In the 2000 presidential election, the candidates were Albert Gore, Bill Clinton’s Vice President, and George W. Bush, the son of George H. W. Bush and the Governor of Texas, “known for his connection to oil interests and the record number of executions of prisoners during his term in office.” Neither candidate offered a plan for national health care or widespread environmental reform, and both supported the death penalty and the growth of prisons. Both were also considered to be friendly to business interests. The third-party candidate, Ralph Nader, who supported environmental reform and universal health care, was effectively shut out of television and national debates. Most Americans didn’t bother to vote for anyone.
In the final chapter of his book, Zinn addresses the history of George W. Bush’s war on terror. While this is the shortest and least thorough chapter in the book, Zinn makes the same fundament points that he’s made already: in the early 2000s, a bipartisan coalition of politicians campaigned for power without offering any broad programs of change for American society. (However, Zinn doesn’t address the fact that Gore was a well-known advocate of environmental reform, perhaps in order to make Gore and Bush seem more comparable in their political agendas).
Ultimately, the election came down to a handful of districts in Florida, where the election results were hotly disputed along partisan lines. Thus, the Republican secretary of state in Florida, Katherine Harris, rushed the recounting, and then certified that Bush had won by a few hundred votes. Gore appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, where the five conservative justices overruled the four liberal justices to find that no further recounts would be allowed, effectively handing the election to Bush.
The Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case was a clear example of two Establishment factions—Democrats and Republicans—fighting with each other for power. While Zinn doesn’t deny that conflicts of this kind are common in government, he argues that, ultimately, they’re less important than the commonalities between Republican and Democratic politicians, which lead them to pass legislation furthering elite interests at the common man’s expense.
On September 11, 2001, shortly after his inauguration, Bush faced a crisis: an attack on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Nineteen Middle Eastern men, mostly from Saudi Arabia, were willing to sacrifice their lives to “deliver a deadly blow against what they clearly saw as their enemy.” Bush responded by declaring a “war on terror,” and Congress complied by passing resolutions giving him the power of military force. Bush claimed that his goal was to apprehend Osama Bin Laden, the engineer of the 9/11 attacks, and he ordered the bombing of Afghanistan, where Bin Laden was supposedly hiding.
Zinn’s discussion of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is wildly different from that found in most textbooks, or elsewhere in the media. Zinn doesn't automatically demonize the nineteen terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center; instead, he suggests (later in the chapter) that they may have had some justifiable grievances with the United States. Zinn and his friend Noam Chomsky were widely reviled for their perspective on 9/11. As Zinn has written elsewhere, however, he’s not trying to glorify the 9/11 terrorists. Rather, he’s putting their acts into perspective by comparing them with those of the United States military. Thus, if we’re willing to entertain the idea that 9/11 was a terrorist attack, we must also accept that America’s bombing of Iraq, its invasion of Kuwait, etc., were terrorist attacks, too.
Bush should have known that terrorism “could not be defeated by force,” as, historically, wars on terrorism never worked. Furthermore, he should not have bombed a country already weakened by decades of war. Nevertheless, the bombings proceeded, killing as many as a thousand civilians. In short, “the United States was reacting to the horrors perpetrated by terrorists against innocent people in New York by killing other innocent people in Afghanistan.” Meanwhile, both the Democratic and Republican parties were enthusiastic about Bush’s war. On CNN, executives arranged for footage of injured Afghani civilians to be “accompanied with an explanation that this was retaliation for the harboring of terrorists.” Congress passed the Patriot Act, allowing the Department of Justice to detain any citizens on the mere suspicion of terrorist ties.
As in previous chapters, Zinn shows how the American media cooperated with the federal government throughout the War in Iraq, furthering the idea that America’s brutal civilian bombings in the Middle East were “justifiable retaliation” for 9/11. Furthermore, Zinn cements his theory of the bipartisan consensus by discussing the Patriot Act, an unethical violation of Americans’ right to privacy that was passed with the support of the vast majority of Congress, Republican and Democrat.
Some Americans spoke out against Bush’s policies. Victims of 9/11, and the families of the victims, wrote letters to Bush, begging him not to match violence with violence. Others pointed out that the only way to end terrorism was to address the terrorists’ grievances: the stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia, for example, or the Iraqi sanctions that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children.
Zinn doesn’t spend much time discussing the widespread opposition to the War in Iraq, which was often compared to the anti-Vietnam movement in the 1960s. However, he stresses the point that 9/11, as horrible as it was, was no worse than the American military’s actions in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
In the late nineties, a former colonel in the air force wrote an article in which he argued, “We are not hated because we practice democracy, value freedom, or uphold human rights. We are hated because our government denies these things to people in Third World countries whose resources are coveted by our multinational corporations.” Such opinions were shut out of the media after 9/11. Still, “the future of democracy depended on people, and their growing consciousness of what was the decent way to relate to their fellow human beings all over the world.”
Zinn ends on a cautiously optimistic note: with the war on terror, Americans of all races and backgrounds have an opportunity to rise up in opposition to the immoral actions of their own government. (Interestingly, Zinn doesn’t make the argument that the opposition to the war in Iraq was fundamentally a reform, not a radical, movement, because it didn’t question America’s fundamental right to intervene in other countries—a point later made by Zinn’s friend Noam Chomsky.) Zinn ends his history of the United States by celebrating the morality, sensibility, and basic decency of the American people.