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Operation Enduring Suffering: Meditations on Justice

Operation Enduring Suffering: Meditations on Justice
by Rachel Neumann

We are surprised to find that we are not transformed.  We have had our individual and collective moments of fear, panic, anger, and clarity.  But these moments illuminate that, after September 11, we are the same people we were before September 11.  Less sure, maybe, less comfortable in our own skin and on the crowded ground, but no less who we are.  The day the planes crashed and the towers collapsed, everything else fell away.  Our best selves were, for a moment, more visible, to ourselves as well as to others.  We went out to help, not knowing where we were going, offering what we had –blood, food, or shelter.  Then the smoke covered everything.  We could no longer turn off the television or even understand what it was saying.  Starred and striped bandages appeared everywhere to reassure us that we were all part of the wounded.  Tourists and time returned.  The steady flow of funerals trickled out.  When we looked up, we were at war.  A month after September 11, my mouth returned to watering at smells.  As the war returned to the television and to distant lands, people began to doze off again on the subway, less concerned that this ride might be their last.

Yet despite a war we are officially winning, there is a continuing awareness that things are not right.  Every cough could be the first symptom of anthrax inhalation.  A small earthquake, a natural disaster, is a relief.  The bombs in Afghanistan are wandering off target, hitting small villages.  Bin Laden, our one-man enemy has disappeared.  Justice.  I hear the calls on the street.  The politicians enunciate every syllable, slow, with gravitas, presidential.  Justice.  It’s not a word the powerful in the U.S. normally use.  Justice is the native language of the oppressed, the province of those who have experienced injustice.  Justice for Janitors was launched by the Service Employees International Union in Denver, Colorado and in 1988, became a successful union campaign in Los Angeles.  “No Justice, No Peace” people shouted in the street –after Rodney King was beaten and his attackers set free, after Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, and Malcolm Ferguson were shot by police officers acquitted of wrongdoing.  The idea is simple –until there is acknowledgement and compensation for the wrongs done, we will not let you rest.  We will make noise and fill the streets until you listen to us.  Peace without justice is a tyrant’s peace, it is the peace of today’s Tibet.  It is not enough to want there not to be war, since we will not accept the cold metal peace of the powerful. 

Acknowledgement.  Redress.  These are the basic ingredients of justice –the flour and water, add whatever else you will.  In South Africa after Apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission worked with an incomplete justice, with acknowledgement, but without change, and by the end of the hearings they acknowledged that truth, without justice, did not leave much fabric for reconciliation.  In Mexico in 2001, as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation wound their way on a month-long caravan from the jungle to the capital, they shouted: democracia, libertad, justicia!  Only when there is justice, they said, in the form of land, accessible education, and expanded cultural expression, would they remove their masks and negotiate peace.

No Justice, No Peace.  We know what it means when the oppressed shout this at the oppressor.  But what does this formulation mean when by the U.S. against Afghanistan?  Certainly, as the victims of the September 11 attack, this country wants and deserves justice.  But who is supposed to deliver it?  There is not a more economically and militarily powerful country than the United States.  It would be hard to find a poorer, more malnourished, underdeveloped, and more economically depressed country than Afghanistan.  When “Justice” is shouted by the powerful at the powerless, how do we respond?  Aren’t the powerful, as well, entitled to justice?  But the bombing campaign underway as I write this –with bombs dropped from 30,000 feet away, as likely to destroy villages as “training camps,” isn’t about justice.  “Eat This, Osama!” reads the scrawled handwriting on the B15 bomber before it drops and destroys.  We are fighting a war for infinite justice and you are either with us or against us.  So says Bush.  So says bin Laden.  “God is not neutral in this battle,” Bush says the day after the attacks.  The name of the war changed from “Operation Infinite Justice” to “Operation Enduring Freedom,” justice being too contested.

Justice is a secular religion, offered to those whose history is primarily a politics of opposition.  Resist!  The left say.  And that’s all well and good.  But a politics of opposition gets hungry, is apt to mistake a different form of poison (say Soviet-style communism, the dictatorship of Sadam Hussein) for a good meal.  We fear criticizing our enemies’ enemies, and yet, of course, we must.  In part because this just world is so far from existing, we must search for its elements constantly.  Injustice and Justice.  If we think only of righting the wrongs, we end up at zero.  We dream of a global justice movement, a righting of all the wrongs, a chance not just to heal but to prosper. 

