When narratives collide


The Japanese used kamikaze pilots against the allied fleet from 1 October 1944 to the end of World War I. Kamikaze, meaning “divine wind”, was the name the Japanese gave to the hurricane that destroyed the Mongolian fleet poised to attack Japan in 1281.

Some kamikaze planes were especially designed for their deadly suicide missions. Once they took off they could not land again. They carried over a ton of explosives — more than half the weight of the plane. They had oversized fuel tanks so that, when they crashed into their targets at speeds of up to 970km per hour, they detonated with immense destructive power. Some 40 warships were destroyed in kamikaze attacks and hundreds of others were immobilised. In the battle of Okinawa, US forces sustained more than 5,000 fatalities due to these suicide missions, the largest death toll in a single battle in US history.

Since World War II, the daring and audacity of Japan’s kamikaze pilots has fired the imagination of oppressed peoples around the world, although Japan itself was an imperialist nation, aggressive and culturally arrogant towards its neighbours.

Japanese suicide missions, however, were not so much a strategy for military victory as they were a specifically Japanese way of handling defeat. In its traditional militarist-religious culture, the duty of inflicting the greatest possible losses upon the enemy outweighs the importance of the individual fighter’s life.

US planes, or US-made planes, have wreaked massive destruction on Baghdad, Belgrade, Hanoi, Cambodia, Dresden, Beirut, Rafah and Khan Younes. On Tuesday 11 September, they destroyed two of the most important symbols of US might and hegemony: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This was the first attack against cities and civilian targets in US history. Did this kamikaze strike help vent the anger of the stricken peoples around the world? Did the oppressed find solace in this disaster?

No one felt relief. On the contrary, the American people’s suffering added to the suffering of the oppressed around the world, because the oppressed are human beings who, first, have no wish for suicide, but rather long for a free and dignified life, and, second, feel for the sufferings of others. Nothing can relieve our innate humanity of the devastating horror of watching others having to choose between burning alive or leaping hundreds of metres to their deaths. Nothing could compensate our innate humanity as our hearts broke, reaching out to those, still alive, about to make that leap.

Yes, there is an inevitable and unfair distinction between death that merits a camera, death that merits only a few lines of statistics and death that merits no mention at all. Why is this discrimination so dismaying? Because, however we rebel against globalisation, we have become media consumers; because we are more moved by the plight of the people inside the twin towers than by that of the people of Rwanda and Burundi.

But when we take stock, following our rush to sympathy and our sudden anger at the inequitable distribution of sorrow, we realise that the deaths of thousands of Americans does affect the world’s fate more than the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans and Burundians, and those working for a more just world must take this fact into account.

Globalisation has come to combine the Hollywood dream industry with angry and desperate reactions against the makers of American nightmares abroad. Why did television audiences around the world watching the appalling events in New York and Washington gasp: “I can’t believe it. It’s like a film”? Not a single US film production company has failed to churn out a film on evil “Arab terrorists” whose blend of religious fanaticism and material greed leads them to murder their friends, hijack a plane, plan to destroy New York or bomb a skyscraper. In the Hollywood version, of course, the fiendish conspirators are always thwarted when Schwarzenegger or Rambo leaps from an upper storey onto the wing of the airplane and overpowers them.

The hijacking of the US airliners was described as an act of cowardice. This, too, is consistent with the made-in-Hollywood US perceptions that divide people into valiant heroes and evil cowards. But the world is not made up of valiant heroes and evil cowards. The good are not all good, nor the bad all bad. The world is not a Hollywood movie.

Because we are tribal in our outlook and because we fear that the US will react with tribal instincts, we all hope that the perpetrators of the attacks were not Arabs. Perhaps, we pray, they were Japanese avenging themselves for Hiroshima, Serbians avenging themselves for Belgrade, or Americans avenging themselves for Waco or Timothy McVeigh, or anyone else bent on some messianic mission of salvation for a people other than ourselves. At the same time, we are afraid to admit that we doubt Arabs, any Arab, could plan and execute such an intricately and precisely coordinated operation involving relatively large numbers of people and requiring considerable time to prepare.

We have an image of the lone suicide martyr, that child of the camps driven to self-destruct in an hour or month of utter desperation, with no hope on the horizon. It is difficult to imagine such a person planning his death for a year or more, training as a pilot, studying airport security procedures and flight routes, and performing any number of other complex tasks. This is not the behaviour of a person in a state of despair. Nor, for that matter, is life in Boston or Brussels like life in the camps. The attacks on the US bear the mark of determined and adamant idealists, talented individuals who could have used their skills for personal advancement in other fields, individuals acting not out of personal despair but on the basis of their total commitment to a goal.

In this sense, George Bush was right when he said that the US is facing a new kind of enemy. Twenty individuals of the type described above managed to hit the US with the equivalent of a nuclear bomb. The atom bomb dropped in Hiroshima killed 40,000 people and caused no end of physical deformities and cancers. The “bomb” dropped on the World Trade Center claimed some 5,000 lives, and no doubt the television cameras will help spread the spiritual deformities and psychological cancers it caused.

