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On January 8, President Barack Obama held a press conference at which he said: “It is clear that al Qaeda increasingly seeks to recruit individuals without known terrorist affiliations … to do their bidding. … And that’s why we must communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that al Qaeda offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death … while the United States stands with those who seek justice and progress … That’s the vision that is far more powerful than the hatred of these violent extremists.”
Obama then turned the floor over to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and terrorism expert John Brennan, former chairman of the National Counterterrorism Center, who spoke and took questions from the assembled reporters, including Helen Thomas, the 89-year-old grand dame of the White House press corps. The following exchange ensued:
Helen Thomas: What is really lacking always for us, is, you don’t give the motivation of why they want to do us harm.
Janet Napolitano: The screening at Schiphol Airport was done by Dutch authorities, and they did the screening that was described to you earlier this afternoon. The hand luggage was screened, the passport was checked, he went through a magnetometer, but it was done by Dutch authorities.
HT: And what is the motivation? We never hear what you find out of ‘why’?
John Brennan: Al Qaeda is an organization that is dedicated to murder and slaughter of innocents. What they have done over the past decade and a half, two decades, is to attract individuals like Mr. [Umar Farouk] Abdulmutallab and use them for these types of attacks. He was motivated by a sense of religious sort of drive. Unfortunately, al Qaeda has perverted Islam and has corrupted the concept of Islam so that they are able to attract these kinds of individuals. But al Qaeda has the agenda of destruction and death.
HT: Are you saying that it is because of religion?
JB: I am saying that it is because of an al Qaeda organization that uses the banner of religion in a very perverse and corrupt way.
JB: This is a long issue, but al Qaeda is just determined to carry out attacks here against the homeland.
HT: But you haven’t explained why.
Her question went unanswered, and another reporter spoke up, returning to the safe subject of airport screening procedures.
Since the Obama White House, like the Bush White House before it, was unable, or unwilling, to address Thomas’ question, In These Times asked a number of prominent activists, intellectuals and foreign policy experts “why they want to do us harm.” We present their answers on the following pages.
In These Times also put that question to Helen Thomas. Here is what she said:
Why do you think “they want to do us harm?”
Because of Western colonialization. The United States has no right to be in their countries.
Why do you think the administration is so loath to answer this question?
Because we invaded Iraq under lies. It’s also difficult for them to justify our intrusion in Afghanistan, which is causing death all around – including for us. There’s no real logic in going halfway around the world to kill people because we don’t like their government.
What has the response been from your colleagues in the White House press corps to your persistence?
What do you think people can do to push our leaders to better answer this question?
People should protest wars that are not explained, and where no real reason is given for being in foreign countries. They should seek the truth and demand that the government stop using fear to repute innocent people.
Will you ask this question again?
Of course. The question is: Will I get an answer?
—In These Times Editor Joel Bleifuss
The Human Cost
By Jodie Evans
In America’s current military offensive in Helmand Province – the very one touted as the first step toward “victory” in Afghanistan – NATO airstrikes have killed at least 60 civilians.
Gayle Brandeis, an author and CODEPINK member, wrote eloquently about the very real emotional and human cost of this war:
As I write this, my three-month-old baby has pneumonia. My mother took her own life a week after the baby was born, so I feel especially vulnerable right now, especially attuned to potential loss. In this raw, open state, the latest news from Afghanistan hits hard.
Last weekend, 12 members of one Afghan family – including six children – were killed during NATO’s offensive in Marjah. As I grapple with the grief over my mom’s death, as well as worry over my sick baby, I can’t begin to comprehend the grief of those affected by this massive loss. NATO Commander, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has apologized to President Karzai, but how can his words be anything but cold and empty to those left behind?
Leaving aside the fact that the famously corrupt President Karzai and his warlord cronies are themselves obstacles to peace, McChrystal’s words are a futile attempt to undo the damage done not only to these families in Helmand Province, but to the stated mission of NATO’s engagement in the region – eliminating the Taliban and their influence. An Afghan friend put it this way: “Military logic is flawed from inception.” McChrystal’s strategy implies that Taliban recruits simply materialize out of the ether. Rather, in an environment of violence, they are a self-renewing resource, invigorated by military aggression, swelling the ranks of America’s very own “enemy.” When a NATO airstrike rips through a family compound or convoy, each of these dead human beings has a family and a community – people who cared for them; people who are easy marks for Taliban masterminds.
