For many Americans, including Missoula Independent columnist George Ochenski, last week’s shocking terrorist attacks provided an occasion to reflect on America’s own transgressions and call the nation to more enlightened global citizenship.
In the Sept. 13 issue of the Independent, published just two days after the attacks, Ochenski suggests that we shouldn’t be surprised by the hatred America inspires around the world. Citing U.S. resistance to international environmental treaties and restrictions on biological weapons, our plans to nullify the missile defense treaty, our dubious war on drugs, and our historic support for armed insurgencies around the world, Ochenski takes an incredulous poke at our naivete.
"We thought we could spread a deadly rain of bullets, bombs and chemicals down on others, but that the oceans would somehow protect us from retribution. We were wrong," he writes.
There is little argument that America has a lot to answer for, but Ochenski and others who think this attack should jolt the American conscience miss a more profound truth. The roots of hatred that inspired this terror need no nourishment from our national shortcomings. The unknown culprits behind this senseless destruction have raised no specific objection to a uniquely American sin or failed American policy. They object to our very existence. They have not called upon us to repent, atone, or otherwise change our hearts and minds. They prefer to send us straight to Hell.
I don’t think that Americans naively believed terrorists would refrain from striking us on U.S. soil. In fact, I think most of us have always recognized the possibility. The more dangerous naivete shows in our willingness to entertain the possibility that the suicide bombers who meticulously planned the coordinated hijacking of four commercial airliners and deliberately smashed them into prominent symbols of American power are fighting a sensible war against a typical strategic or political enemy.
We must avoid assigning rational motives to these terrorists, or making rational explanations for their hatred and diabolical determination. The terrorists who attacked us last week are no ordinary dissidents. Whoever the hijackers were, it’s clear they didn’t intend to change U.S. policy or soften a negotiating stance. With no distinguishable cause to promote, other than their personal outrage and apocalyptic vision, it seems unlikely they can be appeased, no matter what foreign policy our nation pursues. They want only to extinguish our light, to diminish our culture by destroying our national icons.
I doubt that we can genuinely comprehend the motives of suicidal hijackers. We can only call them fanatics. And though their fanaticism claims its roots lie in Islam, their particular religious background ultimately seems as irrelevant as their street address. In all likelihood, their actions pertain to Islam only so far as the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s 1993 nerve gas attack in Tokyo pertained to Buddhism, their delusional vision of apocalypse blinding them to any sense of a recognizable reality, or genuine spiritual communion with other human beings. Even if they claim to be Muslims, theirs could not possibly be a legitimate Muslim cause, for theirs is really no "cause" at all.
These new kinds of enemies, as our leaders in Washington, D.C. characterize them, cannot be described with the vocabulary of conventional politics or normal human motives. The terrorists apparently have no homeland, no state, no government, and no army. They have only a loose organizational structure. They have no regard for human life, including their own. Their hatred seems boundless—reaching far beyond the limits of politics or even moral imagination.
Take, for example, the Al-Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda is suspected of plotting political assassinations in the Arab nations of Egypt and Jordan. It allegedly participated in the bombing of a Philippines airliner over Japan. And its forces have reportedly supported guerillas in Bosnia, Tajikistan and Chechnya. America has hardly been singled out for punishment, making it unlikely that any attitude adjustment on our part, short of transforming our country into a fundamentalist Islamic state, would make an impression on bin Laden or his followers.
Despite our many failures, most Americans believe that our country has done more to protect freedom, secure human rights, resist global tyranny and oppression, relieve suffering, and promote humanity than any other nation or religious institution in the history of this world. It is only natural that American citizens would expect the rest of the people on this Earth to recognize our undeniable achievements and respect our contributions to global civilization. It is not inevitable that some people around the world should hate us. It is only natural that we are enraged by being targeted for destruction, and that we intend to fight back.
The U.S. has doubtlessly participated in any number of global atrocities, from the depletion of the ozone layer to the torture and killing of political dissidents, and it’s never inappropriate for us to think about cleaning up our own act. Perhaps even more importantly, as Ochenski aptly notes, we cannot expect global cooperation in this coming war against terrorism if we oppose international initiatives on other fronts.
But that doesn’t even begin to address the indiscriminate slaughter we suffered last week. In this new war for the 21st century, it seems imperative that we recognize what we’re really fighting. It is certainly not ourselves.