September 22, 2001
5:05 PM   Subscribe

Did Osama leave Afghanistan? Is he in Somalia? Does anyone really know?
posted by raaka (67 comments total)
This might sound stupid, but all he has to do is dress like a woman and he can go anywhere. Maybe that's why he's so illusive.
posted by BBB28 at 5:20 PM on September 22, 2001

those who know don't say; those who don't know say--old saying from Skull and Bones at Yale
posted by Postroad at 5:20 PM on September 22, 2001

But if you insist:
posted by Postroad at 5:26 PM on September 22, 2001

Has anyone ever seen Ramon Stoppelenburg and Osama Bin Laden in the same place at the same time?
posted by machaus at 5:28 PM on September 22, 2001

Whether he's left or not, there is enough of his organization left behind to justify hostilities. This war isn't about capturing one man, it's about dismantling an entire organization and its allies.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 5:38 PM on September 22, 2001

Anyway, note that the source for this is the Taliban, and I think it's right in line with their prior claims that bin Laden wasn't involved. In other words, I think they're lying.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 5:40 PM on September 22, 2001

The Guardian's cartoonist, Steve Bell, thinks he's spotted him.
posted by ntk at 5:50 PM on September 22, 2001

Anyway, note that the source for this is the Taliban, and I think it's right in line with their prior claims that bin Laden wasn't involved. In other words, I think they're lying.

note (just for the record) that *I* think they're telling the truth about both things.

my current hypothesis is that his involvement is limited to funds; and that he was as surprised as anyone at the use his seed money had been put. and that he's no longer in afghanistan.
posted by rebeccablood at 6:11 PM on September 22, 2001

Dear Rebeccablood: why do you conjecture this when no one has yet to come forward with any proof of anything. You may well be right but on what basis do you believe this?
posted by Postroad at 6:49 PM on September 22, 2001

How clear does bin Laden have to get before some of you are ready to hold him the least bit responsible? He hates America, it's leaders, and not least of all it's citizens. We're not playing his interviews backwards looking for subliminal messages, he pretty much comes right out and says what he feels. He is the acknowledged leader of these terrorists, they pledge their allegiance to no one else, save for Allah, and these acts perpetrated on 9/11 were carried out with his blessing. The Charles Manson defense doesn't cut it with me.
posted by Jack Torrance at 6:58 PM on September 22, 2001

Isn't Somalia geographically easier to negotiate than Afghanistan?
posted by donkeyschlong at 7:07 PM on September 22, 2001

my current hypothesis is that his involvement is limited to funds

If so does it even matter? Funds were needed and if he supplied them at the very least he's partly to blame.

and that he was as surprised as anyone at the use his seed money had been put

If true I would love to have seen his reaction to the news. I'm picturing a 10 year old boy on christmas morning unwrapping a new bicycle he had no idea was coming.
posted by justgary at 7:07 PM on September 22, 2001

I wouldn't be surprised to see if he had moved to Somalia, as I found this article last night researching connections between Bin Laden and Minneapolis.

See this paragraph:

And he is adept at using front organizations to move and launder money. Some of those fronts may be in the U.S. In Minneapolis, Newsweek reports that several federal agencies are investigating a wave of large money transfers overseas by recent Somali immigrants to the area. Officials believe that some of the money, as much as $75 million, is going to a radical Islamic movement that has ties to Al Qaeda.


I haven't found any follow ups to see how the investigatino turned out.
posted by TiffanyRing at 7:23 PM on September 22, 2001

Jack Torrence: I think the penalty for saying nasty things about America and for blowing up 6500 people cannot be the same now, can it? Applauding the current murders, isn't a capital offence...
I thought the whole point of this "war" was to get the people directly responsible. This is like the police saying "well we don't know who the murderer actually is but we know a guy that didn't like the victim, and has a criminal record anyway, so we might as well arrest him".
posted by talos at 7:58 PM on September 22, 2001

Why do we think the Taliban has any idea what Osoma bin Laden is doing? I'm sure he tries to keep their overzealous ineptitude out of the equation as much as possible. Its not as if he has any national or tribal ties to them.

My bet is that he is living in Tel Aviv right now (yet another reason for the dismantling of Israel, eh ; ) ? ).
posted by Ptrin at 8:00 PM on September 22, 2001

Postroad, there's no dateline on that story. When was it filed?
posted by melgx at 8:10 PM on September 22, 2001

I don't think he could dress as a woman and just pass for another gal anywhere... he stands around 6 foot 5 inches tall.
posted by Kami at 8:44 PM on September 22, 2001

I can appreciate a healthy dose of scepticsm from the legions (er, hanfull, rather) of Agent Mulders out there, but there is a wealth of information pouring in linking bin Laden to the attacks. Where is the wealth of information exonerating him? If you're looking to the Taliban for answers, they can't make up their minds if he was involved or not (stall tactics).

