empires. However, today’s national security threats are not from empires and foreign militaries (unless you are in the US or Israel’s crosshairs). Now, nearly all wars are intrastate, rather than interstate. The closest thing to national security threats from abroad are terrorists (whose threat is almost always a response to government-sanctioned military aggression), criminal organisations (which would barely exist if drugs, guns and prostitution were legal), and environmental disasters (rescue’s being entrusted to the same people whose main training is in weapons makes little sense; like the nature of the threat, rescue teams could be transnational). There are no national security threats because there is no national security. The nation itself is an illusion, and all countries are based on it. There is no longer any reason to have countries at all.
Though tribalism may be innate, in today’s world tribalist impulses are mitigated by the internationalisation of our society through our exposure to media, people and ideas from all around the world. Exclusive, outdated, national celebrations and traditions such as Independence Day are creations of the elites to sell loyalty to the state. The state and the nation are linked in the imagination, so when the state goes to war, it tells everyone that the nation is going to war. That is why we have the idea of “the national interest” and “national security”. Have you ever noticed that whatever the government wants happens to be in our national interest as well? Nationalism threatens to deny access to the rest of the world through narrow-minded protectionist policies that limit a country’s economic potential, and the creation of enemies that legitimises taking more money and more freedom from the people.
The idea of democracy promotion is related to nationalism, because it is based on a belief that our ideas are the best, because they are our ideas. Again, we are talking about ethnocentrism. Our culture is better and we want you to learn from us, then you will be better people. And as soon as a revolution breaks out somewhere they don’t know anything about, democrats say they are fighting for democracy. My guess is, they are fighting for freedom. Freedom to choose a few of the people who rule you is not real freedom. Real freedom means not being subject to rule by force by anyone. But our ethnocentrism blinds us, and leads us think they want a system just like ours. Maybe they want more freedom than we have. Maybe they only like the idea of democracy because they lack other ideas. After all, most people in the self-righteous rich democracies of the world tend to believe so fervently in the superiority of their system over all others that they have been forcing it down the throats of the rest of the world for decades. You should all be democracies like us, because we are America and so can you. If you want to help the people in a post-revolutionary state like Tunisia or Egypt, help them become self-sufficient, not as a nation but as individuals, communities, or whatever groups they want. Let them trade with whomever they want. Let them travel to any country they want. Help them build independent and voluntary businesses, charities and other institutions to deal with their problems. Teach entrepreneurship, medicine, and other things that healthy communities require. One thing they do not require is a new regime that does not know or care about them to tell them what to do. They can figure that out for themselves.
Why is it negative? Let us ask the hundreds of millions of people who were killed because someone loved his country. Nationalism is an arbitrary distinction created by elites to justify accumulating power, growing governments and starting wars, and if you do not know that, you do not understand nationalism. (Here is a primer.)
Nationalism is an outdated impulse based on our tribal instincts and has no place in modern society. It is another way elites divide us when we could move past such simplistic and dangerous divisions. Anarchy means no nations and no national rulers but cooperation with anyone who wishes to join us. It thus leads to understanding, respect and peace.