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

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

In These Times Contributors

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 )

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.”

‘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.’

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 911, 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 régime 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 régime change,” fol­lowed by the over­throw of Sad­dam Hus­sein in Iraq, and the instal­la­tion of the accom­mo­dat­ing régime 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.

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