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Defining moment
Fight against terrorism should focus on fostering republican democracies

September 13, 2001
The Iranian

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 moment.

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.

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