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Professor Marjorie Cohn
Thomas Jefferson School of Law
JURIST Contributing Editor

The tragedy of September 11 was unimaginable. Or was it? The hatred that fueled 19 people to blow themselves up and take thousands with them has its genesis in a history of the United States government's exploitation of people in oil-rich nations around the world.

President George W. Bush accuses the terrorists of targeting our freedom and democracy. But it was not the Statue of Liberty that was destroyed. It was the World Trade Center - symbol of the U.S.-led global economic system, and the Pentagon - heart of the United States military, that took the hits.

Those who committed these heinous crimes were attacking American foreign policy, not the American people. The 5500+ civilians who died were likely considered "collateral damage" by the hijackers and their co-conspirators

During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews are exhorted to take steps to rectify the harm we have caused others. Last week, I told a World War II veteran of my worry that bombing Afghanistan would likely kill many innocent people. "American lives are more important than Afghan lives," he retorted. Aghast, I later realized that this typifies the way our government has acted for years toward people in Third World countries.

Exactly one year before the Shah of Iran was toppled by a coalition led by people acting in the name of the Ayatollah Khomeini, I visited that country as an international legal observer on behalf of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. I interviewed dozens of people, from the Ayatollah Shariat Madari (the leading ayatollah in Khomeini's exiled absence) to poets, communists, political prisoners and myriad others. Although downtown Tehran sported a U.S. corporation on every corner, the people were drowning in poverty and misery. I returned to the United States and was scoffed at when I predicted a revolution in Iran.

In 1953, the CIA had overthrown the democratically-elected nationalist, secular prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq (whose government had nationalized the British oil company) and installed the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, ushering in 25 years of a brutal and repressive reign of terror. Iran became the largest customer for U.S. arms and U.S.-based oil companies replaced the British.

When Iranians began to rise up against the Shah, the U.S. told him it supported him "without reservation" and encouraged him to use force to maintain his power, even trying to engineer a military coup to save him. In 1979, a broad-based united front consisting of nationalists as well as militant Muslims, coalesced around Khomeini, overthrew the Shah and inaugurated a theocracy based on religious fascism. Because of Washington's long-standing support for the Shah, Khomeini's government became a model for fundamentalist anti-U.S. Islamic regimes.

The United States was eager to counter the now anti-American Iranian government and prevent it from controlling the Persian Gulf, the largest oil source in the world. But the U.S. heartily supported Saddam Hussein during his worst atrocities, including the gassing of the Kurds.

To keep both Iran and Iraq off balance, the United States quietly encouraged Iraq to invade Iran in 1980, with the promise of financing from Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. opposed any Security Council action to condemn the invasion. Removing Iraq from its list of terrorist nations, the U.S. allowed the transfer of arms to Iraq, while simultaneously permitting Israel to arm Iran.

The United States supplied Saddam Hussein with the technology to develop chemical and biological weapons, according to a 1996 Associated Press report. Even after Iraq used its chemical weapons in 1984, the U.S. restored diplomatic relations with Iraq, sent the U.S. navy into the Persian Gulf, and accidentally shot down an Iranian civilian airplane, killing 290 people. Then-Presidential candidate George H.W. Bush's comment on the accident: "I will never apologize for the United States. I don't care what the facts are."

Still playing both ends against the middle, the U.S. itself directly supplied arms covertly to Iran in 1985. Thinking the United States was still his ally, Saddam informed the U.S. ambassador to Iraq that he was about to invade Kuwait in 1991. He received no protest from the U.S. ambassador. But the United States, not wanting Iraq to dominate the western shore of the Persian Gulf, reacted by re-invading Kuwait.

The U.S. didn't really wish to destroy Iraq; it still wanted Iraq as a counterweight to Iran. But the United States underestimated Saddam's ability to maintain his position of control over the Kurds and the Shiites - both politically and through the use of terror.

In the last decade, the United States has dropped tens of thousands of bombs on Iraq, killing many civilians, using napalm, cluster bombs and depleted uranium, in what the Los Angeles Times described as a "massacre" and a "massive slaughter." As a result of the bombing and devastating economic sanctions, between 4000 and 5000 Iraqi children still die every month. When asked on CBS television in 1996 for her reaction to these deaths, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, "we think the price is worth it."

Evidently, the perpetrators of the September 11 attack thought the price of 5500 innocent lives was worth it. Suspicion has focused on Osama bin Laden, who despises the United States for the Gulf War, its support for Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, and the location of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest Muslim shrines.

Bush is aiming the largest concentration of American firepower since World War II at Afghanistan, which harbors bin Laden. The President has made it clear that all countries that support terrorists are on our hit list. But even though none of the hijackers came from Afghanistan, and many hailed from Saudi Arabia, the U.S. maintains friendly relations with the Saudis, the largest suppliers of the world's oil.