And you can forget about "Well America's hands are not so clean, my yankee friend" because I, as well as 99.9% of America, have nothing to do with CIA funding or operations. I'm sorry if the CIA came and shit in your backyard, but America doesn't even know what the CIA is up to most of the time, much less possesses the power to muzzle them as we see fit. We think bin Laden did it, Britian thinks he did it, France, Iran, Cuba, China, Russia....the Taliban KNOWS he did it. Convince me otherwise.
posted by Jack Torrance at 8:52 PM on September 22, 2001

Might I add that Jihad was declared on America, not the CIA, not the FBI, or the lovely Bush girls. As a result, AMERICANS are likely to take umbrage. Unless you're a mega-liberal, then you're probably going to feel sorry for bin Laden and show concern for his feelings.

And I shudder to think how Gore would have handled all of this.
posted by Jack Torrance at 9:00 PM on September 22, 2001

Jack Torrance: Probably like a president and veteran of the U.S. military. Enough of that mega-partisan horseshit, OK? It's wrong on both sides.
posted by raysmj at 10:33 PM on September 22, 2001

Horseshit? Whatever you say there, pard'ner
posted by Jack Torrance at 10:45 PM on September 22, 2001

yes, cut it out.
posted by raysmj at 10:47 PM on September 22, 2001

raysmj, if you want to stamp out 'partisan horseshit' on mefi you're gonna be here a long time.
posted by justgary at 11:40 PM on September 22, 2001

If Bin Laden--and his organization--are hard to find, then the element of suprise is the best method of trying to get him. Which is why I have some suspision that while the pulicized U.S. target is Afghanistan, the actual target might be completely different.

If you want to get him and his group of terrorists, then the only effect of saying "We're going after you in Afghanistan." will have is to put him on the move. And since the U.S. does clearly keep track of who he keeps in touch with, I personally see the media barrage pointing to Afghanistan as a way of smoking him out, and into another area--yet not disclosed--where the real battle will take place.

FWIW, my basis for thinking this is simply the logic of what the U.S. and others are going after and how the target behaves. That and lots of TV, movies and video games.
posted by RoyalJack at 11:54 PM on September 22, 2001

Jack Torrance: You with the CIA? 'Cos they have yet to show me the evidence, and I'm all ready to believe he's responsible.
posted by liam at 11:57 PM on September 22, 2001

justgary: I said *mega-partisan* horseshit, not partisan horseshit. Partisan horseshit I can take.
posted by raysmj at 12:05 AM on September 23, 2001

Liam: I have no idea as to how you... One paragraph says one thing, the second mentions the CIA. I'm guessing you skimmed the whole thing before formulating your riposte. Ain't mad at 'cha, I've done the same thing.

I get my information from the so-called "leftist" media, and operating on the right's premise that the American media is out to get the Republicans, one would assume that if there was a hole in Bush's claim that bin Laden is at fault for the attacks, that it would be reported immediately. Think about the ratings CNN, for example, would garner were they to expose these charges against bin Laden as fraudulent. So far, the only people making claims to the contrary of Bush's are the Taliban, Muslim extremists, and a few misguided MeFi members.

raysmj: I'm guessing that you're using the same logic employed to ferret out pornography- "I know it when I see it". Granted, it was a tacky remark but, as of late, entirely par for the course. I've read some of the most asinine remarks directed at "Dubya", complaints totally without merit, and I guess I've allowed myself to sink to that level. For that, I must offer an apology.
posted by Jack Torrance at 1:30 AM on September 23, 2001

Ties, links, links, ties. Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.
posted by Jack Torrance at 3:46 AM on September 23, 2001

Muckster: No. Anything you see, our enemies will also see.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 5:34 AM on September 23, 2001

Listen, we've all been extremely reasonable and even-handed during this whole thing, I think. We've pretty much managed to put partisanship aside for the last couple of weeks. Let's not let this troll Torrance get under our skin.
posted by jpoulos at 5:38 AM on September 23, 2001

jpoulos: hear, hear.

postroad: You may well be right but on what basis do you believe this?

well, it's based in part on the fact that no one has offered any evidence at all. the name "bin laden" was on everyone's lips from the moment the second plane crashed into wtc, and that set my alarm off immediately.

followed by the "clues" that were found: an arabic flight manual in a rental car, etc, all of which seem so obvious (from a group that has maintained and is still maintaining admirable secrecy). and the new reports that many of the attackers seem to have assumed false identities for the attack. (big duh, but it seems to be unexpected news to our law enforcement agencies.) those things don't go together: either you're careful to hide all clues about your mission, or you're planning to die and you don't hide anything, because it won't matter.

or you plant deliberately misleading evidence in the places people will look first. maybe all you want to do is buy yourself a little time.

followed by the fact that *no one* has come forward to claim the attack, and I have read that bin laden has never been shy about claiming credit for the attacks he's been involved with. (please, someone correct me if this is bad information.)

