Letter from Bob Wing

In the wake of Tuesday's tragedy, all of us are struggling to sort through many emotions and thoughts to find a way forward. We share the following letter, a personal correspondence between ColorLines Editor Bob Wing and a friend, in hopes that it might contribute to the ongoing discussion.

September 14, 2001

I decided to take you up on your suggestion that I put some of the opinions I expressed at last night's meeting on paper. I am by no means an authority on military or foreign affairs and these are just my personal opinions, but for what they're worth, here are some notes.

I believe the Sept. 11 attacks are ushering in a major rightwing offensive, both global and national. It is likely to be sustained for some time and become a historical watershed. The rightwing of the ruling class and its ultra-right allies could not have asked for a better opportunity to aggressively move to reshape the world in their image. In the absence of a major countervailing force, they have serious grounds to feel that they will be successful. Appealing to the American psyche, which sees its relatively peaceful surroundings as a birthright (when it is really a national privilege), the rightwing seeks to capture the moral high ground, whipping up patriotism and "anti-terrorist" fervor. Wielding its superior military and financial strength, Washington will seek to rally its First World allies into a world "anti-terrorism campaign," bring its erstwhile and vacillating allies into line, and destroy or mortally cripple its enemies, especially in the Middle East and South Asia.

In some ways, this is reminiscent of the late 1940s and early 1950s. But this time there is no socialist camp, no equivalent revolutionary national liberation movements, and little domestic left opposition. This means the ruling class has much greater maneuverability. They can exert powerful military force abroad when necessary; and sugar coat the undermining of democratic rights at home under the notion of national consensus and the defense of democracy and freedom.

Although progressives have been thrown deeply on the defensive, there are also openings to be part of the public discussion, if we are bold as well as very careful. We must be bold in building extremely broad coalitions, bold in attempting to enter the biggest media and political platforms. If we craft our messages correctly, we have many allies, and we should aggressively pursue working with them. We should not self-isolate. Peace, international solidarity, religious, anti-globalization, student, and civil rights groups should be approached. We should also use this opportunity to get labor, women's, anti-racist, and community organizations that tend to eschew international issues to get involved. This new situation will affect everyone to the core. We should actively build broad coalitions, not be content to hang on the left, hold "small but militant demonstrations" and expect others to come to us. We should try to get to the forefront of the fight for peace and basic democratic rights, spearhead largescale education campaigns, and get government bodies on record for peace and against unwarranted racist attacks on Arabs and South Asians.

But we must be extremely careful about our public messages (and our internal rhetoric), lest we isolate ourselves and even make ourselves vulnerable to physical attack. We need to demonstratively express deep grieving over the death, destruction, and loss of security felt by most Americans. Most of us genuinely feel this, but sometimes we do not express it properly. Almost everyone in the country knows someone that was somehow directly affected by the attacks, and all of us know in our hearts that life will never be as safe as it once seemed. Symbolism and emotions tend to run higher than rationality at times like this, and if we do not understand this, it will be difficult to get a hearing on other issues.

We need to avoid leftwing rhetoric and revolutionary posturing, be concrete and address actual issues on the public agenda and not make premature anticipations or apocalyptic predictions. Internally we need to try to see as far ahead as possible and try to go deep analytically in order to be as prepared as possible, but externally we need to speak to facts on the ground, avoid concepts or images that are adamantly rejected by even peace loving people, and avoid prematurely polarizing with potential allies. All this while still drawing firm lines against the right.

I believe, at this time, we have two main entryways into the broad public discussion. By far the most important is by addressing the issue of why this attack happened and how to respond. Even the mainstream media is increasingly addressing this question, in its own ways. I believe our main message should be that U.S. life will become increasingly insecure and dangerous unless this country improves its international behavior. In the era of globalization, peace at home is linked to peace abroad. And increased insecurity would likely result in lost civil liberties. We need to oppose a precipitous response by the government to the September 11 attacks and urge restraint. We can no longer allow our government to make war on others without expecting retaliation, whether one thinks that retaliation is fair or not. Peace and freedom are increasingly globalized, or not. We need to oppose U.S. isolationism and aggression. Our loss of life should lead not to an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but to join others who have experienced war in the aspiration for peace.

In taking on these issues, we should studiously avoid leftwing shorthands like "chickens come home to roost" (which will be read as a justification for the mass deaths of innocent people) and "no justice, no peace" (which will be read as a justification for further attacks). Peace, No Violence, etc. are much more directly to the point. What we are talking about is a new kind of peace movement.

The second main entry way is through opposing attacks on Arabs and South Asians in the U.S. Such attacks are already underway, and are even being widely addressed by political leaders, civil rights groups, and the mainstream media. Again, building broad coalitions and using popular language is key. We should appeal for peace, fairness, and oppose violent racial stereotyping. I actually think that the more farsighted sections of the ruling class will want to stem these attacks so that their broader offensive does not lose the moral high ground. Minimally, they must make a nod in this direction. We should take full advantage of this opening.

While responding immediately to these huge events, we also need to embark on deep thinking about the implications for the future. Apparently, war, like capital and labor, has now been globalized. We are into war without borders. New and readily available technology means that very small groups, even individuals, can wreak mass destruction. The U.S. may be relatively invulnerable to direct assault, but it is eminently vulnerable to attack by small groups. And it has aggressively alienated millions of people, at home and abroad, some of whom will surely take advantage of the new means at their disposal. Israel is making the assassination of opposing political leaders a central part of its war strategy-others are likely to respond in kind.

This is not an altogether new situation. Most of us have known this for some time and expected some kind of significant attacks within the U.S. But now the genie is out of the bottle-and in a most spectacular fashion. It is no longer theoretical. What are the implications of this new situation for our attitude and strategies towards war and peace, how do we distinguish between the government's overbroad definition of terrorism and actual terrorism? How will the ruling class and public react and what platform can we stand on? What about the copy cat lunatic fringe and ultra-right fanatics who until now has confined themselves to comparatively small-scale shootings (except for Oklahoma City)? How do we break the fragmentation, disorganization and isolation of the left under these harsh conditions?

Finally, we should all be prepared for events to move fast. In particular, when the U.S. mounts its counterattacks (which I believe is likely to eventually include the murder of Saddam Hussein), a wave of jingoism (and racism) is likely to sweep the country. We need to work hard ahead of this wave, prepare to weather it without getting too terribly isolated, and smartly fight our way through it. We're in for hard times, and our allies abroad even more so. We will all be struggling to find our bearings. We will make mistakes. Let's be tolerant of each other, keep our eyes on the real enemies, and seek clarity and unity. Let's think big and get organized. Maybe we can build something for the long run.

I hope this is helpful to you in some way. Feel free to share it with others if you deem it useful.

In peace and solidarity,

Bob Wing

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