The civilized world is in shock over the magnitude and brazenness of last Tuesday’s suicidal terrorist attacks against the United States of America. Nothing can justify the commission of atrocities of such a scale against innocent civilians in modern times. The act is unspeakable in its cruelty and barbarism.
That’s the way we look at it. But in some parts of the world, the response to this tragedy has been, to our dismay, celebratory. Islamic nations that have long loathed America for its unilateral actions against recalcitrant Arab countries have praised these attacks. We may understand the gloating of the Iraqi people over this tragedy if we recall the relentless bombing of Baghdad by US forces in 1990. Palestinians too rejoice because behind their arch-enemy, Israel, they see the menacing shadow of the US, now exposed as a vulnerable foe after all. They are not uncivilized; they just view things differently.
“As to how to react,” writes Noam Chomsky, “we have a choice. We can express justified horror; we can seek to understand what may have led to the crimes, which means making an effort to enter the minds of the likely perpetrators. If we choose the latter course, we can do no better than to listen to the words of Robert Fisk, whose direct knowledge and insight into the affairs of the region is unmatched after many years of distinguished reporting.
“Describing ‘the wickedness and awesome cruelty of a crushed and humiliated people,’ he writes that ‘this is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia – paid and uniformed by America’s Israeli ally – hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.’”
To mention all these, even if true, at a time like this seems insensitive. Yet at the risk of being grossly misunderstood, Chomsky, one of America’s most respected intellectuals, finds it necessary to call attention to the danger of viewing the September 11 events as a choice between good and evil, or a struggle between democracy and terrorism. “It is likely to lead to harsh security controls, with many possible ramifications for undermining civil liberties and internal freedom.”
America’s initial shock is quickly giving way to outrage. Outrage will soon find its targets. As always, the first victims will be ordinary people whose only “crime” may be that they look Arabic or worship in a mosque or carry a Middle Eastern name. President Bush has called the suicide attacks an “act of war.” But who is the enemy? Surveying the ruins of the Pentagon, security adviser Leon Fuerth, was heard saying: “In effect the country’s at war but we don’t have the coordinates of the enemy.”
The reaction that Chomsky fears most has already begun. Writing from Boston, where she is doing her doctorate, Asian Institute of Management professor Tess del Rosario reports: “There were three raids today, one of them near my school, in a small hotel where there were supposedly suspects. Suddenly, this town felt invaded and the entire East Coast has become a hunting ground for anyone who might be connected, however remotely, to the attacks yesterday. What was remarkable was how we seemed to get used to it so fast — that from hereon, the streets of Boston will be filled with cops, and they can and will stop and search anyone.
“Americans expect their government to engage in retaliatory attacks very soon against a yet unnamed enemy. America needs to recover badly and quickly from its sudden powerlessness. It also wants to stoke a very deep anger that has just been unleashed, and will continue to grow and intensify in the days to come.
“I am afraid of the racist backlash that has already begun. I thought of the Pakistani gas station owner down the street from where I live, a warm cheerful man working in the middle of an all-White neighborhood. I wondered what he might be feeling, whether his fears have grown through the night, along with many other Middle Eastern small entrepreneurs scattered throughout Boston.
“The most frightful and cynical view I have yet heard is that Bush might use this occasion to buoy up his sagging popularity and engage in massive military spending to boost America’s economy. The dollar took a bad beating yesterday in Europe, and the stock market has remained closed for the second day. This country’s leaders are desperate to project its strength to itself and to the outside world, a strength they fear has collapsed with the World Trade Center towers yesterday.
“This is a very sad day and there is a lot to grieve for, mostly because the world has irrevocably changed and we are challenged to create a new kind of faith. I wonder whether we are all up to the task.”
These are fair warnings from people who otherwise salute America for the human freedoms it exemplifies. It takes courage to even suggest them at a time like this, when the only question that good people everywhere are asking is – how do we stop terrorism? But now indeed is the right moment to say them because a lethal mix of anger and fear grips the world’s remaining superpower. If America indulges its rage and allows itself to be driven by the same arrogance that in the past caused it to launch punitive wars against entire nations, it will have descended to the level of barbarism where its enemies want to find it. Terrorism will then have succeeded.
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