additionally, my understanding is that bin laden doesn't plan these things, he trains terrorists and then funds them to implement their own plans. he gives grants. in other words, if he's behind this at all, his involvement would be limited to financing, anyway.

and the speculation from israeli intelligence and others that bin laden is probably not the major player. they admittedly have their own ax to grind.

but I heard secondhand of a televised interview immediately following the blasts, with a CIA agent who said that bin laden may have provided money, but speculated that saddam was behind the attack. now that makes some sense to me, or at least it puts the attacks back into something approaching a pre-9.11 paradigm of war. we've been bombing iraq right along on a very regular basis. and we won't let his planes go much of anywhere. do the math.

so, we have a group of attackers who are not claiming credit for the attacks, and who are, in fact, doing everything they can to obfuscate the evidence that exists. bin laden has been the US boogeyman for some years now, so it would take only a little push in that direction for everyone to conclude that he is the culprit.

and, frankly, the taliban protests that in afghanistan bin laden doesn't have access to airstrips and the like, is surely true. again, they may be putting too fine a point on it if he's giving folks money, but he probably doesn't have the means to actually train people for this type of attack. they say that they cut off his access to phones and the like. I have no reason to disbelieve them, to be honest. they may be lying, but they may also be telling the truth.

he could have set some people on this path, but that doesn't mean that he masterminded or even fully financed this attack. concluding that he may not be behind this attack doesn't reduce his culpability for the things he has done.

finally, if we have such cut-and-dried evidence, why haven't we been willing to present it to the taliban for their consideration, so that they can (as they promised) deliver him up to an islamic court? (and we could surely all agree on saudi arabia for that, as bitter a pill as it would be for bin laden to swallow). then if they refused, we wouldn't look like total pigs if we attacked their country.

I can tell you this: we would never agree to deliver up for certain death a notorious resident of the USA without hard evidence.

perhaps that's the biggest thing. if we have the evidence, why isn't it being presented to the US people, and (given that you might want to keep it secret) why not to the governments who are involved?

in the end, it's mostly a hunch. I've had a few hunches as this thing unfolded, and so far they've been correct. my scenario feels right to me in a way that the others do not.
posted by rebeccablood at 10:49 AM on September 23, 2001

why haven't we been willing to present it to the taliban for their consideration, so that they can (as they promised) deliver him up to an islamic court?

Well, they're not the legitimate government of Afghanistan, for one. They're just the ones with the guns. Second, they were already complicit in other terrorist activities even before 9.11, and in many ways are as guilty of crimes against humanity as a result as Bin Laden himself, to say nothing of the crimes against humanity they commit against their own people every day as a matter of course. Third, their promises mean nothing, as they are completely untrustworthy. Fourth, any so-called "Islamic court" they ever handed Bin Laden over to would be a kangaroo court guaranteed to find him completely innocent almost instantaneously.

Enough reasons?
posted by aaron at 12:55 PM on September 23, 2001

Enough reasons?

from my perspective, lots of bad reasons.

first, note that we *have* been dealing with the taliban in this matter so far.

it would take little time to present our evidence. if that evidence were strong and then the taliban rejected our demands, at least our actions would be seen be seen as fair.

it's also fair to say that from many points of view, an american or european court would be seen as a kangaroo court.

look, we pick a country with whom we have good relations (like the saudis?) and have the trial there. extremists on both sides will claim that this is a kangaroo court, but that's what extremists do.

we have nothing to fear from a fair we?
posted by rebeccablood at 1:08 PM on September 23, 2001

Rebecca, revealing the data you want would effectively reveal its sources, and shut most of those sources down.

That's what we have to fear, and it's too high a price to pay. We citizens have to trust our leaders on this. Like it or not, that's why we elected them. (Even if we as individuals didn't vote for the winners.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:24 PM on September 23, 2001

That said, Rebecca it looks like you're going to get your wish.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:29 PM on September 23, 2001

metafilter: where wishes can come true. :)
posted by rebeccablood at 3:25 PM on September 23, 2001

either you're careful to hide all clues about your mission, or you're planning to die and you don't hide anything, because it won't matter.

It makes perfect sense to assume a new identity to avoid suspicion while planning the attack, but then to leave clues behind so all of posterity will know who to thank for murdering the infidels.

I have read that bin laden has never been shy about claiming credit for the attacks he's been involved with.

bin laden's modus operandi is to deny involvement, but to publicly laud the acts as causes for celebration. That's what he did with the USS Cole attack.

and, frankly, the taliban protests that in afghanistan bin laden doesn't have access to airstrips and the like, is surely true....he probably doesn't have the means to actually train people for this type of attack.

It's pretty clear that the pilots used american air strips and american flight schools for their training. all they needed from bin laden was the money and, more importantly, his blessing.

As far as presenting evidence to the world, or at least the Taliban, as SDB has informed us, we shall see....

