Fight against terrorism should focus on fostering republican
September 13, 2001
I could recall only two other tragic events in my lifetime that packed
so much punch as the spectacular events of September 11, 2001. In the chilly
morning of November 1963 the children's program interrupted its story on
Radio Iran at 6:15 in the morning to give news of the assassination of President
Kennedy. That was a defining moment. That morning we went to school and
many of us chanted a few rhymes lamenting the fact the death of this man
had rendered his wife a widow and his children orphans. The second tragic
event which left me with an everlasting impression occurred during the lunch
recess in law school when the video of the exploding Challenger space shuttle
was racked and reracked and broadcast over and over again. That was a defining
My son was already in school when I learned of the assaults on the icons
of American financial prowess and military arrogance, the institutional
underpinnings of economic globalization, exploitation, and imperialism.
I learned of the bombings from a friend who called just as I was heading
out the door to a 10 o'clock meeting at a client's office. Once there, the
broadcast news of the holocaust in New York and massacre at the Pentagon
infiltrated the meeting every so often, as everyone tried desperately to
keep a straight face and conduct business as usual. The hypocrisy was all
too unbearable: I asked the president if he would consider cutting the meeting
short and sending his personnel home to be with loved ones. A number of
others seconded the idea and the president relented and agreed to close
shop at 3 p.m.!
After the meeting, I tried to call my son's school but the line was busy
there. My wife's office phone, too, was tied up. So I left the client's
office and decided that denial is just the thing the doctor had ordered.
Any other reaction to what was going on, I decided, was just too messy or
complicated to manage. To encourage myself in that sentiment, I said to
myself, "I must go on as usual, to show them that they cannot screw
around with my life: I will not be terrorized." Then it suddenly hit
me, I was terrorized, because they had managed to paralyze my humanity and
push me to go on behaving like a mechanical device, a robot, doing my chores.
I first stopped at the tailor's where I dropped off three pairs of pants
for alterations. Next, I proceeded to the polling station in order to vote
in the preliminaries of our town's school committee elections. That done,
I walked over to my son's school, found his home-room and noticed that all
was regular in appearance. Because I had still an hour before picking him
up from school, I drove home to catch up with the news. My wife was already
home from work: I found her in the den sobbing with extreme but muted anguish.
That was a defining moment.
Emotions come easy to me, tears and sorrow do not though, and I often
find it difficult to get caught up in the kind of tearful hysteria that
follows calamities. I am also mindful of the public disdain, if not odium,
that visits the likes of the fellow in Camus' Stranger. So how should
I have felt at the sight of the devastation and thought of thousands perishing
in an utter state of helplessness? How was I really feeling about it all?
How should I appear or sound to others? Dare I say that this country after
raining death on many countries in my lifetime alone, including perpetuating
the Iran-Iraq war until the two sides, in Kissinger's words, killed off
each other in America's national interest, had this coming to it? I consoled
instead my mate and together we went to pick up my son from school.
Later in the afternoon, I received an email from my friend Yacobo. He
wished us well and wanted to know how things were in my town. Some of the
readers know Yacobo from a piece
that I wrote last February. He and I go back many years. Deeply rooted
in the seyyed traditions of Isfahan's influential religious community and
the bazaar establishment, he had received his formal education in Tehran
and later in the United States, on the west coast and then and the east.
He brimmed with a wisdom that was without time or bound. When the rapacity
of the 1979 revolution hit Iran with the force of a gale, he would sit quietly
and offer prophesies over sushi dinners. Often he would say nothing good
would come out of any of this revolution, but that as a result of it Islam
will be reborn as a force and the whole world would have to reckon with
it, especially America.
I wrote back to Yacobo that evening and let him know that everything
was okay on my street: "I emphasize 'my street,'" I wrote to him,
"because that is the extent of how we in this society and in our lives
have so myopically come to define our world and security." The rest
of the evening was spent in front of the television, in one long exercise
of visual oversaturation, with pundits speculating about the planes, targets,
perpetrators, motives, states sponsoring terrorism, and of course about
Osama Bin Laden and Islamic fundamentalists and the erasure of the host
countries who aid and abet terrorists.
Not long ago, and certainly in this writer's living memory, there was
a time that every act of terror was either the work of Arafat and his lot
or the work of Carlos. Then for a while Colonel Kadafy became the proverbial
whipping boy for America's counterterrorist outrages. All the Iran-related
organizations and persons with a murderous record formed the next group
of usual suspects. Assuming that Bin Laden was behind the September 11 bombings,
the pundits of the left and the right wish to have him rubbed out and his
hosts brought to justice. I should think that the person who has been sitting
atop of the F.B.I.'s most-wanted list as public enemy number one, longer
than any Beatles' song could have hoped on top of the Pop charts, would
have been apprehended and brought to justice by now! Regardless of whether
he was connected with the recent events, perhaps this will give the Bush
League administration the necessary impetus to bring him to justice. "Bring
him to justice" means to arrest him and bring him to New York City,
where he would be read his rights and kept in a tax-payer-paid cell, with
full access to amenities, lawyers (if he cannot afford one, one would have
to be appointed for him), and warm meals.
