It's time for the U.S. to ask
What I’m about to say could be easily
misunderstood, especially at a time such as this, when the world,
seen through the eyes of tribal emotions, seems to divide so simply
into good and evil. So I’d better say it carefully.
Here goes. The death and destruction that has happened in New York
and Washington is terrible. No one in their right mind could fail
to feel shock and horror at what happened, or fail to feel compassion
for the victims and their families. But - and here is the part that
is risky to say at a time like this - destruction and suffering
and death such as this, is equally terrible wherever it occurs.
It is ironic that one risks being accused of insensitivity in pointing
this out. It’s ironic because the people most likely to point it
out are those who have been feeling shock and horror and compassion
for years and years. They have felt it for all victims of violence,
wherever they live and whoever they are. This does not mean that
they are any less sensitive to American suffering. It is just that
they do not regard an American life as being automatically more
valuable than any other life.
The insensitivity lies, in fact, in believing that other lives are
worth less. And in disregarding the suffering of others for so long.
When one recognizes the equal humanity of all humans everywhere,
one not only feels equal compassion for them. One also perceives
them to be no more and no less rational than we are ourselves.
Therefore, one does not automatically just dismiss our enemies as
fanatics, madmen, driven only by blind hatred, and so on. One assumes
that, from their point of view, they have a rational reason for
what they do. That is not to say that we must necessarily agree
with their rationale. Indeed, such men and their actions may well
deserve to be called evil. But we must find out what motivates them.
So far, apparently, few have thought to ask.
A common claim is that the people who attacked the World Trade Center
and the Pentagon just hate us and hate our way of life. That they
hate the value we place on freedom. This has been repeated many
times by US president Bush and other members of his administration.
It is possible that this was part of the motivation, inasmuch as
some do believe that our freedoms have produced moral corruption.
And they see their own values as being under attack from “the West.”
But there was probably a lot more to it than that.
There certainly was, if Osama bin Laden’s network was responsible.
We don’t have to guess his motives, because he has been very explicit
about them. He blames the US for plundering Arab riches and for
supporting not only Israel but also corrupt Arab governments such
as that of his own country, Saudi Arabia. He condemns the Americans’
mass killing of Iraqis. And he regards the Americans’ military occupation
of some of the holiest lands of Islam as a humiliating affront to
But, important as they are, in a way those are narrow answers. Much
wider than the question of what motivated the actual perpetrators
of this terrible crime, is the question of why so many people around
the world - and they are not only in the Middle East - seem to consider
In spite of speculation, there is, as far as we know, no evidence
that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attack on the US. But he
has articulated what may well be a widespread feeling. “If you rulers
(from the United States and the West) respect and cherish the blood
of your people,” he said after the attack, “why do you find it easy
to shed the blood of others, including the blood of Arabs and Muslims?
…Americans should feel the pain which they have inflicted on other
I fear that I’m provoking the most anger of all now, by quoting
the likes of Saddam Hussein. I need to explain why I am taking the
risk of doing so.
I know as well as anyone else that he is a vicious thug - and in
fact the kinds of people who have been informed and concerned for
a long time about the ongoing suffering around the world, knew how
evil he was even before the Gulf War, when he was our ally. In fact,
I am quoting him precisely because he is as bad as they get.
We must ask, even of men like him, why they do what they do. Without
doubt, he is evil. But he is neither demon nor madman. He is human
and he is rational. And, apart from anything else, it is in our
own self-interest to know what motivates our enemies.
Here is the hardest thing of all to accept. That there may sometimes
even be some kind of truth behind what someone like Saddam Hussein
says. You see, facts are facts, whoever says them. And it is a fact
that the United States is responsible for more than a little of
the blood that has been shed in recent years, both directly and
by supporting others who shed it. The truth is in the numbers.
Here is just a partial list. In the order of three million Vietnamese,
Cambodians and Laotians died in the Vietnam war. A large proportion
were civilians killed by American bombs. In Central America, the
US supplied money, weapons, and training to brutal military regimes
which butchered their own civilians. 200,000 died in Guatemala,
80,000 in El Salvador.
