Disrupting America’s Fateful Non-Debate on the Roots of Terrorism
On September 11th, nineteen hijackers commandeered four airliners and guided three of them into important symbols of American power with lethal precision. An unsuspecting citizenry, quite unaware of events outside the national purview, suddenly found 3,000 of its countrymen killed at the hands of a few fanatics from a far off part of the world. One would expect that, in a democratic country which prides itself on freedom of speech and press, wide-ranging diversity of opinions, and quality of intellectual debate and scholarship, one of the responses to the horrific attacks would be a rigorous and reflective discussion of why they happened. Three years on, what we have instead is the ceaseless, unchallenged mass production–and consumption–of a core set of noxious lies about September 11th that form the foundation of a perpetual, bloody, boundless, and winless war.
The right-wing answer as to why the attacks happened was unequivocal: the problem is inherently within Islam and Muslim society, which is warped and defected in various ways. Thus one prominent conservative commentator, Ann Coulter, called for invading all Muslim countries, murdering their leaders, and converting the people to Christianity. The notorious Bill O’Reilly brushed off civilian deaths resulting from American bombs in Afghanistan by offering that they deserved to die anyway since they failed to overthrow the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime. The prestigious rightist journal National Review mused that in the event of a "dirty bomb" attack, America should drop the atomic bomb on Islam’s holiest site, Mecca. Upon further contemplation, they reconsidered and offered up the more tasty idea of depositing a nuclear bomb on the capital of every Arab country.
The other reason America was targeted, the right argued, was its greatness. We were attacked because we support freedom and democracy, because we are the greatest nation in the world, all of which apparently inspired jealous hatred among the attackers. Crazed and irrational, the terrorists wanted to destroy modern civilization by striking at its vanguard–the United States. The president intoned that America was purely good and that the enemy was purely evil; he further warned that anyone who diverged from this line was in league with the terrorists: "You’re either with us or you’re against us."
But what about the liberals? What about their putative representative, to which they cling so dearly, the Democratic Party? What was their stance in the aftermath of September 11th? Their most salient action was to fully and unconditionally support the administration’s attacks on Muslims wherever possible. Many white liberals and their party supported the unconstitutional "PATRIOT" act, under which thousands of Muslims were rounded up, detained, and deported without any proper legal procedure; they also enthusiastically backed the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan, the reign of terror unleashed upon Iraq, and the subsequent military occupations of both countries. Insofar as concrete action is a crucial index of one’s position, the mainstream "left" hardly distinguished itself from the right.
And what was the liberal position on the level of political discourse; on the level of theory, analysis, and ideas? Their purported position has consistently been that Islam itself is not the enemy, but rather that there is a radical strain of Islam which is the source of the problem. This much Bush himself has asserted, if only to placate certain Arab leaders. Precisely how radical Islam must be eradicated, however, has never been elaborated upon by the Democrats, beyond the usual bravado about killing terrorists shared by the right. On the foreign policy front, the mainstream liberals do not dare hint that any American policies bear any connection to what happened on September 11th, except at the most rudimentary level of criticizing inadequate security or surveillance. At best, they may assert that America, while undoubtedly harboring only the best of intentions, is "not perfect", and is liable to make mistakes here and there out of bumbling generosity or good-natured naiveté.
And that’s it. The level of explanation and analysis from the "opposition" party and its intellectual coterie about the crucial events of September 11th–why the attacks happened, what the social context was, what grievances motivated it, what history preceded it–is shallower than a child’s sandbox.
Small wonder, then, that many Americans, mostly ignorant of their own country’s past and even present actions, have become entranced by the cowboy-crusader stance of George Bush and the Republicans. Their right-wing vision projects confidence, aggressiveness, and provides a satisfyingly simple, self-righteous, and complete rationalization for the war program: America is supremely good, uses its might to liberate others, and is therefore hated only by evildoers. The liberals, who cannot bring themselves to spout such nonsense quite as fervently, nonetheless fail to fully repudiate it, and therefore fail to present a coherent counter-argument to the right.
This point was pressed upon me last year during the first session of a political science class. The liberal professor prefaced his lecture by commenting on the need for tolerance and respect for others during discussion, warning against making ignorant and racist remarks about Arabs and Muslims due to the "war on terror." He declared that "Islam is not the enemy" that "Muslims were basically good people"–fair enough, as far as all that goes. But then, clearly much impressed with himself, he intoned that we did in fact face an enemy: that enemy was Islamic fundamentalism, and it needed to be fought and defeated. And then, with nothing further, he moved on.
But is that all? Is there only one enemy, one force of evil to be confronted? Does the "we" who are supposed to fight against this singular enemy include, then, our generals, our war planners, our corporate profiteers, and our political leaders–all of whom are apparently mere innocents having nothing to do with our present predicament? The end logic of this framework is unmistakable: "Not all Muslims are bad–just some." It confines discussion about the status quo strictly to what happened on September 11th, which apparently exists outside and above history and politics. This allows one to posit only Muslims, and no one else, as culprits, since there is only one crime worth mentioning. Stepping out of this intellectual jail cell and looking at our own crimes, we would be forced to note that the vast majority of people who have been killed by political violence have been victims not of Islamist terror, but American terror. This would place our professor in the rather uncomfortable position of having to ask foreign students in the class to recall that "Americans are basically good people," and keep in mind that "Christianity is not the enemy."