Oil has been the principal motivation for much of United States foreign policy. Since 1996, the U.S. overlooked the Taliban's terror in hopes the U.S. could build an oil pipeline across Afghanistan to Pakistan, to transport up to two hundred billion barrels of oil and gas through Central Asia.

After the Taliban took over Kabul, a U.S. State Department spokesman saw "nothing objectionable" about the Taliban's brand of Islam. Osama bin Laden was trained by the CIA in terror tactics to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the United States funneled more than $2 billion in guns and money to the fundamentalist mujaheddin in Afghanistan, the largest covert action program since World War II.

Likewise, the United States gave considerable assistance to the Kosovo Liberation Army - a Muslim terrorist group financed by the Third World Relief Agency, through which bin Laden and others funneled $350 million - and its twin, the National Liberation Army in Macedonia.

Although U.S.-led NATO ostensibly bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days in 1999 to stop ethnic cleansing, the bombing was actually part of a strategy of containment, to keep the region safe for the Trans-Balkan oil pipeline through Albania and Macedonia. Cooperation of the Albanians with the pipeline project was likely contingent on the U.S. helping them wrest control of Kosovo from the Serbs.

Jerrold Post, a psychological profiler at the CIA for 21 years, said recently the "real dilemma" is the "roiling hatred within the Arab world directed at the United States. . . America doesn't have the vaguest idea how much hatred." He maintains that terrorists exploit "feelings of despair over economic conditions and [over] totalitarian regimes."

The Book of Exodus speaks of God "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation." Our innocent civilians have been hoist on the cruel petard of a long history of brutal and opportunistic U.S. foreign policy, where yesterday's freedom fighters are considered today's terrorists. "Collateral damage" is unacceptable regardless of whose lives are lost. The only way to truly eradicate terrorism is to understand the conditions that created it and obliterate them.

Marjorie Cohn is an associate professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, where she teaches International Human Rights Law. She welcomes comments on this essay at

October 5, 2001


  • Wonderful article by Marjorie Cohn on situation in Middle East. Well informed historically and to the point politically. I hope it gets as wide a circualtion as it deserves in these times of know-nothing propaganda bombardment on the part of mainstream media. Again, congratulations.

    Isaac Artenstein
    California, USA

  • I commend Prof. Cohn on her bravery. From abroad, it looks as if America has drenched itself in an uncritical ideology which varies only slightly from (and is often coupled with) the religious fundamentalism we claim to abhor. The people of America have suffered a huge loss, but perhaps equally important, we have learned, even in our most trenchant isolationism, that we and the rest of the world are in this together. This is not an American experience, this is a global experience - if only it could have been interpreted that way, great strides would have been made in international relations, and more specifically, international law.

    In addition to America's previous adventures as set out by Prof. Cohn, I would like to add another dimension, which may not have occurred to Americans living in the US.

    Sitting in Istanbul cinemas for several years now, I have shrunk slightly in my seat while the singularly violent trailers spilled out a weaponry and carnage unproduceable in any other country. As the bodies dropped and the vehicles exploded in mind-numbing unison, a whisper inevitably runs through the audience about how Americans love violence and what a shame it is that they cannot put their considerable talents to better use. There are many human experiences to make films about - do Americans have these experiences or is life just one shoot'em up ending in a ball of flames. People laugh softly, not at the carnage but at the specificity and predictability of what they are forced to watch in order to see the film they came for.

    What Prof. Cohn discusses, along with the unfortunate prediliction of American popular culture has made me afraid for America for some time. Will they, will we, ever reap what has been sown, I fear.

    We are a great people for the opportunities our country gives us to think, to express ourselves, to create. The mystery remains of why we have allowed ourselves to be led, in so many fields, by our most limited minds.

    This horrible experience could have put America in a position of unassailable world leadership. It could have gone far to establish a rule of law with genuine meaning to people everywhere. Instead, it looks to become yet another of the adventures of which Prof. Cohn reminds us.

    Virginia Brown Keyder
    Bilgi University
    Istanbul, Turkey

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JURIST Contributing Editor Marjorie Cohn is an associate professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, where she teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Evidence, and International Human Rights Law. A news consultant for CBS News and a commentator for Court TV, she has co-authored a book on cameras in the courtroom with veteran CBS News Correspondent David Dow. Professor Cohn has also published articles about criminal justice, international human rights, U.S. foreign policy and impeachment. She is editor of the National Lawyers Guild Practitioner and is on the Roster of Experts of the Institute for Public Accuracy. A criminal defense attorney at the trial and appellate levels for many years, Professor Cohn was also staff counsel to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board. She has lectured at regional, national and international conferences, and was a legal observer in Iran on behalf of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.

Professor Cohn is a graduate of Stanford University and the University of Santa Clara School of Law. She welcomes comments on her columns at