Today’s New York Times [September 18] features a fascinating photograph which seems to sum up, in an important sense, the origins and meaning of the terrorist crisis: the huge banner held up by pro-Taliban demonstrators in Pakistan addresses us directly: “Americans, think! why you are hated all over the world.” Okay, so let’s take up the question: but, before we do, let’s get something out of the way.
To examine the possible motives and premises of the terrorists has been, in and of itself, denounced as something close to treason. We are supposed to believe that whomever is behind this heinous act is, like Satan, an irreducible primary, simply Evil Incarnate. Evil doesn’t require motives, or at least motives that need to be explained: Evil simply is, and so what else do we need to know? Ipso facto, any further inquiry into the motivations of our tormentors is considered little more than collaboration with the enemy. Myles Kantor made an argument very similar to this in a Frontpage article denouncing me as little short of Osama bin Raimondo: this in response to a piece in which I sought to examine the WTC attack as an example of what foreign policy analyst Chalmers Johnson calls “blowback,” i.e. the often violent reaction to America’s domineering foreign policy. By explaining irrational and violent behavior, we come dangerously close to excusing and even valorizing it é or so the argument goes.
I have sympathy for this idea when it comes to domestic criminal behavior: after all, who cares why some murderer went on a killing spree and disemboweled dozens of people? The point is that the guy doesn’t need therapy, he needs to be caught and fried, asap. But to transfer the same methodology to the realm of foreign policy, i.e. dealing with our overseas enemies, is utter madness, because in this case the primary goal, after defense, must be prevention é and we cannot prevent what we cannot or will not understand.
Alright, then, so let’s get back to the subject of this column: why oh why do they hate us? Of course, the cultural ethos of the Islamists who have declared war on us is utterly antithetical to the spirit of Western modernity. Phenomena that are everyday features of life in our society é an all-consuming materialism, brazen hedonism, militant secularism é are considered monstrous by the mullahs of the Middle East. But as long as these cultural effusions are confined to the West, from whence they sprang, Osama bin Laden and his fundamentalist flock are unlikely to be so offended that they spend years planning a terrorist attack that is sure to result in massive retaliation. Of course, the globalization of Western cultural as the dominant ethos is indeed a factor, but there is no reason why the Islamists couldn’t deal with that at the local level, just as the Taliban has in Afghanistan. The demolition of ancient Buddhist statues is not exactly something to be cheered (although the smashing of all Afghan television sets does, I must admit, have a certain appeal). But as long as they keep it within the confines of their own country, whether it be Iran, Saudi Arabia, or wherever, this is not a legitimate American concern. The problem, however, is that in the era of US hegemony, America concerns itself with everything and everyone.
The biggest beef of the Islamists is that US troops are stationed in that holy of holies, the land of Mecca and Medina, in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This, to them, is a religious issue, a sacrilege that cries out for retaliation. To a devout Muslim, the presence of “infidels” on such holy soil is intolerable, and must be fought: and this, indeed, was the original complaint of Osama bin Laden and his followers.
Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi, was a friend of the US during the Afghan war against the Soviets: we subsidized him and his followers and essentially created the infrastructure of the terror network that now besets us. Just as soon as the Soviets were laid low, bin Laden turned his sights on the defilers of his home country é his former ally, the US. As it is, US soldiers stationed in the Saudi realm are forbidden to wear crucifixes, and foreigners are closely watched lest they violate any of the religious edicts against alcohol or, say, celebrating Christmas. But that is not good enough for the fundamentalists, who see the presence of the Americans as a desecration, and so the holy war against “the great Satan” was on.
As a corollary to this problem, the Gulf War was undoubtedly a pivot point in decisively turning the Arab “street” against the US. Here was the US and its allies using Saudi Arabia as a base, demonstrating its hegemony over the Middle East; and not only that, but doing it in a particularly bloody and cruel manner. If we take seriously Seymour Hersh‘s famous expose of the enormous casualties inflicted by the US during that war é in which tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, mostly old men and boys, were essentially massacred é then this puts the casualties inflicted by the WTC terrorists in perspective. There is an important difference, however, in that the people in the World Trade Center were civilians. Ah yes, answers the radical Islamist, but plenty of civilians (far more than the 5000 or so who perished in the WTC) were killed by the US during that war, and they are still being killed in bombing raids that continue to this day. From the viewpoint of the perpetrators of the WTC atrocity, the operative principle here is simple, and can be translated so that even ordinary Americans can understand it: what goes around comes around.
There is another big factor in the “why do they hate us?” question, and that is US political, military and financial support for the state of Israel. I have dealt with that question at length, in this column, but there is something else to be said here. It seems clear enough that, with George W. Bush in the White House, US support for Israel has gone from strong to virtually unconditional. While secretary of state Colin Powell has done his best to rein in the Israelis, there are other elements in this administration é now in the ascendant é who would dearly love to unleash Ariel Sharon on the Palestinians. From an ostensibly evenhanded broker of Middle East peace, the US has become Israel’s cat’s-paw. US policy in the region seems made not in Washington, but in Tel Aviv, and this couldn’t be clearer to the Arabs, who see the fate of Palestine as a test of American intentions. Whatever principles animate the US in this matter, America’s national self-interest is surely not among them: this is painfully obvious not only to Islamists in every country, but also to various Middle Eastern rulers, including our Arab allies. Why does the US pursue what amounts to a self-sacrificial policy in the Middle East? This is what the Arabs, even the moderate ones, want to know.
The war of retribution that has been promised by the Bush administration will run up against several problems, not the least of which is the lack of a stationary enemy: there is no country to bomb, really, except for Afghanistan é a nation that has already been bombed several times over, and which has no real infrastructure to be damaged. But there are two other major problems with what I will call George’s Jihad, two forms of “blowback” that could have dire consequences for the US both abroad and right here at home. One is the destabilization of the entire region, and the spread of the conflict not only to Pakistan but also to every country in the Middle East. Such allies as we have in the region are quite shaky, and it wouldn’t take much for the rule of Jordan’s pro-American king to be rudely interrupted. The Saudi monarchy, too, could go the way of the Persian Shahs, and even Turkey é which fancies itself part of Europe é could be swept up in an Islamist wave.
Closely connected to this is the reaction of world markets é and that is what is really going to hit home as far as Americans are concerned. An economy already teetering on the edge of instability could conceivably be pushed into free-fall by the sort of long drawn-out military struggle our leaders seem bent on. While defense stocks are going up, everything else is plunging faster than even Alan “Easy Money” Greenspan can keep up with, and it won’t be long now before ordinary Americans begin to feel the pinch. The idea that Americans are willing to sacrifice their 501-3K plans on the altar of George Bush’s war on terrorism is a dubious proposition that I’m sure Karl Rove is not eager to test.
On the other hand, the war propaganda is now reaching a crescendo of hysterical vulgarity, and it is hard to imagine that Bush will not follow through on his pledge. If he doesn’t, there will be a political price to pay: if he does, the price in economic and geopolitical terms will perhaps be more than anyone can now imagine. In the end, however, the cartoonish and completely unrealistic view of the Terrorist Threat taken by most Americans will be strengthened, not dissipated é just as the equally cartoonish view of America, seen from the Arab perspective, is bound to be reinforced. The consequences, for this country and for the rest of the world, are not going to be pretty. Who will break the cycle of misinformation and caricature? That is what leaders are for, and, as far as I can see, there are none on the horizon
Mr. Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com