Against a bloody backdrop of massacres and lynchings aimed at blacks in early 20th century America, W.E.B. DuBois observed that the suffering of the nation’s darker-skinned sons and daughters gave many whites a feeling of “fierce, vindictive joy.” He further wrote, “A true and worthy ideal frees and uplifts a people; a false ideal imprisons and lowers.” As our country finds itself ensnared in an increasingly murderous, winless, and boundless “civilizational war” — exemplified by the unfolding Iraqi disaster — DuBois’ words resonate with the force and fury of the violence now being unleashed in the Middle East and beyond.
For today, America — repeating its history of sometimes “imprisoning and lowering” humanity for “a false ideal” — imprisons Muslims in torture chambers and lowers many more into coffins in order to advance the freshly-minted false ideal of winning a “clash of civilizations.” The country’s commanding classes also pursue a corollary campaign: imprisoning American minds in propaganda chambers of right-wing deception and lowering American hearts into coffins of reactionary bigotry. Through this regimen, Americans are enjoined to participate in “fierce, vindictive joy” against the terrorist Other. None too few have heeded the call.
Why have millions of Americans accepted the concept of perpetual war when it has led to the destruction of tens of thousands of lives, burgeoning hatred of the United States, escalating instability, and a massive draining of public funds?
As an American born into a Muslim family, I have experienced the social reality of anti-Muslim prejudice and acquired a heightened sensitivity to the suffering abroad enabled by such prejudice. This, I think, has allowed me to gain some insights into the process by which many Americans learned to identify “whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people [who] can be confidently labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad,'” to borrow Orwell’s words.
On September 11, 2001, a paralyzing day for America and catalyzing one for proponents of “civilizational war,” shock gripped me twice: first, in sadness for the people whose lives had been so brutally and suddenly ended; and second, in fear of the likelihood that many more innocent lives in some faraway place would be destroyed in a disproportionately murderous rampage that leaders would package as a quest for “vengeance.”
As a student in high school surrounded by peers little interested in social issues, I had always hoped for a seminal event to help me galvanize others into action. I dreaded that my generation would be forever associated with the kind of moral apathy and material fetishism associated with that utterly inane label: “Generation X.” But September 11 wasn’t what I had in mind. The attackers were Muslim. As was I. Would the fact that I was not religious — let alone fundamentalist — save me from the perception that I was, at bottom, one of “Them”? When a suspected terrorist’s name was announced on the news, I would breathe a sigh of relief because it didn’t sound like my own.
Soon after the attacks, of course, the President said Islam was not the problem or the target, despite his impolitic but revealing reference to a “crusade.” But there were plenty of warning signs. Columnist Ann Coulter bellowed, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” When the US government decided to invade Afghanistan and killed an estimated 3,000 civilians, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News averred that Afghans “are responsible” for the Taliban regime and therefore should be starved and bombed “to rubble.” A whole cartful of neoconservative windup toys were rolled off the assembly line to sermonize about the inherent evils of Islam. The need to bomb Afghans, torture Arabs, and blast Americans who didn’t support the first two goals was pressed into the American mind. As for Coulter and O’Reilly — that they have now become among the most watched figures on television is a social fact which speaks for itself.
All in all, it became rather obvious to me that being considered one of “Them” had very little to do with being a terrorist; it had everything to do with being terrorized.
In this context of open viciousness, some have understandably claimed that the detention centers, torture, air strikes, occupations, invasions, and profiling have become legitimized because conservatives deftly succeeded in transferring hatred of bin Laden’s clique to a generalized loathing of Arabs and Muslims. The less comfortable but more honest explanation, however, is that no “deft” transferring was necessary. A reservoir of deep contempt for the racial Other has always existed, channeled into outright hatred when the occasion demands it.
What else but contempt could explain the silence over the multiplicity of tragedies that preceded the tragedy of September 11? What just world could forget the US-led sanctions regime that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, support for Israeli military occupation that imprisons, uproots, and brutalizes millions of Palestinians, the backing of pro-American Muslim despots? Only a society imbued with a kind of master race ideology could manage to ignore these amply documented horrors and cloak itself in the garb of innocence after having so profusely spilled the blood of others.
Of course, the mere mention of our atrocities elicits excited howls of protest from people who denounce it as an attempt to justify terrorism. Imagine for a moment that a glass cup is dropped from a building onto the ground and shatters; then imagine that whoever explains the role of gravity is accused of justifying the glass’s breaking. Naturally, America is justified in killing 10, 50, or 100,000 people in “revenge” for 3,000 people — but it is apparently inconceivable that terrorists killed 3,000 in response to the dismemberment and destruction of their own people and societies. Obviously, the force of gravity works in some places but not others in the common sense of the American public.
The existence — indeed, prevalence — of this mode of reasoning in the American consciousness prevents the honest observer from ascribing lack of admission of the nation’s crimes to mere ignorance. Ignorance is a simple negative; the state of not knowing. This is far removed from willful ignorance, the kind that lays the pretext for imperial aggression — an ignorance borne of arrogance that enables an arrogance borne of ignorance.
And here we arrive at the core dynamic of the thesis of “clash of civilizations” that fuels our endless war, which depends on the “disappearance” of our crimes from our view to attack the criminalized. The process was aptly described by Eugene Debs 100 years ago: “You can forgive the man who robs you, but you can’t forgive the man you rob — in his haggard features you read your indictment and this makes his face so repulsive that you must keep it under your heels where you cannot see it.”
I no longer worry whether a name like mine is announced on the news, and I no longer fear how I may be packaged or classified. I have lifted that heel from my face, so that the nation’s advocates of war are confronted with their indictment, and its proponents of peace are informed of my humanity.
M. Junaid Alam is a senior journalism student at Northeastern University, who co-founded and co-edited the left-wing youth journal Left Hook (www.lefthook.org) which ran from November 2003 to March 2006. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.