Tom Friedman and 9/11

In a recent piece on this page Tom Friedman says that we lacked the imagination to see suicide hijackers plowing our passenger jets into the upper stories of our own skyscrapers. The idea being that if we could have imagined such an outcome we might have prevented it from happening.  But this would hardly have saved us from the terrorists because when it comes to destructive acts against the West their imaginations are absolutely unbridled, and at one time or another would inevitably outstrip our own.  In any case, no one is suggesting that what we now need most in our own defense is to cultivate our imaginations.  Rather, there are two courses of action that are proposed.  One, already well underway, is to root out and destroy the terrorists, their cells and their networks, and punish those individuals and nations that would harbor them. The other, considered by many but not by anyone in power and therefore not yet actually initiated, would be to provide humanitarian aid to all the wretched, Muslim populations of the earth thereby eliminating the supply of terrorists at the source.

Both courses of action address only the symptoms of the illness, for terrorists and terrorist acts, as repellant and horrible as they might be for the rest of us, are still only symptoms, and not the illness itself.  Neither course of action is directed against the illness, for the simple reason that neither takes into account the actual social, political, and economic conditions of mostly corrupt and authoritarian Muslim regimes, conditions which have permitted religious schools and other organizations, whose principal business it is to produce terrorists, to thrive and multiply. The first course, the one in which we are now fully engaged, seems to assume that the terrorist beast has only one head and, although it may take years, that the head can be cut off from the body, and the body thereby rendered harmless. But there is nothing to indicate that this is so, that if one head is taken that another will not spring up in its place.  Why, in Pakistan alone, we learn that there are tens of thousands of children who have been named Osama, and we would go after just one Osama thinking that we would eliminate thereby these thousands? The second course assumes that the terrorist beast stems from terrible life conditions, from poverty, hunger, hopelessness, and such, and that its elimination requires only that we eliminate these scourges from the earth. But there is no evidence that poverty or hunger or even hopelessness creates individuals who hate, let alone those whose hate is so great that they will be willing to die in order to bring about our destruction.  In fact, there is nothing in the history of man on this earth that connects the most heinous crimes to poverty or starvation.  The very worst acts of men against their fellow men have most often, if not always, been the works of men well provided for in regard to the necessities of life.  In the century just passed the most despicable acts were invariably carried out by heads of nations and not by toilers in the fields on the sides of mountains.

I believe that the problem that confronts our Western civilization and way of life is the disintegrating social, political and economic conditions of certain Muslim countries. These conditions at the very least engender terrorism.  These conditions are the source of our problem.  And for us to successfully combat terrorism we must begin to actively alter these conditions for the better, and, need I say it again, we cannot do so with armies or with sacks of wheat.  Take Pakistan as typical of them all.  For no Muslim country better illustrates the extreme fragility of Muslim states in the 21st. century.  Pakistan is not governed.  Instead, there are ruling factions that take turns enriching themselves and impoverishing the country. Be these Muslim states kingdoms, authoritarian regimes, religious states, democracies, whatever, they are not of their own invention.  The West has made them, and then gone out the door leaving them behind to fend for themselves.  Now they are being brought against their will, kicking and screaming into the modern age, and large numbers, probably majorities of their populations don’t like it, don’t like the loss of their traditional ways of life.  In Pakistan the battle between those who would stay behind and those who would join the modern world is particularly acute.  A N.Y. Times report filed from Karachi on September 30 tells us that Pakistan is two worlds, one urbane and one enraged, and it’s implied that without a lot of help there is no way these two worlds will ever come together. 

We should have seen the rage coming from the Muslim world years ago.  Why didn’t we?  If we had we might have influenced the mission of the tens of thousands of religious schools or Madrassahs, established throughout the Muslim world during the past 25 years and that now turn out hundreds of thousands of young men prepared to give their lives for the protection of their religion (not their country). The Taliban, and probably the thousands of members of Al Queda, are former students from such schools. One of these schools is that of Osama bin Laden himself.  But during the 1970s and 1980s, when we might have helped to lessen Muslim rage, we could see only our own great window of opportunity through which to mortally wound the Soviet Union. That came to pass, and it’s now history, but while thereupon actively engaged we overlooked, although unknowingly aided and abetted international terrorism, what would now seem to be an even greater enemy to our civilization than even Soviet communism.  It could very well be that these tens of thousands of religious schools (why in the Baluchistan city, Quetta, there are some 500 of them), more than anything that we might do, will determine whether the war against terrorism will be won by the West or not. 

So what to do, que faire, sto delat?  In one sentence, we should directly aid the “urbane” among these populations, help them to civilize and redirect in positive and non terrorist pursuits the energies of the “enraged.”

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