Dancing in the Streets

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So
whom should we attack?

I
was teaching an early class on September 11 and just got the news
before I walked in. After class I made my way to the college student
center and watched TV, mostly CNN and ABC. Peter Jennings was visibly
looking for things to say to keep the broadcast going, but he got
help from footage of a story that he reported: there were celebrations
in Palestine as Palestinians got the news of the terrorist attacks.

In
subsequent days this story took on a life of its own. Every conversation
about the disaster has to have the obligatory “Well, they’re celebrating
in Palestine” in it. Talk show hosts have competed in raising the
numbers and the level of enthusiasm, from people congratulating
each other to hordes of delirious Arabs burning flags and whipping
up their bloodlust by reliving the attacks. Apocryphal stories,
urban legends of the kind we all know, have arisen about universities
and colleges in the United States. I heard one about the Middle
Eastern students in a class in which the professor happened to turn
on the TV to find these horrible events depicted. The Middle Easterners,
unable to restrain themselves, leaped up and applauded and were
thereafter thrashed by the surrounding good American students. Right.

Well,
the Palestine celebration story interested me. I have subsequently
polled perhaps a hundred people to ask if they saw any other footage
in connection with this story, and everyone seems to have seen the
same thing: some cars, a Middle Eastern city scene, a man emerging
from a door with a piece of fruit, a dozen or so people in a moderately
celebratory mood.

I
must say, parenthetically, that it seemed early to be getting footage
of Middle Eastern reactions back from Ramallah or West Jerusalem,
when Peter Jennings was complaining that it was too soon to have
any good footage from New York. Authentic footage or archival celebration?
This is a good question, but not central to the story of this story
overall.

Were
Middle Easterners celebrating at this shocking and dreadful attack
on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with all the enormous
loss of life and the violent deaths as well of every person on the
four highjacked airliners?

Everybody
knows there has been much anti-Americanism in the Middle East, and
some of it has been the result of political and religious leaders
looking for a convenient enemy to mask domestic failure. Yet it
is undeniable that many Middle Easterners have good reason, from
their perspective, to hate the USA. In Iraq, for example, it would
be amazing indeed if the ferocious death rate among civilians —
especially children — since the embargo and the steady number of
civilian casualties from our continued bombing had not created feelings
of hatred which would give cause for celebration now. Moderate monthly
estimates put the death rate of children five and under in Iraq
at 5,000 in the decade of embargo since the Gulf War (this rose
from about 700 per month in 1989).

United
States bombers, but still more, United States policies have killed
several hundred thousand people in the last decade, making our condemnation
of Iraqi “weapons of destruction” somewhat hollow. As much as many
Americans root for the the survival of Israel and Israelis, it is
likewise true that our government has supported a country which
in the eyes of the Palestinians dispossessed them. Video footage
comes in here too, and the video footage of a young Palestinian
boy being shot by Israeli troops makes it hard to argue that the
Israelis are blameless. We support them. Hence, Palestinians have
no reason to love us either. If we add to these concrete areas our
other interventions, minor wars, intelligence help, Green Beret
“advisor” help, dirty tricks: it all adds up.

There
is as well as the general feeling of the large and international
fundamentalist movement that the amoral and corrupt society of the
US really is the Great Satan, in the language of Iran’s famous ayatollah,
Ruhollah Khomeini. This movement, the result of many historical
forces in the Middle East, burst into public view in the 1970s.
Some of its adherents became terrorists. Fundamentalist preachers
reached huge audiences through taped sermons. Their numbers grew
throughout the seventies and eighties, and they now wield much parliamentary
power, but their appeal remains limited only to parts of the population
part of the time, and only a tiny group of Islamic fundamentalists
would have either the mindset or the wherewithal to engage in terrorism.
Still, many millions have been listening to those tapes.

So
there is reason to expect celebration, especially since the masses,
not the educated elites, are the most likely to be affected by passionate
anti-Americanism.

Yet
a sweep through Middle Eastern news sources, made possible by the
Internet, tells a very different story. As most US papers have reported,
all Middle Eastern regimes except Iraq and Afghanistan have made
official pronouncements condemning the attacks and offering sympathy
and aid of some kind (see the Fox
News report
summarizing official reactions around the world).
In Palestine, Yasser Arafat was the first national leader in the
world to utter condolences, and he ordered Palestinian schools to
observe remembrance services for what he called “terrible acts.”
Some of these positive pronouncements also add, however, that United
States should reevaluate its policy in the Middle East, particularly
toward Palestine and Iraq. On the other side of the coin, an Afghani
government spokesman initially offered sympathy on the day of the
attack, but the Taliban government — clearly now at least part of
the intended target for retaliation — has now become more confrontational.