Having said all that, it's pretty apparent that the US has plenty of hard evidence linking bin laden to the Cole. Why not put Sept 11 aside and attempt to extradite him based on that?
posted by jpoulos at 3:45 PM on September 23, 2001

jpoulos: Earlier scathing commentary regarding myself aside, you present some excellent points. As does Steven Den Beste
posted by Jack Torrance at 5:51 PM on September 23, 2001

Having said all that, it's pretty apparent that the US has plenty of hard evidence linking bin laden to the Cole. Why not put Sept 11 aside and attempt to extradite him based on that?

this has always seemed like the best plan to me. then as carefully as possible collect evidence in this case until you have an airtight or alt least "beyond a reasonable doubt" case against whomever turns out to be the criminal.
posted by rebeccablood at 6:03 PM on September 23, 2001

Rebecca, this isn't a criminal investigation. This is a war. We're not hunting people who are guilty, we're hunting people who are dangerous.

That's what war is about. War is a political action, not a legal one. We fight wars with people whose political goals conflict with ours, even if they haven't broken any of our laws. It is a non-sequiter to judge the actions our nation takes in a war by the standards of a criminal investigation.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 6:13 PM on September 23, 2001

We fight wars with people whose political goals conflict with ours, even if they haven't broken any of our laws

this is an important distinction, but you have it wrong: we fight wars with nations whose political goals conflict with ours.

let me ask this: is it unfair to judge the circumstances in which we declare war by the standards of our own constitution and bill of rights?

in other words, if we are attacked, and no one will come forward and take the blame, is it fair to pick out someone who's been on our list of "people we wish would just go away" and assassinate them or bomb the country they live in?

I don't think so.

I'm also not down with this "at war" business as it relates to terrorists, which are international criminals. I think we should have chosen our rhetoric much more carefully than that -- this legitimizes them in a way that I think is unfortunate at best. certainly, the less we can do to aggrandize their actions and the more we can do to minimize their importance in the scheme of things (and as examples of humanity), the better.

deal with them, yes. but grant them sudden nation-like status? no way.
posted by rebeccablood at 6:39 PM on September 23, 2001

Rebecca, I'm afraid you're not correct. We fight wars with whomever Congress tells the President to fight wars with, whether they're nations or not. There is nothing in the Constitution which says that the object of a Declaration of War has to be a nation, and in fact the very first Declaration of War the US Congress ever passed was against the Barbary Pirates, which were not a nation.

In answer to your question, it is not fair but it is reasonable. War is not an exercise in fairness. The goal of war is to improve the situation of our nation on earth. We don't fight because someone else has done something wrong or because they have attacked us, we fight because they represent a danger to us -- whether they have attacked us or not. (Which is why the US declared war against Germany and Italy in 1941 even though the attack was by Japan.) The mere fact that an enemy could attack us and have a high chance of doing so in future is sufficient for war. That's one of the critical ways in which war is different from law enforcement. By continually trying to refer to this as "law enforcement" and referring to our enemies as "criminals", you try to dodge this: it is completely reasonable in war to attack someone even if they have not done anything to us at all.

We fight against Al Qaeda because they could attack us in future and show every sign of wanting to, even if there is not a smidgen of proof now that they have already attacked us. (Although, in fact there is overwhelming evidence that they have in the past, whether they're involved in this particular attack or not.) It is totally unreasonable in criminal operations to arrest and try someone because they might commit a crime, but totally acceptable in war to attack someone because they are probably preparing an attack against us in future. (The technical term for that is "spoiling attack." An example of that in recent history was the Israeli attack in 1967. They had reason to believe that Syria, Jordan and Egypt were preparing an attack, so Israel attacked first before the other nations were really ready.)

This isn't a criminal operation; it's a war. If you try to judge it by the standards of a criminal operation you're going to get very confused. It doesn't work anything like the same way. Things which would be immoral in a criminal operation can actually end up being moral obligations in war. They really are radically different.

We are at war. We are not policemen. We fight Al Qaeda because they are our enemies, not because they are criminals. It doesn't matter whether there is proof that they were behind the attack on the WTC; there is ample proof that they are dangerous and that is sufficient to justify a war.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:59 PM on September 23, 2001

steven: interesting and convincing.

so we can say that we fight wars with nations or groups whose political goals conflict with ours?

I still have reservations about any attack we might make on afghanistan and I prefer that we stay on the highest possible moral ground if there is such a thing in a war, both for personal reasons and because I'm concerned about the US appearing to be even more of a bully than we already do -- this is a matter of not spawning more terrorists.

just as another data point, here is a fact sheet about the christian idea of a "just war".
posted by rebeccablood at 9:45 PM on September 23, 2001

According to an aphorism attributed to Clausewitz, war is diplomacy by other means. The goal of war isn't justice, it's to advance the political goals of your nation. You fight when you have a fundamental disagreement between two powers which cannot be settled diplomatically. Diplomacy is not confined to nations, so neither is war.

