"We Are All Going To Suffer From It"
By Kevin Canfield

Despite attempts to co-opt its rebel spirit and broadsides launched against it by any number of conservative voices, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present remains the bible of the progressive movement.

Zinn has written or co-written more than a dozen other books, including his smartly named autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, but the 79-year-old emeritus professor of political science at Boston University will always be best-known for his take on the nation's formative years. In the two-plus decades since it was first published, A People's History has sold close to one million copies—a remarkable figure for a book with an initial print run of 5,000.

It was Zinn who gave voice to those who were denied the chance to speak for themselves; in A People's History, the heroes are the native Americans, the workers, the protesters—not the Europeans who "discovered" this country, the captains of industry or the military generals.

So who better than Zinn to put these strange days in American history into some context? Speaking recently from his home outside Boston, Zinn talked about the "war on terrorism," the failure of the press and the Pentagon to better inform the public about the human toll of the military campaign in Afghanistan, the impact of September 11th on the nation's cities and its college campuses and the Bush administration's handling of the crisis.

You've described the American military campaign in Afghanistan as "itself a form of terrorism." What do you mean by that?

I assume that terrorism is the killing of innocent people for some political purpose—and for a military purpose. But, in any case, it is the killing of innocent people for some larger movement, and that certainly describes what happened at the Twin Towers in New York. They weren't simply out to kill people—they were obviously trying to convey something to the United States with their fanatical and irrational and outrageous act. But they made that outrageous act by way of genuine political grievance. They're trying to say something to the United States and say it by means of massive violence. The United States has been dropping bombs on Afghanistan, and they're killing a lot of innocent people. We don't know what the numbers are—they’re anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 [civilian deaths in Afghanistan]. And the number of injured people, children who have lost limbs or were blinded—we don't know those numbers. The number of people who have been displaced from their homes by the bombing probably run into the many hundreds of thousands.

In both cases, this is terrorism. One is terrorism committed by individuals or by a gang; the other is terrorism committed by a government. And usually—in fact, almost always—the word "terrorism" is applied to individuals or groups who are illegitimate or fanatical. But the word terrorism is rarely applied to governments, although governments, they do what terrorists do. And they do it in fact on a much larger scale. I consider that what the United States did in Vietnam was terror on a very large scale, much larger than that which was done in New York and Washington by whoever did it, whether it was bin Laden or somebody else.

Recently, you've also talked about the lack of attention paid here in the United States to the deaths of hundreds or perhaps thousands of Afghan civilians. Is it the press's fault? Is it the Pentagon's fault? Who's to blame for this lack of focus on civilian deaths?

Well, it's both the Pentagon and the press. The Pentagon simply dismisses talk of civilian casualties. They're not really interested in that. I recall, at the end of the Gulf War, a reporter asked Colin Powell, "Well, what about Iraqi casualties?" And he said, "Well, that is not a question I am particularly interested in." That's how [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld has behaved when questioned—and the questions are rare, I might say—about civilian casualties. He doesn't know how many casualties there are, and the truth is he doesn't care. And he dismisses the issue by saying, "Well, accidents happen"; "We didn't intend to do this"; "It is collateral damage"—and thus passes it off like it's an unimportant fact.

The Pentagon has as much access to newspapers and to reports and accounts as I do, and they could simply add up the number of civilian casualties reported by Western reporters—not by Middle Eastern reporters—by Western reporters in the New York Times, in the Washington Post, in the Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, the Independent of London. The Pentagon has enormous capabilities for picking up that information. They could pick up that information, and they would then have at least a rough idea of how many casualties there are. But they don't want to say anything.

So the Pentagon misleads the public, does not inform the public, gives very lame excuses for civilian casualties. And then the press is complicit in this because the press itself does a very poor job of reporting this—especially television. While there have been reports of casualties which have appeared in newspapers from time to time in the New York Times and Washington Post, there's virtually nothing on television about civilian casualties. And, in fact, we've seen memos circulated by executives of networks telling their reporters that they shouldn't make a big deal of civilian casualties and when they do they should report them in such a way so as to communicate that the sources are dubious.

So yes, the media and the Pentagon together have managed to keep the public uninformed, ill informed about these civilian casualties. And I think this accounts for the public's overwhelming support of the campaign in Afghanistan. I do believe that if the public were confronted with the human realities of the suffering we've caused in Afghanistan, then I think the American people would have second thoughts about their enthusiasm for the war and their support of Bush—because I think the American people are compassionate people. I think most people everywhere are moved and unhappy about the deaths of children, the deaths of civilians in wars.

What alternatives, then, were there to the way the "war"the retaliation, as it's being described, against al Qaeda and the Talibanwas carried out?

The alternatives were to reconceptualize it—by that I mean to see it not as a war against this nation, Afghanistan, because there shouldn't be war against one nation if there's going to be a "war on terrorism." As the administration itself has said, terrorism has many, many different sources in many, many countries. They talk about al Qaeda cells in 20 or 30 different countries. They're talking about them now in the Philippines and Germany, and so to see it as requiring a war against one country doesn't make any sense if it's a "war on terrorism."

