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Enemies, Both Foreign and Domestic:
The Limits of Revenge and Rhetoric

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September 17, 2001

By Tim Wise

Well, it looks as if the good people of the rural U.S. should be breathing a sigh of relief right about now. After all, with the President and most Americans itching to bomb any place where terrorists might be hiding, one can only imagine the kind of wrath that would have been brought down upon the heads of folks in Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming or Mississippi had last week's hijackers been white boys with crew-cuts, like Tim McVeigh.

All this talk I keep hearing of "Kill the Arabs," "carpet bomb ‘em back into the stone age," or "get the ragheads" would have to have been replaced with "Kill the Crackers," "bomb ‘em back to the ‘Dust Bowl,’" and "get the trailer trash."

But the fact is, we all know that such a scenario would never have transpired, and not because white boys aren’t capable of inflicting mass death. They certainly are. McVeigh proved that, if for some folks Hitler, Stalin, Andrew Jackson, Lyndon Johnson and Dick Nixon weren’t sufficient to make the case. But rather, because the folks who are so quick to collectivize the responsibility and the payback when the perps are dark-skinned or "foreign," are just as quick not to do so when white boys are the ones committing mass murder or engaging in terroristic activities. In the wake of Oklahoma City, none of the people who are now calling for war against Afghanistan even suggested targeting white supremacist groups and militias for destruction, let alone bombing the cornfields of "middle America" in the hopes of taking out a few anti-government types.

Bottom line: enemies who look different, speak a different language, or practice a different religion are lots easier to view as the "other." As somehow cutoff from the common humanity of which we consider ourselves a part. And so we speak now of killing Arabs indiscriminately, of not differentiating between the guilty and the innocent (ironically, the precise mentality of whomever carried out last week’s attacks), and winning a war, which we claim has been officially engaged. But we would have said none of these things had the perpetrators been internal extremists. We said none of these things about those who fit the descriptions of Tim McVeigh, or Terry Nichols. We would never have heard columnists calling for profiling of white men, the way that reactionary crank and wanna-be pin-up girl of the right, Ann Coulter, called for the same against Arabs and Muslims this week.

Actually, that wasn’t all she said: she also opined that it should be the role of the United States to invade "their" countries, kill "their" leaders, and "convert them to Christianity." If these were the words of an Imam, calling for the forced conversion of Southern Baptists to Islam, we would call them the fanatical ramblings of a jihad-happy madman. But when the fashion-conscious and attractive (though clearly Snickers-deprived) Coulter says it, she finds mass support for her nuttiness, gets her call for a new round of Crusades published on the website of the National Review, and will remain a regular commentator for such paragons of journalistic virtue as Fox News.

So too Jerry Falwell, who for some unknown reason people still take seriously despite his penchant for committing random acts of serial stupidity. His latest? Laying the blame for the attacks on New York and DC at the feet of the ACLU (for "throwing God out of the schools"), "the abortionists" ("because God will not be mocked"), as well as "pagans," "feminists," and "the gays and lesbians." After offering this truly maniacal glob of pedantic crap, Falwell’s partner in fundamentalist lunacy, Pat Robertson, chimed in to blame "pornography on the internet," abortion, and the removal of the ten commandments from courthouses. God, according to these twin towers of intellectual mendacity and biblically bankrupt spirituality, is "lifting his protection from us," as our comeuppance for secular humanism.

It makes me think back to what Barry Goldwater said about Falwell in 1981, when the rotund little preacher asked all "good Americans" to rise up in opposition to the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court (since, after all, the Court was no place for a lady). "All good Americans,’ Goldwater intoned, ‘should rise up and give Jerry Falwell a kick in the ass." Precisely, and now two decades overdue.

Funny how all the discussion of religious fanaticism among certain followers of Islam has led us to overlook the fanaticism of certain Christians who are now calling for blood. One has to imagine that if Jesus was here today they would call him a "pussy" for all that "turn the other cheek" stuff. And while I can’t answer the question that many followers of Christ ask when they wear their "What Would Jesus Do?" armbands, I feel pretty confident that I know what he wouldn’t do. He wouldn’t be saying things like: "let’s shove a couple dozen cruise missiles up their ass," or going out and spraypainting "F--k Islam" on mosques, or screaming about the "sand niggers" while guzzling beer at some sports bar. And for that matter, he wouldn’t be standing around chanting "U.S.A, U.S.A." at a memorial service, in an attempt to turn it into a jingoistic pep rally.

