two days after the horrific suicide attacks on civilian workers in New
York and Washington, it has become painfully clear that most Americans
simply don't get it. From the president to passersby on the streets,
the message seems to be the same: this is an inexplicable assault on
freedom and democracy, which must be answered with overwhelming force
- just as soon as someone can construct a credible account of who was
Shock, rage and grief there has been aplenty. But any glimmer of recognition
of why people might have been driven to carry out such atrocities, sacrificing
their own lives in the process - or why the United States is hated with
such bitterness, not only in Arab and Muslim countries, but across the
developing world - seems almost entirely absent. Perhaps it is too much
to hope that, as rescue workers struggle to pull firefighters from the
rubble, any but a small minority might make the connection between what
has been visited upon them and what their government has visited upon
large parts of the world.
But make that connection they must, if such tragedies are not to be
repeated, potentially with even more devastating consequences. US political
leaders are doing their people no favours by reinforcing popular ignorance
with self-referential rhetoric. And the echoing chorus of Tony Blair,
whose determination to bind Britain ever closer to US foreign policy
ratchets up the threat to our own cities, will only fuel anti-western
sentiment. So will calls for the defence of "civilisation",
with its overtones of Samuel Huntington's poisonous theories of post-cold
war confrontation between the west and Islam, heightening perceptions
of racism and hypocrisy.
As Mahatma Gandhi famously remarked when asked his opinion of western
civilisation, it would be a good idea. Since George Bush's father inaugurated
his new world order a decade ago, the US, supported by its British ally,
bestrides the world like a colossus. Unconstrained by any superpower
rival or system of global governance, the US giant has rewritten the
global financial and trading system in its own interest; ripped up a
string of treaties it finds inconvenient; sent troops to every corner
of the globe; bombed Afghanistan, Sudan, Yugoslavia and Iraq without
troubling the United Nations; maintained a string of murderous embargos
against recalcitrant regimes; and recklessly thrown its weight behind
Israel's 34-year illegal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza
as the Palestinian intifada rages.
If, as yesterday's Wall Street Journal insisted, the east coast carnage
was the fruit of the Clinton administration's Munich-like appeasement
of the Palestinians, the mind boggles as to what US Republicans imagine
to be a Churchillian response.
It is this record of unabashed national egotism and arrogance that drives
anti-Americanism among swaths of the world's population, for whom there
is little democracy in the current distribution of global wealth and
power. If it turns out that Tuesday's attacks were the work of Osama
bin Laden's supporters, the sense that the Americans are once again
reaping a dragons' teeth harvest they themselves sowed will be overwhelming.
It was the Americans, after all, who poured resources into the 1980s
war against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul, at a time when girls
could go to school and women to work. Bin Laden and his mojahedin were
armed and trained by the CIA and MI6, as Afghanistan was turned into
a wasteland and its communist leader Najibullah left hanging from a
Kabul lamp post with his genitals stuffed in his mouth.
But by then Bin Laden had turned against his American sponsors, while
US-sponsored Pakistani intelligence had spawned the grotesque Taliban
now protecting him. To punish its wayward Afghan offspring, the US subsequently
forced through a sanctions regime which has helped push 4m to the brink
of starvation, according to the latest UN figures, while Afghan refugees
fan out across the world.
All this must doubtless seem remote to Americans desperately searching
the debris of what is expected to be the largest-ever massacre on US
soil - as must the killings of yet more Palestinians in the West Bank
yesterday, or even the 2m estimated to have died in Congo's wars since
the overthrow of the US-backed Mobutu regime. "What could some
political thing have to do with blowing up office buildings during working
hours?" one bewildered New Yorker asked yesterday.
Already, the Bush administration is assembling an international coalition
for an Israeli-style war against terrorism, as if such counter-productive
acts of outrage had an existence separate from the social conditions
out of which they arise. But for every "terror network" that
is rooted out, another will emerge - until the injustices and inequalities
that produce them are addressed.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers
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