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Empire's terrors

by christian parenti and christopher d. cook

THE ROOT CAUSES of last Tuesday's catastrophe are multilayered. First, there
is the issue of crushing poverty in the global South. Take, for example, the
Middle East, the apparent home of the suicide pilots of Sept. 11.

The World Bank reports that 30 percent of Egypt's people subsist on less
than $2 a day; in Yemen it's 35 percent. Worldwide there are 1.5 billion
people living in "abject poverty." That means they lack even the very
basics: adequate food, shelter, and clean water.

It gets worse. Roughly 40 percent of the Middle East's population is under
17 years old, and one-fifth of all young men there are unemployed. The
average per-capita income of the region is about $2,100 annually. (All this
from the World Bank, which tends to put a happy face on things.)

Why the misery? The United States, leading the rest of the global North's
rich nations, has for decades imposed poverty-generating policies that force
states to privatize resources and slash public spending. This raises
unemployment increasing poverty, disease, forced migration, and
environmental degradation. In Egypt home of Mohammed Atta, who piloted the
first jet into the World Trade Center the government spends a mere four
percent of its budget on health care. As a result, 8.5 percent of Egypt's
children die before age five.

Fueling such poverty is the debt crisis. Cheap credit from the oil boom of
the 1970s went sour as interest rates rose and commodity prices plummeted in
the early 1980s. Since then scores of developing countries have been trapped
in a downward cycle of usurious borrowing and repayment that enriches
Northern banks at the expense of an ever-poorer Southern majority. Over the
past 17 years the South has transferred a net total of $1.5 trillion to
Northern creditors.

"There are now about 50 countries that are hyper-indebted and unable to
redress the situation," professor Saskia Sassen of the London School of
Economics writes in the London Guardian. The International Monetary Fund
requires those highly indebted countries to pay 20 to 25 percent of their
export earnings toward debt servicing. "In contrast," writes Sassen, "the
Allies canceled 80% of Germany's [World War II] debt and only insisted on
3-5% of export earnings debt service."

Poverty causes anger and rebellion, especially among youth. The U.S.
response to this in the Middle East, as elsewhere, has been to crush the
left with military might and back right-wing regimes. Seventy-eight percent
of all U.S. money sent to the Middle East is military aid, according to the
State Department. Those weapons prop up police states, from Saudi Arabia to
Algeria. With the left defeated, malignant strains of Islamic fundamentalism
are now filling the vacuum, offering a totalizing religious solution to the
everyday problems of privation and repression.

All of this creates an intense hatred of the United States that erupts in
the hopeless insanity of suicide bombings. Atta and his compatriots made
their own vicious decisions, but they did so in a context structured at
every turn by American might.

Our government's reaction to the horrors of Sept. 11 threatened bombings,
sanctions, and an open-ended war against "terrorists" everywhere is
precisely the type of policy that caused this disaster. If aggression is an
effective deterrent against terrorists, why were the 19 hijackers not
deterred to begin with? Mass retaliation will only compound the existing
problems from which the four suicidal jet-bombs emerged.

In the long term there is only one rational solution: begin the process of
giving up America's informal empire. That means we stop funding despots and
stop exploiting the people and land of the global South. What's needed
instead are: new forms of international regulation and redistribution
designed to foster equitable development. It's simple we share the wealth
or hope that the next target isn't Diablo nuclear power plant.

Christian Parenti is the author of Lockdown America.

Christoper D. Cook is an award-winning journalist who has worked as city
editor of the Bay Guardian.