Sometimes the disagreement is things like "We both want that piece of land there." Sometimes it's "I hate you and want you to die." Sometimes it's other things. Whatever it's about, one side eventually decides that the situation is intolerable and that it can't get what it wants through negotiations, and starts shooting.

But it isn't invariably the case that the side which starts shooting first is in the wrong. As mentioned, sometimes shooting first is a way of getting a better victory for your own side by preempting an attack you suspect is coming.

Keeping the moral high ground is definitely something we need to do, but it's important that we keep track of what is and is not moral in war, in as much as those judgements are not the same as in a law enforcement operation. The stakes are much higher and you have to be willing to do more and to tolerate more.

No police force would be willing, for example, to accept the kind of casualty rates that armies consider routine. And of course, policemen would never summarily execute prisoners. Believe it or not, that's permitted by the Geneva Convention under some circumstances (when keeping them would risk your own force, for example, or if they're captured in plain clothes).

Another example of that is killing innocents. Policement do their damndest to avoid that, even if it means letting a miscreant get away. Soldiers don't have that luxury; the stakes are too high, because avoiding killing civilians may lead to the loss of the war which might actually mean the end of the soldier's nation and thus the lives of every citizen of that nation. Given a choice between having to kill innocent civilians on the other side or lose the war, winning the war is more important. It's not that anyone wants to slaughter civilians as a side effect of war, let alone actively seeking them out to do so, just that it isn't the most important criterion as it would be for law enforcement. If the enemy has a military asset which has to be taken out, and if he piles civilians on top of it (or if they just happen to be nearby), then the sin is his but the civilians will die from our bombs anyway. That's just how it is in war. You cannot grant your enemy any way of making something of his unattackable, because if you do you'll lose -- and your nation may end and everyone who is a citizen of it may die. Ultimately, a soldier has to consider his own nation's people (and those of his allies) to be more important than his enemy's people. He's fighting to save his entire nation and can't afford to lose.

Yes, we need to keep the moral high ground (for practical reasons as well as ethical ones). But we need to keep it according to the morality of war, not the morality of law enforcement.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:34 PM on September 23, 2001

The US once also declared war on a King rather than on his country; I'm thinking this might have been against the King of England in the War of 1812, but I'm not sure. I'm having a hell of a time tracking it down on the web.

I did come across this interesting opinion piece on, however that's directly relevant to this discussion of crimes vs. war. (I disagree with it myself.)
posted by aaron at 11:15 PM on September 23, 2001

"Providing bin Laden with a fair trial (and not seeking the death penalty) would be the most dramatic way in which we could distinguish ourselves from him and from his collaborators."

that's well said, and much what I've been thinking in the past two weeks.
posted by rebeccablood at 1:01 AM on September 24, 2001

How many Americans should die to set up that trial? Capturing someone is a lot harder than killing them; we can kill him if we know where he is by saturation bombing the area, which is relatively low risk for our own people. Capture would require ground action by infantry, and a lot of our soldiers could potentially die in such an operation; after all, bin Laden has a large and motivated bodyguard.

How many American lives is it worth to you to have a trial? It isn't worth a single one to me. If we know where he is, I want hiim killed by direct military force which is as economic with American lives as possible.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 4:16 AM on September 24, 2001

Excellent point steven.

I have no problem with giving him a fair trial. Make that several fair trials for each event bin Laden has been accused of. All he has to do is give up. Which he will never do.

Capturing him could very well lead to more lives lost on our side. He's already taken enough as is.

Give up, or face the consequences. It's his choice. I sure wouldn't waste lives on making the choice for him.
posted by justgary at 5:35 AM on September 24, 2001

I forgot to add that barring bin Laden giving up not only will he probably fight to the death, but his soldiers would give up their lives to protect him.

I doubt a 'fair' trial is even an option in his mind.
posted by justgary at 5:52 AM on September 24, 2001

Yes, we need to keep the moral high ground (for practical reasons as well as ethical ones). But we need to keep it according to the morality of war, not the morality of law enforcement.

The troubling question, which forms the basis of most pacifist arguments, is to what extent "this is war, not a criminal investigation" can be used as a moral get-out clause for those who have the strength to advance their cause by traditional diplomatic means. Trial by combat, or trial by ordeal, died out in the Middle Ages; and yet its state equivalent is a matter of course.

(Not that I espouse this argument entirely, because I certainly can't pull off a Bertrand Russell impersonation; but it's a decent question to raise.)
posted by holgate at 5:52 AM on September 24, 2001

Diplomacy only works when it's backed up with the willingness to fight. Diplomacy is when two sides with conflicting goals negotiate, and eventually one side or the other gives up some of its goals to get an agreement.

If we're not willing to fight, why would our negotiation partner ever grant us any concessions? The reason they do give us concessions is that they know that if they don't we are willing to attack to get what we want. Thus the willingness to fight is what makes diplomacy works, and paradoxically reduces the likelihood of war.