Predator drones, Assault Breacher Vehicles, violence or Blackwater/Xe contracts will not eliminate the circumstances that drive people to the Taliban – poverty, lack of education and human rights violations. For all of the billions siphoned from the budget for military spending, our actions could have sent Afghanistan on the road to peace and development long ago – by investing those same billions into programs for women and children, sustainable employment, farming and infrastructure.
The 60-plus people killed by NATO are survived by brothers, sisters, children, parents and community members who are ripe for the Taliban’s picking. The survivors suffer under a 71.9 percent illiteracy rate, extreme poverty and practically no means of mass communication. The Taliban knows this. They know exactly who wants “to do us harm” and why. Apparently, and tragically, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan – the very people who should be most prepared to answer this question – do not.
Who Are ‘They’?
By Imam Zaid Shakir
To a large extent, “they” are simply a microcosmic mirror image of the extremist violence perpetrated by a hegemonic state dominated by elites that have reserved the right to use high-tech military machinery to systematically decimate countries, rip apart their social fabrics and directly or indirectly kill hundreds of thousands of people, as has happened in Iraq.
In that country, “they” might be the relative of someone who died of typhoid or diarrhea from drinking sewage-contaminated water because “we” thought it a noble stratagem of war to destroy that country’s sanitation system during the 1991 Desert Storm operation. “They” might be someone whose home was blown away during the “Shock and Awe” campaign that inaugurated the current war in March 2003. Maybe “they” know of Abeer Hamza al-Janabi, the 14-year-old Iraqi girl who was gang raped by a company of US Army soldiers, who then murdered her and her entire family, including her 6‑year-old sister, Hadeel, and burned their bodies to hide the evidence of their gruesome crime.
Perhaps “they” are from Afghanistan. Maybe the callousness “they” display toward life is a reflection of the callousness we displayed when we built the “Jihad” movement to repel the Soviet invaders of that land during the 1980s, and after accomplishing that mission callously walked away, leaving the country to endure almost a decade of murderous anarchy that culminated in the rise of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Perhaps the alienation “they” display is a pathetic parody of the Mujahideen “we” created.
Maybe “they” are rotting in a slum in Casablanca or Cairo, or festering in a classroom in Lagos or Lahore, and “they” have seen images from Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Gaza. When “their” anger is combined with the angst generated by globalized economic forces “they” cannot understand, forces that have marginalized and in some cases rendered irrelevant their lives and their religion, the two sources of meaning in the world “they” thought “they” had inherited from “their” forefathers, “they” are easy prey to skilled recruiters who promise “them” both meaning in this world, and a free pass to Paradise in the next by mindlessly striking out at what “they” are led to believe is the source of “their” misery.
“They” probably have never stopped to reflect on how violence is used by neofascist pundits and politicians to advance a climate of fear and misunderstanding that makes it more likely that even ordinarily well-meaning Americans will support policies that will lead to more bombing, maiming and murdering of Muslims – and eventually others – all around the globe. For this small minority, “their” obsession with Islam as a political ideology probably renders “them” totally oblivious to the religious message of Islam as a historical world religion that advances the sanctity of life, especially the life of innocent, noncombatant peoples, the refinement of the spirit and patient, dignified, principled resistance when confronted with the usurping vagaries of “their” fellow humans.
Revenge = Peace
Back in 2001, one of the first people who reached out to our newly forming 9/11 group, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, was Yitzhak Frankenthal, an Orthodox Jew whose 19-year-old son, Arik, had been murdered by Hamas while serving in the Israeli army in 1994. In response, Frankenthal had established The Parents Circle-Families Forum, a group of Israeli and Palestinian parents who lost loved ones as a result of the conflict and were calling for reconciliation and an end to the cycle of violence.
