Disaster demands greater sacrifice from each of us

September 23, 2001


Without question, the terror bombings have changed America, and they may change Americans. Hopefully, this will not be for the worse. But the fact is that human beings react strongly to events such as this, and Americans have historically been more than human. Ask the American Indians.

For years it has been fashionable to excuse attacks on frontier settlements and to condemn American massacres. I suspect that after September 11, those horrible episodes in our history will be seen in a new context. The 1624 attack on Jamestown, which killed a third of the colony's population, and the 1862 attack on New Ulm in Minnesota Territory, which Dances with Wolves did not mention, will be remembered.

In those contexts, and in others, I'm rather relieved that the New York and Washington bombings weren't even worse. Having long taught a course that includes a section on terrorism, I expected an atomic bomb in a suitcase, poison gas or a biological attack. An atomic bomb would truly be anonymous, at least until somebody began to brag, and it would have done much more damage. That's small comfort, of course; and it's not a thought that will affect the national response much.

What will the response be? Conventional bombing won't do much good, but it is all that is not costly in lives or likely to be considered too extreme. An invasion of Afghanistan? How? The Soviets couldn't do it, and the USSR was right on the border and the Red Army was rightly feared as a formidable military machine. Atomic and hydrogen bombs? Not likely. Kabul is a prison, not a hotbed of Taliban extremism. And the real terrorists in their headquarters in the Bekka valley in Lebanon will probably already be scattering to the winds by now. Saddam Hussein? That's a possibility.

More drastic action? That depends on how many pictures the American public sees of people celebrating the victory over the Great Satan (i.e., the American imperialists). Is an inappropriately violent response possible? Of course. I've told people for years how my students responded to the Iranian hostage crisis. Whatever the writing assignment, I got comments thrown in like, "Iran should be made to glow in the dark." That was five years after getting out of Vietnam, when non-involvement was an article of faith on college campuses. This is a lot more serious.

In the morning and afternoon of the bombing attacks I spoke to students individually and collectively. I talked about growing up in the hottest days of the Cold War, experiencing at their age the Cuban Missile crisis, and having been teaching a western civilization class at the University of Texas when Kennedy was assassinated. They grew up in peace and prosperity, so the impact of this cowardly act could be that much greater, though it is hard to imagine anything equaling the American reaction to the tragedy in Dallas. I talked about the fall of Troy and how peoples of many different cultures reacted to disasters in the same ways that they were - shock, then anger.

Only the week before they had yawned when hearing of the fall of Nineveh and Babylon; but those were real people, too, and one of the lessons of history is an awareness of the transitory nature of any society; so, enjoy life, but don't take it for granted. I had the feeling this helped, at least for a moment.

The only Western civilization class of the previous week that had clearly caught their attention was the one in which I had used the stories of the Old Testament to illustrate the trials and aspirations of the Jewish people. It worked partly because few had heard the stories before. That is always a moment for me to reflect sadly on our secularized modern youth. It is not just that they have missed some of the greatest stories of our civilization, with some of the most important insights into human behavior, but they are unprepared to deal with the destruction of the World Trade Center.

The flawed but heroic people who kept the dream of a free Jerusalem alive understood that life offers both disasters and triumphs, and that disasters can be interpreted as calls to great dedication and more significant sacrifices than any one individual thought possible. We can't restore the lives lost in New York and Washington, we can't even guarantee that something similar or worse won't happen again, but we can put this event in a greater context, one that makes us a better people, not a worse one.

William L. Urban is the Lee L. Morgan Professor of History at Monmouth College.

September 21, 2001 Peoria Journal Star

War on Terrorism

by William Urban

There is nothing harder than to find and destroy guerrilla forces, and it is doubly hard when one has to operate without bases in the country. Osama bin Laden is not exactly a guerrilla leader, but he provides guerrilla training to religiously-motivated volunteers who come to his bases in Afghanistan from the Arab world and Pakistan. The "graduates" then go out, perhaps more or less on their own, perhaps with his funding and assistance from his many followers, to carry out missions against America, Israel, and possibly western Europe; or, with the cooperation of the Pakistani secret service, against India in Kashmir.

His rarely visited collection of huts in the countryside is not the only terrorist training center in existence. The base in the Bekaa valley of Lebanon has been operated by Palestinians and protected by Syria for many years. The instructors there trained members of the IRA, the Red Army Faction, and other international terrorist groups. For decades the East Germans trained, financed and gave refuge to terrorists. Other centers are purely local, such as those in the southern islands of the Phillippines, or in the various African wars, or in Columbia. In addition, the governments of Iran and Iraq hate the United States almost as much as the peoples hate one another.

Commentators occasionally refer to Vietnam as an analogy to the difficulty of finding and dealing with bin Laden. That is misleading. In Vietnam the United States was fighting a well-armed semi-modern state, North Vietnam; moreover, because this state was supported by China and the Soviet Union, two presidents hesitated to take the military actions that would have dealt serious harm to that nation’s ability to continue the war. The difficulties involved in trying to cut off supplies and reinforcements in mountain jungles were obvious from the beginning, but political considerations prevailed. This is not the case in the hunt for bin Laden.