But it also means that when diplomacy does break down, that we do have to fight, or else the next time we get involved in diplomacy people will know that our threat is empty. The "strength to use diplomacy" is the willingness to fight. People who are unwilling to fight will always fail diplomatically.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 6:09 AM on September 24, 2001

Which is why the US declared war against Germany and Italy in 1941 even though the attack was by Japan

Correction: Germany declared war on the US first and that's how the US joined WWII. (Scroll down to where it says: On the morning of December 11 the Government of Germany, pursuing its course of world conquest, declared war against the United States.
As for: "Given a choice between having to kill innocent civilians on the other side or lose the war, winning the war is more important", Bin Laden couldn't have said it better himself. Not to mention that this was the logic of the SS troops in occupied Europe when inflicting "countermeasures" against resistance groups. Also check out the Geneva convention as to what is acceptable during warfare.
posted by talos at 6:23 AM on September 24, 2001

The sequence of events in WWII was that Japan attacked the US, and then delivered (late) what amounted to an ultimatum and cessation of diplomatic relations. Because of differences in governmental forms, the UK then declared war on Japan; they were able to do so much more rapidly because it was an act of the cabinet rather than an act of Parliament. But note that this happened before there had been any Japanese attacks on UK possessions or units.

Then Roosevelt made his famous "Day which will live in infamy" speech to Congress, and the US declared war on Japan. Japanese diplomats then conned Hitler into declaring war on the US (hinting that in turn Japan would declare war on the USSR and attack Siberia, which never happened) and Mussolini followed suit, and in response the US then declared war on Germany and Italy. But Roosevelt and Churchill had been talking about this for at least a year, and long before December 7 you find plans in place for the US to apply the majority of its force against Germany in the event of it entering the war. (See, for instance, Churchill's "Their Finest Hour" and "The Grand Alliance" for evidence of those plans.) Germany's declaration of war against the US was a relief to both Churchill and Roosevelt because it kept them from having to come up with a politically acceptable reason for the US to go to war with Germany as a result of the Japanese attack. But you can be assured that they would have found a way even if Germany had not declared war first.

Talos, the fact that despicable bastards agree with me about civilian casualties doesn't mean I'm wrong. Hitler was a vegetarian; does that mean all vegans are horrible monsters? Anyway, you just violated Godwin's Law. Fifteen yard penalty and loss of down.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 6:44 AM on September 24, 2001

Steven: I agree completely (its a matter of historical record anyway) with what you describe as the sequence of events that led to US declaring war on Germany. The point however remains that, it was Germany that declared war on the US, thus my comment stands.
I also agree that having despicable bastards agree with you does not automatically make you wrong. It should alert you, however, to the possibility that the US actions will be perceived by the world at large as no different (as far as their moral stature is concerned) than those of the terrorists responsible for the tragedy of the WTC, especially if they show a blatant disregard for human life.
Godwin's law: < ashamed >Yes , my bad < /ashamed >. I'll take the penalty and aim for a hail Mary: SS troops in occupied Europe did in fact fight what they called "terrorism" by "any means necessary". It included the slaughter of civilians as a deterrent against the actions of resistance groups, ergo to preserve their troops, ergo to protect their national interests. Which, I think demonstrates, that the argument of "all's fair in war" can and does lead to a slippery moral slope.
posted by talos at 7:44 AM on September 24, 2001

I'm concerned with SDB's "war against people" argument, as it sets up a dangerous precedent (yes, I know it's not the first time we've done it, but it is a precedent nonetheless). Suppose, five years from now, it is decided that the "war on drugs" should become an actual war. Can we declare war on drug makers, march into Colombia to torch the coca fields? If we find high level dealers, especially foreign nationals, here in the states, can we skirt our laws of due process by calling our actions "acts of war"?

If we're going to call this a war, then fine. But we'd better put in the books a legal, binding definition of "war".
posted by jpoulos at 8:39 AM on September 24, 2001

JPoulos, what would prevent it from getting out of control is what will always prevent the US government from getting out of control: the US voters. If Congress goes on an unpopular rampage, they'll be voted out in the next election and more reasonable people put in. And they know it.

Also, a "definition" of war is just as difficult as a definition of life; it can't be done. Would that life could be that simple. As a general rule, having Americans shoot at people who are not lawbreakers is a good start, and Congress has already passed what amounts to a declaration of war against terrorists (it was an authorization for hostilities), attached to that $40 billion emergency budget authorization from a couple of weeks ago.

And what I described isn't a precedent; that's what war has always been.

