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Iraqi contractors clean the Tigris river in Baghdad on March 28, 2009. Environmentalists say the river is polluted with war waste, oil derivatives, and industrial and toxic waste. (Photo by: Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images )

Why Do They Want to Do Us Harm? [Part Three]

Helen Thomas asked the question. The White House stonewalled. Here are the answers.

BY In These Times Contributors

‘The map of terrorist sanctuaries and targets in the Middle East and Central Asia is also, to an extraordinary degree, a map of the world’s principal emerging energy sources in the 21st century.’

Part one of this story, featuring contributions from Jodie Evans, Imam Zaid Shakir, David Potorti and Ralph Seliger, can be read here. Part two, featuring pieces by Rev. Dr. Robert W. Tobin, Andrew J. Bacevich, Salim Muwakkil and James Spencer, can be read here.

Breeding Violence

Noam Chomsky


The subtitle of the question posed is “why do they want to do us harm?” That restricts the discussion to a very narrow category of terrorism, excluding, for example, the campaign of the Kennedy brothers to bring “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba, that of their Reaganite successors to do the same in Central America, and a great deal more, extensively documented but excluded from the canon because of “wrong agency.”

Keeping to the restriction, the answers have never been obscure. The basic reasons were given by the National Security Council in 1958, when President Eisenhower asked why there is a “campaign of hatred against us” in the Arab world. Shortly before, the NSC explained that “the majority of Arabs … believe that the United States is seeking to protect its interest in Near East oil by supporting the status quo and opposing political or economic progress.” And they are right: “our economic and cultural interests in the area have led not unnaturally to close U.S. relations with elements in the Arab world whose primary interest lies in the maintenance of relations with the West and the status quo in their countries,” blocking democracy and economic development.

After 9/11, the Wall Street Journal carried out a poll among Muslim elites, people deeply committed to U.S.-run neoliberal policies. The results were much the same, though by then there were new concerns: decisive U.S. support for Israeli crimes, and Clinton’s murderous sanctions against the people of Iraq–of little interest here but a source of anger in the Arab world.

In December 2004, a Pentagon advisory panel considered Bush’s plaintive question “why do they hate us.” The panel concluded that “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies,” adding that “when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy.”

U.S. policies are a gift to extremists among jihadis, whose goal is to incite U.S. violence against the populations that they are seeking to mobilize.

With good reason, the hawkish Michael Scheuer, in charge of tracking bin Laden for the CIA for many years, concludes that the United States “remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.”

There are relevant experiences elsewhere. As long as Britain responded to IRA terror by force and repression, the cycle of violence escalated. When Britain finally adopted the sensible course of addressing legitimate grievances that were at its roots, terror ended.

Violence tends to incite violence in response, an old lesson of history and hardly a surprising one. 

Pipeline Politics

By Carol Brightman


We’ll never get a straight answer from the U.S. government, not because the al Qaeda attacks on September 11 were an administration set-up, which they weren’t; or because the CIA knew something was up (but not enough), which they did. Or because Bush’s buddies were still hoping to get a contract for an oil pipeline across Afghanistan, which the Taliban government was refusing to give them.

There’s truth there, for the Taliban had been entertained in Houston in 1997, and were in negotiations with Unocal until 1998, when President Clinton fired cruise missiles at targets in Afghanistan after al Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. At that point Unocal pulled back and began to look toward a post-Taliban Afghanistan, as did members of the U.S. national security establishment.

After the arrival of Cheney and Bush in 2001, the Taliban discussions were revived, until the Taliban began to demand “rent” for the roads, water supplies, telephone and power lines, as well as a “tap” to provide oil and gas for Afghanistan.

It’s not hard to see how al Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon gave the United States a passport to invade Afghanistan, oust the Taliban, and install a puppet regime of former Unocal employees, like Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun royalist, and Zalmay Kalizad, U.S. envoy. This was the origin of the Karzai government, Bush’s first experiment with “regime change,” followed by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the installation of the accommodating regime of Shiite Nouri al-Maliki.

