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A Suspect’s Perspective

As the Bush Administration promises to provide Americans with a sense of security as well as an overt and covert series of military spectaculars in answer to this week’s appalling terrorist attacks, we should expect our post-Manhattan world to become a policed, security-obsessed place. We should also expect our tolerance for super-governments and cultures of public control–surveillance, harassment, even persecution–to be tested. Terrified of appearing vulnerable, Americans may, in pursuit of a lopsided but immediate answer to last week’s tragedy, find themselves in the watchful, suspicious, and militarized world of totalitarian regimes, however unlikely the scenario may seem at this moment of shock, grief, and patriotism.

So before we embark, Noah-like, to build a fortress-West against the coming flood of terrorism, we might recognize that an obsession with security will only breed an equal sense of insecurity in this nation, as it has in other nations in the world that refuse to engage constructively and fairly with their enemies. Providing ourselves, our corporations, and our governments with security will depend on our not eradicating terrorists but addressing the root causes of terrorism. And as we hunt for those responsible, we might include ourselves among the list of the usual suspects. We should seek the roots of much of the world’s frustration in our insistence that we in the West remain the world’s foremost priority.

Terror will define our future unless we learn that our profound insecurity in this last century derives precisely from our demands as Americans and members of a multinational club of first-worlders to maintain our unsustainable medley of privileges. Bin Laden is not our only enemy, a lone, turbaned Goldfinger seeking world domination. Bin Ladenism is a hydra-headed symptom of modern history and our special role in it, a sad, living fact that thrives in the world we insist on manipulating in order to secure our own exclusive interests. The American Way of Life may be precious but not to the disenfranchized, humiliated, and traumatized people of Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. To them, who exist even if we refuse in our self-congratulatory media to broadcast their voices, we may as well be colonizers from space.

On September 11, America was itself globalized for the first time and Americans brutally shocked into self-examination. Unimaginable as it may have been to our carefully cultivated sensibilities as Americans, but many in the world feel a morally-twisted yet perfectly human satisfaction at the wounding of a hyper-power whose military, industrial, technological, and financial obesity is maintained by controlling the planet’s destiny, especially of those whose nations and regimes stubbornly sit on the resources we want for cheap. From their perspective-and not all of them wear turbans or speak Arabic-our material and ideological gluttony in the West makes us as inherently unreasonable as the suicidal individuals who attack our many Achilles’ heels.

Terrorism is despicable and terrorists unacceptable messengers who must be tried by a world court that the US might now want to quickly ratify. But if we were problem-solvers rather than ideologues, we would learn that the arrogance of our super-affluence, the injustice and extreme disparity to which we expect the rest of the world to get accustomed, and our insistence on defining terrorism according to our own agendas, can only guarantee a permanent insecurity, however much we survey and suspect each other or erect real and imaginary fortresses. A fundamental insecurity will haunt us unless we start the conversation between civilizations and world-views–as Khatami suggested last year–until, in short, we allow the democratization of global politics to truly begin.

How to begin? We can start by laying off of the millions of people in Iraq and elsewhere that we force into subhuman subsistence. We can start by demanding from our governments a saner, more humane foreign policy towards the non-West, especially Islamic nations who refuse to be client-states. We can start by not sabotaging or walking out of key Third World conferences on global issues. We can start by no longer pretending that we are a neutral partner in the Israeli-Palestinian peace fiasco and allow Israelis and Palestinians to grow up and act straight according to international law and under international scrutiny. We can start by paying Africa’s hopes and horrors some real attention. We can start by refusing to help create political Frankensteins that we must later disavow. We can start by not humiliating others simply because we can, by shedding the supremacist discourse that infects our sense of identity and power. We can ask ourselves genuine questions as we recall, without practising selective amnesia, the track record of our foreign policy in the world since the Second World War. We can start thinking.

Killing Nat Turner did not forestall the end of slavery. Killing Osama and his clan will not stop terrorism. Americans can not afford to criminalize the world’s discontent by calling it Osama, nor will it help matters for the world’s mightiest super-power to pulverize the people of Afghanistan, a nation commonly known as one of the world’s most wretched. Neither will an occupation of the Middle-East by proxy or military strikes against nations we demonize as “rogue” yield positive results. History and common-sense tell us that violence only breeds resistance, crusades, jihads, humiliation a trans-generational thirst for justice. We mustn’t allow such basic facts to be drowned in screams for infinite justice in our new Hobbesian world. In the final analysis, real security results from a contract of coexistence and equity between people, an agreement about shared responsibilities and agendas, between the world’s affluent minority and the world’s marginalized majorities. Bombings, assassinations, military bases, occupations, political puppeteering, and years of jingoism and policing here and elsewhere, will save neither us nor future generations any grief.

Let’s start the conversation before we return to doing business-as-usual and embarrassing ourselves before history. Let’s refrain from continuing the shame of the twentieth century into the twenty-first. Let’s acknowledge, at least to ourselves, that until we connect our privileges to the unchecked forces that are terrorizing the rest of the world, we shall remain fundamentally–and perhaps in the knowing eyes of some in the world, deservedly–insecure. CP

Babak Nahid, an Iranian resident in the US, teaches in the English Department at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles.