Fan the Flames, No. 6, Dec 2001

Wednesday 12th September 2001
I’m in my car on my way to work. I won’t forget this day. Why? Because the day before was one of the worst days in American history. I switch on the radio and listen to the Today programme on BBC Radio Four. John Humphrys says, “President George W. Bush vows retribution against the terrorists responsible for thousands of deaths after hijacked airliners were used to destroy New York’s World Trade Center and seriously damage the Pentagon. The finger of suspicion is being pointed at the Islamic fundamentalist, Osama Bin Laden.”

It’s painful to listen to any more news after a day and night of constant, relentless media coverage. As I turn off the radio I spot a Muslim woman walking down the road with her two children. She wears a kaftan and headscarf. She looks pensive and anxious, while her toddler boy and girl smile and giggle. A burly middle-aged white man in a suit scowls at her as he barges past her and the children. He seems angry with the Arab woman and suspicious of her.

I get to the office. I’m compelled to turn on the television. The media frenzy feeds my morbid fascination. I switch to CNN and listen to Tony Blair’s speech. Like his American counterpart, he refers to the “enemy in our midst” and a “battle that we (the civilized, democratic and free world) will win.” It is us against them. Good versus evil. Now I’m listening to the black and white rhetoric of war. Ambiguity is unacceptable. I’m part of Bush’s and Blair’s privileged and civilized ranks. They demand my allegiance. All of a sudden I feel confused. I don’t know which world is the bad one, the terrorists’ or my own.

Thursday 13th September
A man writes in to the BBC and rails against its left wing bias. He states, “I’ve had enough of your liberal, indecent crap. You’re not showing these dead Americans the respect they deserve.” Before him, the BBC had given voice to a woman who considered the assault on America to have been a tragic but “majestic” metaphor in its brutally effective strategic assault on the heart of Western capitalism and its chief exponents. Her chosen adjective is harsh, and perhaps inappropriate, so soon after the event. However it does point to a truth: the misdeeds of America’s foreign and economic policy had finally come home to haunt her citizens. The woman hoped that “our political masters in the West will now be more tolerant of different ideological, political, economic and religious systems.” America loves those nations and people who strive for her freedoms and her conception and practice of democracy, but hates those that don’t. Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Chile, the list of countries is long.

I walk into a newsagent and have difficulty deciding which newspaper to buy. The Times headline reads, “Good will prevail over evil.” I read the statement of US Senator Gary Hart: “Let’s give these terrorists a fair trial… and then hang them!” I pick up The Guardian. It carries an article on the training methods employed by Bin Laden. The report’s contents shock me. Volunteers to his extremist group, al-Qaeda, are shown hundreds of hours of video footage showing the persecution of Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya amongst other countries. It’s indoctrination – a calculated exercise in breeding hatred. They’re told that their commitment to jihad is an imperative religious duty, and that their violence is justifiable in light of American violence in Iraq, Israel, Nicaragua and elsewhere. Having received this piece of information perhaps now I can make a choice and commit to my country, my people, the whole civilized and democratic world? The actions of Bin Laden now seem to me more reproachable.

Monday 17th September
President Bush states, “We will find these evil doers, these barbaric people… They slit the throats of women on airplanes in order to achieve an objective that is beyond comprehension… This is a fight to say that [we] the freedom-loving people of the world will not allow ourselves to be terrorised by someone who thinks they can hit and hide in some cave somewhere. I want justice. There used to be an old poster out west that I recall and it said, ‘Wanted – dead or alive’.” I despair at this aggressive and simplistic rhetoric. President Bush, leader of the ‘free world”, sounds fundamentalist, his language not far removed from the fanatic, whether he be a Muslim extremist or a Christian fundamentalist. Listening to these words has left me feeling confused. I don’t know whom to believe any more after one week of obsessive and manipulative rhetoric on both sides, by leaders and broadcasters alike. Must I choose sides? Can’t I be a conscientious objector? I keep on recalling Lord Longford’s conviction, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” I hate what happened in America last week, when over 5,000 innocent people were killed, and yet I must try and understand what drove these suicide bombers to do what they did. How could they have hated America so much?

An estimated 200,000 Iraqis, according to the Health Education Trust in London, died during and in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter known as the Gulf War. Since the USA and Britain imposed the trade embargo over 1 million civilians have died, half of them children. The CIA trained the Mujahedin in their fight against Soviet rule in Afghanistan, and provided them with $2.17 billion of missiles, guns and ammunitions. Between 1965 and 1966, 1 million Indonesians were killed with the complicity of the US and British governments. During Vietnam, the CIA under Operation Phoenix arranged the murder of approximately 50,000 people. The state of Israel would not have survived were it not for American support. The United States now insists that it abhors all terrorism, yet it has permitted Ariel Sharon’s policy of assassinations in Palestinian territory. It paid, trained and armed a terrorist group in Nicaragua in the 1980s that killed over 30,000 civilians, and it has supported the IRA. President Bush declared on Thursday 13th September, “Americans do not yet have the distance of history but our responsibility to history is already clear – to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” In light of the above, perhaps Bush is proposing self-destruction as well as the destruction of the evil others.

The Arab world finds it very difficult to accept the destructive, inconsistent and culturally imperialistic nature of American foreign policy. On Wednesday 12th September, the Jordan Times commented, “US decision makers should evaluate whether they have steered the world’s only super power to dominate under the insignia of justice and international legitimacy, or succumbed to short-term interests, short-sighted considerations and the power of arrogance.” The majority of Arabs did not condone the mass murder in New York and Washington. The American and British media need not further repeat footage captured in Palestine and the Lebanon of small numbers of men, women and children celebrating the murder of American civilians. However, even these few revelers cannot be dismissed as mad or evil, the bad products of rogue nations. On Thursday 13th September, The Guardian quoted one Cairo resident as saying, “Now it is time for Americans to understand how other nations felt when they were bombed and shelled by the most advanced US weapons.” This is the common voice in the Middle East, and the sentiment it expresses is extremely important. America now shares in other nations’ suffering. Before the terrorist attack, a culture of complacency and a politics of isolationism were dominant. Americans were safe, prosperous and free in their own country (less than 10% of the population have travelled outside the United States). The rest of the world did not matter. It is this brutal exposure to the rest of the world that has so shocked American citizens. Now they cannot ignore the desperate cries of the impoverished anymore. A fanatical and hate-fuelled minority might have carried out the attack. These extremists might seek absolute power for themselves. Yet their actions have spoken, whether intended or not, for the poor. An elite group of less than one billion people now takes more than 80% of the world’s wealth. The bomb is a call for us in the west, this elite group, to consider redistribution. We must accept that Western capitalism – the free market and free trade – does have necessary consequences. The American oasis of civilization has been torn open. And never did any of us dream that such a thing could happen on this formerly impenetrable soil.

Richard Falk, Professor of International Relations at Princeton, believes that “Western foreign policy is presented almost exclusively through a self-righteous, one-way legal/moral screen (with) positive images of Western values and innocence portrayed as threatened, validating a campaign of unrestrained political violence.” The majority of the American public wants bloody revenge. President Bush knows this. Like his enemy, Bin Laden, he girds his people’s democratic, nationalistic and primordial instincts. I can imagine every American at this time recalling the Oath of Allegiance to their county: “I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty… that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws against all enemies, foreign and domestic… that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law… so help me God.” The Oath demands absolute loyalty and devotion to the American way. This inflexibility and cohesion of mind troubles me. For alongside these qualities must be an earnest attempt to voice caution, to question, to analyse and to reflect. These voices – perhaps full of doubt, ambiguity, confusion even despair – must be heard. Otherwise, a hateful situation of us and them is created. America must find the courage for self-reflection.

Last week, a dear friend of mine compared the attack on America with the murder of a man by his wife in a public place. It was a very powerful analogy and helped me better understand the events of Tuesday 11th September. He said, “Passers-by watch with horror as a woman shoots a man. The man falls to the ground. The woman runs off. People gather round as the man on the floor draws out his final breath. They are horrified by the woman’s actions. The woman is arrested later that day. On the evening news, local people gather round their television sets and watch video footage captured by an amateur of the murder. It appears to be unprovoked, and the woman appears unemotional even callous. They are thankful that this evil woman has been arrested and will be brought to justice for her heinous crime. These people wait with eager anticipation for the commencement of the trial. When it begins, new evidence emerges, though. It is revealed that the woman suffered systematic emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her husband for many years. He was terribly cruel to her. Yes … she intended to murder him in cold blood, but this was an action born out of desperation, nothing less: she could think of no other way to end her suffering, to express her right to be loved and not hated, her right to be defended and not neglected. By the end of the trial, the local people’s position has changed. They still hate what she did, and yet now they are able to understand her actions. Some of them are even able to feel love towards her.”

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