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 actually responsible.
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
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