The crux of the matter is that the liberal alternative to the conservative narrative of September 11th is no alternative at all. In this miserable bipartisan production, the Muslim is always featured as the eternal evildoer, and finds himself, his history, his grievances, and his aspirations all caricatured, ridiculed, and ripped apart by a crushing combination of cruise missiles and callous arrogance. The difference between the liberal and conservative views of the Muslim, then, is no greater than the difference between the gallows and the guillotine. When the Muslim tries to plead his case to America by citing the injustices, the hypocrisy, and the brutality he has suffered at its hands, he finds not executors, but only executioners.
This is a dangerous reality. Whatever the comforts brought about by self-righteous denial and delusion in regards to the real root causes of September 11th, they are transient and totally unsustainable. We have sent teenagers and twenty-year olds into war in Iraq based on these delusions: on the false and fantastic premise that Iraqis, as infantile natives, would welcome us with open arms, because we are virtuous liberators. And we have seen with what results. Frustrated, frightened, and furious that many Iraqis resent their presence – not to mention the death and mayhem caused by the weapons accompanying their presence–not a few of these soldiers have resorted to sadistic, cruel acts against their captives, some of them children, including rape, torture, and humiliation. Most of these captives were innocent; others were guilty only of defending their country. This is merely a microcosm of a tragedy that will intensify and envelop us on a much broader scale if we continue to embrace the same self-serving eulogies we have been singing about ourselves not only after but long before September 11th.
Demolishing the prevailing dogma about the causes of September 11th is not a difficult task. The organization that carried out the attacks and its various offshoots have expressed time and time again what it is they are avenging: America’s bombing and sanctions imposed on Iraq, which killed millions of women and children through disease and starvation; unconditional support for Israel in its past efforts to crush Arab nationalism and its present campaign to expropriate, torture, and ethnically cleanse millions of Palestinian natives; and backing of despotic puppet regimes that place oil resources in foreign hands. It is impossible to deny that all these things have happened: in each case, the evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable.
When these root causes are mentioned however, conservatives immediately begin foaming at the mouth. First, they will exclaim that the terrorists are crazed and nihilistic, rendering any discussion of root causes ridiculous. This is both nonsensical and dishonest. Nonsensical, because no one pretends that the problem of Islamist terrorism is one of psychology on the individual level of the attackers; no one has sent out an army of professional medical experts and psychiatrists in response to the terrorist problem, nor have any alleged terrorists appeared for counseling on Dr. Phil. Dishonest, because the right does have its own idea of root causes, namely that Arab society and the Islamic religion are intrinsically flawed and must be destroyed and replaced with a new order. Such half-baked hate speech masquerading as analysis is not a serious explanation of anything. That the attackers are in fact responding out of vengeance and in response to the humiliation, occupation, and destruction of their own people is obviously far more plausible.
Vengeance is not a particularly difficult motive to understand, yet our American rightists seem to struggle with this explanation even though they now make a posh living off promoting vengeance for September 11th. This is because their understanding of vengeance is entirely one-sided: advocating "retaliation" via the use of massively disproportionate force – full-scale bombardment and invasion with the most lethal weaponry–against people and countries bearing no connection to September 11th requires them to assign zero value to Muslim life, and as a result of this racist value judgment they cannot fathom that anyone would be motivated to lash out in revenge for Muslims, ie. non-entities, being killed.
The second, fallback, position of the warmongers is that highlighting and criticizing American foreign policy in the Middle East amounts to appeasing and justifying terrorism. Insofar as the foreign policy in question has included the use of missiles, bombs, bullets, shelling, starvation, extirpation, beating, and torture against civilians, the truth of the matter is that confronting it is the most principled stand against terrorism possible. This is not a matter of mere polemics or rhetoric: "terrorism", if it is to have any meaning at all, cannot be allowed to become codeword for "any and all violence committed by ‘ragheads’."
We must also emphasize that pointing out why were attacked is not a means of justifying the attack, it is a means of learning how to prevent attacks in the future. If a man runs up ten flights of stairs and drops a vase from the top of a building, it is only rational to point out that the vase broke because someone climbed up to the roof and flung it down; it is decidedly less useful to mouth cheap slogans against gravity and declare war upon it.
Yet this is precisely America’s present course: it rails in anger and strikes tough-man poses against what is essentially a traditional tactic of the weak against a stronger enemy. Aside from completely locking America down and turning it into a police state, there is no way to eliminate individual terror while maintaining an unjust foreign policy that is based on massively terrorizing others.
To demand a state of affairs in which the weak do not resort to terror is to demand a state of affairs in which people are not terrorized into the position of weakness. If we can make this message clear to the rest of America, then we will have obtained for ourselves and others a far brighter future than the dark, gloomy one offered by internecine war.