BY SEAN HEALY
The world's only superpower has declared the "first war of the 21st century", a "new kind of war" against "global terrorism'", a war in which "there are no rules".
In a chilling parallel to threats by Islamic fundamentalists to declare a jihad, a holy war, against the United States, US President George Bush has even called his war a "crusade" to "rid the world of evil-doers".
The immediate target of this war is the Afghanistan-based Saudi Arabian millionaire Osama bin Laden, almost universally blamed for masterminding the devastating September 11 attacks on Washington and New York.
But the US administration clearly believes the September 11 tragedy, which has justifiably outraged world public opinion, is too good an opportunity to waste, and plans to go after all those it can label as "terrorists", which might just stretch to any government or movement opposed to US domination.
The contours, and scale, of the administration's planned response are becoming clearer by the day: it will target all those it feels are a threat to the US rulers' interests and, given the global breadth of anti-Americanism, that means pretty much most of the world's population.
What the US has explicitly ruled out is treating these terrorist attacks as what they are — crimes against humanity. For such crimes, there is a set procedure: evidence should be gathered, the culprits identified, arrested, brought to trial and, if found guilty, punished. (Or rather, there should be a set procedure — the US has consistently sought to block the establishment of effective international procedures and institutions for such cases, on the grounds that it will never allow a US soldier to be tried for war crimes by an international tribunal.)
Instead, President Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and every other political figure who has had a microphone shoved in their face by a US TV network has repeated that this was "an act of war", akin to, or worse than, Pearl Harbor in 1941 — and therefore normal rules of conduct do not apply.
Having set themselves on the war path, the US rulers are now drawing up the precise battle plans, based on a complex set of "low-end" and "high-end" scenarios.
At the "low end" are plans to strike out at bin Laden's bases in Afghanistan, with the aim of capturing and/or killing him.
These might include "targeted" jet and cruise missile strikes of the kind ordered by President Bill Clinton in 1998, after bin Laden was blamed for the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The strikes hit camps in Afghanistan and a medicines factory in Sudan, which US officials falsely claimed was producing chemical weapons.
More likely than just missile strikes is the simultaneous use of US special forces — commando raids on sites where bin Laden and his supporters are believed to be.
Bush has declared that a 25-year presidential order banning assassinations would no longer apply, which will arm such commandos with shoot-to-kill orders. Speaking on September 18, he even harked back to the wild west posters which proclaimed, "Wanted: dead or alive".
Such lightning assassination raids would likely not just be targeted at bin Laden. Powell has threatened that the entire terrorist "network" would be sought out and "rip[ped] up", while Attorney-General John Ashcroft has estimated that operations will stretch across 60 countries.
What this raises is the prospect of US special forces roaming the world murdering alleged US enemies — a globalised version of Israel's "targeted killings" in occupied Palestine.
And that's just the "low end" of planned scenarios.
Speaking three days after the terrorist attacks, assistant defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz said: "One has to say it's not simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who support terrorism."
This is the "high end" : military operations aimed at punishing, even destroying, entire countries.
This would certainly involve the use of the US's overwhelming air superiority to rain down death from the sky. But it could also include the use of ground troops and the full-scale invasion of countries.
First in the firing line is Afghanistan, whose Islamic fundamentalist Taliban government has harboured bin Laden. There is much speculation that one of the things demanded of Pakistani military ruler Pervaiz Musharraf was permission for the US to use that country as a launching pad for invading Afghanistan.
Innocent civilians in Kandahar and Kabul look set to pay with their lives for the deaths of innocent civilians in New York and Washington. Refugee agencies have estimated that up to 1.5 million desperately poor Afghans are seeking to flee the country before war engulfs them.
Once started, however, it seems unlikely that full-scale operations would stop there.
The US officially labels seven states and 29 organisations as "terrorist" (see box) and most of them are based in the Middle East.
If the reaction to war in the region is anger, as should be expected, then US war operations could easily spread to the whole region: to Iraq — which already has fingers pointed towards it, to Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, Algeria — where Islamic fundamentalists have deep roots, to Syria, Iran, Libya — all of whose governments have long hated the US, to Palestine, where a war is already going on.
It may not be too long before right-wing US historian Samuel Huntington's 1990s prediction of a "clash of civilisations'", a war between Islam and the West, doesn't sound so far-fetched. (Middle Eastern analyst Robert Fisk even speculates that this was precisely bin Laden's motive for the terror attacks on the US in the first place.)
What the "first war of the 21st century" is starting to look like is a war of the First World against the Third, not so much a world war as a war of the worlds.
In one corner is "civilisation", the 20% of the world's population who own 86% of its wealth, mostly white, well-educated, cosseted, comfortable, but whose sense of security and well-being has now been rudely shattered by the outside world crashing in.
Armed with the most advanced instruments of death ever devised, their methods of war are called "necessary and appropriate" and are aimed at securing "justice".
In the other corner are "the barbarians", the other 80% of the world's population, from whom the "mindless fanatics" came, mostly dark-skinned, for whom death, destruction, insecurity and fear are facts of daily life but whose suffering never gets 24-hour coverage on CNN.
Armed with little more than box cutters and their own despairing willingness to die, their methods of war are called "terrorism" and are motivated by "hate".
"America was targeted for attack", said Bush on September 14, "because we are the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world."
But so long as the US keeps that "beacon" as the private property of the remaining 20%, and by force and diplomacy actively denies it to the 80%, the US's response to the terror of September 11 cannot be what Bush claims it to be: "civilisation" defending itself against "evil".
It can only be privilege protecting itself against desperation — and that kind of war is an obscenity.