Talos, now please explain why the UK declared war on Japan before Japan did anything to it? And as to the opinion of the world at large regarding US acts, noted and filed. (In the roundfile.) The opinion of our allies is important and the opinion of our citizens is very important, but I don't really care what people in Namibia think about it. We don't fight a war to be popular, we fight a war because we need to, and what is most important is not that we look like shining angels but only that we look better than our opponents -- and even that will be dispensed with if necessary in order to win. I don't believe that all's fair in war, but I do think that victory is a great deoderizer, and that losing is the greatest crime. The "slippery slope" can be used as an argument to paralyze; the fact that something can be abused doesn't mean it should be avoided completely.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:41 AM on September 24, 2001

is it correct that prior to WWII, civilian casualties in a war were a minor occurance?

I read somewhere that germany started the bliztkrieg, which went against all accepted notions of how a war should be conducted (ie, it was aimed at civilians) but that by the end of the war, the allies were doing the same thing.

and that it's been like that ever since.

is that a true story?
posted by rebeccablood at 12:19 PM on September 24, 2001

I'm afraid not, Rebecca. In fact, for most of the history of war civilian casualties substantially outnumbered military casualties. The Mongols, for instance, were notorious for the brutality with which they treated cities which resisted them. If a city surrendered without a fight, it would be treated well. If it did not do so and forced the Mongols to lay siege, then they'd kill everyone inside the city walls once they took the place -- a few thousand soldiers and maybe tens of thousands of civilians. No-one would be spared. They did this so as to give an incentive to the next city to surrender without a fight -- and it worked. Not too many cities resisted after the first couple were sacked.

The Romans killed everyone in Carthage. The Greeks killed everyone in Troy (if you believe Homer). Syracuse was raized. You find stories all through the Bible of cities being completely destroyed and everyone in them being killed by attacking armies. Cities and civilians were spared only when they had economic value as taxpayers or as sources of slaves. It was never done for humanitarian reasons; they didn't think in those terms then.

Siege in ancient and medieval times, even when a city held, nearly always resulted in huge civilian casualties due to disease and starvation, not to mention as a side effect of bombardment. When food ran short, it was the soldiers who got fed, and the civilians who starved first. It was also a common tactic in medieval times to use catapults to launch dead bodies of animals or of people who had died of plague into besieged cities, in hopes of setting off plagues inside the walls to force them to surrender. And it worked a frighteningly large amount of the time. A lot of people think that bio-warfare was invented in the 20th century; it actually has a long and glorious past.

During the early years of gunpowder, it was common to shell cities which were besieged; needless to say it was mostly the civilians who suffered.

When armies campaigned, they'd support themselves by "foraging". That meant that they'd go to every farm anywhere near where they marched and seize all the livestock and grain and other foodstuffs which were stored there, leaving nothing behind and condemning the farmers to starvation. Campaigning armies were like a locust swarm, leaving nothing but death and devastation behind them. And if the farmers resisted, they'd be slaughtered.

The idea of leaving civilians out of a war and trying to minimize civilian casualties is pretty modern; it begins in Europe after the 30 Years War (which depopulated large parts of Germany) and ends with the Napoleonic wars. (There's no evidence that the concept was ever adopted anywhere else in the world at all except in North America.) During that hundred and fifty years, the armies were smaller and professional and carried their supplies with them, so they didn't forage. That all ended with the French Revolution; the only way that Revolutionary France could fight against the professional armies of Germany and England and Russia and Austria was with huge swarms of untrained levies, and when those armies moved they foraged, just like the bad old days. From that point forward, most armies supported themselves with a mix of supply lines and of foraging; some armies doing more foraging than others.

Usually civilian starvation was a side effect of foraging. Sometimes, though, an area was laid waste deliberately. The best example of that is Sheridan's campaign in the Shenandoah Valley during the American Civil War. The Shenandoah Valley had served as a source of supply to the Confederacy all through the war, and Sheridan was ordered to go there and to render it useless for that purpose, which meant to eliminate all capability of the area to grow food. That meant seizing all livestock and draft animals and seedgrain and destroying all fixed property and equipment which supported farming. It took years to recover.

Also notable is Sherman's "March to the Sea," which left a path of devastation fifty miles wide from Atlanta to Savannah, and the siege of Vicksburg.

In these cases they didn't outright hunt civilians, but the economic damage resulted in thousands of civilian deaths primarily from disease and starvation.

During World War I, there were huge numbers of deaths among German civilians caused by starvation and by malnutrition leading to susceptibility to disease. (The 1918 influenza didn't help matters anyway.) (The Germans also shelled Paris with an immense artillery piece, and bombed London with zeppelins.) Blockade was a common tactic starting from the middle of the 18th century, and blockade always caused civilian casualties.

But from the Napoleonic wars up to WWII, there was still at least an attempt to try to leave civilians out of it. With WWII, there are just too many weapons developed, from the submarine to the multi-engine bomber to the ballistic missile, which could only really be used effectively by ignoring the distinction between civilians and soldiers. The ultimate weapon of that kind turned out to be the Mark 69 incendiary bomb (which killed far more Japanese than the nukes did). That was what was used in the firebombing of Tokyo, to my knowledge the single attack in World War II which resulted in the largest number of civilian deaths in a short time. (More people died in the two firebombing raids on Tokyo than in Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined, even counting post-war casualties from radiation poisoning.)

