Editor’s Note: The essay below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
Steven Higgs is a man with vision and passion, especially when it comes to protecting the environment. The 50-year-old veteran writer and communication consultant was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and today lives in Bloomington, Indiana. Steve has worked as a reporter for the Bloomington Herald-Times and as a senior editor for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Currently, he is editor of the Indiana Environmental Report and is a columnist for the Bloomington Independent. Steve is divorced and has two children: Jessica, 21, and Crystal, 18. His passions include hiking, walking, canoeing, photography and photographer Edward Weston. On Sept. 11, Steve was working in his office at home. “Heard on our community radio station that a plane had hit the WTC and that anyone close to a TV should turn it on. I did.” He wrote the following columns for the Bloomington Independent – “Terror” on Sept. 20 and “Lost History” on Oct. 11.
Like Americans the world over, those of us who consider this peaceful refuge called Bloomington home received a serious re-education in terrorism this week just passed.
We spent our days and nights riveted to computer screens, newspapers and television sets, our emotions ricocheting wildly between shock, grief and anger as we witnessed terrorism in its purist form – the kind conceived and executed by fanatical, frustrated military men like Osama Bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh.
We screamed “Holy shit!” when we saw that jumbo jet slice through the side of the World Trade Center. We gasped in horror when the twin towers crumbled to the streets below, one atop the other. We vowed revenge each time our eyes locked on an image of an innocent victim’s mother, husband, child or friend. We saw and felt terror with our own eyes and hearts.
We also learned last week what terrorism is not. Contrary to the rhetoric of politicians and media, terrorism isn’t torching an inappropriately sited home in the Lake Monroe watershed or driving spikes into Yellowwood State Forest hardwood trees. Such politically motivated acts of desperation may be cowardly and counterproductive, but they’re not terrorism. Terrorists kill people.
And while George W. Bush and politicians from coast to coast forsook words like calm and reason in the days following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, we are also relearning just how expendable liberty can be in the face of unacceptable forms of political action, be it environmental monkey-wrenching or true terrorism.
The subject of “terrorism” was thrust front-and-center in our local political discourse in February 2000 when the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for an arson that destroyed a million-dollar home under construction in the Lake Monroe watershed. In the local daily, the prosecutor called it “environmental terrorism.”
In June, ELF claimed responsibility for a tree-spiking in Yellowwood. In July, Oregon-based ELF spokesman Craig Rosebraugh claimed at a Bloomington forum that ELF had inflicted “over $30 million in damages without one person being caught.”
In the local daily this past January, the mayor called on the public to stand against “terrorist acts” after ELF claimed responsibility for torching construction equipment in New York. A month later, local environmental activist Frank Ambrose was arrested for the Yellowwood tree-spiking, the first American citizen ever charged with an ELF-related crime.
Ambrose maintained his innocence. And the evidence against seemed flimsy, at best. Someone looking like him was captured on a hardware store video purchasing spikes. His car had been parked near the tree-spiking site, which happens to be a public road on public land.
Many suspected politically sinister motivations behind the arrest. Given the public furor being whipped up by politicians and the media nationwide over “ecoterrorism,” the FBI needed a face-saving nab of an ELF. And local authorities had reason to silence Ambrose, who had become the face-man for an aggressive citizen movement for environmental responsibility in south-central Indiana.
After the FBI raided his home and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources arrested him, Ambrose cut his hair, shut his mouth and left town. Last week, in the aftermath of the most horrendous act of political terrorism the world has ever seen, the same prosecutor who labeled ELF a “terrorist” organization announced he was dropping the charges against Ambrose. He refused to explain why.
We may very well be engaged in World War III. And history clearly shows that liberty can be a casualty in times like these. In 1918, Hoosier native and five-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for speaking against World War I. He ran his final campaign from behind bars. And in what is now universally understood to have been a moral and constitutional outrage, the American military herded thousands of loyal Japanese-Americans into concentration camps during World War II, as a pre-emptive strike.
More power must be and will be vested in our military in the days, weeks, months and, probably, years ahead. America will continue its drift toward a police state, which poses more danger to individual liberties than terrorism has to our individual lives, thus far. And we will live with that military state long after this war is won or lost. It must not be forgotten that Timothy McVeigh and Osama Bin Laden both received training in wars sponsored by the American military.
