Sept. 11, 2002, brought us no closer to sensible thinking about the causes of events a year earlier. The United States concentrated on its own sufferings, and plans for revenge against “terrorists.” In Japan, a high-level NHK roundtable dragged out that favorite of aid agencies seeking bigger budgets, namely the claim that the roots of Middle Eastern discontent and “terrorism” lie in poverty and poor education.

At just that moment, one of the well-educated, middle-class Sept. 11 attackers from prosperous Saudi Arabia was saying in a prerecorded filmed interview that U.S. support for Israel and the U.S. presence in the Middle East were the problem. So much for poverty and poor education.

The pejorative use of the word “terrorist” to condemn people who normally should be called militants, rebels or insurgents is bad enough. Far worse is the way it prevents any serious consideration of motives since, by definition, “terrorists” are demented and twisted people incapable of having motives worth considering.

Compromise solutions to try to end their militancy are ruled out automatically. The killing and violence have to continue, indefinitely, until one side or the other gives up in exhaustion. So far, almost all we have out of the U.S. on the subject of Sept. 11 motives are absurd claims that the militants were filled with hatred for democracy, Christianity and the American way of life.

We saw the same distorted reasoning at work only too clearly in Vietnam a generation ago. There the image of ruthless, crazed, black-pajama clad “communists” stalking the jungles killing our boys prevented even cursory consideration of the compromise solutions that could have done so much to preserve U.S. interests in the area, not to mention the lives of many Vietnamese and other Indochinese.

The fact that U.S. intervention in Indochina was a direct violation of the 1954 Geneva Agreements, and of the 1956 promise to hold unification elections, was also forgotten in the hysteria.

In 1969 I was involved in a serious Australian attempt to get an enclave solution in Vietnam — one that would have seen the anticommunist Vietnamese protected in an easily defended coastal area where, as in Taiwan, they could have established their own society and economy to rival that of Hanoi’s. It was laughed out of court. At that time, hatred of those jungle “communists” was too deep to consider compromise, and most believed the U.S. was bound to win out anyway.

Similarly, in the Middle East, where a half century of highly debatable U.S. intervention there is now almost completely forgotten in the post-Sept. 11 “antiterrorist” trauma and vengeance-seeking.

The same distorted antiterrorist logic has worsened a host of other conflicts. In Northern Ireland, British conservatives once used the “terrorist” tag to prevent even the voices of the militants from being aired publicly. Only now are people beginning to realize that from the beginning those voices deserved close attention.

Sadly, it has not been the same elsewhere. U.S. post-Sept. 11 denunciations of “terror” have pushed most other nations even further away from sensible solutions to internal conflicts. It is now that much easier for the Russians to justify cruel suppression in Chechnya. We see the same ripple effects in Basqueland, with the Spanish government now taking a much harder line against militants there. Similarly with the Indians in Kashmir, and the Israelis in the occupied Palestinian territories. With the word “terror” literally dripping from the lips of the authorities every time they open their mouths, the chances of sensible compromise fade by the moment.

In Japan, we see a mini-example in the way the authorities have stepped up their unrelenting pursuit of former 1972 Red Army hijack militants whose main motive was objection to Tokyo’s support for the war in Vietnam — a goal that even the then-U.S. defense secretary now endorses and which, if successful at the time, could have saved millions of innocent lives (the hijack militants caused no loss of life). They too have become “terrorists” who deserve little mercy.

Meanwhile, the authorities do little to curb Japan’s real terrorists — the ultranationalist gangsters willing to kill, main and intimidate civilians for goals that no sane person could possibly endorse. Indeed, to the extent that the authorities often condone and even seek to benefit from gangster activities, Japan could well qualify as a terrorist nation. But don’t expect that kind of reasoning even to begin to penetrate closed minds in Washington and elsewhere.

In defining terror, some critics focus on whether militants deliberately target innocent civilians. But at what point do the state and its citizens become disentwined? The U.S. still seems to think that killing several million civilians in Vietnam was justified in order to win a war it said was legitimate. Many in Tokyo still seem to think that killing 20 million Chinese, many brutally and sadistically, was justified in order to win a war it too once thought was legitimate.

Conversely, the U.S. 1945 nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with their heavy civilian casualties are condemned as illegitimate even though they were in fact justifiable as the only way to hasten an end to a war in which far greater civilian casualties were likely and Japan was clearly in the wrong.

We are back to motives. If the Islamic militants felt that their attacks on the U.S. were justified, as the only way to put an end to unacceptable US policies in the Middle East, then we need to do two things. We should try to find out whether others in the Islamic world agree with that reasoning. If they do agree, then we need urgently to look for ways to answer that reasoning.

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