Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11 - 2

The second part of my own observance of the anniversary of 9/11 is quoting an unpublished op-ed I wrote, dated October 2, 2001.
In the wake of September 11, a blunt truth: Barring divine intervention, and I for one do not count on that, we will never “rid the world of terrorism.” As long as there are people there will be those, both individuals and governments, prepared to commit the most venal cruelties against innocents to gain political ends. What we can hope to do is control terrorism, limit it, minimize it.

But if the history of the Middle East over the last 30 years proves nothing else, it proves beyond question that neither terrorism nor “counter”-terrorism, neither retaliation nor counter-retaliation nor counter-counter-retaliation will stop the circle of death - particularly not so long as those on each side insist on seeing themselves at the wronged innocents only defending themselves against unreasoning violence or oppression or exploitation (or all three) while viewing their adversaries as evil brutes fully aware of their own brutality. Another cycle of mayhem is simply not an answer.

If we want to limit, to minimize, terrorism, we have to understand the roots of it, understand what produces it, understand what moves people to embrace such desperation-driven fanaticism, because that it was terrorism is.

And that in turn requires seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, which is where most of the commentaries attempting to answer the now-popular question “Why do they hate us?” have failed. The authors have projected themselves into the Muslim world and tried to think of what they might resent about the West in general or the US in particular. That is, they have changed their imagined location but not their eyes, still seeing the world through the filter of their own perceptions and desires. So they wind up producing answers like “They hate us because we’re rich” or “They hate us because we’re modern” or “They hate us because we support Israel.” Such answers are so removed from context that even to the extent they’re right, they’re useless, the more so because they add up to the unintentionally-revealing “They’re backward, jealous, anti-Semites who hate us because we’re better than they are.”

So for a moment, just for a moment, try to see the world through the eyes of an average person on the ground in the Middle East. This is how the world might look to you:

For centuries the West has looked down on you, regarding you, your culture, and, if non-Christian, your religion as inferior. (There is a reason bin Laden keeps referring to American “crusaders.”) They think of you as “ragheads” or “towelheads."

Every time a strong Arab leader rises and tries to become independent of the West, they get slapped down. The only regimes that survive are those too weak or too corrupt to threaten Western interests. (One such “threatening” government was that of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, who was overthrown in a CIA-engineered coup in 1953 after he attempted to nationalize oil reserves. The result was the 26-year reign of the Shah, whose army was practically stamped “Made in the USA.”) Yes, you resent the West’s wealth but it’s not so much that they’re rich and you’re poor, it’s that they’re rich because you’re poor, that their wealth is built on exploitation and economic domination.

In just the past 20-plus years, you’ve seen the US pick a fight with Libya in the Gulf of Sidra, bomb Tripoli, openly try to kill Moammar Qadaffi, bomb a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan on the spurious claim it was a chemical weapons factory (leading to thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of deaths due to inadequate supplies of medicines), stand by along with the rest of the West while Muslims were slaughtered in Bosnia (stepping in only when European interests were threatened), shell Beirut, shoot down a civilian Iranian airliner, and fire cruise missiles into Afghanistan.

Then there’s Iraq, it’s infrastructure systematically destroyed in a war which it seems to you had nothing to do with the West except to humiliate another strong Arab leader. In the run-up to that war you saw foreign troops stationed near the holy sites of Islam at the insistence of the US despite Saudi Arabia’s reluctance and warnings that doing so would be deeply offensive to conservative Muslims - which it was. (One thus offended being Osama bin Laden.)

For 10 years you have seen the bombing of Iraq continue, so much so that a few months ago a Pentagon press representative referred to one such raid as “routine.” Sanctions imposed by the West have cost the lives (by UN estimate) of 500,000 Iraqi children over the last 10 years, a death toll which then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright described in 1996 as “worth it.” Worth it, yes, you say - as long as it’s Arab children who are doing the dying.

And you see the US justify both the bombing and the sanctions on the grounds that Iraq “defies UN resolutions” while at the same time it pours billions of dollars in economic and military aid into Israel despite the fact that for 30 years Israel has openly defied UN resolutions about Palestinians and the occupied territories. It’s not even so much that the US supports Israel, it’s that the US does it to the detriment, the denigration, the denial, of the Palestinians.

If that was your world, what would the West, what would the US, look like to you? Like a noble friend? Or like a selfish, conceited, arrogant bully which figures it can do as it damn well pleases without cost to itself? And amid all this, what is the only force that has offered you hope, offered you help, offered you a model that has defied the West, offered you self-respect? Islamic fundamentalism. Seen through such eyes, the question “Why do they hate us?” answers itself.

This doesn’t mean excusing the terrorists who brought such ruin and pain to the streets of New York on September 11. We are all responsible for what we do and their acts deserve nothing but condemnation: Understanding does not mean approving.

What it does mean is that our best targets for “attack” in this “extended campaign” are not the actual terrorists (who likely number no more than a few thousand) but the tens of thousands, the millions, among who they recruit and from who they draw their strength. Our best weapons are bread and butter, not bombs; our best tactic reconstruction, not retaliation; our best strategy justice, not jingoism. The best way to minimize terrorism is to ensure that the dispossessed have a genuine stake in the world and don’t see us as grasping bullies - and the best way not to be seen as a grasping bully is not to be one.
I freely admit that one reason for posting this piece and the previous one is ego: I think the analysis I made at the time has stood up pretty well from the vantage point of 10 years down the road.

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