Friday, March 17, 2006

The Real Secret of September 11

Even the families of Americans fallen in the suicide attacks of September 11 are wondering out loud what is really being hidden behind the smokescreen of Carla Martin, 51, the Transportation Security Administration attorney who has come close -- on purpose? -- to torpedoing the sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th conspirator in the tragic events.

That's not the real secret of September 11. Of course, the government knew. Of course, Bush became giddy enough in September 2001 at the prospect of uncontested political war power to joke to Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels like a college boy, "Lucky me. I hit the trifecta." (See Daniels' White House statement.)

We know this.

The real secret of September 11 is that Osama bin Laden has a point or three -- regardless of the obviously wrongheaded way he's gone about advancing them.

By "Osama," I mean to represent not merely one man, but the broad stream of Arab opinion that supports, in at least some vague fashion, what the man is to them.

A 2004 Pew Charitable Trust survey found that Osama is viewed favorably by large percentages in Pakistan (65%), Jordan (55%) and Morocco (45%). In Turkey as many as 31% say that suicide attacks against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq are justifiable, and that's a third of the public in a wannabe member of the European Union.

Let's be clear about this. These people are not stupid. They have reasons for feeling the way they do that make sense to them.

They see the effects of Western culture as it corrupts their societies. The poverty of the Palestinians next to the relative wealth of the Israelis who displaced them. The impunity with which U.S. troops sexually harass Arab women (and even men).

Osama bin Laden's famous 1998 fatwa against Americans fell on deaf ears in the West, but it made perfect sense to his audience. The charge?

"... [F]or over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples."

The fatwa goes on to cite the effects of bombing on Iraq -- when we were supposedly no longer at war -- in a tally it gives of 1 million lives. This may be inflated, but even half is ten times all the U.S. casualties n Vietnam. Finally, it cites the U.S. alliance with Israel and its support of the "occupation" of Jerusalem.

Turn it around for a moment. Imagine the Fedayeen in Rome, Canterbury or Jerusalem riding around as conquerors and setting up bases to attack London and New York, killing 500,000 in "collateral" effects of air raids, while remaining allied to the most hated enemy, Osama.

It takes a little imagination because we are so secularized that nothing is "holy" or sacred to us anymore. OK, so imagine the roughest, most dust-covered, bearded Arab ruffian -- a ruffian just as the U.S. Army has had in every war -- setting upon your daughter or your son. Close to home enough?

What doesn't make sense is not their perspective, but ours.

In a recent discussion with a professional who has lived in several continents abroad, I fell into a classic North-South debate -- "North" representing the industrialized First and Second Worlds and "South" the industrializing Third and Fourth. My friend was arguing that Western overseas development assistance makes life "better" abroad.

I countered that "better" is in the eye of the beholder. To Osama's buddies, I added, U.S. plumbing and automobiles comes with the baggage of U.S. culture -- to them, notably the proliferation of pornography, immorality, secularism, homosexuality.

Then my interlocutor, a woman, drew a line in the sand: their oppression of women is unjustifiable.

This reminded me of Vietnam War escalation architect Robert McNamara when, in his role as World Bank president in the late 1960s, he tried to sell the Latin American public on a subsidized birth control campaign. From the U.S. perspective, this seems like bringing "progress." (It's also cheaper than aid.)

But McNamara succeeded as no politician has since, in uniting the Brazilian Catholic bishops with the Communist Party in sheer outrage. The American was seen as proposing genocide.

Similarly, what a professional U.S. woman sees as "oppression" in the Arab World is a way of life whose evolution is best left in the hands of the societies in which it occurs, rather than the arrogant control of Western paternalism. I would not choose that way of life myself, but I am Western.

Also, it's not as if the West is oppression-free or does not exploit women in other areas of the world.

Let's look at the women who pick oranges in Florida and California before we get too outraged at the Arabs. Let's examine the "sex tours" and "foreign bride" businesses, the drug "mules." Let's examine just how many millions of women in the world have seen their families destroyed by Western weapons and greed.

My point is that, precisely because we are empirical-minded and supposedly more democratic, it does not make sense for us to determine a priori that everyone must embrace this or that non-negotiable item of our way of life. Especially when we don't show the guts to stop our own governments from waging war indiscriminately and unjustifiably against their populations.

Until we learn this, we will be stuck in a clash of civilizations that threatens both the West and the Arab World, with the same perversity of the Mutual Assured Destruction equation of the Cold War. The more each of us insists we are correct beyond discussion, the less a chance there is that either will survive.

Let's face it. Sooner or later, al-Qaeda will wipe out half a U.S. city with a dirty bomb or a virus or something even simpler of which no one has thought. And sooner rather than later, the White House will drop The Bomb somewhere in the Arab World in response. Then all bets are off.

As Albert Einstein famously remarked: "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

Is there a way out? Only if we take a good look at the real secret of September 11.
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