There should be little doubt that Islamism is the only growing and expanding
"ism" that there is these days. In all of its dimensions, it seeks
to introduce a lifestyle and govern those who accept that lifestyle. In
the United States, it has made substantial inroads as a faith, converting
thousands among people of differing races and economic backgrounds. Here,
with the help of the Arab-American activists, it at time goes up against
the perceived oppression of the Judeo-Christian establishment. Globally,
Islamism has been on the rise and the centerpiece or organizing elan of
its extremist ideology is a profound dislike for the United States' policies
that tend to frustrate its further expansion. It has in many ways replaced
communism as this country's primary ideological adversary while internally
it has safeguarded itself in this country as a civil liberty. It is only
a matter of time before Islam in this country will fall victim to the reactions
developed in response to Islamism from abroad.
Dan Rather was asking every guest about putting the day's events in "context".
One guest spoke about this being the worst terrorist act in the history
of the United States. I wanted someone to say that this was indeed the worst
terrorist act in the history of the world. As you will see in a minute,
this was not the worst terrorist act in the history of the United States!
But then these talking heads know so little about the world that they find
it safe to stick to home-grown analogies and examples. They might as well
be from my street.
Another one of Dan Rather's guests declared that this was the worst attack
on the United States since Pearl Harbor. I wondered the extent to which
this one's historical recall was jarred by the memory of this summer's movie
about the event. As Rather began to speculate about the number of people
buried in the rubble, in the tens of thousands, I cringed at the magnitude
of the devastation and the loss of life. The only other two times that a
single spectacular act had produced in such a short time this degree of
civilian death and destruction were when the United States dropped the atomic
bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since that time, civilian deaths resulting
from American military operations are conveniently called "collateral
damage". Nobody meant to kill off all those Japanese civilians, but
nobody was that dumb to think that none would be killed.
In the Middle East, most American military actions have produced some
degree of collateral damage among the civilians, for example, in the hills
of the Baka Valley and in Libya (Reagan Administration), Iraq (George Bush
and Clinton), and in Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iran (Clinton). The difference
is that when the enemy struck at the Towers and the Pentagon, this country
yielded a much greater collateral damage than its collective stomach could
possibly digest. To the extent that New York's financial district is identified
in the mind of the Islamists as the power-pack of World Zionism, the terrorists
could have not cared about people on the towers; the same about the toll
relating to the military establishment. But if this was truly an act of
aggression against America and its fundamental values then one would have
expected the terrorists to knock out the Empire State Building, the Statue
of Liberty, the monuments around the Mall in Washington, D.C., Disney World,
or the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Bin Laden has repeatedly stated that his aim is to push the United States
out of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. It just happens that Iraq wants
the same thing. Iran, too, would like that very much. The attacks on the
Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and the USS Cole must be seen as episodes
in this man's defined struggle to rid this basin of American military presence.
Bin Laden also wants the United States to leave the region politically,
out of Israel, Turkey, and the various emirates. The argument is that as
long as the United States is present in the Persian Gulf countries and underwrites
the survival of the decrepit Arab monarchies, from Kuwait to Oman, these
countries would not have an opportunity to develop into progressive republics.
One would assume that Bin Laden would have wanted to have an opportunity
to takeover Saudi Arabia and it is safe to assume that he would not be given
to secular political forms or machinations. But the other new republics
would have a choice from the menu that consists of Pakistan (mild), Iran
(sweet and sour), and Afghanistan (double pepper) forms of Islamic government.
Like most terrorist movements, Bin Laden's, too, began in reaction to
some very local or domestic conditions, with specific goals for that market.
It is safe to conclude therefore that the international dimension of such
movements develop when an outside power becomes too closely identified with
the ruling structure and the oppression which it practices.
I pity the mind that thinks it can rest when Bin Laden is apprehended,
believing that no more terror will visit these shores. Assume Bin Laden
dies tomorrow, natural causes or not. There sure will be others to succeed
him. The answer to stamping out terrorism therefore is not in the elimination
of the terrorist but the elimination of the conditions that breed a need
for terror as a form of political expression. Instead of supporting tin-horned
dictatorships in the Persian Gulf region and elsewhere, including the Caspian
region, the United States should be fostering republican democracies, preferably
secular, where dissent can be expressed at the ballot box. If that means
to jilt the status quo regimes, so be it. There will be nothing new in that,
nor will the oil stop flowing.
Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations
and law and practices law in Massachusetts.