Only the San Francisco Chronicle broke the media’s silence by observing, as early as Sept. 26, 2001, that “the map of terrorist sanctuaries and targets in the Middle East and Central Asia is also, to an extraordinary degree, a map of the world’s principal emerging energy sources in the 21st century,” adding that “it was inevitable that the war against terrorism will be seen…as a war on behalf of America’s Chevron, Exxon, and Arco; France’s TotralFinalElf; British Petroleum; Royal Dutch Shell … which have hundreds of billions of dollars in the region.”

But government PR machines, followed by a docile media, kept oil out of the picture. New U.S. bases sprang up across the region in strategic proximity to hydrocarbon assets, but little was said.

The war against terror was a fake. Osama bin Laden’s motivation to do us harm was based on his intimate knowledge of the global campaign to expand U.S. access to Middle East oil. On the day he attacked the United States, Shafiq bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s estranged brother, was attending an investment conference in Washington with George Bush, Sr., and his former secretary of state, James Baker, which was hosted by the Carlyle Group. Such were Carlyle’s connections that immediately following al Qaeda’s attacks, when no one was allowed in or out of the United States, most of the extended bin Laden clan were spirited home to Saudi Arabia.

Could that date have mattered to Osama? It surely wasn’t the reason for the attacks, which took years to prepare. But Osama bin Laden’s resentment of his family’s attachment to Bush, Baker, et al., and to the enormous oil wealth at their fingertips in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, and Central Asia, was considerable. That is the direction we must take to find the answer to Helen Thomas’ question.

Dr. Phil Sitdown

By Azhar Usman


It is not easy to talk about why some people around the world want to harm the United States. Pointing out wrongs committed by the United States opens one up to charges of being “unpatriotic,” or–as is the case with many Muslims who express views critical of U.S. policies–“terrorist sympathizers.” So let me state unequivocally, up front, that I am not a terrorist sympathizer. In fact, it is my belief that the taking of innocent civilian life is always morally unjustifiable–whether it is done by a man with dark skin, wearing white robes, in a dark cave, or a man with light skin, wearing a dark suit, in a White House. (Since Obama took office, that last line doesn’t work as well, but you get the point.)

The single greatest grievance people have about the United States is hypocrisy. For all its talk about supporting democracy, the United States has a checkered history of supporting brutal dictators when it serves U.S. strategic and commercial interests. For all its talk of denouncing terrorism and wanting to keep the world safe from nuclear war, the United States remains the only nation to have decimated civilian populations with nuclear weapons. For all its talk about being a civilized nation of laws and justice, the United States has regularly and repeatedly invaded other countries, in blatant contravention of established international laws.

And despite all the jingoism, warmongering and political violence, America has the audacity to wag its finger at others, shouting “Terrorist!” It’s not just “the pot calling the kettle black”; it’s like Goliath calling David an unholy monster. It’s plainly ridiculous, and people all over the world can see this. The emperor is naked.

Of course, the single largest elephant in the room is the Israel-Palestine problem. University of Chicago Professor Richard Pape demonstrates in Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, that the vast majority (if not all) of the suicide terrorists in the world are motivated by their desire to drive foreign invading forces from their land. Many of these groups clothe their ideological agendas in religious language and ideas, but the underlying realities on the ground are almost always the same: land disputes.

Mainstream, respectable, sagacious global leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu, even Jon Stewart, have equated the situation on the ground in Israel-Palestine with apartheid. Unless the United States becomes a more balanced broker of peace in that conflict, the elephant will move from the fine china to the furniture and lamps, and eventually knock down the walls of the room itself.

There is the problem of religion, or more accurately, religious fundamentalism. Bruce Lawrence at Duke University argues in Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age that classical religious teachings are being perverted, distorted and inverted across all major world religions by maniacal fringes and millenarians from every tradition. Thoughtful people across all faiths should be talking about how to confront such forces in a unified, intelligent manner, rather than getting bogged down in finger-pointing, or worse, blaming religion itself.

