Friday, September 12, 2008

A tribute... the persistence of memory.

This is, naturally, a day late but that's how the month is going. Still, since some other folks noted the anniversary of the September 11 attacks - I particularly liked this one from James at Never In Our Names - I figured I would, too. What I've chosen to do is to post some things I wrote in the aftermath of 9/11 to see how my thoughts and predictions have stood up to the passage of time.

The first is an email, September 13, 2001, in response to an online friend asking how I was feeling in the wake of the attacks. The part in brackets is from the friend.
[ How are you doing? ]

I’m hanging in there. Stressed and sad like most, I expect - and fearful of what happens next, wondering what’s going to be the next loop in the cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation, a cycle in which everyone (including us) views themselves as the wronged innocents. And, as the reports of attacks on, harassment of, and threats against Arabs and Muslims in the US begin to come in, as people equate Arab with Muslim and Muslim with fanatic (much as if they equated American with Christian and Christian with the KKK) and as cries of, in one form or another, “kill them all” start to rise, reminded of the dictum that those who deal in vengeance tend to become that which they say they oppose.

“We will never be the same” is an instant cliche. And it’s certainly true - the question for us as a people now is what the change will be. I’ve been thinking of the last verse of “There But For Fortune” by Phil Ochs:

Show me the country/Where the bombs had to fall./Show me the ruins/Of the buildings once so tall,/And I’ll show you a young land/With so many reasons why/There but for fortune may go you or I.”

We have indeed been fortunate, and still are. A good question now is when faced with misfortune (not in the sense of bad luck but of bad events) will we as a people act as mature adults who will think about what we do and what it will accomplish or as spoiled brats flailing wildly at any convenient target within reach?

The magnitude of the event remains a little hard to grasp, perhaps (perhaps) more so for those of us who grew up in or around NYC, for who the twin towers were a natural part of the skyline. I’ve been told that the closer people are to NYC, the more the shock hasn’t worn off and the further away, the more anger there is. If there’s a silver lining at all, maybe it’s that the magnitude of the tragedy will keep us focused on the task of rescue and rebuilding long enough for the unreasoning anger to dissipate at least a little.
The second is another email reply to another friend on the same day.
[ Such sad news. Hope no-one close to you is caught up in this. ]

No, no one I know personally. But there’s always more of an impact when it’s something you know, something you can picture. I remember when the World Trade Center was built. Now I’ll remember when - and how - it came down.

Apparently, the delay between the first and second hits enabled a good portion of the second tower to be evacuated. Nonetheless, the loss of life will be huge; I wouldn’t be surprised if it ultimately reached 5 figures.

Now what happens? I’m afraid of what this could mean to the future. Already there have been incidents of violence and threats against Arabs (who are ALL Muslims, of course, as we all know) and mosques (because ALL Muslims are rabid extremists, of course, as we all know). Even someone I know online who would usually be considered rather liberal said she has “no problem with that” when I expressed a worry about “anti-Muslim xenophobia” because “I never met a nice Arab who wasn’t a Jew-hating racist at heart,” using the attack to justify her own concealed bigotry.

Meanwhile, the White House is promising an “extended military campaign.” We may be in for hard times, times which will not include asking any questions about why it happened that don’t involve “security lapses.” Even wondering about motivations beyond “unreasoning hatred” and being “uncivilized” simply won’t be allowed and risking such a thought is liable to get you branded an apologist for terrorists.

We’re headed, I expect, for more cycles of retaliation and counter-retaliation, everyone insisting their enemies are subhuman devils and they themselves are the offended innocents. It’s gonna get worse.
This is the big one; it's an unpublished op-ed piece dated October 2.
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. And that in turn requires seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, which is where most of the mainstream commentaries attempting to answer the 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 “we’re modern” or “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 Khadaffi, 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 runup 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. [I noted later that some sources dispute that total, saying it may have been “only” 370,000.]

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.
These last two aren't complete pieces but excerpts. The first is from a letter to The Nation dated October 16, replying to a column by Eric Alterman in which he condemned some unnamed folks for their reactions to 9/11, saying they should be “rejected for reasons of honor and pragmatism.”
In any political dispute, it is a dreadful tactical mistake - one of which the left has been too often guilty - to let your opponents define the terms of debate. By decrying “the refusal to draw [a] line” between “principled dissent” and an ill-defined “‘Hate America’ left” Alterman effectively acknowledges that questions about our patriotism - however we individually define the word - are proper ones and thus repeats this same blunder. His proposed course of action does not defuse the right’s attack, it legitimizes it.

If “patriotism requires no apologies,” neither should it require conscious demonstration. Instead of trying to prove we are part of “responsible debate” by slicing others out of that range, we should simply assume that we are and act on that basis. I’ve long maintained that the left in this country has been at its strongest and most influential when we have spoken the truth as we understand it without giving a flying damn if anyone was offended or not. Our task must be to present ourselves and what we believe, clearly, strongly, unreservedly, and unashamedly. Time and energy wasted defensively declaring what we don’t believe are just that - and we’ve little enough of either to start with.
Finally, an excerpt from a December 24 letter to Mother Jones. Todd Gitlin, still living off his radical credentials from the '60s, had written a piece blasting what he called the "blame America first" crowd, the single requirement for membership seemingly being not sharing his resurgent sense of flag-waving patriotism.
As deeply as I mourn the victims of the World Trade Center attacks, as much as I admire the dedication of the firefighters and rescue workers, the EMTs and RNs, who rushed to get to the place everyone else rushed to get away from, as hard a wrench as I felt the first time I saw the post-attack profile of New York (with sky where the twin towers should’ve been), I still insist that the question for us as Americans is not, cannot be, what Osama bin Laden could have or should now think or do differently, but what we could have or should now think or do differently. The clock of history did not start on September 11 and refusing to face our own complicity in creating and maintaining the conditions of desperation-driven fanaticism in which such as al-Qaeda can take root and grow (and continue to recruit) is the surest way we as a nation can guarantee a continuation of terrorism directed against us.
I have to say that on the whole I think these thoughts and predictions have held up pretty well. Certainly better than those of Alterman and Gitlin (and a fair number of others we could name, I expect). Do you disagree? Say so and say why.

Footnote: For another perspective on patriotism, try this.

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