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Sympathy for the Terrorists

It's one thing to oppose U.S. policy, and it's quite another thing to consciously spread ideas and beliefs that promote the agenda of our enemies. Middle East expert Thomas Friedman recently interviewed a variety of people for a special television program about public attitudes toward the war. One American high school student of Islamic background said that while she didn't agree with the 9/11 attacks, she could understand it because the Muslim people didn't have any other way to get their message across. This is sick. It is beyond the pale. It lamely excuses barbarian atrocities by appealing to the empty cultural relativism that passes for sophistication in most of our public schools today. The fact that our tax dollars are being used to educate children who express such thoughts is itself a troubling sign of our nation's vulnerability to terrorism. Yet even many Americans seem to think that "we had it coming," so we are obliged to respond to the point.

Assuming for a moment that the Palestinians' cause was just and that Israel was the main obstacle to peace in the region, how could sympathetic Arabs best achieve a change in U.S. policy? People often blame the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) for distorting U.S. policy through its contributions to congressional campaigns, but what about all that Arab oil money? There are millions of Muslim voters living in the United States, so couldn't they form a lobby and outspend the pro-Israel activists? Of course they could. If changing U.S. Mideast policy were really the main goal of the Muslim extremists, there would be no need to resort to terrorism. (As we learned after the last Persian Gulf War, addressing Palestinian grievances only became possible after regional security had been reestablished in the Middle East -- not the other way around, as some people think.) Just as the Nazis used grievances over the post-World War I Versailles Treaty to justify their grab for power, the Arab-Islamic fascists today use Palestinian grievances as a cynical cloak to conceal their long-term strategy of dividing and conquering the West. In both cases, there was a small element of truth in what the fascists were saying, and in both cases the lies their propagandists spread were so enormous and so brazen that many people in democratic countries fell for them. They were just too "open-minded" and too weak-spirited to face the truth. "If we would just listen to their point of view and meet them half way, then we would all be able to get along." Hence appeasement, and hence war.

So what do the Arab nationalists and Muslim extremists "really" want? In brief, power. How much power? As much power as there is oil in the Middle East. At the root of the often-puzzling mass mobilization of Arab-Islamic peoples around the world today is a very simple and in some ways rational goal: a desire to achieve political power and prestige that is commensurate with their vast oil wealth. The fundamental source of Arab-Islamic rage against the West -- and the United States in particular -- is the huge imbalance between the vast wealth that has been accumulated in the Middle East versus the lack of effective power that those countries possess. Wanting to close the gap between power and wealth is perfectly understandable, and should not cause us fear in and of itself, were it not for the fact that the problem is mainly of an internal nature. The primary reason for the gap is that those societies remain bound by premodern social norms and legal institutions. Not being free to "pursue happiness" means that personal initiative and enterprise are systematically discouraged. Capital wealth thus tends to waste away or "leak" abroad, rather than regenerating itself. Persian Gulf countries have become, to varying degrees, export-dependent welfare states in which currying favor with state authorities is the only road to success. Since the alternative path of promoting development in the context of a liberal capitalist regime has been foreclosed, governments in Baghdad, Riyadh, Tehran, etc. are stuck in the rut of demonizing the West for the consequences of their own failures. Arab-Islamic fascists are exploiting the reluctance of Arab people to acknowledge their own societies' defects, and their movement is part of a pathological vicious cycle that will not go away of its own accord.

Witnessing the vehement protests against the United States around the world in recent months has been extremely disheartening for many Americans, who had been gratified by expressions of support after the 9/11 attacks. Yet galling though it may seem, we should not wring our hands or fret unduly when we see people in other countries burning Old Glory or effigies of Uncle Sam. Most of the protesters are just letting off some steam and having a good time acting self-righteously. To a large extent, anti-U.S. sentiment worldwide is a passing fad that exemplifies the universal human tendency to rebel against concentrated power, whatever the merits of the particular issue at hand. This love-hate complex is especially strong in the Third World, where individual dignity is most precarious. Ego-reinforcing street rallies do not necessarily signify approval of terrorism.

As for protesters who are citizens of the United States, however, a higher standard of judgment should apply. In a democracy, it is perfectly natural for differences of opinion about major issues to appear. One is struck, however, by the deep contempt toward President Bush and his policies that has been expressed by Senators Byrd and Daschle, and by the bitter sarcasm of moviemaker Michael Moore and many other antiwar activists. Are such attitudes really justified? Was their alternative course of diplomacy and appeasement really feasible? We can perhaps understand the bitter partisan strife that is taking place in the United States today as a symptom of collective neurosis that is not entirely unlike bulimia. "It's all the fault of those trigger-happy Texas cowboys!" "It's Wall Street and the big oil companies!" "It's the Jews!" (Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but one should note that both times that fascism has become a global-scale threat over the past century, anti-Semitic prejudice served to validate the propagandists' lies.) Historians have noted that nearly all major U.S. wars have been accompanied by boisterous dissent, and our fractured polity will probably ride out this storm without capsizing the ship of state. It would not be unreasonable, however, to interpret some of the feverish anti-Bush passions as an ironic twist on the familiar "diversionary theory of war," whereby political leaders mollify internal discontent by redirecting hostility toward the outside world. What seems to be happening in America today is that certain political leaders are deliberately creating imaginary enemies at home as a means to divert attention from the monstrous though nebulous evil that looms at our very doorstep. If so, it is utterly unconscionable.

Many people scoffed last year when President Bush called attention to the "Axis of Evil," and indeed, the way he cast issues of international security in such stark black-and-white terms was a big risk that backfired badly. Though the Bush administration has not always articulated its foreign policy with sufficient clarity, the President and his top officials at least deserve credit for recognizing the nature of the terrorist threat and formulating an effective response to it. Honest people can differ on the precise nature of the threat we all face, and on the most appropriate response to that threat. No one can deny, however, that individual attitudes about freedom play a decisive role in shaping opinions on the war. The sad truth is that most of the biggest antiwar protests in this country and abroad are being organized by freedom-hating Marxists who have created front organizations such as ANSWER. It is a terrible tragedy that earnest, committed pacifists have let themselves be used by people who advocate violence as a tool for political change. It is imperative, above all, that Americans not let themselves be duped into believing that grievances over U.S. foreign policy or lack of Palestinian rights are the "root cause" of terrorism. Evil exists, and evil cannot be "explained." (It cannot be exterminated, either.) Let us not mince words: Anyone who makes an effort to rationalize mass murder is in effect expressing sympathy for the political goals of Al Qaeda and like-minded terrorist movements.