The oppressed may entertain the hope that this will shift the balance of terror against the destructive military might of the West. In the Cold War, the balance of power between NATO and the Warsaw Pact was based on the nuclear deterrent, which effectively neutralised the West’s nuclear arsenal yet sustained the perpetual threat of an unimaginably destructive war. Now, following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, NATO faces a new adversary. It does not possess a nuclear weapon, nor for that matter a nation, and bombing a location or two will not deter it. The adversary is active around the world, even inside Western cities themselves, and its power resides in the very weak points of the capitalist system. It can turn the West’s insidious technological prowess against itself, its skyscrapers into murder machines, fuel tanks into napalm bombs, civilian airplanes into missiles without advanced military planning.

Such may be the dreams of the poor and oppressed. But weakness is not power in any way other than metaphorically. Nor can the mighty be brought to their knees except in battle or through exceptional circumstances. The rule in economics and politics continues to prevail, a rule so self- evident that it hardly bears mention: The strong are mightier than the weak.

After Bush identified the new enemy that will never be permitted to create a new balance of terror, Israel, along with officials from Turkey, Russia and other governments that are having difficulties with their terrorist handling of the “terrorist problem” in their own countries, rejoiced at being welcomed into the “civilised world” to which they had so yearned to belong. Israel could barely conceal its glee: the US would finally come to see that the world’s number one problem is terrorism, not the circumstances that breed terrorism. It was ecstatic when it realised that Europe would have to join the global anti- terrorist camp, alongside Turkey and Russia, and that the Arab regimes would also be compelled to join, as they had been forced to join the international alliance against Iraq.

One almost feels sorry for those Arab regimes with close ties to the US. They get little sympathy from the West when terrorism turns on them. They have urged the US and Great Britain, where until not long ago Bin Laden roamed unimpeded, not to grant political asylum to their enemies, but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears in Western democracies. When terrorism strikes Western democracies, however, the Arab regimes are called up and forced to join international coalitions against terrorism. They helplessly oblige, even as their spokesmen complain: “But who supported the regime in Afghanistan? Why is terrorism now a global problem in a unipolar age, while before the question was only whether it served the US or the Soviet Union?”

The International Coalition against Terrorism, in which Israel has been elevated to a great power, may force the PA to choose between the two camps, as Peres sought to do in Sharm El-Sheikh in 1996. After all, there can be no non-aligned countries in this struggle. This, too, explains Israel’s overwhelming joy, which could barely be concealed by the crocodile tears shed in the commemorative candlelight flickering before the cameras.

Americans of all cultural backgrounds and ethnic hues rushed to donate blood, not only to do something to help in the compelling drama, but also to affirm that the blood they give as individuals transcends colour barriers and binds them together as citizens of a single nation. The blood donated in Israel, in contrast, affirmed that the US and Israel were victims of the same enemy.

If the International Coalition against Terrorism comes into being, it will add a second catastrophe to the one that took place on 11 September. Inevitably, at least for the foreseeable future, it will bolster Israel’s position and international standing, leaving it freer than ever before to wreak its vengeance on the Palestinians on the pretext of fighting terrorism. The events in Jenin in the wake of the suicide crashes in the US testify to this inevitability. The pretext of “fighting terrorism” has become a fundamental component of the new mode of international relations the US seeks to establish.

If, moreover, the US adopts the Israeli version of fighting terrorism as its own long-term strategy, it will be certain to provoke further terrorist attacks on Western territory and abroad. Fighting terrorism in an indiscriminately destructive manner can only breed more terrorism. Terrorism is a response to overwhelming conditions generated by injustice, poverty, foreign occupation and oppression in its various other forms. It is a globalised rebellion against a process of globalisation that has turned its back on the plight of entire peoples. It is the weapon of the weak who have been unable to come to grips with the workings of modernisation, progress and development, a stand against the rationale of globalisation that strikes directly at its irrational underpinnings: the logic of might and power. It cannot address the centres of globalisation as equals on their own terms, not only because it lacks the political and cultural assets to influence the decision-making processes in these centres, but because experience has taught it that Western rationalism is founded upon economic interests and the powerful administrative and institutional edifices that support them, and that these, inherently, have the upper hand.

It is little wonder that the notion of “striking at US and Western interests” should fascinate the world’s weak. Once the dust settles after the strikes, however, the weak will discover that the true victims were thousands of innocent people. Western power and interests do not reside in a building or two; nor in the offices of a few major transnational corporations that were, indeed, severely financially impaired and some of whose owners did indeed meet their deaths. Interests in as powerful and pervasive a system as the American political and economic system reside in a set of rational calculations as to the elements needed to reproduce this system and sustain it at the local and global levels. The only way to “strike” at this system is to convince its decision makers to revise the bases of their calculations. This cannot take place through rational dialogue, nor through suicide missions, but rather by influencing the forces and institutions that make up the US system. The ability to influence requires power, but it also requires the ability to translate power into comprehensible political language.

