12 September 2012

Eleven years on

Eleven years ago, a heinous act of political violence brought to an end the lives of 2,996 people, injured more than 5,000 others and brought down the World Trade Centre. In the wake of that tragedy, much was made of the attempt of America and of the world to make sense of it, as is only natural. I was in New York City yesterday morning, standing inside the Chinese Embassy at 8:46 AM that Tuesday, on a cool, clear morning. I had spent the earlier hours that morning watching television at the Burger King opposite Port Authority on 42nd Street. There were remembrances of the victims and there were a couple of short news features, on the new tower that is being built nearby to replace the WTC in the skyline and on the museum and the reactions from survivors, family members and first responders. In our physical memory, too, we seek to make sense of human evil, to learn something and to draw strength from the wreckage.

The morning after that, I learned that the American embassies in Egypt and Libya had been brutally attacked by angry mobs, resulting in the tragic and needless deaths of four people including the Libyan ambassador, Christopher Stevens. Another heinous waste of life at the hands of violent radicals.

Unfortunately, it seems all too many people on both sides of the political divide seem bent on drawing the wrong conclusions, particularly when those conclusions are politically convenient.

Apparently, the ‘trigger’ for the attacks was a sickeningly Islamophobic YouTube video produced by an Israeli-American property developer who describes Islam as ‘a cancer’. One of the most inappropriate responses to the terrorist attacks of 11 September has been to lash out and vilify an entire religious tradition, much of which abhors political violence, war and terrorism. Reactions like this fail to distinguish the fault-lines within Islam between those who see Islam as a violent, immanently-messianic political movement, and the vast majority who refuse to capitulate to such a flat interpretation (especially the philosophically-inclined, Scholastic and Christian-leaning tendencies noted especially amongst the more thoughtful followers of Ali). Insofar as Islam as such does present a danger to the Western world, it is only because (and only to the extent that) the Western world has abdicated its own Christian, Scholastic philosophical fountainhead, and allowed Islam to articulate another version of the communitarian values we ourselves used to cherish.

More importantly, though, such reactions are puerile, and they stem from the same trolling impulse that leads people to mock and defame the symbols of the Christian Church. If agents provocateur like Sam Bacile, Pim Fortuyn, Geert Wilders and Terry Jones really want to make a point by riling to violence those individuals who are already radical enough to be prone to it, I see no reason they should expect any sympathy from the rest of us when they succeed. Our sympathy belongs with the victims; and our condemnation with the actual perpetrators. Cartoonists, YouTube trolls, Koran-burners and opportunistic politicians who seek to instigate and capitalise on such attacks deserve nothing but our scorn, our disdain and our studied indifference.

Another wrong response to attacks like these is to automatically assume a dualistic, black-and-white view that the world is divided into ‘good guys’ and ‘evildoers’. Well, we obviously didn’t think Osama bin Laden was an ‘evildoer’ when we were supporting and arming him and his followers against the Soviets in Afghanistan, did we? Likewise, in Libya and Egypt. In Libya, we provided armed support to Islamists who had no problem with again subjecting women to polygamy and wife-beating, or with massacring blacks on the suspicion (assiduously encouraged by NATO operatives) that they might be Gadhafi supporters. (Is it any surprise that such people might be upset with a video denigrating Islam? Given that Gadhafi was emphatically not an Islamist but an Arab nationalist, do the new regime and its supporters really expect us to believe that Gadhafi loyalists were behind the attack? Do they take us for idiots? … On second thought, maybe that last question is best left unanswered.)

I believe the appropriate lesson, one which we failed to learn then and are now again suffering from the consequences, is that we need to choose our allies with extreme care. We should craft a foreign policy which enshrines non-interventionist strategies as the norm, and which favours political stability over incidental economic benefit and especially over ideological agreement. As Daniel Larison put it, ‘military interventions don’t necessarily produce gratitude from the people that benefit from them’. Sadly, one of the public faces of our current dysfunctional foreign policy in the Arab world has now had to suffer the highest cost of that ingratitude. Requiescat in pace, Mr Stevens. My condolences and prayers go out to your family, just as they did to the victims of 11 September.

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