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