LAST WEEK, as the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approached, members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps to pray, followed by a rendition of “God Bless America.” Then, evidently energized, they went inside and passed a bill that would allow relatives of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for its apparent support of the attackers. President Obama is likely to veto it. Emotion could lead Congress to override his veto. That would have a shattering effect on American and global politics.
Americans love to sue. Our society is one of the world’s most litigious. We have come to believe that almost anything can be adjudicated in court. That is lamentable at home, but applying the principle of tort liability to foreign policy is far more threatening. It opens the United States to an avalanche of lawsuits from victims of our actions around the world.
One sponsor of the newly passed bill, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, has dismissed this possibility. No one could sue the United States for damages, he reasoned, because “the United States does not engage in international terrorist activity.” He may honestly believe that, but judges in other countries might disagree.
First in line to sue the United States would be relatives of Iraqis, Afghans, Yemenis, and others who have been killed by American drone attacks. In Pakistan alone, by one count, these attacks have killed 160 children. Parents of every one of them would have a case in court. Victims of “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation methods” might also be able to persuade
judges that their ordeals were the product of state terrorism directed from Washington.
From there, the list is almost endless. Every country where US intervention has produced bloody results would become fertile ground for lawsuits.
Guatemalans could sue for our long support of regimes in their country that carried out murder on a grand scale. So could families of Salvadorans, Chileans, Brazilians, and others who were tortured and killed by US-trained military units. Indonesians could claim that the hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered in 1965 were victims of a policy set in motion by the United States. A Cambodian or Laotian or Vietnamese who has lived without limbs as a result of American bombing, or been deformed by napalm or Agent Orange, would have a good case. Survivors of Mexicans killed by drug dealers using weapons bought in Arizona could claim that weak American gun laws are to blame, and demand compensation. Iran could sue the United States for its cyberattacks on Iranian computer systems. How about Brazil suing because a member of our Olympic team, Ryan Lochte, harmfully defamed Brazil by fabricating stories about being attacked by police there?
This circus would run in both directions. If Americans can sue Saudi Arabia because its government supports terror groups, they can also sue Pakistan. Since the 9/11 attacks were directed from Afghanistan, it could also be on the target list. An American judge might even find Germany guilty of negligence for failing to monitor the attackers while they were living in Hamburg.
“The fact that a foreign government may have aided and abetted terrorism is infuriating to the families if justice is not done,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said last week. He is correct. Americans have a right to be furious with some foreign governments.
People in other countries have an equal right to be furious with the United States. We best address that fury not with lawsuits, but by changing the way we approach the world.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.