After the horror of the devastation in New York City and Washington, D.C., no image so incensed Americans as the pictures of Palestinian militants firing off guns in triumph and distributing candy to children to celebrate the disaster.
Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah spoke for millions when he vowed, ”Those people dancing in the streets, we ought to remember who they are, because they are the enemies of the United States.“
Vengeance may be the most obvious reaction to Tuesday‘s terrible attacks, but it does little to help us understand what happened. The globe is littered with skyscrapers, some even taller than the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to stand. Why ours? Why us? The answer lies in our continuing legacy as ”The Great Satan,“ that epithet the militants in Iran coined in reference to the U.S.
We don’t have to accept that label, but we certainly ought to hear it. As much as we consider ourselves the embodiment of ”freedom itself,“ as George W. Bush put it, the fact remains that we are viewed in many corners of the globe as a tyrant and a threat, whose agents and institutions destabilize cultures and drain local economies.
Even before this week‘s attacks, it was becoming apparent that global sentiment matters, perhaps more than ever, as our business leaders seek to break down barriers and impose our brand of ”free“ markets across entire continents.
But rather than listen, rather than negotiate, President Bush in particular has taken to walking with a swagger. Think AIDS in Africa. Think Star Wars. Think Kyoto. No matter how grave the issue, no matter how heartfelt the appeal, Bush has made it clear that the only factors that figure in his equations are American — and the American elite at that.
That’s not to say that Bush and his arrogance must shoulder blame for the carnage on the East Coast. But that sort of intransigence does not go unnoticed, and around the globe, it serves to awaken long memories of egregious U.S. conduct, a history of coups, covert wars and outright assassination.
Of course, it‘s hard to know how to respond to such devastating attacks in a time of peace. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sought a position of defiance, but without an enemy he could name or an initiative to defend, all he could promise was to uphold the sanctity of the bureaucracy. ”We will be in business tomorrow,“ he declared.
Leaders of Congress, similarly grasping for symbols during an assembly on Capitol Hill, broke into a round of ”God Bless America.“ Bush broke it down as a challenge to American will. ”Make no mistake,“ he declared at a press conference. ”The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.“
But American resolve to ”hunt down and punish“ has never been in question. We tracked down and brought to trial the alleged perpetrators of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland; we tried and convicted the clique behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and we all know what happened to Timothy McVeigh.
Though it’s tempting simply to damn the perpetrators, the enormity of this disaster demands that we think more deeply about its meaning and its implications. We can continue to beef up security at airports and we can dispatch squads of spies to root out terrorist plots, but there are other lessons to be learned here.
A re-examination of the reaction in the Middle East, a likely source of the attacks in the U.S., might be instructive. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres spoke forcefully Tuesday: ”We have to put an end to terror.“ Prime Minister Ariel Sharon chimed in with the promise to provide the U.S. ”any assistance at any time“ in the fight against terrorism.
They were speaking our language. For months now, Israel, which receives substantial U.S. economic and military aid, has put the hammer to its Palestinian neighbors. Yet look where it gets them — alongside us, the target of zealots and suicide bombers.
The leaders of the Arab opposition spoke in much different tones. Sheikh Yassin, chief of the militant group Hamas, said he opposed the killings of innocent people, but added, ”No doubt this is a result of injustice the U.S. practices against the weak in the world.“
That‘s not easy to hear. It was Yassin’s people, after all, who were dancing on Tuesday. But if we want to know how the world turned so damned dangerous, it‘s time to start listening.