About a month after September 11, I attended an informal discussion of political activists about the question of justice.  Amid talk of the World Court, the United Nations, and the role of the police and military, someone suggested we no longer use the word “justice.”  “It’s been co-opted,” he said, “everybody uses it and it doesn’t mean anything any more.”  If only we could cast out the language that other people use and keep meaning to ourselves.  The end of miscommunication and discordant meaning.  But, like many of us, I am partial to the word.  Of course “justice” holds contested to debate in print and on the streets, to search for a shared framework to understand the intensity, tension, and foreboding that is now our daily lives.

One thing is clear: justice here and now, at this very tenuous beginning to the 21st century, is a global question.  This was true before September 11 and it is equally true now.  This means that the actions of the U.S. abroad effect what happens here.  It does not excuse or explain the attacks.  The Taliban, and Al Qaeda (not to mention Christian fundamentalists here that attempt to blow up abortion providers and federal buildings) are not fighting for justice, equality, or redistribution of wealth, and they don’t pretend to be.  Both Taliban doctrines and bin Laden’s initial videotaped statement reveal what most of us know intuitively –that fundamentalist networks care not at all about global inequalities and would blow up any of us in a hot second.  But their religious fundamentalism preys on human desperation, the disintegration of human rights in places like the Sudan (where more than 200,000 have been killed in a civil war and thousands have been enslaved) and in Afghanistan.  They have taken refuge among the desperate, who are either too poor, too weak, or too corrupt to kick them out.  It’s the poverty and desperation, not of the hijackers, but of the individuals in the countries that give them support and become their foot soldiers.  A substantial part of the responsibility for this poverty and desperation lies with U.S. foreign policy.  TheU.S. has bombed over 12 countries in the past ten years.  We have let economic considerations, rather than justice, be our compass.

We worry about our safety now, say there’s not the luxury of thinking of others, but it is injustice that leads to instability.  Look at the mass exile onto our shores from Haiti, from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.  Afghans were already, before September 11, the largest refugee population in the world.  Now they run, the thousands of poor who would have left earlier if they could, barefoot and wounded, to the closed borders of Pakistan and Iran.  Find me the justice there.  Escape had been, also, the closely guarded last resort of the rich –the Afrikaners flee the mess they have made in South Africa, well-heeled dictators find sweet exile everywhere from Dallas to the Dominican Republic, the black market price of an America passport is up to $100,000.  The comments heard in Israel and South Africa after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon: now we have no safe harbor left.  September 11 has left those who could escape without a place to escape to, and so justice has become a necessity, our only route to safety.

Here is what justice does not do: it does not eradicate suffering or spread it evenly.  The only thing to be gained by comparing suffering is the reminder that we are not alone.  This is not a high stakes game of misery poker.  No one is more pure, more righteous, for having suffered more.  But, while quantity does not trump individual suffering, quantity does matter.  Who can say, for example, after the studied indifference to both the United Nations and the U.S. both before, during, and after the killings in Rwanda, that all lives are assessed at equal value in this world.  Those over 800,000 dead (killed one-by-one, by hand or machete, in just three days) were no less innocent than those that died on September 11.  And yet there was no international outcry, no you are with us or against us, from the surviving Tsutis.  In Rwanda, says Madeleine Mukamabano, a radio journalist there, what was left was mostly silence.  And the cries that remain are not heard.

We can’t talk about justice without talking about power and resources.  Justice for whom?  How is it implemented?  And who delivers it?  The victims?  The innocent and objective bystanders?  (But wait, if there are bystanders, are they then, not guilty of standing by and doing nothing?  If countries are either with us or against us in this “war on terrorism” –whatever that comes to mean—then are we with them or against them in their wars?  What if we can find no innocents?  What if all our houses are made of glass?  This was the case in Rwanda, where even in the Gacaca, the traditional grass courts on the hills, it is hard to find a judge who hasn’t killed or in some way participated in genocide.  Who can find, in those grass courts, a blade of justice?)

