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Crime Versus War

Autonomedia writes:

"Crime Versus War:
The Consequences of Competing Descriptions of September 11

George Caffentzis

The Bush administration has described the hijacking and crashing of commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 as acts of war. I claim that the mass killings and property destruction of that day were crimes. Crime versus War, is this is not just a "semantic quibble"? On the contrary, the way in which these events are described is a "life and death" decision. For the description of an event has implicit in it many moral and practical consequences, some obvious and other unforeseen. In this article I present the reasons for my objection to the Bush administation's description of September 11.

First, I should point out that an initial difficulty in making my case is simply due to the fact that "crime" has increasingly been absorbed into the category of war in the United States. Since the Nixon administration, for example, the US government has been involved in a "war on drugs" that has increased the prison population by millions souls, has radically reduced our civil liberties and, even on its own estimates, has not significantly reduced the commerce in now banned substances. But in actuality, though the campaign has been called a "war on drugs," it has largely been a matter of preventing and prosecuting criminal activities of all sorts (even though this has often had a military character, e.g., the invasion of Panama that was justified as a gigantic effort to apprehend a single person indicted in US courts, General Noriega). The increasing blurring of police into military forces has paralleled the categorical absorption of crime into war.

One can understand, then, why the Bush administration personnel (many of whom have been involved in various aspects of "the war on drugs" over the last thirty years) would have a rather confused idea of the distinction between crime and war. But, prima facie, there are important differences between crime and war. Thus, a crime is an action done in violation of a state's laws (though not necessarily on its territory) by particular agents. Once a crime has been committed, the sequential consequences of investigation, indictment, apprehension, trial and then, perhaps, conviction and punishment are rather clear and are ruled over by an elaborate set of rules, laws and institutions. Most importantly, this sequence is built to be an inherently finite structure, which might, however, by accident, never come to a conclusion (e.g., when the agent responsible for the crime is never apprehended). That is why it is particularly unfortunate that the purported title of the US government's effort to apprehend the accomplices of the hijackers and many other allied terrorists is "Operation Infinite Justice." One of the great virtues of Justice is that it is finite and aims to bring an end to a harm done. Consequently, "infinite" justice can not be justice.
War, on the other hand, is an inherently infinite structure (what we in the US now call, "open ended," and what one 19th century theorist of war called, "total") which might, however, by accident, come to an end, say, with a peace treaty or the annihilation of one or both of the opposing warring parties. But it need not.

Moreover, the rules of prosecuting war are always open to question, since they are largely the result of agreements of states which are not at war but which might, as matter of defending their sovereignty, use their sovereignty to declare these rules null and void for themselves in the midst of war.
It is important to note that as far as the international legal situation is concerned, the trend in the last thirty years has been exactly opposed to developments in the US. International legal opinion has been increasingly trying to absorb the category of war into that of crime. Thus we now have international criminal tribunals prosecuting military and political leaders, like former Yugoslav President Milosevich, for decisions that would previously had been simply seen as involving plain old "real politic" matters.

This absorption of war into crime in international law also applies to how terrorist acts are increasingly being handled. For in the past many terrorist acts were simply considered to be "political" that could, at best, be judged on the basis of "the laws of war." But increasingly these acts are being considered for what they are on the basis of criminal law. Thus, an assassination is classified as a murder and a hijacking as theft or piracy.

Why did the Bush administration choose to characterize the events of September 11 as an act of war? At first glance this decision might have been rooted in the particular aspects of the events themselves. First, the quantitative dimension of the one-day killing and deliberate property destruction is unprecedented in recent US history. Second, the immediate perpetrators died committing the acts (one wonders what would have been the response if the immediate perpetrators had survived and were on the loose). Their collective suicide opened the logical possibility that they planned September 11 by themselves and that the people who supported them did not even know that they had such an audacious and risky idea in mind. Under these circumstances, if the event was categorized as a crime, then it would be a crime without living culprits--a consequence that could hardly be palatable to many in or out of the Bush administration. Finally, the choice of targets was symbolically aimed at the central economic, military and, if speculation concerning the destination of the fourth plane is accurate, political sites of the U.S. So it might appear that the spectacular logic of hijackers was echoed by the Bush administration in its first assessment of these acts as acts of war.

But there are other aspects of the decision, I believe, that were not based upon the specifics of the act. The Bush administration concluded very early on that the hijackers were not some sort of nihilistic group deciding, a la "Fight Club," to go to their deaths in an abstract blaze of glorious horror nor were they representatives of the homegrown militia movement (as the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 proved to be). Though the September 11 perpetrators left no formal proclamation that accompanied their act, the Bush administration saw that it was a political action and it was part of the ongoing struggle against dissidents in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations the US has been carrying out since the Gulf War to keep its military and economic presence in the oil fields of the Arabian Peninsula. Since the word captures the sense of a grand struggle (even though it is normally reserved for confrontations of nations), and since the Bush administration is committed to keeping and/or increasing control of the oil resources of that geographical arc from Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan, the word "war" appeared obvious to them. Poetically, then, prominent members of Bush administration might see these acts quite genuinely as acts in a struggle they are individually and vigorously engaged in, and so it would be quite natural for the word "war" to come up (after all, George W. Bush, National Security Advisor Rice and Vice President Chaney were deeply and directly involved in the oil industry in the recent past). But poetry should not determine governmental policy. Their intense private, even emotional, concern over the fate of the international oil industry does not make these acts of war against the US.

Finally, the use of the word "war" gives the Bush administration the right to exercise extraordinary powers both domestically and internationally. Consider, again, how "the war on drugs" has been so effectively to justify interventions in countries as varied as Colombia, Panama and Afghanistan while the dimensions of the legal and penal revolution in the US perpetrated by the war on drugs is staggering to this day. One hesitates to contemplate what a parallel intensification of an unbounded "war on terrorism" will do to the prison populations and civil liberties of the US.

Certainly one can understand why the Bush administration used the "war" path instead of the "crime" path out of this quite real crisis of the nation. But we should recognize that there will be moral and political costs to such a choice. Let me sketch two them out for a moment. First, if war is the extension of politics by other means, the political demands of whomever the Bush administration identifies as being the enemies must be taken into account in the future (and these enemies need not have any connection with the perpetrators of September 11). Inevitably, these demands will become an element of the negotiations (hidden or open) that inevitably are associated with all war. They will inevitably make the possibility of getting justice even more difficult.

Second, if the killings and destruction of September 11 are classified as an act of war, then the perpetrators immediately become warriors, and not criminals, the dead in New York and Washington DC become "collateral damage" and all future acts involved in this "war" (on both sides) will become justified. Hence, the Bush administration will ironically ennoble the actions of the suicidal hijackers, instead of showing them for being the desperate acts of murder they are.

The "crime path" escapes both these consequences and, most importantly, make it possible to imagine a just response to the crimes of September 11. If the US government refuses this path, the "Operation Infinite Justice" promised by George W. Bush will become an endless series of injustices committed in our name."