So the alternative would be to treat it as a criminal act engaged in by some unknown terrorist group whose whereabouts are not known. And, in fact, it's clear we don't know their whereabouts after they weren't able to find bin Laden. We don't know where they are, and so you can't simply go ahead and bomb one particular place. You have to go on a search and treat it as a police investigation. Otherwise, you'd be as if you were a police force confronted with a terrible crime and decide that the criminal is located in a particular neighborhood and bomb the neighborhood. Or a particular criminal is hiding in a particular town, and you bomb the town.

The long-term alternative is to reconsider American foreign policy. The long-term alternative is to ask what are the roots of terrorism? It's not hard to figure that out: Anybody who's spent time in the Middle East will tell you there are very deep grievances there, and these are grievances against American foreign policy—for the stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia, for maintaining sanctions on Iraq and supporting Israel. And, therefore, if you want to really get at the roots of terrorism, you have to do something about those roots that feed terrorists—and you have to reconsider American foreign policy. That's something, of course, the administration does not want to do.

And the press, which concentrates on military actions—where we're bombing this time, what caves we're looking at this time—the press pays very little attention to foreign policy in this matter. And so the administration, not wanting to look at foreign policy, diverts the public's attention from the root causes of terrorism by carrying on a bombing campaign. And nothing will so focus the eyes and ears of the public as a war, so you give them a war. So every night they can read the war reports, hear the military briefings, not think about what really lies behind the terrorism.

Do you worry about the climate in this country with regard to civil liberties and basic freedoms?

It's very obvious that it's been very difficult for people to criticize the war when the leaders of government declare that if you're not with us, you're against us and when spokesmen for the White House talk about how this is no time to criticize and dissent. When government leads, it is then followed by people around the country who wave flags in great numbers. While many of the people who wave flags are just waving them in sympathy with the victims of the Twin Towers, the other people wave flags as a kind of intimidating device for people who don't wave flags or people who don't support the war.

We have many stories of people who've lost jobs, reporters who've lost jobs for being critical of the war, people not being given access to the airwaves because they have wanted to speak out against the war. We have had a totalitarian atmosphere created in this country in which dissenting from the war becomes a dangerous thing to do.

What part of society here at home in America has felt the greatest impact of September 11this life dramatically different as you've seen in the nation's cities or on the nation's college campuses?

There have been protests, demonstrations in cities around the country and in towns. My wife and I were just driving in Cape Cod yesterday, and there in the little town of Eastham, Massachusetts, there was a group of people alongside the road. We were startled because it was the last thing we expected to see in Eastham, and there's a group of people in the road with signs and banners saying, "War is not the answer." Well, I mean that’s just one, but the fact that it can happen in a little town on Cape Cod suggests that maybe these things are happening in places all over the country and we never hear of them. I'm sure that this action in Eastham was not reported anywhere else in the nation. I don't even know if it was reported in the local Cape Cod newspaper.

I have been talking on college campuses around the country and talking to audiences of 1,000 or 2,000 who have been overwhelmingly against the war, and those gatherings are not reported in the press. Maybe they're reported in the student newspapers. But my point is that even though there has been stifling of dissent, which the government and the media have been complicit in, there still have been protests against the war.

In fact, a number of people—families of people who died in the Twin Towers—have spoken out against the bombing. And several of the families of people who died in the Twin Towers recently flew to Afghanistan to meet with Afghan families who have lost members of their families as a result of the bombing. And here were the families of victims from the United States and families of victims in Afghanistan getting together. I think this is a very important event, but it got virtually no notice in the American media.

In the New York Times this morning, I read that Bush still has an approval rating of 82 percent. On the whole, how would you say the administration has doneon terror, on the economy, etc.?

Obviously, in my view, it’s done the wrong thing on terror; it’s carried out actions that have hurt a lot of people and has done really nothing to stop terrorism. With all the bombing that's taken place, they're still asking for more and more money for "homeland security" and so on. And obviously, we're not more secure as a result of the bombing. So the so-called war against terrorism, to me, is absolutely an enormous waste of our resources. This connects to the economy because here we are—we don't have enough money for education, they're cutting funds for Medicare and Medicaid, they're cutting funds for social services of all sorts and they're demanding an increase in the military budget.

To me, this is the road to disaster. And sure, the American people may, at this moment, be sort of flushed with the so-called victory in Afghanistan, approve of Bush, seeing him as a great military leader. But I think that the costs of all this are going to come back to the American people. I think that this misuse of our resources is going to come back to haunt us—and it already has. We're already seeing rising unemployment, we're already seeing layoffs, we're already seeing people being hurt, we're already seeing the results of unbridled capitalism with the Enron affair and there must be many other smaller Enron affairs going on that we don't know about.

I think the Bush administration has been leading the American people down a very, very perilous road, and I think we are all going to suffer from it.