Just in passing, Blitzkrieg was not particularly brutal to civilians, as such things go. Pitched battles, especially near cities, were far more dangerous. When units are moving rapidly, the violence passes the civilians by. Where you really saw civilian casualties was where the front stalled on top of a city. One of the better examples of that was Caen; it stood in the way of a breakout from the Normandy beachhead on the British front, and after six weeks of fighting failed to take it, ultimately the only way to take it was to reduce it by saturation bombing (which resulted in a huge number of civilian casualties). Not to put too fine a point on it, it was levelled. However, city fighting was always brutal to civilians; house-to-house fighting is the worst thing there was for infantry in Europe. The standard way to take a house was to pitch a couple of grenades into it and then rush into it after the blast -- but if there were civilians inside it was pretty tough on them. In Blitzkrieg the retreating enemy would evacuate the town before you got there and it wasn't necessary to do that.

And of course, during the early part of the Cold War, cities were the targets for ICBMs, which weren't sufficiently accurate to hit anything smaller until the late 1970's.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 1:51 PM on September 24, 2001

I'm wrong about something: It was considered part of the Bushido in Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate (and the hundred years or so leading up to it) to not slaughter civilians if it could be avoided. Partly that was a matter of honor, but mostly it was because farmers were valuable. The peasants of Japan were virtually slaves and without them the land was worthless. I'm not aware of similar restraint in the Chinese wars at the same time.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 1:57 PM on September 24, 2001

Two things: 1) Powell and Rice seem to think Osama is still in Afghanistan-land, but no one else agrees.

The Hunt for bin Laden Gears Up on a Trail Gone Cold
Taliban Says It Lost Track of bin Laden

2) It’s coventional military practice to go after civilian targets as quickly as possible. Both in Iraq and Yugoslavia water treatment plants, sewage treatment plants, dams, pumping stations, railroads, bridges and power plants were targeted. In the NATO operation, the US complained that French generals weren’t allowing them to hit even more. Now, if this sort of thing happened in a town like Seattle or New York, it’s pretty obvious what would happen.

We saw the devastation wreaked on New York after just two buildings fell, imagine if those buildings were vital to the health of the people living there. The lucky ones that didn’t die from disease and starvation would probably become refugees.

Civilians aren’t always on the other end of the bomb, but they are meant to feel the effects.

Now, which military has the biggest presence all over the world? Which flag is flying over more tanks, stitched to the sleeve of more soldiers, painted on the side of more bombs? Perhaps the US military isn’t the most deserving of world resentment, but it does keep a high profile. No one likes an occupying force, especially after it destroyed your home town.

I think of those Iraqis still living in Baghdad and how screwed they are. Saddam at home squeezing them, and a decade ago, America destroy their town. Understandably, they probably hate both.
posted by raaka at 3:07 PM on September 24, 2001

It’s coventional military practice to go after civilian targets as quickly as possible.

to clarify, I think those are not designed to hurt or kill civilians as they are to destroy the infrastructure. if the military can't get to the places it needs to defend, or can't get supplies to those places, then the other side has an advantage.

I'm not denying that civilians pay the highest price here--but I think they're regarded as collateral damage insofar as they are affected in a way that doesn't affect the war effort itself. maybe there's another term for it.
posted by rebeccablood at 3:22 PM on September 24, 2001

As for Osama himself, as an opponent of capital punishment, his capture presents an prickly moral problem: he really has to be exonerated or executed, doesn't he? Were he to be tried, convicted and jailed, I've got "15 minutes" in the MetaFilter pool on how long it would be before the first hostages were taken worldwide.
posted by yerfatma at 3:56 PM on September 24, 2001

Apparently you don't get your wish after all, Rebecca.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 5:30 PM on September 24, 2001

metafilter: where hopes are dashed. :(
posted by rebeccablood at 5:57 PM on September 24, 2001

I think those are not designed to hurt or kill civilians as they are to destroy the infrastructure.

If one chooses to “destroy the infrastructure” the likely effect will be “to hurt or kill civilians.” They are not mutually exclusive. “Infrastructure” and “civilian targets” aren’t either.

I understand it’s strategic, but people shouldn’t be duped into thinking the US only attacks military targets. Quite the opposite, actually.

collateral damage ... maybe there's another term for it.

Ah, don’t fall for that. It’s newspeak. Death is death. Does it matter if a bomb falls on your head or if you contract cholera because all the water was tainted after the sewage station exploded?
posted by raaka at 6:02 PM on September 24, 2001

Does it matter if a bomb falls on your head or if you contract cholera because all the water was tainted after the sewage station exploded?

well, it sort of does. the infrastructure can be rebuilt, after all. there's no hope for the other....
posted by rebeccablood at 6:07 PM on September 24, 2001

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