I don’t know Ali al-Messery. The
first time I ever heard of him was on Monday, in a New York Times
article on the Madrid bombings. Yet I feel very connected to him.
What could a 32-year-old Moroccan immigrant and I possibly have in
common? Well, fear, for one thing.
Fear is “why, when Ali al-Messery stood before 1,000
worshippers at the M-30 mosque in central Madrid (last) Friday and
prayed — for the victims of the terrorist attack, for the
stability of Spain, for peace in the world — he also
beseeched God for something else. ‘The people who did this
are ignoramuses who have stones for hearts,’ he said.
‘Please God, please God, let it not be Muslims!’
Wow, talk about déjà vu, and how that same prayer
was murmured by so many lips in my community on Sept. 11. Well,
Ali, welcome to the club, it looks like you’re not going to
get your wish. Of course, this wasn’t exactly your Sept 11.
or anything. Allow me to explain.
I went to a media workshop last week at which someone asked,
what is it that gives certain stories so much attention in the
news? Speculation plays a big factor in determining the life cycle
of a story, the speaker answered. If someone kills his wife and
then turns himself in, there’s nothing left to keep the tale
alive. But an event like the Madrid bombings — that’s
pure gold, because who isn’t interested in such a juicy
whodunit mystery? I admit, I certainly am, partly out of curiosity
but more so to quell the dread that’s been building inside of
me since the whole tragedy happened.
On Wednesday, Daily columnist Ari Paul blasted the American
media for its one-sided coverage of the bombings. I respectfully
disagree with his assessment. From the very get-go, The New York
Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press pointed out
that Spanish officials initially suspected ETA, a Basque group that
has historically used terror to fight for its independence. So I
wouldn’t say last Thursday was a repeat of the mess we now
refer to as the Oklahoma City bombings. Still, that doesn’t
mean we deserve to pat ourselves on the back for not being
Paul was right when he said the Spanish Socialist Party’s
rise to power is what has the United States in such a tizzy.
It’s no secret that Spain’s incoming prime minister,
José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, plans on pulling his
country’s troops out of Iraq. In an op-ed to the Times,
Adjunct Anthropology Prof. Scott Atran said that’s what
“the jihadists” want — for America to “try
to go it alone.”
But that’s not how it needs to go down, he added. Atran
favors fighting “Islamic terror” (how did this guy get
on our campus?) through “netwar,” a “global
spider web” of international coalitions that mimic “the
swarming tactics of the enemy” as a way to defeat him. Or it,
or them, or whatever.
The problem with netwar, which Atran conceded to when I e-mailed
him, is that many European countries simply don’t define the
global terrorism dilemma the same way our policymakers do.
“We have always had a different definition of terrorism,
in that we never call it a “war” on terrorism. We call
it the fight or battle against terrorism, and we do think the
distinction makes a difference,” an anonymous European
official in Washington told the Christian Science Monitor
Wednesday. “Madrid will certainly lead to a more dynamic look
at counterterrorism operations and cooperation, but terrorism in
Europe is not a new phenomenon, so this will not suddenly be seen
as a war,” the official added. “This is not
The man has a point. For us, Sept. 11 represented the loss of
our sense of security; it made us feel vulnerable with a magnitude
that probably hadn’t been felt since Pearl Harbor. But for
Europe, with its Irish Republican Army and ETA and a million other
resistance groups, home-base attacks are nothing new.
And what is it that Zapatero is saying? That it’s possible
to be anti-terrorism AND anti-war? Incredible. That definitely
makes me feel a little better. Be it ETA or al Qaida, Spain
won’t overreact and follow the tried-and-true path of
creating and demonizing an enemy for all to hate. That’s the
plan in theory, at least. In practice, things get a bit
Take Iraq, for example, a bandwagon that Spain and many other
countries are still willing to jump on, as long as the United
Nations steps in and fixes the mess we made. While “terrorist
networks cannot be defeated unless they are destroyed, hostile
states can be defeated without being destroyed,” Atran said
in his e-mail. But is it possible to fight terrorism in nations
without painting all resistance in that area with a broad brush? In
Iraq, anyone that rebels against American troops becomes an enemy,
even if that person had initially been one of those poor oppressed
folks we promised to fight for, not against.
What’s really going to happen in the aftermath of the
Spain bombings? Does discovering the culprit change our
country’s stance on terrorism or our commitment to “the
war on terror?” I fear not. As pleased as I was to see our
media hesitate to point fingers at al Qaida, I know our discourse
on the subject is not even close to sophisticated. Not if we keep
referring to this battle as one against “jihadists”
bent on spreading “Islamic terror,” as Atran so
eloquently puts it in his op-ed.
Back to poor Ali — I feel your pain, homeboy. Let’s
just hope your country handles this tragedy better than mine.