A more accurate analogy is the hunt for Geronimo, during which thousands of American troops scoured Arizona Territory. In the end, he was hunted down with the help fellow Apaches. After breaking out of the reservation and going on another killing spree, he was hunted down again. Sentenced to hard labor at various American prisons, then given a farm at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he raised cattle, he eventually spent months at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, selling photographs of himself. The American attitude toward Geronimo was a mixture of admiration for his skill and courage, a recognition that the Apaches had not been treated fairly in the past, outrage for the murders and tortures committed by him and his followers, and a practical desire to end a war that seemed likely to drag on forever.

The accuracy lies partly in the difficulty of finding an elusive enemy in desert mountains, especially an enemy who requires no supplies, no bases, and is utterly ruthless in punishing those who lack skill in irregular warfare. But more importantly, it may lie in enlisting the help of fellow tribesmen who hate the Taliban, the radical Islamic movement that protects bin Laden. This force is small, but it has an impregnable base in the northern deserts of Afghanistan and presumably has growing support among Afghans who are appalled by the Taliban’s ever more irrational and intolerant policies.

Like the hunt for Geronimo, where Mexicans cooperated fully in hope of stopping the murder and robbery of their citizens, the hunt for bin Laden may also involve Pakistan and Russia. Neither of these countries is exactly friendly toward America. But neither was Mexico.

National policies are built on national interests more than on the shifting sands of public opinion or even rock-hard historical resentments. In the case of Russia, the Chechen war is still a drain on the treasury and soldiers are killed every week by what the Russians call terrorist actions. Russians have called the Kosovars and the Albanians in Macedonia terrorists. Part of this is a deep-felt suspicion and hatred of Moslems that became very powerful after the Red Army’s defeat in Afghanistan, but more of it is a fear that states will be broken down bit by bit, until there is no order left anywhere.

For Pakistan, the principal enemy is India, with Kashmir the main obstacle to peace; and both nations possess atomic weapons. Backing down on that issue, or assisting America too much, could result in the Pakistani government being overthrown by nationalist or Islamic factions. Even so, logically, Pakistan can be counted on to cooperate, at least as much a poverty-stricken, overpopulated country badly divided along ethnic, tribal and clan lines can be persuaded to cooperate. Of course, this is not a logical part of the world; at least, its logic follows its own rules and does not always make sense to westerners.

George W. Bush has rightly recognized that this will be a long war, and a hard one, and it will involve casualties. But it is also a war which, if prosecuted wisely, with unpublicized help from Afghanistan’s neighbors and local help, will strike a hard blow at organized international terrorism.

This is a complex part of the world, and almost every statement can justly be countered with its opposite. But down that road lies paralysis, and we’ve lost a decade, ever since failing to finish off Saddam Hussein, wondering which way to go. Mistakes will be made, but the time for a decision, and action, has come.

Monmouth College Courier, Sept 21, 2001

This conflict is essentially one of traditional societies reacting against modernity. Not a new thought on my part, but one that has been in my classes so long that I cannot possibly attribute it to anyone in particular. Geronimo? Defending his traditional way of life, robbery and horse-theft. The Taliban? Defending their imagined vision of an Islamic society where women are kept in their places and nobody has the slightest chance of sinning. Bin Laden? How dare westerners live in Saudi Arabia, polluting sacred soil with their strange clothes and customs. How dare they allow women to drive automobiles?

In this sense, there is no escaping the conflict. I often hear comments like, "we've been forcing our culture on them." Oh? I've traveled abroad a lot. I've yet to see armed men on the sidewalk, forcing anyone into McDonald's to buy a hamburger. No, the real problem is that most ordinary men and women want to live like we do. Not in every degree, but in too many ways for the likes of those who see their status threatened. Bin Laden? He's among those super-rich princes who did nothing to earn their wealth, but likes to tell people what to do. There's the crux of the matter. Those who benefit from maintaining everything as it was do not like to change. They certainly do not like the idea that in a democratic society ordinary people have an much right to speak as they do.

There is not much that the advocates of not-acting will say. On Sept 24 I received a long email, forwarded, with a story about tribesmen on the northwestern frontier of Pakistan who were required to deliver innocent men to suffer in the place of their relatives who had committed some crime. The point was that the US was going to kill innocent people rather than any of the guilty. Apart from this being a long jump in logic, I thought of this response:

Those of us in western Illinois know a similar story. In 1832 some young Indian hotheads murdered a settler near Gladstone on the Mississippi River; they shot him through his window while he was eating; that is the way his neighbors found him, his face in the soup. When the chief in Iowa learned of this, he sent several men to be punished in the place of those vanished heroes. The court heard the case and sent the men home. Even in the Black Hawk War Americans wanted the real culprits, not surrogates.

Same thing now.

And what happened to the Indians who continued to fight? Like those who murdered Hugh Martin as he was plowing his field a few miles north of Monmouth. The battle of Bad Axe was essentially a massacre. The subsequent treaty reads as follows:

WHEREAS, under certain lawless and desperate leaders, a formidable band, constituting a large portion of the Sac and Fox nation, left their country in April last, and, in violation of treaties, commenced an unprovoked war upon unsuspecting and defenseless citizens of the United States, sparing neither age nor sex; and whereas, the United States, at a great expense of treasure, have subdued the said hostile band, killing or capturing all its principal Chiefs and Warriors--the said States, partly as indemnity for the expense incurred, and partly to secure the future safety and tranquility of the invaded frontier, demand of the said tribes, to the use of the United States, a cession of a tract of the Sac and Fox country, bordering on said frontier, more than proportional to the numbers of the hostile band who have been so conquered and subdued.

Does this sound at all familiar?

Sept 24, 2001