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  November 19, 2001

A Period of Reflection on September 11
Panelist Likens Current Climate to Cold War Era

Michael McCann was thrilled to see the nation pull together after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Perhaps, he thought, this will be the silver lining to a tragic event - Americans working together, righting wrongs, giving greater attention to social justice.

Two months later, McCann, an expert on the Cold War, is not optimistic.

"Since September 11, as I witness the reactions of politicians, the press, people I know ... how the events have been reconstructed, it's become remarkably similar to the rhetoric of the Cold War," says McCann, a political science professor who is the Gordon Hirabayashi Professor for the Advancement of Citizenship at the University of Washington.

A panelist at the November 9 forum, "Reign of Terror: Rights, Reparations and Security," the first of nearly two dozen events during a Metanoia reflecting on the events of September 11, McCann said the Cold War "was a period when we refortified and restructured many areas, from our schools to the workplace. Even our families. We vowed to make these institutions strong.

"The Cold War was experienced as a cultural war. We perceived the communists as our enemy, and it served as a reassertion of American rights, our roots," he said. "But, often, this took place at the cost of civil rights and civil liberties, especially for people of color and marginalized people."

He said he sees a similar backsliding on civil rights today, as restrictions on how law enforcement agencies must operate are lifted, as people of Middle Eastern origin are harassed, and as Attorney General John Ashcroft continues to push for relaxation of various protections. It is not unlike the way Americans behaved during the Cold War in the 1950s and early 1960s.

"The similarities are many, starting with fear. We were afraid of a nuclear holocaust then, and practiced hiding under our desks. It's the fear of the unexpected catastrophe.

"And we also fear the enemy, because we're told they are inherently evil and irrational," he said. They are also invisible, he added: "Are they in caves or are they sitting next to us in this room?"

Then, he said, there is the secrecy. Because of the dangers posed by terrorism, there is an effort to root out secrecy, to expose that which is hidden. And yet, he adds, the government hides behind an increasingly thick cloak of secrecy, under the guise of national security.

It's all paradoxical, McCann said. And troubling.

In the past, he said, domestic intelligence gathering efforts have been fairly structured. Now, there are fewer restrictions as to what can be used by enforcement agencies gathering information domestically. And yet, he added, "there has not been a lot of critical debate and introspection about civil rights and justice."

Justice, said Laura Dickinson, an associate professor at the School of Law who spoke during the morning session, is "absolutely essential" in America's response to terrorism.

"If the United States is scrupulous about adhering to the rule of law (in bringing terrorists to justice), we are much more likely to keep our allies together," she said. She added that she favors the creation of an international tribunal to judge anyone charged with terrorism or human rights abuses.

"A tribunal would be to our strategic advantage," she said. "We would be more likely to get our hands on the terrorists if we had a tribunal, especially through the cooperation of Arab nations. It's unlikely those nations would turn over bin Laden or his accomplices to a court in the United States because (the trial) would be perceived as unfair."

Even bringing the terrorists to trial in a third country would be better than a court test in America, she said. Other nations see "the objections to creating a tribunal, for not using international law, as just a cloak for politics, a way to justify whatever action will be taken."

Middle Eastern scholars, said Sohail Hashmi, an associate professor of international relations at Mount Holyoke College, also believe it is important to invoke the Geneva Convention and the rule of law in the current conflict.

Hashami, who discussed the attacks, Osama bin Laden's "extremism," jihad, and other aspects of recent events, charged that bin Laden and his al Quaeda network have "hijacked not just the jihad tradition itself, they've hijacked Islam."

Bin Laden, he said, has rewritten many of the laws and rules of the Koran and jihad to justify his own means, especially passages regarding non-believers, the absolute prohibition of suicide, and the call to differentiate between military and civilian enemies.

"Bin Laden has rewritten that passage to say 'Do not differentiate between the military and civilians' because, he says, there can be no innocents," just true believers in Islam and non-believers. He said bin Laden's approach is not justified by anything that Muslims believe in.

"Blowing up people in a pizzeria, or people who are sitting at a desk on the 89th floor of a building ... this is not jihad," Hashami said. "This can only be called murder-suicide."

Richard Veilleux

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