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Over the past weeks, Americans have almost unanimously approved of President George W. Bush’s bombing of Afghanistan. This strong reaction to the terror of Sept. 11 is both natural and justified. But there has been a disturbing tendency in the past several weeks to avoid any discussion of the direction of America’s foreign policy before this generation lost its innocence. Any attempt to explore the source of anger that drives many in the Arab world to condemn our military action as “terror” is immediately decried as a perverse attempt to justify the acts of those fanatical, suicidal pilots.
Indeed, nothing can justify the wholesale slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians. In a few short instants, innumerable mothers, daughters, husbands and fathers were taken from this Earth before their time, leaving families across the country with an oppressive emptiness that will never disappear. No one killed in the attack was responsible for whatever these terrorists hated about America, yet they were held accountable—we were all held accountable.
But this tragedy must not prevent us from examining the way America has treated the world, and the way the world sees us, in the post-Cold War era. Terrorists are filled with uncompromising, blind rage, but their hate does not spring groundless from the sand of the desert. As human beings, we wish to divorce ourselves from these actions by thinking that such a disgusting attack can only be the work of brainwashed religious fanatics. And though religion may play a part, there cannot be any doubt that these terrorists hated America—including everything, and everyone, American—for different reasons.
To a lesser degree, many other Arabs share this hate for Americans. It can be seen every time President Bush is burned in effigy, every time thousands of people take to the streets to support Osama bin Laden or to protest the bombing in Afghanistan. This widespread anger stems from several sources. The sanctions on Iraq since the Gulf War are seen as a crime causing the death of countless Iraqi children, who themselves bore no responsibility for Saddam Hussein’s evil actions or his refusal to trade oil for food. But whether we like it or not, America’s support of Israel is the overriding factor in the minds of most Arabs.
America, of course, holds a great deal of leverage over Israel, and the planes and helicopters that maintain Israel’s military advantage were made in the USA. Congress gives over $2.8 billion to Israel every year. To young Palestinians growing up in squalid refugee camps, the injustice must seem unbearable. They know that Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 and have yet to return them in conformance with U.N. Resolution 242, building settlements all the while. Some of these Palestinians had a parent who was killed at Sabra or Shatila; they may even have known a grandparent who felt forced out of Israel, the homeland of Palestinians as well as Israelis, over 50 years ago.
And of course the argument isn’t one-sided; it never is. Palestinian acts of terror in past years, including the assassination of Israeli politician Rehavam Ze’evi last Tuesday, are reprehensible. Americans now know the fear in which Israelis live on a daily basis. Israel has not known a single act so terrible as that which occurred Sept. 11, but the constant, omnipresent fear of a lone man in a marketplace killing himself to annihilate anyone nearby may be even more terrifying.
There is a limited amount that the U.S. can do to help resolve this apparently insoluble problem. But as one of the few countries that does have significant leverage—especially with the Israelis—we have a duty and obligation to try. When the Bush administration declared earlier this year that it would not actively try to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority to the bargaining table, many Arabs took that as an indication that the U.S. did not care about the Palestinians’ plight. For regardless of all that happened in the past, the Palestinians are now undeniably in a position of weakness. Without American intervention, they cannot hope to win significant concessions from Israel. Though former President Clinton’s efforts to find a compromise narrowly failed, at least he gave it his best shot.
Without studying the background of these issues, we can never hope to understand the feelings of both Israelis and Arabs. And without understanding those emotions, we can never formulate a just policy towards both Israelis and Palestinians.
And so searching for the source of this anger, this hatred towards the U.S., is far from an attempt to justify the unjustifiable. It is instead an attempt to probe the reasons that people are willing to sacrifice themselves to attack the U.S., and the reasons why millions of people across the world now oppose America’s response to this act of war. The distinction is a fine one, but it must be made. It is tempting to write off these acts to psychopathic killers who hate everyone and everything. And surely no sane person would pilot an airliner into an office building. But this all-encompassing hatred of America came from somewhere. Now, more than ever, we must try to understand that anger, even if we strongly disagree with its premises.
After all, a terrorist isn’t born; he’s made.
David M. DeBartolo ’03, a government concentrator in Lowell House, is associate editorial chair of The Crimson.
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