This is retaliation, not justice

28 September 2001

The Times Higher Education Supplement
Published: 28 September 2001

‘This is retaliation, not justice’
Tom Palaima

America needs to understand how the rest of the world sees it, says Tom Palaima.

At times of international crisis, we Americans really need to know who we are, and how what we say and do translates into foreign languages. It is not enough to look in the mirror. We must see ourselves as others see us, across the traditional boundary between East and West.

Jose Melena, director of the Cervantes Cultural Institute in Istanbul and recipient of the Euskadi prize, one of Spain’s highest honours, is a scholar who is familiar with terrorism.

He grew up in Spain under the Franco dictatorship and lived for many years under the daily threat of Basque-separatist terrorism. He has had terrorist bombs explode in his apartment building and his colleagues have been blown up in their cars. He is a courageous and moral humanist.

In a recent internet discussion, Professor Melena said: “I have been following your discussions about the bloody events of the 11th of September, and I now see clearly how important it is to use the right words in the right places. I watch people on American television declaring that things like the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon ‘can occur in other countries, but not in the United States’.

“Television channels over here broadcast commentary with the running header ‘Attacks upon the US’ and tell us that the US plans to carry out a military retaliation called Operation Infinite Justice.

“Seven thousand innocent people have been killed. We all deeply mourn them. The pride and sense of security of the US nation have been injured. But the main victims of the terrorist attacks will be international rights and justice itself. State terrorism is a thousand times worse than plain terrorism. We must be cautious in supporting state terrorist actions. This is not a fight for freedom and democracy, without adjectives. It is a fight for US Freedom and US Democracy.

“I have lived with my closest loved ones through terrorism in the Basque region of Spain. My long experience is that, when we were suffering terrorist attacks, the US did nothing. US officials told us: ‘The terrorist attacks are internal affairs of Spain.’ When we experienced an attempted coup d’etat against our young democracy, the US ambassador in Madrid spoke at once: ‘This is an internal affair of Spain. The US cannot be involved in the struggle.’ “After world war two, the US supported our fascist dictator Franco in power. Freedom and democracy in my country were exchanged for permission to instal US military bases.

“There are other countries in the world whose citizens have shared the Spanish experience. American ideals seem to us remote and unreal. Infinite justice, according to the Latin roots, is unlimited justice or justice without borders. But justice must have limits and must have its own tools. Machines of war cannot bring about the kind of justice we really need now.

“A human life is a human life. But 7,000 human victims of terrorism on American soil seem to weigh more right now than the 32,000 who have been killed in recent years by terrorist actions in Turkey.

“Americans, then, should not be surprised that in a recent poll, 86 per cent of Spaniards are against any US military action. I agree. This is not justice. It is retaliation. But there is nothing new under the sun. The basic question was already treated by the Greek historian Thucydides. Powerful countries will always be tempted to use their power for pragmatic reasons.”

In 1952 at the outset of the cold war, US state department official Louis Halle discussed what the United States of America could learn from Thucydides, who commanded troops as a general in the great conflict between Athens and Sparta.

Halle argued that we should not be seduced by our power and should remain “devoted to freedom and as dedicated to the rights of others as to (our) own”.

We can no longer control our past foreign policy. We can still control the future. We need to make sure that our ideals control our powerful actions.

Tom Palaima
MacArthur fellow and Dickson Centennial professor of classics
University of Texas at Austin

This article first appeared in the Austin American-Statesman