September 11: It's the US Foreign Policy

America is not the target of terrorism because Islamic fundamentalists hate American democratic ideals of freedom, liberty and "all that we stand for," as George Bush has claimed. Only if it were so. The problem may be much bigger.

This is what needs to be grasped, quickly, even in this period of bereavement. There is a danger in this television-driven drama's misplaced focus on the "how" of last week's horror, that Americans will not pay sufficient attention to the "why" of it.

The worst possible interpretation of the evil deed is to assume that it was carried out by spiritually inspired suicide bombers seeking "martyrdom" as a reward for trying to topple American hedonism. The mad bombers did not fit the mold of pious avengers. On the eve of their evil act, two were consuming vodka and ogling strippers at a bar. Another who had come via Germany liked to drink and dance with his live-in girlfriend whom he had ditched before crossing the Atlantic. They were trying to "meld in," to avoid suspicion, say the experts who know not that no true believer would ever behave so, even as a ruse.

Nor did the bombers come from impoverished hellholes, the breeding grounds of zealots and ready recruits for extremist causes. They were educated products of privilege, sons of affluent families from Arab nations that are among America's strongest allies. This is scarier than we think.

What we think is based on what we are told. What we are being told in the wake of the biggest terrorist act is what we have already been told, ad nauseam, in the years before. None of it inspires much confidence. Osama bin Laden is the prime suspect, yet we can't seem to get even the most basic facts on him right.

He is said to have inherited $20 million. Or $200 million. Or $500 million. All stashed in a Sudanese bank. Or invested broadly. His accounts have remained frozen since 1998. Or maybe not. He has only a few dozen followers. Or a few hundred. Or "3,000 Arab radicals from 12 countries." Or an army of "35,000 warriors" assigned to secret cells around the globe. He lives in a cave with three rooms and four wives, satellite TV, faxes and phones. Or he does not spend more than one night in any place.

Either out of ignorance or calculation, the theories on the motives for last week's attacks avoid the most obvious: America has many enemies. Not just because of globalization and a McWorld in which Coke brings harmony to all. Or because of American cultural domination. Or because America is arrogant and isolationist.

Rather, it is due to American complicity in injustice, lethal and measurable, on several fronts:

  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which America stands by decades-long Israeli defiance of United Nations resolutions, international law and the most basic standards of human rights, keeping millions penned in military-patrolled enclaves.
  • The decade-long American-led economic sanctions on Iraq that have killed 500,000 children under 5, strangled a whole nation and destroyed the birthplace of civilization.
  • The mess in Afghanistan where the CIA recruited and trained the likes of bin Laden to overturn the Soviet occupation but dumped them once that mission impossible was accomplished. Since then, the American-led economic sanctions – imposed to help ferret out bin Laden – have inflicted a new wave of misery, leaving thousands of children dead and about 1 million people starving.
  • American strategic alliances with the military and monarchical dictatorships of Algeria, Turkey and Egypt, as well as the oil-rich Arab states, all of whom crush even the smallest steps towards democratization.
  • Add the American sanctions on Iran, Sudan and Libya, "the rogue states," plus the miseries of Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir and you begin to grasp the utter dismay, and sense of helplessness, gripping the peoples of all these lands.

Not all the conflicts can be blamed on America but many can be and have been, especially in the last decade, only to draw indifference or, more scandalously, a barrage of propaganda blaming the victims themselves: that Muslim genes must account for all the savagery and suffering surrounding them.

It suits America to avoid the real issues, and the double standard and hypocrisy enveloping them.

It suits Israel to keep up the fundamentalist terrorist mantra, especially now, as it moves to create even more elbow room to crush the intifadah.

It suits Russia, which has cloaked its brutality in Chechnya as a war against terrorism.

It suits India on Kashmir.

It suits China, in battling Uighur separatists in Xingiang region, and in keeping America on their side for joining the World Trade Organization.

With so many agendas at work, it is difficult to keep it all in context. It goes without saying, but bears repeating, that no grievance can ever justify what happened last week. But the apologists for America and its allies are disingenuous in advancing the racist notion, with nauseating regularity, that the victims burst out in anger because their religion rewards them for it. Some no doubt believe so. But to present them as the sole face of all the oppressed is to distort reality.

The public, more than the media, senses this. Some put it crudely: America had it coming. The surprise is how a broad spectrum of the Canadian middle class, including academics, professionals and business people, is coming to the view that America needs, beyond any tactical strikes or smart bombs it might deploy, more humane and even-handed approach to the world.

Published on Wednesday, September 19, 2001 in the International Herald Tribune. Haroon Siddiqui is The Star's editorial page editor emeritus.
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