Some months later we met with Frankenthal to swap notes about our respective organizations. One of the stated goals of our 9/11 families group was to “encourage a multilateral, collaborative effort to bring those responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks to justice in accordance with the principles of international law.” We believed that transparent public trials would validate our system of laws that had been so badly shaken by the events of that day.
But Frankenthal zeroed in on the word “justice.” For some, he said, revenge was justice. Retribution was justice. Violence was justice. In fact, we already knew there were many outside the United States who viewed the 9/11 attacks as a kind of justice for American foreign policy, for our arrogance, our blindness to the pain and suffering our actions have caused to innocent civilians – “collateral damage” – around the world.
It is the pursuit of justice that drives many of those who hate us. To those on the receiving end of American policies, what would justice look like in response to Guantanamo, where men have been tortured, held without charge or trial, and now remain in a state of indefinite detention? What would justice look like to the ever-growing American military presence and ever-increasing civilian deaths in Afghanistan? To the continuing occupation of Iraq that has killed or made refugees of so many civilians? To escalating drone strikes in Pakistan that kill increasing numbers of civilians?
We know what justice looked like to Najibullah Zazi, who said he was motivated to plot an attack on New York City subways in response to civilian deaths in his home country of Afghanistan. We know what justice looked like to Fort Hood shooter Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who was motivated by American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. They, too, need to consider the meaning of justice.
And it’s not only them.
When Obama was elected, many Americans imagined that justice would come in the form of a break from the policies of the Bush administration, that America would return to the rule of law and adhere to what Thomas Jefferson described in the Declaration of Independence as “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” What Obama has given them is not only a continuation of Bush policies, but their codification into law. For those Americans, what does justice look like now?
As Frankenthal bravely said of the murder of his son, and as many of us who suffered losses on 9/11 believe, “My revenge is peace.”
A Perfect Storm
By Ralph Seliger
There is no single reason “why they want to do us harm,” but a confluence of conditions can be likened to a perfect storm.
In 2002, the United Nations Development Program released a report on socioeconomic conditions in the Arab world, compiled by Arab experts under the direction of an Egyptian statistician, which detailed a dismal picture of economic stagnation, illiteracy and poverty, as well as scientific and technological backwardness. This sad reality had not changed when the same UN agency updated its work in 2009. But poverty, social injustice and ignorance only form a partial wellspring for the phenomenon of terrorist Jihadism.
Failed states and embattled Muslim countries – like Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan – provide the physical and political space for the Jihadi movement to find shelter and grow. And the many examples of Muslim majority countries engulfed in conflict provide graphic imagery of violent suffering televised and Webcast across the globe. These terrible events contribute to a coherent ideological narrative of grievances against Muslims, both real and imagined, that serve to recruit soldiers for the cause. (Ironically, most of the worst instances of carnage are produced by the Jihadis themselves attacking other Muslims.)
And the legendary glories of Arab rule – a vast empire under the Caliphs, more than a thousand years ago – provide inspiration for a political vision that is at once intoxicating and impractical. The hoped for return to this historic model of Islamic or Arab supremacy salves injuries felt keenly from more recent episodes of European domination, aggressive U.S. foreign policies and the military ascendancy of the State of Israel.
So long as a solution for Palestinian statelessness remains elusive, this last matter is a festering sore, but Palestinian suffering was not a motivation for bin Laden to break with the Saudi royal family and become an international outlaw. This came with the Saudi decision to base U.S. and other “infidel” forces on its territory, the Muslim holy land, following Saddam Hussein’s invasion and conquest of Kuwait in 1990.
In addition, there is surely a psychological component to what draws some people to a distorted religious piety and/or a search for meaning or adventure that set them on a murderous or otherwise hateful course. We in the West can move more forcefully to eliminate the immediate concrete basis for Jihadi belief systems. These should include a preference for diplomacy, wherever possible, over harsh rhetoric and military action, and a consistent and concerted effort to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the Israeli-Arab conflict. But the complex nature of these problems, plus the fanatical, uncompromising character of Jihadism, make almost any course of action exceedingly difficult and uncertain in its outcome.
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