As with other earth-shattering events, the moment and place of learning the dread news of September 11, 2001 is etched into everyone’s memory. Equally well etched into mine are the rationalizations that were nimbly offered for the attacks by Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda by some intellectuals in the West. All of a piece, they came nonetheless in notable variety.
“Where in the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ of ‘humanity’ or the ‘free world,’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?” queried the late Susan Sontag of the New York Times. Similarly, the late Palestinian academic Edward Said averred that Arab hatred of the West, is “is not based on a hatred of modernity or technology-envy: it is based on a narrative of concrete interventions, specific depredations and, in the cases of the Iraqi people’s suffering under US-imposed sanctions and US support for the 34-year-old Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.”
Or forget Iraq — “this attack originated in the Muslim world and was clearly motivated by hatred of Israel and of US support for Israel” was the cursory verdict of Anatol Lieven, a British-born Chechen specialist.
A broader, Marxism-inspired North-South analogy was favored by others. “The homeless, the powerless, the terrorized, the minorities are using terror to strike back,” wrote Dutch journalist Van Houcke. “The great speculators wallow in an economy that every year kills tens of millions of people with poverty, so what are 20,000 dead in New York? Regardless of who carried out the massacre, its violence is the legitimate daughter of the culture of violence, hunger, and inhumane exploitation,” concluded Dario Fo, Italian Nobel Laureate.
For others, pure distaste for America — cultural, aesthetic and economic — provided sufficient warrant for 9/11. “Everything wrong with America led to the point where the country built a Tower of Babel, which consequently had to be destroyed…. America is a country without roots, without culture, dominated by television and commerce. The country is dulled, money has made every value secondary, we have become obsessed with it. The attack should be seen as a criticism, and the true test of a great country is that it can tolerate criticism” was the view of the late Norman Mailer.
And still others found aesthetic value in the mass casualty attacks. September 11, declared the late German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, was “the biggest work of art there has ever been.”
But was September 11 about Sontag’s “specific American alliances and interventions” or only Lieven’s one? And if the product of one or several of Said’s “discrete depredations” by the U.S., how could it then be the fault of Fo’s murderous “speculators” and their “inhumane exploitation”? And whether the fault of both the U.S. and the transnational tycoons, what renders the 9/11 mass-murders a “work of art,” except perhaps relative to Stockhausen’s own oeuvre? Then again, if American deracination was the cause, how could it be that Mailer’s America — “without culture, without roots …dulled, dumber” — could nonetheless prove a “great country” if it “tolerated” — that is, responded with passivity — to the worst assault in history on its soil and citizenry? Here indeed was a study in flatulence, laced with incoherence. Note, too, that this circumscribed sampling takes no account of the more Byzantine and disordered theories prevalent in the Muslim world and among the conspiracy-theory junkies of the West, which alleged U.S. or Israeli instigation and execution of the 9/11 attacks by ingenious means for nefarious purposes as diverse as occupying vast tracts of the Middle East to laying new pipelines across Afghanistan.
In the nature of things, people do not ordinarily blame the victims as the intellectuals blamed America for 9/11. When, in December 2008, Lashkar-e-Taiba murdered hundreds in carefully coordinated, mass-casualty assaults in Mumbai, few blamed the Indians whom they had slaughtered. In fact, few even blamed the U.S. although, by the elastic standards of the intellectuals cited, an enterprising pundit could conceivably have nominated U.S. foreign policy favoring India as a cause.
Similarly, one rarely hears of people siding with the anti-Spanish terrorism of the Basque ETA or the anti-Turkish terrorism of the Kurdish PKK. The reason is not far to seek. Basques murdering Spaniards, Muslims murdering other Muslims, or Muslims murdering Hindus fails to allegorize the guilt of the U.S. or the West.