In the Gulf War, the US-led coalition killed somewhere between 100,000
and 200,000 Iraqis. Call it a “war” if you like, but it is a particular
meaning of that word, given that the Iraqis killed only 111 Americans.
These are all rough estimates. But that in itself is telling: our
lack of concern in knowing exact numbers suggests how little we
care. Few even know these estimates, or have ever thought to ask.
Try this exercise: try asking someone how many died in Vietnam.
A lot of people will tell you that 58,000 died - just the number
of American dead.
We need to remind ourselves that every one of those dead Iraqi soldiers
was somebody’s son, somebody’s daddy, somebody’s husband, somebody’s
friend. And we have no reason to suppose that their death was grieved
any less than the death of an American. The same is true of the
many Iraqi civilians killed.
The Americans, with the help of the British, bombed the Iraqi people
around the clock for 42 days. 109,000 sorties in all, rained 88,000
tons of bombs. Only when the Americans were fairly certain that
there would be little resistance left to threaten American lives,
did they move in with ground forces.
So far ahead of their enemies are the Americans now, in their military
capability, that they can kill and destroy from the air at will,
with little risk to American lives. This was demonstrated again
It is hard to know the exact numbers, but it does seem fairly certain
that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died as a result of our
economic sanctions since the Gulf War. Most of the victims have
been children. One UN report put the number of children who have
died at 500,000.
A common estimate is that every day on our planet, on average, something
like 30,000 children die needlessly, from poverty-related diseases
and malnutrition. That’s one every three seconds.
How astonishing to hear so many people saying now, that the world
suddenly changed with the bombing of America - that it has suddenly
became a more brutal and dangerous place. How naïve. What ignorance
of what the world is like for most humans on our planet, beyond
the perimeter of our wealthy and generally safe home. What a clear
example of how much our tribal, ethnocentric emotions can distort
our perception of reality.
I am not suggesting that the United States alone is to blame. In
fact, it generally acts on behalf of us Canadians, and all its other
allies, and we support its actions. As the lone superpower, the
United States is the muscle of the developed world.
And I am certainly not suggesting for one moment that everything
bad in the developing world is the fault of the developed world.
That is a very silly view. But it is equally silly to believe that
we in the developed nations are not at fault at all. And, silly
as it is, that is very definitely the view that is presented, and
hardly ever questioned, in the popular media.
We are guilty for things that we have done. And we are almost as
guilty for things that we have not done.
Believe me, I am emphatically not saying that those innocent Americans
deserved to be attacked. No one deserves that, and whoever did it
should be brought to justice. What I am trying to say is that the
Americans, and the rest of us too, must ask why they were attacked,
and also why not everyone around the world has condemned it. And
why the greatest icons of military and economic power on this planet,
were the chosen targets.
According to Tommy Schnurmacher (Comment, Sept 23), there are no
questions to be asked. He agrees with the Bush administration: obviously,
he writes, terrorists are motivated only by their “hatred for a
successful and powerful country that permits the freedom and liberty
that is forbidden by their own regimes.” And so, as he sees it,
asking such questions automatically makes one just another of the
“usual assortment of professional anti-Americans.”
He’s wrong. I am as aware as he is of the virtues of the United
States. I am pro-American. All I am saying is that its virtues do
not place it above criticism. American actions must be judged by
the same moral yardstick as anyone else’s. And I cherish the freedom
to be able to say so.
The Gazette’s editor-in-chief Peter Stockland repeated Mr. Schnurmacher’s
point of view (Comment, Sept 25). According to the sub-heading of
his article, the “Dust hadn’t cleared when media were awash with
commentary blaming the victim.”
I agree with Mr. Stockland that it would have been indecent to have
expressed anything but horror and grief in the immediate aftermath
of the tragedy. But now it is time for the media to allow a full
debate. Free speech is the cornerstone of democracy.
By Mr. Richard Logan
Teacher from John Abbott College, Montreal,
The Gazette Saturday September 29th, 2001