Monday, March 5, 2007

Fade to Black and White

Islamic fascists, radical jihadists, extremists, terrorists—these are all terms that our current administration has used to describe the modern “enemy” of the United States. They are shifty and flexible labels that can be manipulated to work well with any political agenda interested in promoting welfare or global polarization. One of the only ways that a president can get a rational majority to support a war is if the enemy is dehumanized. The targets of aggression must not only be identified as a threat, but as faceless demons whose sole purpose is to destroy us. Fear is a powerful tool. It can drive the honest to lie, humble to cast blame, and the nonviolent to strike. The use of this irrational fear is a time tested tactic that has been successfully implemented throughout the years by American presidents in most modern wars. We fought the fascists, the Nazis, the communists, and now we are fighting the terrorists—each enemy more terrifying than its predecessor, each campaign of propaganda more aggressive. History has revealed some of these fears to be justified, while others have been proved to be baseless.

It is vital that citizens and leaders avoid using these blanket terms as an excuse to be lazy. It is easy to tell yourself that our soldiers are dying to defend us from the evil terrorists—to fight for democracy. It is not as easy however, to ask yourself, who are these terrorists? What drives them to such horrible extremes? What would make anyone feel it necessary to attach themselves to a bomb and detonate it, killing themselves and hundreds of innocent people? The government (with the help of the media) makes it easy to just think of them as irrational “evil-doers” who hate freedom and want nothing more than to destroy everything that we love. Is that the truth though? We MUST force ourselves to examine these questions. Why not try to understand what we are doing to radicalize this new generation of terrorists and see what we can do to stop the trend? It is irresponsible for political leaders and citizens alike to ignore this core issue. Ignorance only leads to needless violence.

If you look as what has happened since 9/11 from the standpoint of someone living in any country in the Middle East, it becomes easier to understand what might make people believe that radicalism is a justifiable option. After watching the documentary Why We Fight, you might remember a part of the film that recalled the unifying effect that the attacks had on the world. In Iran, thousands of citizens hit the streets and held candlelight vigils. A stadium of sixty thousand observed a minute of silence for the victims. This was in Iran—a country that we haven’t had a diplomatic relationship with in over twenty-eight years! People of all countries, languages, and beliefs came together to denounce the attacks and support the United States. Bush even acknowledged the demonstrations across the world in his post 9/11 address to the nation. We had the opportunity to mend our reputation throughout the world and become the type of global leader that embraces multilateralism and diplomacy. We finally had a chance to shed the cumbersome skin of imperialism and war mongering by responding in a responsible and rational way a horrible tragedy. Those around Bush must have recognized the opportunity. It’s written all throughout his speech.

In his post 9/11 address, Bush's empty gratitude is immediately undercut by the harsh and egotistical tone that the world would soon grow very accustomed to, revealing his true message. In a showing of Texas arrogance and pride, his underlying point was simple and loud: someone must pay. He used America at its most vulnerable period and turned grief into rage—thoughts of compassion were turned into thoughts of revenge. He manipulated the masses and stirred us into such a frenzy of blind vengeance and blood lust that we didn’t care who was bombed, so long as they looked like the 19 hijackers. He insisted that our “grief [had] turned to anger” and “whether we [brought] our enemies to justice, or [brought] justice to our enemies, justice [would] be done.” It’s all frighteningly Shakespearean and unthinkably irresponsible in hindsight (seriously, read the speech), but at the time, we swallowed every twisted word he spat at us, and for that, we are just as responsible as he.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world began to recoil as the administration’s propaganda and military machines flexed their grotesque muscles. It wasn’t the act of invading Afghanistan, but the arrogance with which we did it—and everyone knew that was just the beginning. Then came the unilateral and reckless campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. To those in the Middle East, it must have seemed as if the administration set up a map of their region and started throwing darts. In his speeches, Bush made it clear that any of the “60 countries” harboring terrorists could be a target. He chose intimidation instead of diplomacy. Rumsfeld seized his opportunity to show off his sophisticated “shock and awe” strategy of precision bombing and small ground forces. Cheney seized his opportunity to get the American public to buy into the idea of preemptive warfare. Fight them over there, before they get a chance to get us over here. If Iraq went as planned, he knew he would have a blank check to “democratize” any Middle Eastern country he wanted to. The result of the combination of these visions put into action: the world had become utterly terrified of the United States just two short years after they were willing to support her in any way necessary.

Now, think about this: if the United States can convince its own citizens to rationalize preemption, why wouldn’t it make sense for citizens of countries living in the Middle East to take preemptive action against us? If we looked at the situation objectively, wouldn’t we expect to create more terrorists by invading a country for reasons that still remain unclear? After all, Bush did make it a point to insist to the world that “our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” Bush was to pursue terrorists at any cost: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” If I lived anywhere within a thousand miles of Baghdad, I’d be scared. Not only are the actual countries under attack, but their culture and religion as well. The word Islam was mixed with the word terrorist like the two were synonymous. How can we expect any self-respecting Muslim to be with us after all of this?

So, Bush’s counterparts, the bin Ladins out there, used his logic. They agreed—if you aren’t with the Americans, you are with the terrorists. They also used Cheney’s ideas of preemption. They told the young and impressionable that they must fight a holy war and defend Islam from the Americans. Fight them over there, before they get a chance to get you where your family lives. It was just as easy for them to demonize us. They said, look at what happened in Iraq. Look at how they allow and support Israel as it occupies territories in Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. Look at how they try to spread their ideology to other countries using force. Then, once they have them, they use these young men and women as human bombs to kill innocent people.

Besides the reaction of the terrorists, the problem with a Bush’s simplistic reaction to the 9/11 attacks is that he made it impossible for the rest of the world to support us. And after Iraq, he made it impossible for the world to trust us. It doesn’t bother me that his administration no longer has credibility in the United States, but it does bother me that our country no longer has credibility in the world. Bush represented us poorly. He gave the world an ultimatum and it backfired.

Now, we as the citizens of the United States have an obligation to fix the mess Bush created. We must demand that our politicians look into the true issues that have led to the rise of radicalism. We must demand that they begin to mend our broken relationship with the people of the world. There are other ways to fight terrorism that do not involve bombs and threats. We must start listening to the objective voices of academia instead of the biased and misguided voices of the media. We must not get pulled into the idea that we good and they are evil. We must set an example of peace and tolerance because we are the most powerful democracy in the world and people will notice. We must stop giving the bin Ladins ammunition necessary to convert more young men and women into extremists. We must not allow ourselves to lazily fade into the blind generalizations of a black and white world, because there is no such thing.