But September 11 could be engineered to function that way. The intellectuals spoke of specific U.S. policies as the cause of the attacks. They brandished as a root cause U.S. support for Israel, which serves for these minds as an allegory of Western imposition and colonial sin. Characteristically lacking, however, was any genuine analysis of this seemingly unanswerable indictment. Israel, as a non-Muslim polity established on land once ruled by Muslims, attracts the hostility of most of the Muslim world. Not Israeli borders or policies, but sovereign existence, galvanizes the hostility — more precisely, the Muslim supremacism — of a region long habituated to cowed, docile and compliant Jews. Yet, for all their apparent fearlessness and distaste of imperial pretension and superiority, the intellectuals brandished a cause rooted in this very soil which they did not care to probe too closely.
We find, too, in the literature of Islamism, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Al-Qaeda, a commitment to the demise of the U.S., irrespective of specific policies — whether U.S. forces were based in Saudi Arabia or not (they have not been for some time); whether the U.S. pushed for an Arab-Israeli peace (which, indeed, it had, for eight years at the time of 9/11) or not; whether Israel even existed or not. Nor did the intellectuals’ anti-American pabulum possibly explain a host of other Al-Qaeda attacks — the December 2007 bombing of the UN headquarters in Algiers, to name one example from a long possible list. At no point were those who rationalized the assault on the U.S. capable of acknowledging the totalitarian vision animating the assailants. Nor did they deign to account for wider Islamist war on diverse societies from Israel to India to Thailand to the Philippines.
Common to Al Qaeda and the intellectuals who rationalized the attacks in the West is the belief that the West, especially the U.S., enables and controls nasty Muslim regimes. This too fails to withstand analysis.
It is undeniable that certain Western countries have at times supported one or other Middle Eastern regime. Yet it cannot be credibly claimed that these are created or maintained by them. Such a claim would certainly be news to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who enjoyed three decades of U.S. subsidies but was pushed from office with the American spigot still on. Nor can it be said that Iran, Sudan or Syria, to name three examples, depend, or have depended, on Western support; to the contrary, these regimes, which are also among the region’s most oppressive and brutal, endure even in the face of years of Western boycott and pressure. Should the Bashar Assad regime in Syria shortly fall, its demise will owe everything to the Syrians who turned on them at great cost, not to the Obama Administration which, only months ago, was describing Assad as a “reformer.”
In 1990s Iraq, Saddam Hussein remained in power despite the palpable absence of Western support. Even in the 1980s, it was Soviet and Chinese support for Saddam which was far more substantial and consistent than anything Western countries (other than perhaps France) gave him. Indeed, the longest-ruling Middle Eastern dictator until very recently was Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. To which Western government did he owe his 42-year reign?
Clearly, who or what the U.S. has supported in the Middle East bears only limited relevance to the regimes that have held sway there. Equally clearly, the support for the most of oppressive regimes by countries like Russia, China or North Korea has not engendered a wave of anti-Russian, anti-Chinese or anti-North Korean sentiment among either the Islamists of the region or the intellectuals who chose to rationalize Al-Qaeda’s barbarism a decade ago. It is the Judeo-Christian U.S. that is their special object of their wrath.
The anti-American indictments of so many Mailers, Sontags, and Saids and their perfervid European confreres, for all their spurious bravura, are palpably hollow. The intellectuals who chafe at an America rendered strong by the culture, values, and commerce they abhor found it irresistible to indict it when the Islamists who mean to destroy it attacked it for those very reasons. Such is the background to their symbiosis — not root causes, but brute causes.
More than 200 years ago, the philosopher Edmund Burke enunciated a trenchant insight into the global significance of the French Revolution that was at that moment devouring lives across France and was shortly to convulse most of Europe:
We are in a war of a peculiar nature. It is not with an ordinary community, which is hostile or friendly as passion or as interest may veer about: not with a state that makes war through wantonness, and abandons it through lassitude. We are at war with a system, which by its essence, is inimical to all other governments, and which makes peace or war, as peace or war may best contribute to their subversion. It is with an armed doctrine that we are at war. It has, by its essence, a faction of opinion, and of interest, and of enthusiasm, in every country.
Revolutionary politics and armed doctrines find an echo in every country. Communism was able to bridge seemingly impenetrable cultural and geographical divides. The response of the intellectuals to the barbarities of 9/11 put us on notice that Islamism has done no less in our own time.