(Amman, Jordan — 11 September 2002) This day a year ago, the United States was struck by a devastating and scarcely believable tragedy, the shockwaves of which instilled deep apprehension and panic in every soul in every corner of the world.
Just like in the immediate aftermath of a fearsome earthquake, we waited to see when, where and how aftershocks would add to the unfolding horror. Until the skies of the United States were cleared of thousands of airborne planes, each of them was seen as a potential lethal missile, and anything on the ground seemed like it could be a target. Amidst the fear, we tried to maintain hope that the determined search for survivors would not be in vain. Yet, no sooner had one fear had been allayed than others arose. How would a deeply injured superpower avenge itself? Who would be the target and how would they be hit?
For us in this region, there was the added fear of a raging backlash against millions of innocent Arabs and Muslims if the finger of blame would fall, as it quickly did, on perpetrators from the region. We wanted to know if, in reaction to the murder of thousands of innocent people, the shores of the United States would be closed to most of us. Although we loathed its policies, we loved the United States in many ways. We still wanted to send our children to its universities, although now, perhaps, we worried that they would not be allowed in or face harassment when they got there. And though we admired many aspects of America’s economy, culture, and scientific achievements, we were frustrated by how such a great and diverse society could produce successive governments with such narrow and unjust policies. We wanted to be sure we could still visit America and see our family members and friends, still be well-received, and maintain our cordial, though complex, relationship with the United States.
As we struggled with the enormity of what had happened, and began to think about how it would affect the world and our own lives, we wanted to ask a set of deeper questions which risked only to widen the painful gulf between us and threaten the human feelings of sympathy and solidarity generated by the catastrophe.
Why is it primarily the US, its embassies, warships, airlines and institutions that are targeted? If such atrocities were the product of only pure, senseless, abstract evil, and hatred of all things “Western”, wouldn’t we expect to see it hit out in many directions? If an alleged Muslim-Christian antagonism were a primary factor, then why were symbols of American Christianity, let alone Christian sites all over the world and the Middle East, not attacked as well?
The fact that the attacks of Sept. 11, and several others before them, targeted America must have some deeply rooted connection to US actions in the world. To state this is emphatically not to justify, tolerate or excuse the murderous attacks in any way, but simply to observe that historical events do not occur in a vacuum but are related to events before and after. Even if the Sept. 11 attacks were the product of an evil and tiny group with their own agenda to create a war of civilisations, one might ask if there were trends and currents of legitimate opinion that these people sought to take advantage of and guide.
Many in this region and worldwide hoped that the United States would want to address these questions if for no other reason than to eliminate the chance of further such terrorist atrocities.
Long before the disaster struck, it was overwhelmingly obvious that much of the US foreign policy was very unpopular around the world. The unilateral approach that self-righteously preached human rights, international law and high principles when it suited the US, and ignored all such principles when it didn’t, was antagonising even the closest US allies in Europe, not only millions of people in the Arab world, Africa and Asia. It is often argued by defenders of the United States that all governments apply the double standards, unjust, self-centred and sometimes lawless approach of which the Americans stand accused. Perhaps so. But only the United States has claimed for itself by virtue of its might and position, the role of global policeman, with the right to interfere in anyone’s business or block any action by the international community that it does not like. With greater power comes greater responsibility. But many of us felt that while the US seized greater power, it also became less sensitive and accountable to international opinion, with, at least in the Middle East, catastrophic consequences.
This feeling of unaccountable omnipotence was encouraged in no small part by the fact that the American population and heartland were remote and blissfully unaffected by virtually anything that happened in the rest of the world, and anything that the United States did. Since the Vietnam War, US administrations have been careful to shield the American people from feeling the direct consequences of US actions, thus giving administrations greater freedom of action and a feeling of immunity. With that imagined immunity harshly shattered on Sept. 11, as thousands of completely innocent people were murdered in a few awful seconds on the streets of America’s greatest cities, while the might of America’s intelligence services, military and government were helpless and as America’s seven trillion dollar economy shook, it was only logical to hope that there would be a thorough review of all previous American attitudes and policies.
One year since that unspeakably grim day, it is amazing that nothing like that has been contemplated. Not only has the US failed to make any use of the lessons of an historic event, it also further emphasised the very practices which had, for years, been destroying the brilliant image of the nation which was for so long viewed as a bastion of democracy, freedom, opportunity, justice and respect for the rule of law.
While the intelligence “war on terror” has apparently been making some progress, thanks to the genuine cooperation of most of the states of the world, US foreign policy is delving further into the abyss of controversy and chaos. By trying to sabotage the International Criminal Court and by tearing up trade and environmental agreements, the US is sending the message that only right is might. By insisting on going to war against Iraq without any rational or legal justification, the US is further compromising international law and the very principles of the UN Charter. By aligning itself completely with the racist, ultra-right government of Israel, which is itself violating every possible clause of international law, the US is seen — and not only in this region — to be openly supporting aggression, military dictatorship, colonialism and gross injustice.
The century-old Palestine problem is deeply rooted in the Arab and Muslim consciousness, as it always had an Arab and Muslim dimension. Hence, it should surprise no one that the current cruelty, humiliation and aggression to which the Palestinian people are subject is deeply antagonising a large proportion of over one billion Arabs and Muslims around the world. And that is not even taking into account the millions of other sympathisers who also deplore these injustices. The United States unreasonably expects to be able to supply Israel with the funds, arms and diplomatic support it needs to deprive an entire nation of its basic rights, and yet to remain blameless and even appreciated as an “honest broker”.
It only deepens the tragedy of Sept. 11 that the US would continue to pursue policies of insensitivity and indifference, so long as Israel’s interests — as defined by the most extreme and peace-hating elements — are served, even though this blind support harms the United States more than it helps Israel.
The introspection that many in the world believed would be a natural outcome of such an enormous tragedy did not happen. The result is that the climate of hatred and desperation is only growing.
It must be repeatedly emphasised that if such a climate would ever offer an explanation for violence and terror, it should never offer a justification. The message is simple: the “war on terror” should include a very thorough examination of the conflicts, distortions and injustices that allow violence to thrive and a serious and unremitting effort to solve them justly.
Equally important, Arab and Muslim nations should not satisfy themselves with the complacent belief that because they have been the victims of historic injustices, they are exempt from any soul searching and introspection. We too must cast a cold eye on our own societies and methods, and their serious failings. We should delay no more the processes of democratisation as the first step towards creating healthier societies in which the frustration of a young generation without horizons can be channelled into productive participation, development, education and achievement, and where movements with totalistic misinterpretations of the great Islamic faith or any other philosophy have no place and no chance to take root. The recent United Nations report on human development in the Arab world underlines the enormity and urgency of this task.
The writer is former ambassador and permanent representative of Jordan to the UN.