The Why Question

In the week following the events of September 11, the powers that be have focused on questions that begin with “how” and “who.” The only people asking “why,” it seems, are those who have lost family and friends. And they are asking the kinds of private, painful questions that nobody can answer: Why my son and not hers, why now, why me? We should join them, because the victims were our people, too, and the tragedy diminishes us all. The first colors displayed in the aftermath should have been black.

Instead they were red, white, and blue, and the time for mourning has been callously shortened by the Bush administration’s hasty call for war. We now have precious little time left to ask the “why” question that should have been asked long ago: Why is the U.S. hated so?

Our leaders have little interest in starting a national dialogue on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. “America was targeted for attack because we are the brightest beacon of freedom and opportunity in the world,” Bush declared the evening of the attack, as though the terrorists were a gaggle of moths. Why they go to the light we cannot say; it simply can’t be explained. In fact, it can be, but Bush prefers the stereotype, handily encouraged by the national news media, of the Muslim zealot, who needs no reason for his actions–his creed drives him to acts of madness. Certainly, there is a madness in any man who directs such an atrocity, but that madness did not develop in a vacuum. Let’s be clear: There can be no justification for such a crime, and the perpetrators must be brought to justice. But that does not mean its impetus cannot be understood.

The Bush administration has called for what amounts to a shift in tactics: more security at airports, greater surveillance at home and abroad, a “new kind” of war against terrorism, presumably including attacks on countries that harbor terrorists, which will inevitably mean more civilian casualties of the type we are now mourning in New York. Already proposals that will limit our civil liberties are moving through Congress. But a police state is not the answer. If it were, then terrorism would have been stamped out long ago in the occupied territories in Israel, where Palestinians cannot leave their neighborhoods without crossing roadblocks and checkpoints. Instead, there is a new bombing every month, it seems. If the question now is what is to be done, let us start instead by educating one another on the theory and practice of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Americans no longer have the luxury of allowing politicians and “experts” to set our course. As with Vietnam, tragedy on the evening news is no longer an abstraction. Body bags are being sent home on trains.

For too long, we have listened to bland pabulum about religious intolerance and ethnic conflicts that go back for centuries and cannot possibly be understood by ordinary Americans. The situation is complex, but it is not opaque. Set aside for a moment the history and consider the present. What do the terrorists want? What drives young men to take up with leaders like bin Laden, who despises all things Western? Young Muslims are radicalized by any number of influences, but chief among them are the U.S. sanctions in Iraq and U.S. support for Israel. Indiscriminate bombing during the Gulf War killed thousands of innocents in Iraq. But ten years of economic sanctions, now widely condemned by world opinion and flouted by our allies, have been the real killer. Iraq’s devastated water supply has been kept in a state of disrepair, not by Hussein’s policies, as Washington has claimed, but by blockage of specific contracts by the U.S. sanctions regime, as documents recently obtained by The Progressive conclusively show. The result is 5,000 children per month dying of water-borne diseases. That’s 5,000 mothers and fathers, 5,000 older brothers, learning to hate the United States, every month. As was the case in Iraq, the dispute in Israel is about land and power, something every American can understand. And our stake in both conflicts has been first and foremost about oil.

Is it worth it? Is there another way? We must decide for ourselves what is the right course of action to prevent this tragedy from repeating itself. To do that, we must look beyond the U.S. State Department and the evening news to make our informed decision. And if the U.S. government will not follow, we must wrest control of our foreign policy, as the people have done before, from those who have kept it to themselves for so long.

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Published at 12:00 am CST