It is crucial that Americans come together at this juncture in world history. But it is not necessary that we vest the authorities with unlimited power. As we have learned through the Frank Ambrose case, the state is more than willing to suspend our freedom of expression, even in peacetime.
Now, more than ever, Americans must be free to express themselves, without fear of retribution from our government or fellow citizens. If we lose that liberty, we lose the war.
It comes as no surprise that Americans are asking why at a time like this, rather than already knowing, or at least having a clue. As a culture, over the past two decades, we showed little interest in anything other than our wallets or our crotches. We stopped paying attention to what our government was doing. And we missed a lot, including the part about how much some people hate us, and why.
Those who think the answer to today’s most-frequently-asked question is more complicated than our uncomplicated president is telling us – they’re evil, they hate freedom – are correct. There is a long and sordid history behind the most recent attacks on America. The details are enlightening, given the way politicians and the media blithely toss the word evil around these days.
One piece of the multi-faceted answer to why is addressed by journalist Robert Parry’s account of America’s “lost history,” a/k/a American foreign policy under Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush. A journalist who broke many of the Iran-Contra scandal stories for the Associated Press and “Newsweek,” Parry’s cover story in the Oct. 15 issue of the “Populist Progressive,” http://www.populist.com, connects the deadly dots between American foreign policy in the 1980s and 90s and Sept. 11.
An honest read of history shows that terrorism is something the U.S. government is quite familiar with. Throughout the 1980s, we routinely harbored and supported terrorists by allying ourselves with extra-governmental, right-wing Latin American death squads that engaged in “bloody campaigns that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives,” Parry writes. They raped and murdered four American nuns in El Salvador. A 1999 Guatemalan truth commission used the term “genocide” to describe the slaughter of Mayan Indians in that country; Parry calls it “blood baths that decimated generations of the best and brightest young people of that region.” Following the truth commission finding, President Clinton issued a little-noted apology.
While covertly harboring the death squads, the American government overtly supported the Nicaraguan Contras, “a terrorist-style organization that ravaged towns along the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, committing acts of torture, murder and rape – killing thousands,” Parry says. After Congress, faced with evidence of Contra atrocities, cut off American funds, the Reagan administration sold missiles to the Ayatollah’s Iran and diverted some of the proceeds to the Contras.
While the American people tuned their dials to the Nightly Business Report, MTV and Monday Night Football, the same foreign-policy hawks who sponsored death squads and a terrorist war in Latin America were simultaneously crafting a similar approach in the Middle East.
While Iran and Iraq warred over territorial disputes between 1980 and 1986, Parry writes, “the Reagan-Bush team secretly sold weapons to both sides in the conflict, while CIA Director William J. Casey gloated over the scheme that encouraged the two armies to maul each other.” An estimated one million people died in that war.
In 1982, the United States tried to influence the outcome of a bloody civil war in Lebanon and sent in troops at the government’s request. On Oct. 23, 1983, a suicide bomber blew up a Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen. The United States responded by lobbing shells from a battleship in the Mediterranean at Muslim villages in Lebanon, further fueling anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world.
American policy in the 90s has included post-Gulf War sanctions against Iraq that have resulted in suffering and death for millions of innocent Iraqi citizens, and nearly daily bombing of Iraqi military targets, without coming close to achieving the stated objective of driving Saddam Hussein from power. Predictably, the 90s also featured more attacks on American installations overseas, including the east African embassies and the USS Cole bombings.
At the same time, America was involved in another covert war that most Americans were oblivious to in Afghanistan. “The CIA spent an estimated $2 billion to support Afghan ‘freedom fighters’ in their war against Soviet troops and a Moscow-backed regime in Kabul,” Parry says. Among the beneficiaries of that support were Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime.
The first seven months of Bush Junior’s reign did little more than whip the flames into an inferno. He disengaged almost entirely from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while publicly laying blame for increased violence in the region on Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, Parry says. And just weeks before the attacks in New York and Washington, he joined Israel in walking out of a world anti-racism conference when it appeared that a resolution portraying Palestinians as victims of Israeli racism was going to pass.
Parry’s lost history details just one of the many reasons why America is hated by many in the Muslim world and elsewhere. It doesn’t in any way justify what happened on Sept. 11. But it does help explain why.