|I'm not Arab. I'm not even a Moslem. I sit in my home for the last two years,
in Mumbai, India, staring at the television screen. And I look at the same
horror that my friends and ex-colleagues in the US are seeing.
I surf between CNN, CNBC and Fox, who are all showing the same thing: the
towers of the World Trade Center collapsing in slow motion, again and again
like something out of a compilation you'd otherwise get for $19.95 plus S and
H on late-night TV.
And then I click over to the BBC, the only "world" TV channel I can think of,
and glimpse a scene that brings more gasps than any concrete demolition. A
video of people dancing in the streets, in Palestine. Palestinian people
holding up their fingers up in a "V" for victory symbol. Take that, damn
Yankees, they seem to say, you've got your comeuppance.
How many of my American friends got to see that on live TV? Nothing brings
the point across better - one that I tried to make without much success
during my six years in the US: Americans, my friends, are not liked by quite
a few people around the world. There, I said the unthinkable.
And the incomprehensible. What do you mean, not liked, I'm questioned. Aren't
we the world's greatest country? What's not to like about us? We're easy
going, we've got a pretty darn good legal system, our companies kick other
companies' butts. Our people are bright, smart, we're rich, Bill Gates and
Warren Buffet are as American as apple pie. Yeah, maybe it's an overstatement
to call it the World Series when it's basically us versus a few Canadians,
but we ARE the world's most celebrated superpower, are we not? How the hell
can anybody not like us?
My eyes go back to the television set. The Blame Game has already started.
Where is the intelligence my taxpayer dollars supposedly paid for, one
belligerent gent demands on some US TV channel. How could they overpower
pilots and fly these modern aircraft into buildings, another wonders. It must
have been amazingly meticulously planned, a third concurs. Somewhere, I'm
sure, lawyers are already filing class action suits. We charge United and
American with gross negligence, failing to detect hijackers and causing death
to our clients' loved ones, I can hear them demand.
But everybody misses the point.
Why did this act take place? Why this destruction, not just of people, but
the symbol of American free trade and enterprise, the World Trade Center? Why
should a plane be flown into the symbol of America's (supposed) military
might, the Pentagon?
Let's be clear about one thing, if all that was needed was death and
destruction of people or property - then there are far more efficient ways
than hijacking four aircraft and flying them into buildings. If there was
complex organization that went into this enterprise, I'm sure somebody could
have simply brought across a tiny, far more effective nuclear device and
detonated it somewhere. But no, news needed to be created.
Do we see one thing - that a point was being made? And the point was this:
"America, I will crush your rampant ego. I will crush your symbols of pride
and arrogance and bring you down to the level you deserve to be."
Much as I despise the action and the thought behind it, one thought comes
clear. America, Osama Bin Laden seems to be saying, if indeed he is behind
this, we will make it clear that you are but one country among the 200 or so
out there. You are but a few hundred million people among the billions out
there. You are as vulnerable and fallible as anybody else.
And I shudder to confess, that, at an extreme cost of thousands of lives, the
attacker has won this first battle. He has gotten us off our high horses.
The sad fact is this. He may live, he may die. The Cruise missiles may be
staking out Afghanistan and Bin Laden's hideouts as I write this, if he is
the perpetrator of this heinous crime. He may be dead by the morning. But he
did get one point across.
We're as vulnerable as anybody else. We're as human as anybody else. There is
a world outside of us, with countries that have as much legal right to exist
as we do. Can we finally understand that we're not God?
Now the murmurs come out, some fanatical Arabs were planning this since the
US-brokered Camp David accord. Perhaps demolishing World Trade Center is the
easiest way of striking at Israel and global Jewry. Perhaps Bin Laden's time
was running out in Afghanistan, and he needed a final symbolic victory.
But what has the US done to anger the Arab world? For starters, let us
remember this: the Islamic Jihadi movement is one that has often received the
covert and overt support of the US government, as a deterrent against a
more-feared enemy, communism. Pakistan was a US ally for long, indeed the
Pakistan-funded Jihad that's going on now in Indian Kashmir is an indirect
beneficiary of US largesse. As are Mr. Bin Laden's training camps in
Afghanistan. And the super-rich Saudi kingdom that we prop with our support.
We created and indirectly funded the guys who brought down the Towers and the
Pentagon. What went wrong here?
We played God. And how do I put it nicely... well, we're not God.
Can we understand what we're facing here? For starters we have an adversary
who doesn't care if he lives or dies when he fights. His life is already so
wretched, so poor, so bereft of comfort, that the only goal he's fighting for
is the attainment of heaven. And for the men who hijacked the planes and
killed themselves willingly in the process, martyrdom has already been
achieved in the eyes of their parents, their siblings, their peers and their
That's right, this isn't about capturing oil fields or some concession away
from Enron. The average Jihadi comes from the poorest of the poor families,
and has no dreams of riches. He has one thing in abundance, like his
comrades. "Izzat". A concept that falls somewhere between pride and
self-respect. A young lad from Kabul or Karachi may remorselessly shoot dead
his own sister if she so much as looks at another man. And just as quietly
face his maker if sentenced to death for the same. Izzat at work. Pride.
That's the only thing that matters.
And if there's one thing we don't know how to handle, it's other people's
pride. Because our own gets in the way.
Why are we so surprised at these attacks? The last time we saw something of a
similar magnitude on TV, we were bombing Iraq - and bombs, sanctions and all,
that country survives till today on pride and self-respect. That was a nice
shoot-me-up video game that the good guys won. This time, we're on the
That's where the similarities with Pearl Harbour end. Yes, the hammer of the
US Armed Forces may pound the life out of a few fanatics in the Afghan
desert. But it is not a country we are at war with. It is an ideology.
We will win the return battle, for sure. Probably sniff out the kingpin,
extradite him and put him on trial, or simply bomb him into non-existence.
But the pride isn't going away over on the other side so easily.
We'll have to be much more circumspect for that. Listen a lot more to what
other countries are saying. As Eric Berne says, talk Adult to Adult, not
Parent to Child.
Start with the realization that we aren't loved everywhere. From the Senior
Bush vomiting in Japan to his son making an ass of himself in Europe, we're
not exactly seen very welcomingly. Let's tread carefully, go beyond the ole'
Bermuda-shorts-wearing, camera-swinging, dollar-distributing aging redneck
specimen we display to the world.
Can we try to be global citizens, not just Americans? Read more in our local
papers than "Cat run over by speeding truck" on the front page?
Do little things like occasionally pay our part of the fees to the UN? Or
believe that the fact that almost every other country on Earth has signed the
Kyoto protocol might be more important to the planet than the corporations
who funded our electoral ambitions?
Yes, we will win the next battle. Our destructive technology will beat their
But the war will only be won when we win their hearts. And that isn't going
to happen till we change ours.
(c) Mahesh Murthy 2001
Mahesh Murthy invests in and writes about technology and life in Asia and the
US. He has lived in Hong Kong, Portland, Oregon and Seattle and is now in
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