As an American diplomat told the New York Times in late October: “We’ve learned that we won’t get a lot of heat if we bomb the wrong target in Afghanistan, but if a little anthrax gets out, all hell breaks loose.”  We have been trained since birth that the rest of the world doesn’t matter.  Of course, our hearts bleed (though we are so tired of caring, compassion fatigue has us reaching for a drink), caring is the easy part, we can’t bring ourselves to do anything about it.  We cannot (we say, arms open, shoulders shrugged) compare suffering, after all.  It’s a different world, over there in Kabul and over here.  But it’s not, is it?  It is one world, with many different forms of suffering, many different needs for autonomy, many different notions of justice.  And this world, the one over here, is making all the rules, and using up –with its 4 percent of the population—25 percent of the world’s resources.  Globalization is already an old-fashioned word, conjuring up a time when it was possible to imagine the separate spheres, as if we were only beginning to move closer together, rearranging our borders and rivers so that we all squeezed in, an elbow in the ribs here, some structural adjusting there, and we’d all fit.  We are, ex post facto, brutally and at times beautifully globalized.

Those of us guided by justice are hungry.  We look for morsels of it wherever we can.  What would it mean to be committed to justice all the time?  As individuals?  As a nation?  As a diverse, clashing, and unequal world?  As I write this, we are continuing to bomb Afghanistan.  Perhaps, by the time you read this, that bombing will have ended and another will have begun.  However, if we accept global justice as a foundation, then there are two questions we must ask: Is the current administration response in the interests of global justice?  And if not, what are some responses that might be?

If the aim of the bombing is to make an example of states that harbor terrorists, then it has failed because –in bombing from so high, in bombing villages and Red Cross centers—the U.S. led mission has not only failed to punish the people responsible for the attacks, but has unnecessarily killed innocent civilians.  If the intention of the bombing is to topple an unjust regime, the Taliban, then it may succeed, but certainly the bombing will not replace one unjust regime with a more just one; the Northern Alliance hardly represents the majority of Afghanis and clearly has no illusions toward democracy.

What are some elements of a just response?  Here are four suggestions: 

*Continue to develop grassroots global justice networks. Organize at the community level to find out what groups are working for progressive change (like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan for example) internationally and link with them.  Create international networks based on shared values, trading support and information, working globally to imagine the scaffolding of justice. 

*Support the development of the International Criminal Court.  An international justice structure is a basic acknowledgement of our interdependence, that some crimes against humanity need to be tried in front of humanity.  If we believe that there should be a justice system, then we should be bringing known and suspected international criminals to trial, either through subpoena, warrant and military arrest, or in abstentia.  Some have argued that the main question after September 11 is one where prevention and justice are linked.  Injustice is the breeding ground of crime.  Not its legitimate excuse but its rationalization.  Creating just conditions and bringing individuals to justice begins to dry up the excuses for crime.  Of course the judicial system is a prescriptive, legal solution that doesn’t address the root causes of terrorism or economic inequities.  But it is a necessary part of creating responsibility for existing international agreements around human rights.

*Allow the needs of human beings, not corporations, to determine foreign policy.  The U.S. government’s focus on maximizing profits internationally, without regard to human rights, has not only created inhumane working conditions and led to environmental destruction, but it has also yielded instability.  America’s foreign policy, and our leading role in the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization (along with that of our allies) has allowed businesses and governments to exploit people, suspect alliances (such as the U.S.’s relationship with China, Qatar, and Nigeria, to name but a few), and resentment and anger toward the U.S. from almost every other country on the globe.

*Link U.S. aid to Israel to the withdrawal of illegal settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state.  The U.S., which gives over one billion dollars in military aid to Israel yearly (more aid than to any other country), has the ability, as well as the obligation, to create a more just situation in Israel/Palestine.  The U.S. should have done this before September 11 because it is just and must do it after September 11.  It will help build a stronger multinational coalition against fundamentalism, wherever it appears; deflate opportunists who use the situation in Israel/Palestine to recruit terrorists; give the U.S. more credibility when it talks about our love of “freedom and self-determination;” and, because justice increases security, it will increase the possibility of peace.

This is a time when there are no answers and no heroes.  We cannot romanticize the Northern Alliance or our own pre-selected president.  There is no one left to act as we would have liked to act.  Only ourselves.  Although we may imagine ourselves powerless (not leaders on the world stage but people moving between fear and boredom, small pleasures and pains), we are all that is left.  Justice is not separate from security, but a necessary precursor for it.  The more we do what is necessary to create more equal conditions and distribution of resources in the world, the safer we will feel.  Do you feel safer since the beginning of the bombing of Afghanistan?  I know I don’t.  Every day I am angry, scared, and longing for something that resembles a just, justice.


Rachel Neumann


The Brooklyn Rail

JAN-FEB 2002

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