Cold War Déjà Vu: Is Terrorism the New Communism?

I’ve also been reading Jim Wallis’ book God’s Politics, but I haven’t managed to get a copy of Gushee’s book, although it sounds like a good one. I tried to order it through Interlibrary Loan, but it turns out that you can’t ask for books unless they’ve been out for about 6 months. It looks like I’ll have to break down and buy a copy. I was sitting around reading Wallis’ book last week, when I came to a reference to Oscar Romero of El Salvador. I had no idea who he was, but I thought that Allison probably would, so I asked her. She wasn’t quite sure, but she walked over to the bookshelf, selected a book and plopped it down beside me, saying: “here, you should read this. It’s about El Salvador.” The book was The Massacre at El Mozote, by Mark Danner, which is about a whole town (El Mozote) that was murdered by the radical right-wing troops trying to stamp out the left-wing guerrillas in 1981. I started reading it immediately, and had a hard time putting it down after I started. The book interested me so much that I started reading another one of Allison’s books on Communism in Latin America: Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal and Forgetting in Guatemala, written by Daniel Wilkinson. I have to admit that the impulse to read another book wasn’t inhibited at all by the fact that the semester is half over and it’s hard to be motivated to do my other work.

Not only have I learned a lot about Latin America, US foreign policy during the Cold War and recent history, I could not help but compare American involvement in these events that took place about thirty years ago to the current War on Terrorism and American presence in Iraq. Interestingly enough, this comparison was actually what Jim Wallis had in mind when he mentioned Oscar Romero, a Catholic archbishop in El Salvador who was assassinated for speaking out against human rights violations committed by the American-backed government. One of the main messages of each of these books is that the United States supported dictatorial governments in both El Salvador and Guatemala (as well as numerous others, as Allison informed me), governments that were fighting to suppress communist guerrilla insurgents. The US was aware of the massive human rights violations in each of these cases, but conveniently ignored these inconvenient facts in order to eliminate the threat of Communism from rising up in our back yard.

This concept is summarized well by Wilkinson near the end of his book:

In places like Guatemala, U. S. officials condoned acts of violence that terrorized the civilian population, and the United States even provided material and political support to those who carried them out […] And they dismissed their critics as wooly-headed liberals who were out of touch with […] reality. […] They argued that communism needed to be fought at all costs, but then refused to acknowledge what those costs actually were. (352)

Obviously communism poses very little threat to us today, but since September 11, the Cold-War scare of the old days has been replaced by a new fear of terrorism. We can see, now that the facts about civilian casualties in Latin America are clearly known to all, that we were wrong in giving our full support to governments willing to carry out such brutal acts of violence, a fact that

prompted Bill Clinton to do something that would have been unthinkable for a U. S. president during the cold war: issue a formal apology for the U. S. government’s past support of abusive regimes in Guatemala. (358)

The main threat to human rights in the modern world of terrorism is, in Wilkinson’s words, that

some will […] seek to use the war on terrorism as a pretext for their own acts of terror. (353)

Now there is no doubt that acts such as September 11 are terrorism, and there is also no doubt that such acts should not be tolerated. Another thing is equally sure, however: we must not allow or commit acts of terror in order to keep our private world free from terror. It is very difficult for us, the American public, to know the exact motives of our political leadership in going to war. One of the things that Jim Wallis points out time and again, is that when we first entered Iraq, more than 50% of the population thought that there was a direct relationship between the 2001 Sept. 11 bombings and our war against Saddam Hussein. Also, facts such as the total absence of the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq insinuate that there is more at stake in American involvement in the Middle East than fighting terrorism and removing terroristic leadership. In the case of Cold-War Latin America, it wasn’t until the smoke had cleared, bodies had been dug up, classified documentation had been released and the global political climate had cooled off that the truth was made known. When it was, it became clear that the United States had implicitly supported acts of terror.

A common enemy can bring political unity. After Sept. 11, Americans joined hands to mourn the dead and begin to rebuild what had been destroyed. The common enemy (terrorists) even provided immense support for a preemptive war in the Middle-East. Over the last few years I have basically ignored arguments for or against the war, because it is so hard to sort it all out. I found myself supporting it, because I felt like it was necessary, but hating it, because no one wants to be at war. I have begun to question our government’s motives and our initial justification for entering Iraq. All in all, I don’t know what to think (and would greatly welcome your opinions). What I don’t want, is to hear twenty years from now about archaeologists digging up countless skeletons of Iraqi children who were massacred needlessly, all in the name of national security. It was the fear of communism that enabled us to sweep those war crimes under the rug. Let’s make sure that history is not repeating itself now, simply because we are afraid. There is no need for Cold-War déjà vu.

I realize that this post is not quite as structured or possibly as well-thought-out as previous posts, but it is my natural response to what I have been reading and thinking about lately. Perhaps it is appropriate at the same time: it is hard to know what to think about the War in Iraq, because the water is so muddy.

-James, the younger brother


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