Three days after the bombing of Afghanistan began, US officials admitted that they were running out of targets. The bombing is likely to continue, however, to satisfy public opinion. Hawks in Washington also want to attack other countries. Iraq is one possible target, as — like the Taliban — it has few allies and there would be little objection. Such an attack would be justified by Saddam’s statement that the attacks on America were inevitable, and by claims that one of the alleged hijackers may have met an Iraqi official in Europe before the attacks.
Immediately after September 11, the US — supported by other Western states and institutions such as the UN and NATO — declared that the attacks constituted an act of war against ‘civilization’ and ‘freedom’, and that Usama bin Ladin was responsible. They then set about making a case against bin Ladin and building a coalition to support their response, and launched an enormous propaganda effort to obsfucate any reasoned discussion of the situation, and swamp awkward realities that might emerge, with a mass of misinformation and disinformation.
These programmes have been helped by the credulity of most of the Western media, who have shown a remarkable willingness to suspend their critical faculties. The case against Bin Ladin is an example: according to Washington, his guilt is established. However, many legal experts — such as British barrister Geoffrey Robertson, writing in the Guardian — were categorical that the evidence is not even sufficient for extradition. While such opinions were appearing in the opinion-columns of serious newspapers, however, the same papers were basing their editorial positions on the assumption of Bin Ladin’s guilt. Nor did anyone seriously question America’s right to demand that the Taliban hand him over, under threat of war, instead presenting their evidence to the Taliban as requested. Equally remarkable has been the imperviousness of the US and other governments to such opinion, which is at least partly because the media’s editorial position, which does most to form public opinion, does not take this scepticism into account.
It is also notable that few commentators take their scepticism to its logical conclusion. Many realise that the US is acting totally outside the law, without any evidence, with total disregard for the rights of others; that it is lying to its own people, other governments and international organizations; that it is abusing its international position to browbeat governments and organizations into supporting its illegal actions; that it is more interested in suppressing opposition and bolstering pro-western countries than in promoting democracy and human rights; and that it is guilty itself of far greater crimes than any committed against it, even on September 11: yet they still cannot see the US’s hegemonic power as anything but a force for good in the world. Even when they point out that opposition to the US is understandable and inevitable, they do not ask why the US acts as it does, what such behaviour says about it, or whether opposition to it might even be just and laudable.
These are questions that Muslims have often posed, and can answer. One way of understanding the US’s attack on the Taliban is that it is an imperial power teaching a troublesome tribe, in some usually inaccessible and irrelevant corner of the empire, a lesson. This ‘war’ is a modern version of the bombing of Iraqi tribes by Britain in the 1920s, or France’s periodic destruction of troublesome villages in Algeria: the demonstration of power is more important than getting the right tribe or village. The modern West is an empire much as the British or French empires were, or the Nazi or Soviet empires, except that it is global. The West’s claim to be defending civilization and promoting democracy is the modern equivalent of the old imperial claim of shouldering the "white man’s burden" of civilizing the world – and just as hollow.
What we are seeing now is the ‘justice’ of an empire that has suffered a blow, and is striking back. But history also tells us that empires cannot survive indefinitely, however strong they are. Indeed, history shows us that the more brutal the empire, the more determined resistance becomes. An empire that depends on force cannot survive; in the long run every atrocity it commits to consolidate its rule contributes also to its ultimate defeat.
It is these realities that Western commentators, however frank and however sceptical of the West’s claims, cannot bear to face.