Just once more, and then we’ll really have to get on with more pressing business. I could subscribe myself at any time to any of the following statements:
§ An Arab child born in Nablus should have no fewer rights in his or her homeland than a Jewish child born in Flatbush.
§ The United States of America has been the patron of predatory regimes on five continents.
§ The United States of America exports violence by means of arms sales and evil clients.
You can probably fill in a few extras for yourself. However, none of the above statements means the same thing if prefaced with the words: “As Osama bin Laden and his devout followers have recently reminded us…” They wouldn’t mean the same thing politically, that is to say, and they wouldn’t mean the same thing morally. It’s disgraceful that so many people on the periphery of this magazine should need what Noam Chomsky would otherwise term instruction in the elementary.
Here are two brief thought experiments that I hope and trust will put this degrading argument to rest. Both of them, as it happens, involve the date September 11.
I have long kept September 11 as a day of mourning, because it was on that date in 1973 that Salvador Allende was murdered and Chilean democracy assassinated along with him. We know all the details now, from the way the giant corporations subsidized subversion to the way that US politicians commissioned “hit jobs” and sabotage. It took the Chilean opposition many years of patient struggle to regain their country and their democracy, and the small help I was able to offer them is one of the few things in my life of which I can be proud. There was one spirited attempt to kill Augusto Pinochet himself during this period, with which I had some sneaking sympathy, but on the whole the weaponry of terror (death squads, car bombs, the training of special killers) was in the department of horror employed by Chilean and US officials working for, or with, the dictatorship. And now Chilean dignity has been restored, and Pinochet himself is a discredited and indicted figure, spared the rigor of law only for humanitarian reasons. We may even live to see justice done to some of his backers in Washington, though the holding of breath would be inadvisable.
I don’t know any Chilean participant in this great historic struggle who would not rather have died–you’ll have to excuse the expression–than commit an outrage against humanity that was even remotely comparable to the atrocities in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. And I think I’ll leave it at that, since those who don’t see my point by now are never going to do so.
There are others who mourn September 11 because it was on that day in 1683 that the hitherto unstoppable armies of Islam were defeated by a Polish general outside the gates of Vienna. The date marks the closest that proselytizing Islam ever came to making itself a superpower by military conquest. From then on, the Muslim civilization, which once had so much to teach the Christian West, went into a protracted eclipse. I cannot of course be certain, but I think it is highly probable that this is the date that certain antimodernist forces want us to remember as painfully as they do. And if I am right, then it’s not even facile or superficial to connect the recent aggression against American civil society with any current “human rights issue.”
Why not pay attention to what the cassettes and incantations of Al Qaeda actually demand: a holy war in which there are no civilians on the other side, only infidels, and a society of total aridity in which any concept of culture or the future has been eradicated?
One ought to be clear about this: The Ottomans who besieged Vienna were not of that primeval mentality. But the Wahabbi fanatics of the present century are. Glance again at the trite statements I made at the beginning of this column. Could Osama bin Laden actually utter any of them? Certainly not. He doesn’t only oppose the entire Jewish presence in Palestine; he opposes the Jewish presence in America. He is the spoiled-brat son of one of our preferred despotisms and the proud beneficiary of the export of violence. Why, then, do so many fools consider him as the interpreter of their “concerns,” let alone seek to appoint their ignorant selves as the medium for his?
Thanks to all those who demand that I tell them what is to be done. As the situation develops, they may even ask themselves this question as if it really demanded a serious answer. We certainly owe a duty to Afghanistan’s people, whose lives were rendered impossible by the Taliban long before we felt any pain. We might even remember that the only part of Iraq where people are neither starving nor repressed is in the Kurdish area, now under international protection as a result of public pressure on Bush Senior’s vaunted “coalition.” (See especially David Hirst’s two engrossing reports from northern Iraq in the London Guardian of August 1 and 2: Hirst himself is probably the most consistently anti-imperialist journalist in the region.) But wait! That might mean that one could actually do something. Surely we are too guilt-stained for that.
Thanks also to all those who thought it was original to attack me for writing from an “armchair.” (Why is it always an armchair?) As it happens, I work in a swivel chair, in an apartment on the top floor of one of Washington’s tallest buildings. In the fall of 1993 the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism urgently advised me to change this address because of “credible” threats received after my wife and daughter and I had sheltered Salman Rushdie as a guest, and had arranged for him to be received at the cowering Clinton White House. I thought, then as now, that the government was doing no more than covering its own behind by giving half-alarmist and half-reassuring advice. In other words, I have a quarrel with theocratic fascism even when the Administration does not, and I hope at least some of my friendly correspondents are prepared to say the same.