Confronting the Terrorist Within
The Hindu-Muslim communal violence that led to the attacks in Mumbai, as well as the warnings that the New York City transit system may have been targeted by al-Qaida, are one form of terrorism. There are other forms.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when viewed from the receiving end, are state-sponsored acts of terrorism. These wars defy every ethical and legal code that seek to determine when a nation can wage war, from Just War Theory to the statutes of international law largely put into place by the United States after World War II. These wars are criminal wars of aggression. They have left hundreds of thousands of people, who never took up arms against us, dead and seen millions driven from their homes. We have no right as a nation to debate the terms of these occupations. And an Afghan villager, burying members of his family’s wedding party after an American airstrike, understands in a way we often do not that terrorist attacks can also be unleashed from the arsenals of an imperial power.
Barack Obama’s decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan and leave behind tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines in Iraq — he promises only to withdraw combat brigades — is a failure to rescue us from the status of a rogue nation. It codifies Bush’s “war on terror.” And the continuation of these wars will corrupt and degrade our nation just as the long and brutal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank has corrupted and degraded Israel. George W. Bush has handed Barack Obama a poisoned apple. Obama has bitten it.
The invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were our response to feelings of vulnerability and collective humiliation after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They were a way to exorcise through reciprocal violence what had been done to us.
Collective humiliation is also the driving force behind al-Qaida and most terrorist groups. Osama bin Laden cites the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which led to the carving up of the Ottoman Empire, as the beginning of Arab humiliation. He attacks the agreement for dividing the Muslim world into “fragments.” He rails against the presence of American troops on the soil of his native Saudi Arabia. The dark motivations of Islamic extremists mirror our own.
Robert Pape in “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” found that most suicide bombers are members of communities that feel humiliated by genuine or perceived occupation. Almost every major suicide-terrorist campaign — over 95 percent — carried out attacks to drive out an occupying power. This was true in Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Chechnya and Kashmir, as well as Israel and the Palestinian territories. The large number of Saudis among the 9/11 hijackers appears to support this finding.
A militant who phoned an Indian TV station from the Jewish center in Mumbai during the recent siege offered to talk with the government for the release of hostages. He complained about army abuses in Kashmir, where ruthless violence has been used to crush a Muslim insurgency. “Ask the government to talk to us and we will release the hostages,” he said, speaking in Urdu with what sounded like a Kashmiri accent.
“Are you aware how many people have been killed in Kashmir? Are you aware how your army has killed Muslims? Are you aware how many of them have been killed in Kashmir this week?” he asked.
Terrorists, many of whom come from the middle class, support acts of indiscriminate violence not because of direct, personal affronts to their dignity, but more often for lofty, abstract ideas of national, ethnic or religious pride and the establishment of a utopian, harmonious world purged of evil. The longer the United States occupies Afghanistan and Iraq, the more these feelings of collective humiliation are aggravated and the greater the number of jihadists willing to attack American targets.
We have had tens of thousands of troops stationed in the Middle East since 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The presence of these troops is the main appeal, along with the abuse meted out to the Palestinians by Israel, of bin Laden and al-Qaida. Terrorism, as Pape wrote, “is not a supply-limited phenomenon where there are just a few hundred around the world willing to do it because they are religious fanatics. It is a demand-driven phenomenon. That is, it is driven by the presence of foreign forces on the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. The operation in Iraq has stimulated suicide terrorism and has given suicide terrorism a new lease on life.”
The decision by the incoming Obama administration to embrace an undefined, amorphous “war on terror” will keep us locked in a war without end. This war has no clear definition of victory, unless victory means the death or capture of every terrorist on earth — an impossibility. It is a frightening death spiral. It feeds on itself. The concept of a “war on terror” is no less apocalyptic or world-purifying than the dreams and fantasies of terrorist groups like al-Qaida.
The vain effort to purify the world through force is always self-defeating. Those who insist that the world can be molded into their vision are the most susceptible to violence as antidote. The more uncertainty, fear and reality impinge on this utopian vision, the more strident, absolutist and aggressive are those who call for the eradication of “the enemy.” Immanuel Kant called absolute moral imperatives that are used to carry out immoral acts “a radical evil.” He wrote that this kind of evil was always a form of unadulterated self-love. It was the worst type of self-deception. It provided a moral façade for terror and murder. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a “radical evil.”The tactic of suicide bombing, equated by many in the United States with Islam, did not arise from the Muslim world. It had its roots in radical Western ideologies, especially Leninism, not religion. And it was the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist group that draws its support from the Hindu families of the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka, who invented the suicide vest for their May 1991 suicide assassination of Rajiv Ghandi.
