Ignoring the role played by US actions is dangerously self-flattering and self-delusional
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 April 2013 11.27 EDT
(updated below - Update II - Update III)
News reports purporting to describe what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told US interrogators should, for several reasons, be taken with a huge grain of salt. The sources for this information are anonymous, they work for the US government, the statements were obtained with no lawyer present and no Miranda warnings given, and Tsarnaev is "grievously wounded", presumably quite medicated, and barely able to speak. That the motives for these attacks are still unclear has been acknowledged even by Alan Dershowitz last week ("It's not even clear under the federal terrorism statute that this qualifies as an act of terrorism") and Jeffrey Goldberg on Friday ("it is not yet clear, despite preliminary indications, that these men were, in fact, motivated by radical Islam").
Those caveats to the side, the reports about what motivated the Boston suspects are entirely unsurprising and, by now, quite familiar:
"The two suspects in the Boston bombing that killed three and injured more than 260 were motivated by the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials told the Washington Post.
In the last several years, there have been four other serious attempted or successful attacks on US soil by Muslims, and in every case, they emphatically all say the same thing: that they were motivated by the continuous, horrific violence brought by the US and its allies to the Muslim world - violence which routinely kills and oppresses innocent men, women and children:
Attempted "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab upon pleading guilty:
"I had an agreement with at least one person to attack the United States in retaliation for US support of Israel and in retaliation of the killing of innocent and civilian Muslim populations in Palestine, especially in the blockade of Gaza, and in retaliation for the killing of innocent and civilian Muslim populations in Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and beyond, most of them women, children, and noncombatants."
Attempted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, the first Pakistani-American involved in such a plot, upon pleading guilty:
"If the United States does not get out of Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries controlled by Muslims, he said, 'we will be attacking US', adding that Americans 'only care about their people, but they don't care about the people elsewhere in the world when they die' . . . .
When he was asked by the federal judge presiding over his case how he could possibly have been willing to detonate bombs that would kill innocent children, he replied:
"Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq, they don't see children, they don't see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody. It's a war, and in war, they kill people. They're killing all Muslims. . . .
Emails and other communications obtained by the US document how Shahzad transformed from law-abiding, middle-class naturalized American into someone who felt compelled to engage in violence as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, drone attacks, Israeli violence against Palestinians and Muslims generally, Guantanamo and torture, at one point asking a friend: "Can you tell me a way to save the oppressed? And a way to fight back when rockets are fired at us and Muslim blood flows?"
Attempted NYC subway bomber Najibullah Zazi, the first Afghan-American involved in such a plot, upon pleading guilty:
"Your Honor, during the spring and summer of 2008, I conspired with others to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban and fight against the U.S. military and its allies. . . . During the training, Al Qaeda leaders asked us to return to the United States and conduct martyrdom operation. We agreed to this plan. I did so because of my feelings about what the United States was doing in Afghanistan."
Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan:
"Part of his disenchantment was his deep and public opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a stance shared by some medical colleagues but shaped for him by a growing religious fervor. The strands of religion and antiwar sentiment seemed to weave together in a PowerPoint presentation he made at Walter Reed in June 2007. . . . For a master's program in public health, Major Hasan gave another presentation to his environmental health class titled 'Why The War on Terror is a War on Islam.'"
Meanwhile, the American-Yemeni preacher accused (with no due process) of inspiring both Abdulmutallab and Hasan - Anwar al-Awalaki - was once considered such a moderate American Muslim imam that the Pentagon included him in post-9/11 events and the Washington Post invited him to write a column on Islam. But, by all accounts, he became increasingly radicalized in anti-American sentiment by the attack on Iraq and continuous killing of innocent Muslims by the US, including in Yemen. And, of course, Osama bin Laden, when justifying violence against Americans, cited US military bases in Saudi Arabia, US support for Israeli aggression against its neighbors, and the 1990s US sanctions regime that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, while Iranians who took over the US embassy in 1979 cited decades of brutal tyranny from the US-implanted-and-enabled Shah.
It should go without saying that the issue here is causation, not justification or even fault. It is inherently unjustifiable to target innocent civilians with violence, no matter the cause (just as it is unjustifiable to recklessly kill civilians with violence). But it is nonetheless vital to understand why there are so many people who want to attack the US as opposed to, say, Peru, or South Africa, or Brazil, or Mexico, or Japan, or Portugal. It's vital for two separate reasons.
First, some leading American opinion-makers love to delude themselves and mislead others into believing that the US is attacked despite the fact that it is peaceful, peace-loving, freedom-giving and innocent. As these myth-makers would have it, we don't bother anyone; we just mind our own business (except when we're helping and liberating everyone), so why would anyone possibly want to attack us?
With that deceitful premise in place, so many Americans, westerners, Christians and Jews love to run around insisting that the only real cause for Muslim attacks on the US is that the attackers have this primitive, brutal, savage, uncivilized religion (Islam) that makes them do it. Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan favorably cited Sam Harris as saying that "Islamic doctrines ... still present huge problems for the emergence of a global civil society" and then himself added: "All religions contain elements of this kind of fanaticism. But Islam's fanatical side – from the Taliban to the Tsarnaevs – is more murderous than most."
