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A tall order
As grieving turns to rage

By Ahmad Sadri
September 17, 2001
The Iranian

Rage, Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus's son Achilles, Murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, Hurling down the house of Death so many sturdy souls.
-- Homer, Iliad, Book one, 1-3

The Western Tradition starts with a poem about rage. The muse sings the story of Achilles who unleashed his suicidal, righteous rage and caused rivers of Greek and Trojan blood to flow. But the same muse sang through the blind poet the praises of one who managed his rage well. The wise Odysseus controlled his anger even as the ogre devoured his friends within the slashing range of his sword. Odysseus fought no less ferociously than Achilles. But his eyes were fixed on a farther horizon. He harnessed his anger to the cause at hand but unlike Achilles, he never indulged in bloodlust.

It is uplifting to see young Americans lining up for military duty, buoyed by the spirit of fervent patriotism. But it is disconcerting that their elders have chosen the ways of Achilles to avenge the victims of September 11th, 2001. As I am neither a fool nor a pacifist (definitely not the latter), I do not call for America to forgive, forget, hug their enemies and make love instead of war. But I do caution against acting with the abandon of a vengeful hero. And I caution against the righteous anger and Manichean delusions of leading the world to victory and uprooting the universal evil embodied in global terrorism.

Picking out and punishing Bin Laden's squalid band of murderers is justified. Waging an open-ended war against a nebulous enemy that is spread all over the world is a bloody act of monumental foolishness. I wonder how one would declare war against an enemy that is not a nation state? Maybe I am taking "war" too literally here. Could it be that "waging war" in this context is only a metaphor for sustained campaign against the enemy, say like the war on drugs? It took us a decade to abandon that useless metaphor and let Michael Douglas speak for us at the end of the movie Traffic: "We are here to listen"!

I wonder what makes our leaders believe that the war on terrorism is any more winnable than the war on drugs. Are the tribal networks of terror any easier to penetrate than the loyalties that under-gird drug cartels? Is a suicide bomber's persona any less complex than that of a drug user or drug pusher? Are terrorists easier than drug smugglers to tag and trace? I wonder how many bombs and body bags it will take to make us listen to the causes of terrorism rather than fight its symptoms?

I know that the powers that be are not "here to listen." So I will address these remarks to my fellow American citizens.

We often itch to squash the bloodsucking mosquito who wakes us with a painful sting even if it means staining the freshly painted wall -- at least I do. But once we have done so, we would be wise to abandon the crusade with the flyswatter. We must quickly shut the doors and mend the holes in our screens. Then we make certain the pools of stagnant water where the critters breed are dried up. Let us first bring the perpetrators of the ghoulish acts of September 11th to swift justice. Simultaneously, we have to think of security measurers to prevent further acts of terror.

But, as Collin Powell admitted shortly after the terrorist acts, there is precious little any free nation can do to stop a determined suicidal terrorist. So, the next logical step is not to hunt down the individual bands of terrorists, but to look into the etiology of terrorism. To my thinking, the most effective way of preventing terrorism is not waging war but waging peace against it. We must reduce the sum total of misery (poverty, injustice and helplessness) that flows into the pool from which the fanatics like Bin Laden recruit. Misery is the incubator of the kind of numbed self that can be persuaded to self-immolation. Hannah Arendt explored similar hothouses of false selflessness and potential hero/martyrs in her trilogy on origins of totalitarianism.

I can hear the objections already: reducing global misery is a tall order. But it is not quite as tall as uprooting terrorism without triggering the Third World War or securing America from terrorists without undermining its democratic way of life. Besides, unlike our president, I do not talk about "leading the world to victory against" misery. I just set the goal of "reducing" it, and I am willing to moderate even that. What is as crucial as reducing misery is appearing to do so. We have to mind -- for the first time since Tocqueville -- what the world thinks of us. Globalization has overrun our cushion of safety. Trite as it sounds, we need a better global image. But why don't we have that already despite our foreign aid and Peace Corps? Because we have acted as a global bully long enough to more than upstage our philanthropy. We have to change our political and social image in the world.

On the political front, we must no longer be the giant who walks slowly and carries a big stick when he is good; and tramples on millions of people to protect the tiniest sliver of its national interests when it decides to use the stick. We can no longer be seen in the company of "our SOBs," the likes of Suharto, the Shah, Noriega and Pinochett whom we assisted with coups and oppression of national uprisings. We can no longer afford aiding and abetting transnational invasions and the mistreatment of occupied peoples.

On the social front, we must stop acting as a giant exception to the global rule. Only in the last few months we walked out of the Small Arms Proliferation and Kyoto Environmental conferences for no better reason than protecting our narrow business interests. We walked out of the racism conference because we could not brook criticism of Israel. That is not to say that America should have accepted the "Zionism is Racism" formula. But we could have remained and negotiated as it was clear that the slogan would not stand as indeed it did not. We must at least wince when our opposition to the international community on issues such as chemical weapons, production of land mines and the prosecution of war criminals, lands us in the company of the likes of Iraq and North Korea, the very countries have vilified as rogue.

How can all this happen? Only through political involvement of citizens in issues of foreign policy. The events of the September 11th show that foreign policy must no longer be trusted to politicians, bureaucrats and generals. We must stop voting our pocketbooks and get involved in the conduct of foreign policy. In other words, American democracy must be turned into American polity. Now, even I admit that that is a tall order.


Ahmad Sadri is currently chairperson of the Department of Sociology at Lake Forest College, Illinois. Homepage

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