Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nine Years Later...

While the excessive media coverage of right-wing reverend Terry Jones’ week-long threat to burn a collection of Korans with fellow hate-mongering Christian evangelicals at his Florida church has finally died down, what is missing, as usual, is some perspective on the matter.

Jones announced Thursday evening he had cancelled his proposed Koran-burning-day, scheduled to coincide with today’s nine-year observation of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Everyone from President Obama to Sarah Palin condemned Jones’ planned display of hatred and religious intolerance. (Palin continues to baffle by the day. She opposes the building of an Islamic mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero in New York City, yet came out against Jones as well. How is one form of religious intolerance different from the other?)

General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander of forces in Afghanistan, warned Jones earlier in the week his actions could further inflame anti-American sentiment throughout Arab nations—particularly towards U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. (As it turns out, Jones’ threatening to burn Korans alone has proven enough to enrage the Islamic world, as riots broke out throughout Afghanistan on Saturday.)

Yet it is not merely the burning of the Koran that has enraged Arab civilians. It is the burning of their homes, the bombing of their neighborhoods, and the indiscriminate killing of their children. Nine years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. has escalated the military occupation of Afghanistan, yet made no significant progress toward dismantling al-Qaeda, or even finding Osama bin Laden.

(Incidentally, it’s interesting how seldom the media or the White House mentions bin Laden at this point. Even the Taliban leader’s ominous video messages—a consistently haunting staple of the Bush administration, particularly in the weeks before an election—seem to be a thing of the past. It begs the question: Does bin Laden even matter anymore?)

U.S. troops continue to occupy Iraq, despite the recent, misleading claims of military withdrawal. And now much of the war in Afghanistan is spilling over into Pakistan, where unmanned drones fire upon civilians in a manner more akin to a video game, than traditional military combat.

Yet these military acts of aggression are rarely factored into the on-going media analysis of “why they hate us.” As filmmaker Michael Moore notes in a recent blog post on his website (“Burn, Baby, Burn!” Sept. 9, 2010), “They hate us because we’ve killed hundreds of thousands of their people! We’ve claimed their oil as ours. Never ever forget that Saddam Hussein was armed and supported for years by THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. And WE overthrew the democratically-elected government of Iran. We continue to prop up the dictators of the Arabian peninsula and we have turned our backs on the Palestinian people.”

Unfortunately, many Americans remain ignorant of this history. Even in graduate school, I was often struck by how many of my colleagues (some of whom were pursuing doctoral degrees, mind you) knew almost nothing about the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Iranian government, for example.

In Eugene Jarecki’s 2005 documentary film, Why We Fight, author Chalmers Johnson explains the concept of “blowback,” a CIA-term for unintended consequences of U.S. covert military operations abroad. According to Johnson, because such retaliatory “blowback” is often in response to secret elements of American foreign policy (aspects typically ignored in high-school or even some college history classes), the public is “unable to put it in perspective.” This lack of historical knowledge makes it easier for presidents and pundits to claim events such as 9/11 occur because the perpetrators “hate us because of our freedoms.”

At one point in the film, another noted progressive author, Gore Vidal remarks, “We live in the United States of Amnesia. Every day is a blank… We have no history.”

Thus, it is not the burning of Korans that creates such anti-American hatred throughout the Middle East. The hostility is more likely due to our long, on-going history of war, occupation and imperialism in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

One particularly unnerving scene in Jarecki’s film features a graphic display highlighting countries that have been the target of U.S. military invasion throughout the twentieth century, while calendar years tick by on the right-hand bottom of the screen. As one year sequentially gives way to another, viewers are left with the startling realization that, since the end of World War II, America has spent most of the last 50 years at war (whether declared military combat, or covert intervention) somewhere throughout the globe.

This is, certainly, not to justify the horrific Sept. 11 attacks. Regardless of the terrorists’ motives, their actions killed 3,000 innocent people—Americans who played no role in the foreign policy decisions that lead the hijackers to launch such a grievous attack on our nation.

However, it is important to understand the 9/11 attacks did not come out of nowhere, devoid of historical context. The terrorists did not strike the United States out of some angry jealousy over our democratic liberties, or because Islam is an inherently “evil” religion that espouses anti-American terrorism.

They, unfortunately, had very real and legitimate grievances against U.S. hegemonic imperialism. Many Americans do not like to hear this. Indeed, some may feel such military actions were warranted, or perhaps they simply prefer to place an unquestioning, patriotic trust in whatever actions our government engages in, right or wrong. Yet, by refusing to understand the real, concrete reasons why 19 people felt threatened enough by America to hijack airplanes and fly them into heavily populated buildings, we simply invite further horrific attacks in the future.

Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, many Americans--spurred on by a militaristic government and subservient news media--felt a seething desire to respond to the attacks with military strength. However, forgiveness, reconciliation, and deep self-reflection often require even greater strength than declaring war. Nine years after the 9/11 attacks, let us hope it is not too late for Americans to summon the inner strength necessary to engage in these latter, largely un-attempted healing processes.