Suicide bombing is what you do when you do not have artillery or planes or missiles and you want to create maximum terror for an occupying power. It was used by secular anarchists in the 19th and early 20th centuries, who bequeathed to us the first version of the car bomb — a horse-drawn wagon laden with explosives that was ignited on Sept. 16, 1920, on Wall Street. The attack was carried out by an Italian immigrant named Mario Buda in protest over the arrest of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. It left 40 people dead and wounded more than 200.
Suicide bombing was adopted later by Hezbollah, al-Qaida and Hamas. But even in the Middle East, suicide bombing is not restricted to Muslims. In Lebanon, during the attacks in the 1980s against French, American and Israeli targets, only eight suicide bombings were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. Twenty-seven were the work of communists and socialists. Christians were responsible for three.
The dehumanization of Muslims and the willful ignorance of the traditions and culture of the Islamic world reflect our nation’s disdain for self-reflection and self-examination. It allows us to exalt in the illusion of our own moral and cultural superiority. The world is far more complex than our childish vision of good and evil. We as a nation and a culture have no monopoly on virtue. We carry within us the same propensities for terror as those we oppose.
The Muslim Indian Emperor Akbar at the end of the 16th century filled his court with philosophers, mystics and religious scholars, including Sunni, Sufi and Shiite Muslims, Hindu followers of Shiva and Vishnu, as well as atheists, Christians, Jains, Jews, Buddhists and Zoroastrians. They debated ethics and belief. Akbar was one of the great champions of religious dialogue and tolerance. He forbade any person to be discriminated against on the basis of belief. He declared that everyone was free to follow any religion. His enlightened rule took place as the Inquisition was at its height in Spain and Portugal, and in Rome the philosopher Giordano Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Campo de’ Fiori for heresy.
Tolerance, as well as religious and political plurality, is not exclusive to Western culture. The Judeo-Christian tradition was born and came to life in the Middle East. Its intellectual and religious beliefs were cultivated and formed in cities such as Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople. Many of the greatest tenets of Western civilization, as is true with Islam and Buddhism, are Eastern in origin. Our concept of the rule of law and freedom of expression, the invention of printing, paper, the book, as well as the translation and dissemination of the classical Greek philosophers, algebra, geometry and universities were given to us by the Islamic world. The first law code was invented by the ancient Iraqi ruler Hammurabi. One of the first known legal protections of basic freedoms and equality was promulgated in the third century B.C. by the Buddhist Indian Emperor Ashoka. And, unlike Aristotle, he insisted on equal rights for women and slaves.
The East and the West do not have separate, competing value systems. We do not treat life with greater sanctity than those we belittle. There are aged survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki who can tell us something about our high moral values and passionate concern for innocent human life, about our own acts of terrorism. Eastern and Western traditions have within them varied ethical systems, some of which are repugnant and some of which are worth emulating. To hold up the highest ideals of our own culture and to deny that these great ideals exist in other cultures, especially Eastern cultures, is made possible only by historical and cultural illiteracy.
The civilization we champion and promote as superior is, in fact, a product of the fusion of traditions and beliefs of the Orient and the Occident. We advance morally and intellectually when we cross these cultural lines, when we use the lens of other cultures to examine our own. The remains of villages destroyed by our bombs, the dead killed from our munitions, leave us too with bloody hands. We can build a new ethic only when we face our complicity in the cycle of violence and terror.
The fantasy of an enlightened West that spreads civilization to a savage world of religious fanatics is not supported by history. The worst genocides and slaughters of the last century were perpetrated by highly industrialized nations. Muslims, including Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, have a long way to go before they reach the body count of the secular regimes of the Nazis, the Soviet Union or the Chinese communists. It was, in fact, the Muslim-led government in Bosnia that protected minorities during the war while the Serbian Orthodox Christians carried out mass executions, campaigns of genocide and ethnic cleansing that left 250,000 dead.
Those who externalize evil and seek to eradicate that evil through violence lose touch with their own humanity and the humanity of others. They cannot make moral distinctions. They are blind to their own moral corruption. In the name of civilization and high ideals, in the name of reason and science, they become monsters. We will never free ourselves from the self-delusion of the “war on terror” until we first vanquish the terrorist within.
Chris Hedges’ Truthdig column appears on Mondays. Hedges was Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times.