Since Eden, for those of us who think within the context of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition, evil has been a fact of life. Since that time also, we have been trying to rationalise and explain evil. Why do people lie, steal, plot and kill? At one level, the whole thing does not make sense at all. It does not always mean that because you are in need, deprived, abused or hurt you should lie, steal, plot and kill.
Why would a group of people, whoever they may turn out to be, spend (we are told) months and years – between doing what you and I do: waking up in the morning, having coffee or tea, showering, taking a walk in a park or along the sea, having lunch at McDonald’s, shopping, watching movies, socialising, studying, working; people who have moms, dads, brothers and sisters, like you and me – plotting in cold-blood to hijack aeroplanes with fellow human beings on board, smash these planes into buildings in which thousands of fellow human beings work, kill those fellow human beings and (do not forget) themselves as well? What were these individuals thinking 10 seconds before impact? It defies reason.
What we call monstrous, inhuman or evil, we do because we are, ultimately, unable to comprehend it. Why were not the hijackers (who are not Martians, this much we know) moved by the sights or pleas of poor, helpless pilots, flight attendants and the many scared faces of men, women and children who were among the passengers on those ill-fated flights? A year ago, someone stole my old car – the car which featured in so many articles in this column. A month after the evil act, a farm worker telephoned the police to tell them about a skeleton car (stripped of all major components) in the middle of the desert south of Amman. Though the car was not much of a loss, money-wise (though it was very valuable to me as a means of transportation) I saw both my sense of security and my faith in human beings, for months following the incident (perhaps unconsciously until now), almost tumble in front of my eyes the way the World Trade Centre (WTC) tumbled in front of the eyes of billions following the dreadful, evil Sept. 11 act.
How can someone be so daring (one of my neighbours thinks the car was stolen around 9 in the morning) as to walk to someone else’s car, in a busy neighbourhood, open it, turn it on, and take off – as boldly and coldly as the said hijackers passed security check-points, boarded the said aeroplanes, fought the pilots, and smashed themselves and others into the said buildings? How can someone help himself to someone else’s belongings? I can’t understand. Did my car thief need to eat? I can’t swallow this. I knew of people who were starving and returned lost wallets with thousands of dollars in them to their rightful owners. The sorry sight of my car (what was left of it, that is), which I had for sixteen years, evoked in me feelings of sadness, frustration, helplessness and wrath, the way I and billions felt when we saw the WTC in ruins.
Needless to say, my car “hijacker” was never found. Not many people were interested in finding him, or them, as the case may be. Needless to say, also, I succumbed, called it fate, evil, tragedy, life, and that was the end of it.
Having said this, however, I would like to say that we inhabitants of this good globe cannot be satisfied to dismiss evil as simply evil. We cannot but seek answers, even if we do not find them to be comprehensible or plausible at first. Just as the Bible and the Koran never cease to narrate stories of evil and evil doers – explaining, analysing, dissecting – we must follow suit. I admire Milton a great deal not just because he wrote `Paradise Lost’ with the aim of “justifying God’s ways to man.” but also because he was throughout interested in understanding why Satan has done what he has done. For the same reason, I like Hawthorne’s `Young Goodman Brown’, Melville’s `Moby-Dick’, Bronte’s `Wuthering Heights’, and Conrad’s `Heart of Darkness.’
Why does evil, why do evildoers exist? Why do they do what they do?
In the early eighties, I went to graduate school for four years in upstate New York, four hours by car from New York City. I had the pleasure to drive to the city with friends several times. Every time I went to the Big Apple it was a thrill for me – a sharp contrast with the quiet, pastoral Ithaca, or (even) the then not-so-urban Amman. During one of my trips, I was invited by the aunt of an American friend of mine who was celebrating her sixtieth birthday to the restaurant on top of the WTC. It was almost unimaginable for me, being a poor student who could hardly afford a breakfast at McDonald’s. I was overwhelmed both by the place itself (up so high) and the generosity of my friend’s aunt. I was so grateful I kept fantasising for years about surprising my friend’s aunt with an invitation to the same place at my own expense, in an attempt to express my gratitude. As my financial status has not improved much since then (professors are as poor as students) and as the WTC no longer exists, my dream will most probably never come true.
This past summer, I, along with eighteen international scholars, spent a week in Manhattan at the invitation of the US State Department. We stayed at the Red Roof Inn, not very far from the Empire State and the WTC. This time, I loved New York even better. It is (was?) a city bustling with life, as opposed to Louisville, Kentucky, where we were staying for most of the summer. While some of my scholar friends said NYC was a bit too crazy for them, I said this was the place where I wanted to spend the rest of my life, even though I am an almost 99.99 per cent bedouin at heart and love deserts and infinite spaces. There is a greatness about NYC that is almost magical. One of my favourite experience was walking down 5th or Parkway Avenue or sit at a café and watch the remarkable diversity of the population: Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, Italian-Americans, Hispanics, African-Americans, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, white people, dark people, black people.
I felt I could easily melt. I felt I belonged to NYC.
My family and I spent the most part of August in Pasadena, California at the home of an American family, friends of ours. Their hospitality was unmatchable, their kindness, their concern, their support. They put their guest house, their swimming pool, their kitchen, their laundry machine, their own house, their time at our disposal. On my way back to Jordan, I was telling myself the list of the American friends I wished to invite to the WTC restaurant was growing. But again, this dream was not meant to be, I guess.
What am I saying? I am saying three things. First, even though I am an Arab and a Muslim, I have been as shocked concerning the tragedies that hit the WTC and the Pentagon as any American, first because every decent human being rejects violence and killings deep-down, and second because of the special relationship I have developed with NYC over the years. By narrating the happenings above, I am meaning to illustrate the fact that I am in more ways than I can put down on paper somewhat of a New Yorker also. I have come to love NYC as much as I have come to love Amman (my place of residence) and Yalo (my birthplace fifteen miles west of Jerusalem – which like the WTC exists only in ruins; it was destroyed by the Israelis in 1967 for reasons which I also cannot comprehend).
Second, the American people, being generally the generous, warm-hearted people they are, do not deserve what has happened to them. My friend’s aunt, my Pasadena friends, my hosts in Louisville, and the many American friends I have come to know over the years, represent the best among humanity; especially now when America is so mixed and global.
Third, I hope that the causes of what has happened in NYC, Washington and Pennsylvania will be pinpointed before any action is taken by the US administration. It is true that those who have done what has been done are evil and criminal. Nevertheless, to state simply this, to blame what happened on the forces of darkness or evil, is hardly satisfactory. Nor is it satisfactory to blame it, simply again, on those who “hate” America. Terrorism is a phenomenon that has grown over the years. It is an international phenomenon. It is time that it be focused on, studied carefully (distinguishing it, in this context, from resistance to occupation) analysed, dissected and then eliminated. I like to think of terrorism the way I think of cancer: its precise location needs to be determined as early as possible, and its causes need to be pinpointed so that the right kind of surgery, medication or preventive measures can be specified.
I hope that the fate of the WTC will fare better than the fate of both my car (in finding out who exactly did it) and my birthplace (in finding out why it was done). The US government owes it to its good people, and to the international community, to find specific answers and pinpoint specific causes.