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

Blaming the victims

Jonathan Freedland
September 19, 2001

The cruellest, sickest response to the calamity of September 11 has come from 
an unexpected quarter. Not from America's traditional enemies, but from within.
Voiced not by Muslim radicals consumed with hatred for the Great Satan, but by 
two self-styled American super-patriots.

Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the grand old men of America's Christian right,
were swift to tell Americans who was to blame. "The abortionists have got to 
bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked," Falwell, onetime 
leader of the Moral Majority, told Robertson as they sat together on the 
latter's Christian Broadcasting Network. "I really believe that the pagans and 
the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians... I point the 
finger in their face and say: 'You helped this happen'."

Of all the multiple uglinesses of that diatribe, perhaps the worst is Falwell's
cardinal moral error, blaming the victims. Most people know that, when a woman 
is raped or an ethnic minority is persecuted, there is nothing more insidious 
than asking questions about the prior conduct of those who suffered. It implies
a causal connection: you behaved like this and that was the result. It says, you
had it coming. We can see the horror of that suggestion when it comes from the 
likes of Falwell and Robertson. But we may not be so vigilant when those we 
admire on the liberal left edge close to the same, victim-blaming terrain. For 
just as the televangelists held America responsible for last week's American 
tragedy, so have a procession of progressive luminaries and their supporters
(including on these pages) - albeit for radically different reasons.

To the audience of last week's Question Time, for example, it was not America's
permissiveness toward abortion and gay rights that was the problem, but US 
foreign policy in the Middle East and the developing world. Of course the 
former view is bonkers while the latter has logic and considerable evidence on 
its side. Even so, the anger, self-righteousness and sheer insensitivity 
directed at America has been a match for the callousness of those TV preachers.
Glance at the New Statesman editorial this week, which asks whether the 
Americans incinerated in the World Trade Centre were "as innocent and as 
undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or Iraqi peasants" and answers, "Well, yes 
and no."

The offensiveness here rests on three counts. First, the timing stinks. Only 
hours after the catastrophe, surely it was time to do what most Britons were 
doing: standing in the shoes of the bereaved. The immediate aftermath of the 
attack felt like a moment for mourning, reflection and grief. Those first, 
dazed days were not the right time for a searching analysis of US foreign 
policy - let alone for a finger wagged in the face of the American people, 
telling them they are loathed the world over.

The second, related offence was tone. Almost any argument can be made without 
lapsing into bad taste - but one needs to keep an ear especially open to 
language when the rubble is still smouldering and more than 5,000 loved ones 
are still missing. Too many on the left forgot the first task of the 
progressive: to feel compassion for their fellow human being. The vitriol 
hurled at Americans, even while they still wept, should be a source of shame. 
The line between explaining an atrocity, which is an essential task, and 
excusing it is fuzzy and requires vigilant policing - a vigilance lacking these
last few days.

But the most serious flaw in this "blame America" critique is its substance. 
It's not that the US record abroad is not filled with appalling atrocities - 
coups planned and executed, whole continents destabilised, vile regimes propped
up. But the claim that it is these specifics which have driven the Islamic world
insane with rage is shaky at best.

Take the first two charges on the anti-American rap sheet: the decade-long US 
war on Iraq and the US military presence in Saudi Arabia. They sound like 
convincing provocations until one remembers that America was branded the Great 
Satan long before either development: the stars and stripes were burned and US 
embassy officials taken hostage in Tehran 22 years ago. Also: if the US army's 
presence in Saudi Arabia so incenses Islamic fundamentalists then why do they 
never target the Saudi royal family, which invited the Americans in as 
protectors against Saddam Hussein in the first place? Nor do these advocates 
ever address those bits of the US record which don't fit the 
America-against-Islam thesis. The Americans intervened twice in the Balkans in 
the last decade - both times on the side of Muslims who faced ethnic cleansing.
(When the US did that, incidentally, the same crowd opposed them then, too.)

Above all, we're told, it is American support for Israel which so enrages the 
developing world. Yet that argument hardly seems to stack up. It was George 
Bush Sr who took the hardest line on Israel - denying $10bn of loan guarantees 
in pursuit of a freeze on settlement activity - and yet he was as hated across 
the Middle East as any other US president.

No, there is a naivete in all these attempts to explain the fury that burst 
forth on September 11. They seem to suggest that if only the US pursued a 
different foreign policy, the hijackers would never have boarded those planes. 
Yet if Washington dropped the sanctions against Baghdad and pulled out of Saudi
tomorrow, would it really make any difference? Wouldn't the hatreds on display 
in Iran in 1979 still be there?

Equally, would a change of tack on Israel really alter much? The commentators 
may believe it is US support for Israel's 34-year-old occupation of the West 
Bank and Gaza that so angers Islamic fundamentalists. But, once again, they are
naive. Last Tuesday's hijackers and the people who inspire them are not opposed 
to the post-1967 occupation: they are opposed to Israel's very existence, which
they regard as an alien Jewish incursion into what should be Muslim lands. Only 
American support for that position - total eradication of the Jewish state - 
would begin to placate them.

There is a kind of comfort in imagining the fault for last Tuesday lies in 
America's hands, because so then does the solution. That was Falwell's gospel 
and it is the New Statesman's too. The US merely has to shake off its evil ways
and all will be well. But this is a false comfort. The harsher truth may be that
America's offence consists of things it cannot do much to alter: its wealth, its
modernity, its centrality in the global capitalist order, its brash westernness,
its existence as an opposite pole to everything fundamentalist Islam stands for.
Sure, it could tweak its foreign policy and it would be cosy to think that would
prevent future atrocities. But the scarier truth might be that America is hated 
just for itself. And there is little it can do about that.

Progressives need to recognise this, and tone down the anti-American invective,
if they are to make headway in the struggle to come. We may well want to 
challenge a wrong-headed response to September 11, should President Bush stick 
to his "wanted dead-or-alive" and "crusade" rhetoric and make a dangerous move.
But mainstream US ears will be closed to our pleas if we can be dismissed as 
callous critics who were never capable of sympathy, only blame.