Phyllis Bennis, influential activist and author, is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies ( The long-time anti war activist, writer and journalist lives and works in Washington D.C., which she described as “the belly of the beast.”

Bennis is Pacifica Radio’s U.N. correspondent and has written several essays and a book about the US’s domination of the U.N. She has published several well-known books on US foreign policy, including Before and After: US Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis and Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s US. She stopped on her way to give a lecture at Masterton Hall last week to speak with The Free Press.

You’ll be criticizing the war on Iraq, and you started out protesting the Vietnam war. Do you see any similarities in your work between the two conflicts?

There are frightening parallels. The Iraq war is costing about $5 billion a month. Adjusting for inflation, the Vietnam War at its height cost about $5 billion a month. We have more or less the same number of [US Soldier] deaths in as in Vietnam in 1969. The violence spiked to 55,000, not to mention something close to 3 million Vietnamese.

Bush wants to “stay the course,” and Kerry wants to “internationalize the war.” The reality is that US troops are the cause, not the solution to the violence. The perception is that European countries aren’t going because they hate Bush. That’s not true either. It’s really no different under Kerry.

The problem is that we’re treating as a war something that should be treated as a matter of international law.

What do you propose as an alternative to the “war on terror?”

International law should be the basis of an international mobilization against terror, relying on collaboration and cooperation with other countries rather than dominating them and demanding that if they don’t go with our strategy we’ll treat them like terrorists.

We need to consider why, not only do things like 9/11 occur, but that people all around the world start to think it’s not such a bad idea. Instead, we’ve taken on a strategy that makes us less safe, not more safe. The notion of international law as a framework is very important. The speech that George W. Bush should have given on the night of September 11 should have started with why this is proof that we need an international criminal court.

Except that Bush vocally opposes an international criminal court.

That’s right. He gave exactly the wrong speech. He’s been saying that the American people demanded that we go to war. I don’t believe that. I think people were traumatized and paralyzed with fear. Fear has been a very good instrument for this administration. All we were offered was “we go to war or we let ’em get away!” It’s not surprising that people said “ok, we’ll go to war.”

How does this affect us at home?

The level of racial profiling has escalated enormously. While it’s primarily targeted at Arabs, Muslims and south Asians, the reality is that the entire immigrant community is at risk. It’s become virtually impossible for people from some countries to visit here because of new restrictions put on visas – even visitor’s visas. Among other things, that means Americans are being denied the right to hear alternative voices because people are simply not being allowed to come to participate in seminars, to go to school here – tons of people aren’t even applying for visas anymore because they know they won’t get them. Instead, they go to Canada or the U.K. or somewhere else. That’s not in anybody’s interest in this country.

We know there were over 1000 Arabs and Arab Americans rounded up after 9/11 and held, some of them for weeks, without their families being told where they were, without access to lawyers and then released with no charges being brought, no explanations and no apology, no nothing. This is not what a democracy is supposed to look like. This is what dictatorships around the world we’re supposedly against are supposed to be like.

This is a serious problem, and there’s every indication that the PATRIOT act makes some of these new practices permanent. That we’re going to see that on the increase.

What kind of practices do you see on the increase?

It’s the same thing domestically that we saw initially when the Bush administration acknowledged that, in their view, the Geneva Conventions do not apply to anyone arrested on the battlefield in this so-called war on terrorism. Combine that statement with the constant segue of “the war against terror, the war in Iraq.” “Saddam Hussein, Al Quaeda.” “9/11, Iraq.” Never the specific allegation that could be refuted, but the constant segue from one to the other.

And then, why are we surprised when the people [at Abu-Gharaib] believe that, in the war against terror, the Geneva Conventions don’t apply. It doesn’t excuse those at the lowest level that carried out atrocities at Abu Gharaib and elsewhere. That’s the Nuremburg defense. It does mean that if we ultimately hold them responsible, we’re abandoning all credibility and accountability. We have to go up the military hierarchy to get those who were really responsible.


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