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What is an appropropriate response?
Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center

Islam and the West are inadequate banners

The United States may too often have failed to look outside but it is 
depressing how little time is spent trying to understand America

Edward Said
The Observer
September 16, 2001

Spectacular horror of the sort that struck New York (and to a lesser 
degree Washington) has ushered in a new world of unseen, unknown 
assailants, terror missions without political message, senseless 

For the residents of this wounded city, the consternation, fear, and 
sustained sense of outrage and shock will certainly continue for a long 
time, as will the genuine sorrow and affliction that so much carnage has 
so cruelly imposed on so many.

New Yorkers have been fortunate that Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a normally 
rebarbative and unpleasantly combative, even retrograde figure, has 
rapidly attained Churchillian status. Calmly, unsentimentally, and with 
extraordinary compassion, he has marshalled the city's heroic police, fire
and emergency services to admirable effect and, alas, with huge loss of 
life. Giuliani's was the first voice of caution against panic and 
jingoistic attacks on the city's large Arab and Muslim communities, the 
first to express the commonsense of anguish, the first to press everyone 
to try to resume life after the shattering blows.

Would that that were all. The national television reporting has of course 
brought the horror of those dreadful winged juggernauts into every 
household, unremittingly, insistently, not always edifyingly. Most 
commentary has stressed, indeed magnified, the expected and the 
predictable in what most Americans feel: terrible loss, anger, outrage, a 
sense of violated vulnerability, a desire for vengeance and un-restrained 
retribution. Beyond formulaic expressions of grief and patriotism, every 
politician and accredited pundit or expert has dutifully repeated how we 
shall not be defeated, not be deterred, not stop until terrorism is 
exterminated. This is a war against terrorism, everyone says, but where, 
on what fronts, for what concrete ends? No answers are provided, except 
the vague suggestion that the Middle East and Islam are what 'we' are up 
against, and that terrorism must be destroyed.

What is most depressing, however, is how little time is spent trying to 
understand America's role in the world, and its direct involvement in the 
complex reality beyond the two coasts that have for so long kept the rest 
of the world extremely distant and virtually out of the average American's
mind. You'd think that 'America' was a sleeping giant rather than a 
superpower almost constantly at war, or in some sort of conflict, all over
the Islamic domains. Osama bin Laden's name and face have become so 
numbingly familiar to Americans as in effect to obliterate any his tory he
and his shadowy followers might have had before they became stock symbols 
of everything loathsome and hateful to the collective imagination. 
Inevitably, then, collective passions are being funnelled into a drive for
war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick, rather 
than what is going on, an imperial power injured at home for the first 
time, pursuing its interests systematically in what has become a suddenly 
reconfigured geography of conflict, without clear borders, or visible 
actors. Manichaean symbols and apocalyptic scenarios are bandied about 
with future consequences and rhetorical restraint thrown to the winds.

Rational understanding of the situation is what is needed now, not more 
drum-beating. George Bush and his team clearly want the latter, not the 
former. Yet to most people in the Islamic and Arab worlds the official US 
is synonymous with arrogant power, known for its sanctimoniously 
munificent support not only of Israel but of numerous repressive Arab 
regimes, and its inattentiveness even to the possibility of dialogue with 
secular movements and people who have real grievances. Anti-Americanism in
this context is not based on a hatred of modernity or technology-envy: it 
is based on a narrative of concrete interventions, specific depredations 
and, in the cases of the Iraqi people's suffering under US-imposed 
sanctions and US support for the 34-year-old Israeli occupation of 
Palestinian territories. Israel is now cynically exploiting the American 
catastrophe by intensifying its military occupation and oppression of the 
Palestinians. Political rhetoric in the US has overridden these things by 
flinging about words like 'terrorism' and 'freedom' whereas, of course, 
such large abstractions have mostly hidden sordid material interests, the 
influence of the oil, defence and Zionist lobbies now consolidating their 
hold on the entire Middle East, and an age-old religious hostility to (and
ignorance of) 'Islam' that takes new forms every day.

Intellectual responsibility, however, requires a still more critical sense
of the actuality. There has been terror of course, and nearly every 
struggling modern movement at some stage has relied on terror. This was as
true of Mandela's ANC as it was of all the others, Zionism included. And 
yet bombing defenceless civilians with F-16s and helicopter gunships has 
the same structure and effect as more conventional nationalist terror.

What is bad about all terror is when it is attached to religious and 
political abstractions and reductive myths that keep veering away from 
history and sense. This is where the secular consciousness has to try to 
make itself felt, whether in the US or in the Middle East. No cause, no 
God, no abstract idea can justify the mass slaughter of innocents, most 
particularly when only a small group of people are in charge of such 
actions and feel themselves to represent the cause without having a real 
mandate to do so.

Besides, much as it has been quarrelled over by Muslims, there isn't a 
single Islam: there are Islams, just as there are Americas. This diversity
is true of all traditions, religions or nations even though some of their 
adherents have futiley tried to draw boundaries around themselves and pin 
their creeds down neatly. Yet history is far more complex and 
contradictory than to be represented by demagogues who are much less 
representative than either their followers or opponents claim. The trouble
with religious or moral fundamentalists is that today their primitive ideas
of revolution and resistance, including a willingness to kill and be killed,
seem all too easily attached to technological sophistication and what 
appear to be gratifying acts of horrifying retaliation. The New York and 
Washington suicide bombers seem to have been middle-class, educated men, 
not poor refugees. Instead of getting a wise leadership that stresses 
education, mass mobilisation and patient organisation in the service of a 
cause, the poor and the desperate are often conned into the magical 
thinking and quick bloody solutions that such appalling models pro vide, 
wrapped in lying religious claptrap.

On the other hand, immense military and economic power are no guarantee of
wisdom or moral vision. Sceptical and humane voices have been largely 
unheard in the present crisis, as 'America' girds itself for a long war to
be fought somewhere out there, along with allies who have been pressed into
service on very uncertain grounds and for imprecise ends. We need to step 
back from the imaginary thresholds that separate people from each other 
and re-examine the labels, reconsider the limited resources available, 
decide to share our fates with each other as cultures mostly have done, 
despite the bellicose cries and creeds.

'Islam' and 'the West' are simply inadequate as banners to follow blindly.
Some will run behind them, but for future generations to condemn themselves
to prolonged war and suffering without so much as a critical pause, without
looking at interdependent histories of injustice and oppression, without 
trying for common emancipation and mutual enlightenment seems far more 
wilful than necessary. Demonisation of the Other is not a sufficient basis
for any kind of decent politics, certainly not now when the roots of terror
in injustice can be addressed, and the terrorists isolated, deterred or put
out of business. It takes patience and education, but is more worth the 
investment than still greater levels of large-scale violence and suffering.