Arabs and Muslims in the US will quickly learn that seeking revenge by allocating blame on the basis of ethnic origin, religious affiliation or outward appearance is not the sole preserve of the underdeveloped nations they left behind. It is equally rife in the US and Europe, and more blatantly so in Israel. Arab Americans (like Arabs in Israel) will need allies in their fight against racism. They will have to enter into dialogue with the rest of US society in order to defend democracy and individual liberties against the mobs that attack them and their property. Islamic associations, too, will find that they must reaffirm their commitment to the principles of pluralism, tolerance, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of association. In other words, American Arabs and Muslims will have to take US democracy seriously in the face of assault. They will protest that they are Americans, as Japanese Americans did when they were thrown into concentration camps during World War II. Although that tragedy will hopefully never repeat itself, the pattern will be the same: the desire to belong to the American democratic way of life, confronted by the hatred of the mobs on the basis of anti- Arab stereotypes and prejudices.

Even so, the process may result in a reaffirmation of Arab identity in the US. But what are the Arab peoples to do in the face of the assault waged by the international mob and its regional allies beneath the banner of fighting terrorism? We can hardly assert that we belong to a democracy, locally or internationally.

In the recent past, which seems so remote today, the Arab peoples were never hostile to the US. The US did not have a colonial history in the region. On the contrary, in the anti-colonialist phase, Arab intellectuals and politicians found inspiration in the US and the principles it stood for. Indeed, some military insurgents, such as the Free Officers in Egypt, believed they could strike an alliance or understanding with the US against the UK and France in the struggle to repel traditional colonialism. Unfortunately, the US has earned the Arabs’ hostility. It has inherited colonialist interests in the region, ensconced its allies in power against all the principles that it claims the “American way of life” represents, changed its allegiances according to its own selfish interests, and given its unmitigated support to Israel in the conflict with the Arabs and Israel’s unrelenting attempt to annihilate the Palestinians.

The “fight against terrorism” will only deepen this hostility, because fighting terrorism as the US sees it is ignoring the injustices being perpetrated against the peoples of Iraq and Palestine and the oppression and exploitation of peoples elsewhere around the world.

The US cannot remain secure when other peoples are insecure. Americans know that kamikaze attacks cannot be stopped by attacking some nation or laying siege to the “new enemy” in its strongholds. Global wretchedness has no address or geographical coordinates. The only way to remedy it is to address its causes.

If we are to convince the people of the US and Europe of this reality, we would be well advised not to disparage them or their culture on the basis of our own preconceptions and stereotypes. We cannot speak with modernism in the rhetoric of knee-jerk rejection or a pre-modernist discourse.

The Palestinians and Arabs in general did not rejoice at the tragedy that struck the American people. But the jubilation of a handful of Palestinians playing before the cameras became a hit video clip for all the Western broadcast stations. Why? Because they do not want us to reach a state where we can enter into dialogue with the American and European peoples. Moreover, we give them the tools to do this, because we, too, have people who act without restraint in the manner of anti-Arab rabble-rousers in the US, and because no one dares to oppose the circumstances that generate a spirit of revenge and rejoicing at the death of civilians in countries that oppose us, for fear of antagonising populist demagogues.

Our societies have yet to assess the political and moral damage that could be caused should the culture of vengeance, or the new kamikaze culture, evolve into an ideology that will produce neither a strategy for liberation nor a reformist or radical opposition trend capable of bettering our people’s circumstances. There is a vast difference between the lack of viable alternatives for people under occupation using every means at their disposal, including the sacrifice of their own lives, in their struggle for independence, and an ideology that offers no alternatives, both on the global and the domestic levels. There can be no comparing such an ideology with legitimate resistance against occupation.

The suicide attack has not compelled American society to contemplate its root causes. Perhaps, under the best of circumstances, US society will enter into an internal dialogue over the foreign policies that led political violence abroad into US territory. But at that point, the commentators and experts who will be talking about us and explaining our circumstances will be American, and it will be their narrative they are relating, not ours.

The International Coalition against Terrorism wants us to condemn the attack promptly and without delay. It does not want to hear any political or moral opposition we might have to offer, because that would entail entertaining our arguments and points of view, our narrative. When world leaders are asked to issue an immediate condemnation, they are being told to choose sides in the new balance of terror, without heed for their narrative, or for their perceptions of ways to make this a safer and more equitable world. This is the manner in which the global order is being divided into the anti-terrorist alliance and those too afraid not to join it, on one hand, and those who seek only to butt their heads against it, rather than stand up against it constructively and better their own wretched reality.

The writer is a Palestinian Israeli and member of the Knesset.