As the eldest son in my family, I frequently had the responsibility of taking visiting relatives to American tourist attractions. I can remember one time in particular, about five years ago, when I left one morning from my house just outside Philadelphia with three of my cousins who were visiting from Palestine. My mother and father were both working that day, so it was just the four of us, heading to New York City. I can remember going to Brooklyn, Fifth Avenue., and having a late lunch on a lower Manhattan pier before going to finish our day by climbing to the heights of the World Trade Center. I can remember my youngest cousin crying in defiance. She was scared. The sheer sight of the twin towers from the ground was enough for her. Nevertheless, as she grasped her mother”s hand the whole way, we reached the observation deck and caught that spectacular view from America”s most famous buildings.
Although I was born abroad, and although America is a land of refuge for me, I have always felt a bit of ownership over those buildings. They are, for better or worse, a staple of the American culture I have experienced, criticized, and contributed to. So, as an Arab-American, as an individual who owns parts of two distinct cultures, I was acutely affected by last Tuesday”s tragedies. Of course, I felt the same kind of grief and horror at the loss of life as any right-minded human being would.
But as an Arab-American who disagrees with much of America”s foreign policy, I find the kind of hysteria that our government and media are whipping up very disturbing. For too long, in almost all arenas of our society, Americans have accepted types of bigotry against Arabs and Muslims that would be intolerable if directed against almost any other group. As a direct product of our government”s foreign policy, Arab and Muslim heritages have been painted in direct counter-distinction to American values and culture. This constant barrage on these cultures has desensitized the American public to the humanity of Arabs and Muslims. Take for example the widespread belief that Palestinian mothers send their children to die in return for money and exposure, or that all Palestinians celebrate the deaths of American civilians. Arabs become animals, incapable of human emotion, and worthy of destruction. As a result, American politicians, media and the talking heads that so ineptly occupy our airwaves possess some of the responsibility for the backlash Arab and Muslim Americans are now undergoing and will continue to receive.
Also, unfortunately, our media and government are creating a quite alarming dichotomy. If we were, as has been suggested, attacked because of dislike for our foreign policy, then Americans must now stand in one of two camps: either one is for our foreign policy, or for the attacks. This opposition is, of course, absurd. It will, however, lead to the justification of our attacking sovereign countries and perhaps killing thousands of civilians. Let us not forget when in response to our embassies being bombed in Kenya and Tanzania, we launched 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles, killing a few of Osama bin Laden”s followers in Afghanistan and taking out a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. Six months later, our State Department admitted that it mistakenly bombed the plant with no credible pretext, destroying one of the only factories that was creating vaccines for that destitute part of the world, and probably killing tens of thousand of people. We don”t know for sure how many were killed, though, since our government blocked an inquiry at the U.N. to count the dead and assess the damage.
If we are to attack this problem, it must not be with military responses. We have seen that it does not work it simply leads to more attacks against our country. We need to recognize the root of this problem: Our policies in the rest of the world. I do not mean here only our Middle East policy, which is abhorrent in its own right, but I mean also our abandonment of international law, our refusal to sign conventions and international treaties that we yell and scream for everyone else in the world to sign, from land mine agreements, to support for the international criminal court and the convention on the rights of the child. (Yes, we have yet to sign the convention on the rights of the child). These causes of hate for the U.S. must be addressed. This is not to say that we deserve what happened, for there is no justification. No just cause is forwarded by terrorism. The cause of ending our sanctions against Iraq, which kill 5,000 children monthly, will not forwarded by these attacks, as will not the cause to end Palestinian suffering. In fact, Israeli actions have only escalated since Tuesday morning, free of world criticism.
The only cause that will be forwarded is, unfortunately, that of the American jingoist right, people like Henry Kissinger who have said we must respond to this as we responded to Pearl Harbor. Let us remember that we responded to Pearl Harbor by interning Japanese-Americans. Military attacks will cause two things: the deaths of more innocent civilians, and more attacks against our population. The frightening truth is that the prospects that now lie ahead are more menacing than those that existed before Sept. 11.
Amer G. Zahr can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org