The events of the past week have brought out the best in people and the worst: on the one hand, the rescue workers, diligently seeking for any signs of life amidst perhaps a million tons of rubble; yet, on the other, the cacophony of voices calling for revenge. Oh sure, they insist it isn’t about that, but rather, "justice." They insist they want more than merely the continued spilling of blood, and that striking back has more purpose than merely proving how tough we are. But ask them what that purpose is, and how they think massive military retaliation can actually make us more safe, to say nothing of the safety of others the world over, and their faces go blank, or become contorted with anger, as they shout: "well, we have to do something. We can’t just sit here and let them get away with it!"

But "doing something" is not a valid pretext for unleashing war. And justice requires that we carefully consider the difference between responsible parties and innocent ones. Just as one would not think it "just" to level an entire neighborhood in search of one serial killer who might be living in the area, so too is it unjust to speak of turning much of the Arab world into a parking lot, in search of the few persons actually behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Not only would such a disproportionate response be morally suspect, it would be irresponsible from a security perspective as well. It would leave us all less safe, as millions more in the Arab world came to see the U.S. as a bully, unconcerned about innocent lives, Muslim holy sites, or world peace. And ten years hence, or maybe less, they would understandably retaliate in kind. What is most ironic about all of this, is that such a scenario--the West and Islam locked in mortal combat--is exactly what the Osama bin Ladens of the world have always wanted. It is a trap. A trap rejected by the vast majority of Arabs, and of Muslims wherever they may be, but one in which they too will be caught up if we take the bait.

It’s really quite simple: we couldn’t kill all of "them" even if doing so was ethically acceptable, which of course it isn’t. And those who don’t die, who would look around and see their nations leveled, their houses gone, their family members incinerated, would at that point most certainly feel that they had nothing to lose by getting even. And there is no more dangerous member of any society than the one who thinks he has nothing to lose. Desperation doesn’t make for very sound judgment, whether the desperation of the immiserated in the so-called third world, or that of the most powerful, and yet often least original people on the planet.

And so what does that leave us with? The fact is, I don’t know. And neither do you. And why we can’t just say that, admit our frailties and uncertainties and ignorance, is beyond me. That we demand quick and easy answers is indicative of our cultural attachment to instant gratification: got a headache, take an aspirin; overweight, get liposuction; upset about something, take Prozac. Don’t think, don’t analyze, just do it. It is Nike slogan as national mantra. And it is the prelude to international slaughter.

No wonder so much of the world looks at America with contempt and at Americans as spoiled children. First, we train terrorists the world over, including bin Laden, because we had to "get the commies" at all costs, even if it meant supporting dictators, fundamentalists, and murderers. Then we support corrupt and brutal regimes that trample the rights of their citizens. Then we fund and support an illegal occupation of Palestinian land, and contribute to the deaths of a million or more in Iraq from bombing and sanctions. Then, we exhibit our arrogance by withdrawing from international treaties and forums when the going gets tough or issues get raised that we don’t want to discuss.

This is not to say that any of these things, no matter how irresponsible or even criminal warrant an act the likes of what we saw September 11th. But there is something to be said for understanding why no one likes you. If all the other kids in the sandbox think you’re a thug and a bully, then after a while you’d best stop trying to beat them all into submission, or thinking that they are the problem, and instead, begin to turn some of that analysis inward. That’s what you would do, anyway, if you wanted to actually get to the bottom of the conflict on the playground. If, on the other hand, your main concern were showing what a badass you were, then maybe this wouldn’t matter much to you at all. And in that case, you would set out to show those other kids who was boss, who was king of the hill. You would continue to provoke them, to attack them, and then act shocked when they hit back.

That kind of behavior is unbecoming enough when children engage in it. When adults with explosives do it, the immature becomes deadly. This is no game. There is no "winner" despite the blustery rhetoric of our frat-boy-in-chief. And unless we begin to fundamentally alter the way we as a nation operate around the world, we are in for many years of violence, and counterviolence, and empty platitudes, and flag waving, and body bags. And if that happens, it won’t merely be the fault of those who attack us from outside, but also the fault of those who were the enemies of justice, equality, and peace on the inside of the American empire. There will be more than enough blame to go around.

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