Seeing the world with American eyes

From day one since Sept. 11, 2001, America has waged a campaign to make other nations see the world with American eyes, feel its pain as humanity’s collective distress, and view the future through the prism of America’s quest for justice.  And the effort has been successful.

Today hardly anyone can voice a reservation about the US-led war on global terror without appearing to be on the side of terrorism.  No one can oppose the bombing of Afghanistan without appearing to justify the acts of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.  No one can protest the infringement of civil rights committed in the name of counter-terrorist security without being seen as defending terror. Here in the Philippines, we cannot even question the wisdom and legality of allowing US troops to fight a band of local kidnappers on our own soil without sounding callous about the American couple they’ve been holding for months.  This mood has produced resentful jokes about anti-US student demonstrators and critics being fed to the Abu Sayyaf.

It is a great tragedy when a sovereign nation has to lower its flag to give way to the banner of American grief.  It is a sad day when a free people must substitute American outrage for its own sensibility. There must be a way of respecting the memory of those who perished in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (who incidentally came from many nations) without having to unleash the raw instincts for revenge and punishment in everyone.  There has to be a way of defining justice even in the face of the most unspeakable atrocity without having to give up one’s critical faculties.

Unfortunately, we seem to be back in the days of Empire when, as Conor Gearty described it in a recent essay, “the rule of law could not be given too much importance: its purpose was to help us feel better about ourselves at home, not to hinder our management of unruly natives.”  Today’s “unruly natives” are all those who resist the official American perspective on global terrorism.  They are derided as nationalists who remain in the grip of parochial pride, oblivious to the realities of a world changed forever by Sept. 11, and lacking the worldview to understand that the enemy is one, and its evil tentacles are everywhere.

But no worldview can make us see that the bandits in Basilan are alQaeda operatives from the same mold as those suicide hijackers who commandeered the passenger jets in the US on that fateful day of Sept. 11.  That their founding leaders might have seen action as fighters in the Afghan war against the Soviets in the ‘80s does not automatically make them al-Qaeda militants.  Their recruitment into that war after all had been facilitated by the US itself.  To explain the Abu Sayyaf leaders’ presence in Afghanistan, one would have to turn to the CIA rather than the Taliban.

Today’s Abu Sayyaf members are homegrown criminals, bred by endemic poverty, social marginality, and a perverted understanding of the Islamic faith.  They are vicious and barbaric, and they deserve to be hunted down relentlessly and brought to justice.  But Basilan is not Afghanistan.

Everyone knows that the hardcore Abu Sayyaf do not number more than a hundred.  If the Armed Forces of the Philippines have been unable to subdue them despite the 7000 troops pursuing them, the problem cannot simply be our soldiers’ poor training or inadequate equipment.   Whatever it is, it’s almost certain that foreign advisers or forces cannot solve it for us.  Moreover, we should not forget that the Abu Sayyaf is only one of many predatory armed groups that roam Muslim Mindanao. Their members are not easily distinguishable from ordinary residents, or, more important, from those who are waging a legitimate war of emancipation.

Thoughtful officials of the Philippine government like Vice President Teofisto Guingona know this.  They are aware of the many complications that can arise from the involvement of foreign troops in a local peace and order problem that has grown in the womb of a larger socio-political conflict.  President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was right to reject US President Bush’s repeated offer of American Special Forces to help stamp out terrorism in Mindanao.  But it is now clear that she was more worried about the legality of US involvement than its wisdom.  In allowing foreign troops to be deployed in volatile areas in Mindanao under the cover of military exercises, she exposes the nation to the dangers of escalating the conflict and to the consequences of privileging a military approach to the complex problems of Muslim Mindanao.

It is wrong to think that only a misplaced national pride informs the protest against the US military presence in Mindanao.  Such a view ignores the practical wisdom of the nationalist provisions of our Constitution.  These are solutions to our historic problems that have evolved over the years, representing the distilled wisdom of our elders.  To ignore them is to open ourselves to risks that were familiar to a past generation of Filipinos who trusted and relied too much on a foreign power, and lost control over their own country.

The Constitution is not there just to make us feel good; it is there to make us mindful never to trade the long-term collective interests of the nation for the short-term advantages of an administration.

Reference: Conor Gearty, “Airy-Fairy,” London Review of Books, 29 Nov. 2001, p. 9.

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