Thursday, May 21, 2009


Today I am flying to London to meet some old friends. I will be back on Monday and hopefully will have the strength to write by Tuesday. It is unusual for me to take breaks from posting. Normally I post everyday, with some exceptions. If you do not see anything popping up on the blog until next week, you know the reason. Never fear; I am still here, and I have plenty more issues to discuss when I sit back down to write.

I am looking forward to my trip. Traveling always refreshes me, especially when I travel to Europe. Maybe it's my ancestry kicking in. I just feel at home there. Although I am a little worried about the food (mutton, jelly doughnuts, liver salad, sausage rolls, fried fish filets, "chips" and "crisps"), I am most enthusiastic about the ales.

Before I leave, I must mention one thing I saw in the New York Times today. Apparently, the New York Police Department foiled a plot to bomb two Jewish synagogues in the Bronx. For almost a year, an informant infiltrated a group of four black American Muslims, one of whom was born in Afghanistan. During the investigation, the informant discovered that these four men "wanted to do something to America." But they had no resources, no contacts and no money. They did not even speak Arabic and had never left American soil. They simply "wanted" to be terrorists, even though they were just four poor angry black guys from New York. The informant secured some fake explosives for them, and even said he could help them obtain Stinger missiles so they could shoot down military aircraft in upstate New York. After the ill-informed conspirators planted the fake bombs outside the synagogues, the FBI moved in and arrested them all. No one was harmed. The bombs were inert.

Revealingly, the police did not even call these would-be martyrs "terrorists." Rather, they called them "petty criminals." I found this interesting. After all, America defines itself against terrorism. During the Bush era, America took perverse strength from this artificial duality. After all, life is much simpler when there is one black and one white, and the "America/Terrorist" distinction made all political analysis breathtakingly simple. It was utterly nonsensical, of course, but that's not the point. The point is that senior people in our government actually believed it. They believed that Americans were "white/good" and Terrorists were "black/evil." You can't get any worse than a "terrorist." Good versus evil. Luke versus Darth Vader. Who can misunderstand that?

But according to the NYPD, these guys were not even "terrorists." Ironically, I guess they were not good enough--or scary enough--to earn the title. After all, they were just a bunch of dumb "urban" guys who thought (stupidly) they had found free explosives. In a strange way, the whole "America/Terrorist" dichotomy actually dignifies terrorists in the sense that they must be "really good at being evil" to fall into the "terrorist" category. In other words, you need to be really good at what you do to be a "terrorist." Americans will only fear you if you are a "terrorist." They will take you seriously if you are a "terrorist." But if you are just a "petty criminal," Americans will laugh at you and call you stupid. They will not quake with fear. You do not deserve the imposing label "terrorist."

Yet how ironic is this? Aren't all terrorists supposed to be irretrievably bad, evil and worthless? You shouldn't be able to say that terrorists are "good" in any way, right? Perhaps not. According to public rhetoric, as here, you must be a really scary--and effective--criminal to qualify as a terrorist. You actually must have some skill, merit and ability to be an American arch-enemy. But if you are just a bumbling 25-year-old black guy from Brooklyn with an adopted Muslim name who says: "I want to do something to America," you are a mere "petty criminal." These guys "didn't make the cut." They were just inept "petty criminals," not ruthless, skilled "terrorists." They just weren't good enough to be "terrorists." If there were a terrorism job fair, these guys would not have even gotten an interview.

America's rhetoric about terrorism exposes even more thematic inconsistencies. In discussing the charges against these "dumb bombers," New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said: "This is a serious matter. They were planning on committing jihad (emphasis added)." I do not know Arabic, but I know from watching Fox News that jihad means "holy war." We hear it all the time. Muslims have fought jihad for centuries, both to expand and to defend their religion. Christians, too, have waged "holy wars" to expand and defend their religion (The Crusades; The Thirty Years' War; The Spanish Armada, etc). It is not a concept unique to Islam. Yet this is precisely what American rhetoric about terrorism would have us believe.

Here, the issue is not whether only Muslims fight for religion. The issue is the patronizing way in which America characterizes Islam. In this example, Commissioner Kelly--a police chief discussing criminal charges--says that the suspects wanted to "commit jihad." In English idiom, the verb "commit" always accompanies crimes. Men "commit" murder. They "commit" robbery. They "commit" rape. But jihad expresses the concept "holy war." It is not a common crime. It implies an abiding religious motivation. No statute forbids "armed action intended to defend the Muslim religion." In fact--in the Muslim understanding--jihad is a mandatory religious exercise against hostile forces; it is not a crime at all. Although its practical effects may give rise to crimes under American law, it really does not fit in the usual language about "everyday offenses." Yet Commissioner Kelly used the word "jihad" in the way he would describe any other crime. In this sense, he completely marginalized Islam and equated it with petty criminality. He might as well have said: "These men wanted to commit Islam."

I think this is significant. We still live with the inane "America/Terrorist" distinction even under Obama. Until America starts trying to understand why Muslims--both here and abroad--might have a problem with American policies and attitudes, we can expect more resentment, more violence and more "terror." George W. Bush shoehorned complicated issues into an unrealistic, fanciful "good versus evil" dichotomy. In so doing, he inflicted immense philosophical and conceptual damage on America's international reputation. Exploiting ignorance and passion after 9/11, he drew fictitious lines and stubbornly took sides. But religious strife and international disputes demand subtle explanation and genuine understanding, not blustering self-righteousness. Our problems have not disappeared since 9/11. If anything, they have worsened. The fact that there has not been another major attack does not prove that the Muslim world now "loves America." In my view, we still have a long way to go. After all, our public officials are still referring to traditional Muslim practices as "crimes."

Yet this is the absolutist path down which Bush led us. It will take time to correct the damage. It will take time to remember that black is not always black, nor is white always white. It may have been easy to think that there was "good" and "evil" in the world for a few years, but our delusion merely made the problems worse.

Contrary to all expectations, America does not yet have a monopoly on truth or virtue. Nor does it have a right to criticize other countries for waging religious wars, especially after the revelations last week that President Bush received weekly briefing books about the Iraq War inscribed with biblical quotations. If anything, we have a strong claim on the world monopoly for hypocrisy. And until we start selling our stake in that monopoly, we can expect more international strife.

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