Americans entered a new world on September 11, 2001. It is a world where history can touch you, at any moment. Reality can land in your bedroom in the form of a Scud missile or an Israeli tank shell, or walk down the street as a suicide bomber. It can knock at your door wearing a uniform and ransack your house.
Reading an American magazine article about a girl whose father died in the World Trade Center tragedy of September 11, 2001, my son remarked, "Americans are weird. They devote five pages to a girl whose father was killed in a terrorist act. There is nothing remarkable about that, after all." Welcome to our world, where everyone on every side, knows someone who was killed, wounded, imprisoned, who survived a terror attack or an air-raid.
In this world there are no facts, only interpretations, no objective reality, only beliefs. Events and history are understood like chapters in the Qur'an or the Old Testament. Each person and each side attaches to them whatever exegesis, whatever significance and meaning, fits their world view and their need to believe.
What is believed is more important for history than what is true in the ordinary sense that you learned. This applies everywhere, but nowhere is it more applicable than in the Middle East, the place that has been exporting belief for thousands of years.
Orderly minds want to believe that an event like the World Trade Center attacks must have a cause that can be isolated and dealt with. If something so awful happened, it must be a sign that there is some problem to solve. There is no lack of problems to choose from, because problems and conflicts are the superabundant natural resources of the Middle East. Perhaps the problem is militant Islam, or Israeli aggression, or US relations with Saudi Arabia. Everyone interprets events according to their own theology. Perhaps Saddam Hussein is a villain, or maybe he is really a great liberator and Americans or "Zionists" are the villains. Perhaps Saddam did not invade Kuwait after all, or maybe they deserved it. Perhaps the suicide bombers are the good guys, and the Al-Qaiada and Hamas are really saints and martyrs. It depends on your point of view. Things happen, and you weave a story around them. The story is not meant to isolate the causes of a problem, it is meant to be an edifying lesson. The story may help rationalize why people are going to do something to you, for totally different and unedifying reasons such as greed, power struggles and old hatreds, or the story may just be an invention, a way of earning a living, selling what people want to hear, or the government wants them to hear.
Can we point to one particular problem, and say "That is the reason for the attacks on the US. Solve that problem and it will all go away?" There are hunger, and war and hate and lies, despotism, fanaticism, foreign intervention and puppet regimes. However, these have all existed for most of the recorded history of the Middle East. They cannot be the special cause of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Perhaps there is no problem. This is just the way chaos works. September 11, 2001 was just a manifestation of the normal sort of thing that happens in a world of bandits and warlords, magnified by the possibilities of technology. As soon it as it was technically possible for an event like September 11 2001 to happen, it was inevitable that it would happen.
In his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman tells of a Beirut a hostess, who wanted to serve dinner. She asked, "Will you eat now or wait for the cease fire?" This story is a metaphor for our lives. We never wait for the cease fire, for the just and lasting peace, because it probably isn't coming. We have to get on with our lives. On the other hand, we cannot quite eat the full meal and enjoy it with the bullets whizzing by, so there must be postponement of gratification - infinite postponement, because the cease fire is not coming.
"Believe me, a day will come, it will be good. I promise," sings the soldier to his kid sister in the Israeli song from 1948. We are still waiting. For all of the Middle East, the great cease fire, the just and lasting peace, the end of despotic regimes and the new order are consigned to a metaphysical coming event that will never come in the lives of real people, like the coming of the Messiah. The Middle East, which invented the Messiah, also invented infinite postponement of gratification. Meanwhile, we must adjust to "the situation." Americans who are looking for an end to the "war on terror" and a return to normal may be sorely disappointed.
In our world, things happen. Airplanes and missiles get thrown at you. You don't need to do anything, it just happens. Two groups are fighting. Probably they forgot the reason, or perhaps they know the reason, but not one you can understand. Perhaps they will give you a different reason from the real one. Talking heads talk about homeland and rights, to explain why thugs are fighting over drug profits or land speculators are fighting over water rights.
You think it has nothing to do with you. After all, something is always going on somewhere. But you have to pay attention to the signs before it is too late. Osama Bin-Laden and Al-Qaiada issued their fatwa against the West in 1998 but hardly anyone paid attention to this boring news from far away.
Suddenly, you are the target. If you had known yesterday, you could have prevented it, but now it is too late. You do not know the reason, Maybe you are a collateral relative of one side, or a friend of an enemy, or your house is in the line of fire, or perhaps they need money and you have money. Perhaps you were an easy touch one time, so they have returned for more. If they cannot find a reason, they will invent one.
There is never a good choice. There is only a choice between bad and worse, and there is never enough information. To follow a slogan or a crowd without understanding, or to act without principle can be worse than doing nothing, it can turn you into another aspect of the problem. However, there is always a threat, and always a choice. You cannot switch channels on your TV and forget about it. You have to try to understand, and to know what to do. The choice must be made. Otherwise it is certain that the world of order and hope will descend into the world of chaos and despair. To make no choice, to ignore what is there, to do nothing, is to choose perdition. Nobody can tune out the world any more, and deciding not to decide is not an option.
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Copyright 2002, by MidEastWeb for Coexistence and the author.
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