These same people often love to accuse Muslims of being tribal without realizing the irony that what they are saying - Our Side is Superior and They are Inferior - is the ultimate expression of rank tribalism. They also don't seem ever to acknowledge the irony of Americans and westerners of all people accusing others of being uniquely prone to violence, militarism and aggression (Juan Cole yesterday, using indisputable statistics, utterly destroyed the claim that Muslims are uniquely violent, including by noting the massive body count piled up by predominantly Christian nations and the fact that "murder rates in most of the Muslim world are very low compared to the United States").
As the attackers themselves make as clear as they can, it's not religious fanaticism but rather political grievance that motivates these attacks. Religious conviction may make them more willing to fight (as it does formany in the west), but the motive is anger over what is being done by the US and its allies to Muslims. Those who claim otherwise are essentially saying: gosh, these Muslims sure do have this strange, primitive, inscrutable religion whereby they seem to get angry when they're invaded, occupied, bombed, killed, and have dictators externally imposed on them. It's vital to understand this causal relationship simply in order to prevent patent, tribalistic, self-glorifying falsehoods from taking hold.
Second, it's crucial to understand this causation because it's often asked "what can we do to stop Terrorism?" The answer is right in front of our faces: we could stop embracing the polices in that part of the world which fuel anti-American hatred and trigger the desire for vengeance and return violence. Yesterday at a Senate hearing on drones, a young Yemeni citizen whose village was bombed by US drones last week (despite the fact that the targets could easily have been arrested), Farea Al-Muslimi, testified. Al-Muslimi has always been pro-American in the extreme, having spent a year in the US due to a State Department award, but he was brilliant in explaining these key points:
"Just six days ago, my village was struck by a drone, in an attack that terrified thousands of simple, poor farmers. The drone strike and its impact tore my heart, much as the tragic bombings in Boston last week tore your hearts and also mine.
He added that anti-American hatred is now so high as a result of this drone strike that "I personally don't even know if it is safe for me to go back to Wessab because I am someone who people in my village associate with America and its values." And he said that whereas he never knew any Yemenis who were sympathetic to al-Qaida before the drone attacks, now:
"AQAP's power and influence has never been based on the number of members in its ranks. AQAP recruits and retains power through its ideology, which relies in large part on the Yemeni people believing that America is at war with them" . . .
He added that drone strikes in Yemen "make people fear the US more than al-Qaida".
There seems to be this pervasive belief in the US that we can invade, bomb, drone, kill, occupy, and tyrannize whomever we want, and that they will never respond. That isn't how human affairs function and it never has been. If you believe all that militarism and aggression are justified, then fine: make that argument. But don't walk around acting surprised and bewildered and confounded (why do they hate us??) when violence is brought to US soil as well. It's the inevitable outcome of these choices, and that's not because Islam is some sort of bizarre or intrinsically violent and uncivilized religion. It's because no group in the world is willing to sit by and be targeted with violence and aggression of that sort without also engaging in it (just look at the massive and ongoing violence unleashed by the US in response to a single one-day attack on its soil 12 years ago: imagine how Americans would react to a series of relentless attacks on US soil over the course of more than a decade, to say nothing of having their children put in prison indefinitely with no charges, tortured, kidnapped, and otherwise brutalized by a foreign power).
Being targeted with violence is a major cost of war and aggression. It's a reason not do it. If one consciously decides to incur that cost, then that's one thing. But pretending that this is all due to some primitive and irrational religious response and not our own actions is dangerously self-flattering and self-delusional. Just listen to what the people who are doing these attacks are saying about why they are doing them. Or listen to the people who live in the places devastated by US violence about the results. None of it is unclear, and it's long past time that we stop pretending that all this evidence does not exist.
Several weeks ago, I wrote about the soon-to-be-released film, "Dirty Wars", that chronicles journalist Jeremy Scahill's investigation of US violence under President Obama in Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere. That film makes many of the same points here (including the fact that many Yemenis never knew of any fellow citizens who were sympathetic to al-Qaida until the US began drone-bombing them with regularity). Scahill's book by the same title was just released yesterday and it is truly stunning and vital: easily the best account of covert US militarism under Obama. I highly recommend it. See Scahill here on Democracy Now yesterday discussing it, with a focus on Obama's killing of both Anwar Awlaki and, separately, his 16-year-son Abdulrahman in Yemen. He also discussed his book this week with MSNBC's Chris Hayesand Morning Joe (where he argued that Obama has made assassinations standard US policy).
The incorrect day was originally cited for Goldberg's column. It has now been edited to reflect that it was published on Friday.
I was interviewed at length this week by the legendary Bill Moyers about Boston, US foreign policy, government secrecy and a variety of related matters. The program will air repeatedly on PBS, beginning this Friday night (see here for local listings). You can see a preview for the show they released today - here - as well as one short excerpt from the interview on the recorder below:
Here's one more excerpt released today by the Moyers show, this one pertaining to exactly the questions raised in today's column: