Regardless of the outcome, civilians will pay a heavy price

The attack came. In the night, as usual, because in the night America has eyes, and the enemy is blind. It came, and everybody knew it would come: the allied, the still mildly reluctant Arab countries, the Taliban, and even those poor sods who on Sept. 11 were cheering in Ramallah without knowing that in the end, somehow, they would be the ones who would pay.

Kenrick Leung

European congressman Pierre Lellouche in an interview to the newspaper Liberation shortly after Sept. 11, said that this struggle against terrorism is not a war, but the first example of what he called the apres-guerre: the post-war. We still don’t know what the rules of the apres-guerre will be, but we are seeing the first chapters unfolding, and we can try to understand something from them.

The apres-guerre does not take place between countries or between cultures, but between partially hidden networks of complex political and military alliances. As the Bush administration made very clear, conquering Afghanistan, or even forcing the creation of a friendly government is not one of the goals of this fight. The enemy, in the apres-guerre is not clearly discernible, and not easily reconcilable with simple national or cultural labels: We are fighting against Muslim terrorists but Muslims have also been most of the victims of the terrorists, who killed at least 40,000 people in Algeria, although, in the west, we knew very little about them.

This leads to the second characteristics of the apres-guerre: the constant tension between the public and the secret, in which the media play a role as important as that of the military.

This role is evident in two aspects of the conflict: the need for some clearly discernible action, and the care taken to accompany the military action with humanitarian aids.

As Secretary of State Colin Powell has repeated many times, the response of the United States is (and will be) extremely complex and spread over a wide spectrum: political, economic, humanitarian and, if necessary, militaristic. All these branches of the American response are already in place and have been working for some time. From the point of view of the information society, however, they present a terrible inconvenience: They are either long-term efforts, slowly moving through embassies and foreign offices, or are invisible, like the intelligence effort and the use of special “”commando”” troops.

The society of instant news and instant gratification needs something more. Sometimes, symbols count as much as action, and the attack of last Sunday certainly served this purpose, at least judging from the new wave of flags that appeared here and there all over San Diego.

While this flurry of symbols is somehow understandable, we must constantly ask ourselves whether it is accompanying rational analysis or taking the place of it. Is there an objective and compelling justification for bombing Afghanistan (and its public appeal is only incidental)? Or, was this spectacular military action undertaken, at least in part, because of its symbolic value?

It is a terrible notion that Afgnani civilians, already tried by more than 20 years of wars and brutal dictatorship, are sacrificing their lives on the altar of public opinion, but, alas, it is not a far-fetched scenario.

But — and this is another quirk of the apres-guerre — the same instantaneous world news that requires spectacular actions against an enemy, any enemy, also plays on the other side. Every action of the western coalition will be observed from the two points of view, and every civilian suffering will be reported in the most minute details.

A consequence of the media’s presence is that, in the apres-guerre, a modern country must show the world that it is trying to kill as few people as possible or (since this is more a pious desire than a realizable objective) to keep the casualties as far away from the cameras as possible. This is opposed to traditional war, where one tries to kill as many enemies as possible.

The administration took great care in pointing out that, together with the bombs, airplanes would drop food on the Afghani refugees — the apres-guerre is, at its bottom, as dirty an affair as the old fashioned war, but it is important to surround it with all the paraphernalia that are commonly associated with Hollywood movies: Only the bad guys kill the innocents.

The images of food being dropped from American planes, which the Pentagon has eagerly distributed around the world, also serve another purpose: The administration realizes that the political capital constituted by the international outrage after the events of Sept. 11 will rapidly evaporate as civilian casualties are reported, especially in countries like Pakistan, where the sentiment of identification with the Afghani people is stronger.

The bombing has already caused confirmed civilian casualties: four U.N. workers on a mission to remove land mines, and we can expect more.

It will take all the diplomacy that the administration can muster to keep the frail network supporting the action together.

In the past week, even vocal opponents of Bush, such as myself, were surprised by the restraint, the rationality and the diplomatic capacity of this administration. Now they have embarked on an operation that could constitute a positive step in the struggle against terrorism, or that could lead to a disastrous spiral of hate and terror.

This is a move without return, and the administration knows very well that it will have to face many consequences: the pledge of the terrorists to bring more terror, the growing instability of crucial Arab countries, increasing indecisiveness among the allies and, most important, the Israeli time bomb.

Never like today could a wrong move by the Israeli government aggravate the situation, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has shown a preoccupying tendency toward thoughtless action. Bush knows this very well, and in the last few weeks he has been tougher with the Israeli government than any administration in the recent past.

Behind all these considerations, however, is the simple truth that in the apres-guerre, as in war, the civilians will pay a terrible price, either in buildings destroyed by the blind hate of terrorists, crying their farewells into cellular phones or in nights of darkness and terror in Kabul, where nobody can hear their cries.

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