After the assassination of John F. Kennedy é before today, the most traumatic event for Americans in my lifetime é Malcolm X said “the chickens have come home to roost.” Malcolm was reportedly gleeful and rancorous, and his audience laughed at his words: he meant to convey that Kennedy’s death meant very little, compared to what whites had done to his people. But the phrase would not be inappropriate today é if said in sorrow é after thousands of innocents were killed in the worst terrorist assault in American history.
Whether the World Trade Center perpetrator is Osama Bin Laden, or one of countless Arab or Muslim subgroups, we should not have any doubt: this attack was welcomed in much of the Arab and Muslim world. Palestinian leaders may have given it pro-forma condemnation, but the people on the Arab “street” were smiling and flashing “V” signs when they heard the news.
Before Americans set their sights on revenge, (and revenge is expected, and necessary) they should at least understand why this attack delighted many, why United States foreign policy makes it hated in much of the world.
The reasons were spelled out in part last month by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak‘s foreign policy advisor Osama Baz. He came to Washington carrying the urgent message from the Arab world’s most populous state: the United States would face mounting rage in the Middle East unless it did something to diffuse the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He was received politely by Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice and otherwise more or less ignored. A month before, Senator George Mitchell‘s carefully modulated plan for a Middle East cease-fire, which incorporated a freeze on new Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, had been allowed to die on the vine after Israel said no dice to a settlement freeze. America’s unanimously pro-Israel pundit class paid no heed to Baz’s visit, instead using their columns to shill for an Israeli military reoccupation of the West Bank, supposedly to solve Israel’s terror problem once and for all.
But the United States, supplier of the tanks and helicopters and rockets which Israel uses to control the West Bank and assassinate the odd Palestinian leader, cannot opt out of the Middle East peace process. By its large scale arms shipments and financial subsidies to Israel, it is already engaged. It is a key partner. The Oslo Peace process has aroused Palestinian hopes for a viable state, and one can’t imagine that they would relinquish them now. In his attempted mediations, Bill Clinton eloquently gave voice to the reasonable core of Palestinian aspirations. Now George Bush, whose knowledge of the Middle East seems little deeper than what he picked up from a ride with Ariel Sharon on a helicopter, has decided to snub the Arab world.
Israel and Palestine is not the only issue which arouses Arab rancor. The embargo on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, organized and led by the United States, and now ten years old, is responsible, UN officials estimate, for the death of more than half a million Iraqi children. Saddam Hussein é one of the world’s cruelest tyrants, bears no small measure of responsibility for the current horror in Iraq. But while American policies have left him in power, they have done grievous harm Iraq’s weakest, the old, the sick, the very young. Americans don’t read or hear much of this é it is not on their front pages or TV screens. But there now must be at least tens of thousands of Iraqi parents who know that their children are dead because of the American embargo. It creates a sentiment é now widespread throughout the Middle East é which allows for the perpetrators of today’s horrific deeds to be recruited.
America’s airwaves are alive now with ordinary people calling for vengeance against this most vile of attacks. I don’t feel differently, and if I had lost a loved one, would volunteer for a revenge mission myself. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves about why there is so much hatred for the United States. It does not come out of the clear blue. It is not because we represent freedom and virtue and light, while the Arabs stand for darkness and repression. American culture may represent something corrosive and immoral to certain Islamic sensibilities é that can’t be helped. But that is not what provokes suicide bombers. American policies often kill, directly and indirectly é and this is why people are willing to sacrifice themselves to kill us in return.