Religious
authorities throughout the Middle East have likewise condemned these
acts as “un-Islamic.” In the words of Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Al
Tantawi (of Sunni Islam’s highest educational institution, Al Azhar
University), “Attacking innocent people is not courageous…”; the
attackers, he said, will be punished in the day of judgment. Even
in Iran, where anti-American sentiment is almost a part of the national
identity, one of the country’s most prestigious religious teachers,
Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani, told listeners that he was “heart-broken”
over the tragedy, and that “the act committed by a group of terrorists
is condemned from the Islamic republic’s point of view.” Clerics
from throughout the Middle East, including many we would classify
as fundamentalist, have condemned the 9-11 attacks as being evil,
dishonorable, and not in any way justified by Islam.

So
much for the elites. What about the masses? Well, a review of all
shades of Middle East reporting turns up some isolated stories of
celebration. Some newspapers mention that some Palestinians were
celebrating (some version of the ABC footage, re-reported?). Some
soldiers in Palestine may have shot off their rifles when they first
heard the news, according to one news service report. One Egyptian
reporter was told that a group waiting for the bus in Cairo saw
the first reports in a store window and congratulated each other.
In northern India, there was a rumor that some Muslims had burned
an American flag. This is about it.

Except
for the really large show of public sympathy for the victims of
the attack and the condemnation of terrorism. Many of the mosque
gatherings throughout the world on the Friday after the tragedy
were devoted to prayer for the American victims and their families.
There have been a number of public marches against terrorism throughout
the Middle East, some in which the marchers were carrying American
flags. A reporter from the Bahraini paper The Gulf Daily News
estimates that even in Iran, “The attacks have transformed the US’
image…overnight, with the conservative-run television providing
a rare glimpse of the enemy’s human side.”

So
where did that ABC footage come from? I still don’t know. But trying
to chase it down has shown me at least a substantial proportion
of condemnatinon of the terrorists, and very little celebration.
Yet every other conversation with my friends and acquaintances reveals
that the video-clip lives on in the minds of Americans ready for
war. Radio talk show hosts refer to the “dancing in the streets”
and call for carpet bombing.

But
carpet bombing of whom? The pitiful Aghanis? The President and numerous
interviewed advisors talk of war, one of them sneering at President
Clinton’s style of warfare as “surgical.” A million Americans in
the National Guard have been mobilized. Clearly, the war Washington
is thinking not the kind of “surgical” strike that just kills a
few dozen at a time.

Yet
if we construe this “war” as necessarily aimed at a “nation,” as
the President has indicated, then which “nation” or country should
we attack? From the whole reaction of the Middle East, it seems
clear that relatively small cliques at most have masterminded and
financed these attacks. So here is the question: when we attack
whichever “nation” we attack, will Osama and his lieutenants be
under those carpets of bombs (or artillery fire, or whatever), or
will it be desparate and wretched women and children just trying
to figure out how to survive? Will it be Saddam Hussein, one of
the world’s most successful survivors, or the people of Iraq, victims
both of Saddam’s dictatorship and our national policy?

Resorting
to war to “punish” some Middle Eastern country for the sins of this
terrorist group will no doubt be about equally productive in solving
long-term problems as punishing Serbia for ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
Does justice require riding over the downtrodden to get to the guilty?
Can’t we figure out another way to achieve justice in this case?

Finally,
considering the extent to which people of good will in the Middle
East have displayed human compassion in this crisis, let’s rethink
at last our crusade to interfere in every last region of the world.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul was fairly prophetic in a piece he wrote
to denounce our bombing of Iraq in February 99: “Our foolish policy
in Iraq invites terrorist attacks against U.S. territory and incites
the Islamic fundamentalists against us.” As the Saudi government
suggested as a part of its sympathetic pronouncement last week,
the United States should ask itself why it has become a target of
terrorist groups on the other side of the globe.

In
sum, “they” are not dancing in the streets, the now archetypal video
clip notwithstanding. “They” are appalled at the terrorist attacks
and offer prayers, goodwill, and assistance. They, almost all of
them, want justice. And we should too.

September
19, 2001

Hunt
Tooley [send him
mail
] teaches History at Austin College in Sherman, Texas.

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