In the weeks after the attacks of September 11, we have seen it. Guilt-mongering, hand-wringing, peace vigils, protests against globalism and American hegemony and even modernism itself. I say this reaction has been misplaced. If ever there was a righteous cause, and an enemy clearly drawn in black and white, it is now. A few of these critics even go so far as to say that America got what it deserved.
More measured critics seek to draw distinctions between self-defense, which is okay, and revenge, which isn't (although we have a difficult time seeing how that distinction plays out in public policy). Then come the critics who, while lamenting the attacks, take the position that so-called collateral damage (that euphemism for the death of non-combatants) is to be avoided at all costs (since this simply can't be done, such arguments go nowhere fast). Love will win out in the end, as one writer recently put it. Will it?
Terrorism, some say, is a form of political criticism. Others toss in racism, America's role in Central America and even Truman's use of the atomic bomb as explanations of why we find ourselves in our current crisis. Certainly the United States has not been perfect as it has moved through its history -- what country has? -- and there are new diplomatic paradigms to be assimilated, but to say we are to blame for these unprovoked attacks is an obscenity.
So far we haven't heard anyone blame the U.S. for the Taliban's treatment of women, nor embrace Osama bin Laden's plans for women should he get his way. (In case you're interested in learning more about this, I suggest you check out www.rawa.org, the web site operated by some courageous Afghan women who are trying to get the world's attention about the atrocities being committed by the Taliban against women every day).
And what do bin Laden and his evil conspirators want to do beyond imprisoning women? Well, most recently they have added the indiscriminate killing of Jews and Christians to their list of social reforms. Beyond this, they offer no ideas, apparently believing that somehow through terrorism, they will no longer feel humiliated.
Science? The arts? Books? Thought? Urbanity? Equal justice under the law? Freedom of the press? Complex organization? Commerce? Some would list all this under the heading, "modernity." We hear nothing about any of these, as if somehow the problems that enrage a seemingly large number in the Islamic world can be fixed without any consideration of the values that the fundamentalist Islamic peoples have rejected.
It is one thing to oppose the inequitable distribution of resources that exists because of repressive regimes, it is another to fly into a tantrum and attack those institutions and the way of life that produced the resources in the first place. And it is still another to elevate mass murderers to the status of freedom fighters, as many both in and out of the Muslim world seem willing to do. All would be much better off if they would face directly the matter of failed nation-states -- mostly harsh, dictatorial regimes squeezing their people to the breaking point -- rather than trying to deflect attention towards some handy scapegoat.
There's also the matter of Islam itself. Called a great religion by President George W. Bush, Islam could clearly be even greater if it could succeed in rejecting the strains of violence and intolerance it seems to engender (in fairness, a quality shared to varying degrees by all religions). Ironically, the terrorists, by murdering innocent people, have undermined their religion's status in the eyes of the world. But that reputation can be repaired, as many progressive Muslim clerics are now attempting to do. There have been strong movements within Islam over the past 100 years, Sufism and Jadidism, that have attempted to make Islam more compatible with modern life.
These movements are similar to the transition made by Christianity as it emerged into the Renaissance. Prior to that time, sacred texts were considered infallible, and to question them meant certain death. Strict adherence to those texts led to abominations like the Crusades and the Inquisition. Rather than perishing under the glare of self-examination and its attendant challenges to faith, Christianity survived the transition into an age of greater tolerance.
The more we learn about bin Laden and his ilk, the
more it becomes clear that they are a cowardly
bunch of pampered, would-be tyrants who (can we doubt this?) are drowning in sexual repression and misogyny.
And bin Laden himself? A dilettante whose vast resources -- made by a daddy who mastered the distributive effects of globalism, hegemony and modernity -- have served to elevate him to mastermind status. His allure is truly puzzling, since he offers an impoverished people nothing more than the prospect an even denser cultural, political and social black hole. Al Capone was a far more compelling character.
Religion, in this analysis, becomes little more than a cover, a vehicle used to mobilize hatred in young men who have neither bin Laden's resources nor his cunning. The words "crass" and "manipulative" come to mind. As one psychiatrist put it, these people may be using atrocities to get high.
To miss this characterization is to miss the point. We recall Hannah Arendt's study of Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann. She went to his trial expecting to see a monster; instead she found a clerk. Like the Nazis, the terrorists personify Arendt's concept of "the banality of evil." And to elevate the terrorist's motives misses her sharp insight.
That suicide was involved, to some, suggests desperation wrapped in commitment. But we know also that the power of suggestion, when presented by a charismatic figure, has often produced such results. Jim Jones managed to convince more than a hundred of his followers to drink poison -- and he didn't even have to promise those 52 virgins that, according to more than one failed Muslim martyr, comes as part of the suicide pact.
What happened on September 11 should be viewed as nothing more nor less than a crime committed against some 6,000 innocent people (and counting, as the scourge of anthrax now takes its deadly toll). No amount of intellectual posturing, no amount of hand-wringing and guilt-mongering, no amount of historical deconstruction and no amount of silly comparisons should be permitted to qualify that terrible and final truth.