Perhaps the easiest way for America to understand why people want to do it harm would be for it to sit down with the television personality Dr. Phil. “So America, we all know you are rich, powerful, and beautiful, but you’ve also done some pretty horrible things to various people around the world for decades now–many of which have been covert operations. And now some disturbed individuals with a political vendetta and radical religious ideas are blowing back like crazy chickens with their heads cut off, coming home to roost, and your proposed solution is to invade more countries, drop more bombs, kill more innocent civilians, and make more enemies? How’s that working out for you?”

The Power of Memory

Gaytari Chakravorty Spivak


Collective hatred comes from narratives of cultural memory.

In 1916, anticipating victory, France, Russia, and Britain created the “Middle East” out of the remains of the 600-year old Ottoman Empire. Lebanon and Iraq were directly controlled, others kept in spheres of influence. Haifa, Gaza, and Jerusalem were an Allied “condominium.” Arms control was strictly European. The Arab powers learned of this at war’s end (1917). Agreements assuring Arab independence had disappeared.

Such are the ingredients for a future cultural memory.

The Ottoman Empire was corrupt but, except for focused examples such as the Armenian genocide, generally carried an attitude of conflictual co-existence toward religious difference. Now arrived a master race that thought itself justified in controlling and systematizing the locals, without any social contract, often by remote control. An inchoate resentment stirred in people at ground level who could not combat this transformation. Women felt it strongly, thinking of men as holding their dignity. The skeleton of a cultural memory in the making now fleshes out.

With the Balfour Declaration (1917), approved by the League of Nations (1922), Britain is charged to administer parts of the defunct Ottoman Empire, “until such time as they are able to stand alone.”

Nothing should be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, the declarations say. Now the sense of a religious as well as civil right is ready to form without internal institutional intellectual support, and the narrative of “cultural memory” thickens further. The outrage is strongest in those–less privileged, landlocked–who are made to feel that they do not deserve to live on their land.

After 1948, the power that had passed from Ottoman to Europe, passes to United States and Israel. Israel begins to justify itself by cultural memory: biblical narrative. The question of the right to religion solidifies, transformed into the new abstract idiom of the state. For Israel this is sharpened by past European oppression and denial of Europeanness. In Palestine, however, the right to land as sacred space cannot invoke that pre-history as justification for the displacement of original inhabitants, who also now begin to inhabit religious rights discourse.

Islam is international. The discourse of religion permitted connections: with the CIA-backed Taliban in Afghanistan, the post-independence recoding of Hindu-Muslim conflictual coexistence upon the Indian subcontinent, the emergence of the Wahhabis, consequences of the Shah’s deposition in Iran, and, after 1989, the “Islamic” post-Soviet bloc. Cultural memory as “religion” can now create an ideology of just war through early childhood education of the deprived.

After World War II, the United States picked up Europe’s burden. And “America” seemed to get away with everything–remaining the repository of Enlightenment virtues, the shining land where immigrants flock. Yet, looking at Haiti, the Congo, or Chile–Aristide, Lumumba, Allende, the list goes on–it seems absurd to say that America stands for justice and right. And Israel is regularly described as the only democracy in the region.

That’s why “they” want to harm “us”–because, for a long time, “we” seem to have wanted to harm “them,” and own “them,” for no reason at all: imperial foreign policy, narrativized into cultural memory. Yet “we” are the angels. As a literary critic/activist/educator, I think to find such causes–though I applaud Helen Thomas’s tenacity–is as counterproductive as avoiding the question. For the point is to dislodge the polarization, unmake narrative, undo memory. Impossible tasks.

Jodie Evans is the co-founder of CODEPINK: women for peace. She has participated in many grassroots political campaign, and environmental preservation initiatives throughout the world.
Imam Zaid Shakir is the founder of the website New Islamic Directions. He accepted Islam in 1977 while serving in the United States Air Force. He came of age during the civil rights struggles, has brought both sensitivity about race and poverty issues to his faith-based work.
David Potorti is one of the founding members of September 11th Families For Peaceful Tomorrows. David lost his brother in Tower One of the Twin Towers during the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Ralph Seliger writes about Israel and Jewish cultural and political issues. He is the editor of Israel Horizons, the quarterly publication of Meretz USA, and blogs at the Meretz USA weblog.

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