The high price of disengagement – 09/13/2001

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Paris — At 8:45 a.m. on a brilliantly clear Tuesday morning in New York, a fatal combination of history, ignorance and power caught up with America. Thousands have probably died as a result. What remains to be seen is whether the same combination will now prove fatal to thousands more.
Unprecedented power has brought the United States into the daily lives of nearly everyone on Earth — and into their nations’ often tortured histories. Yet as we have grown ever more powerful since the collapse of the Soviet Union,
economically and militarily, we have also grown ever more ignorant of the world beyond our borders.
We are ignorant, especially, of the awful weight of that world’s unresolved history, and our inevitable enmeshment in it. That is the starting point for understanding why so much of the Islamic world appears to detest the United States, to the point of cold, inhumanly calculated suicide assaults on countless innocent victims. Nothing can excuse such assaults. But neither can our blindness be excused.
The weight of history is oppressively evident in the tortured relationship between Israelis, the principal recipients of U.S. military aid, and the Palestinians with whom they are now at war. In the small corner of the planet they must share, the unresolved memory of the Jewish Holocaust meets the unresolved crisis of the Palestinian diaspora. The explosions in New York and Washington were ignited in that moral standoff.
Whoever planned and carried them out, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is at their core. Americans, however, haven’t begun to grapple with that history and its larger implications.
There is no shortage of culprits for our collective ignorance. “When I began teaching 20 years ago, our seniors were taken through an entire course of world history up to the year in which they graduated,” says Mariann Nogrady,
a faculty member at the prestigious Newton Highlands High School in suburban Boston.
Now, after funding cutbacks and a reordering of priorities, she says, “we’re lucky if we get through U.S. history, let alone to the Civil War.”
Our president, who professes pride in his lack of worldliness, has determinedly avoided serious engagement in foreign affairs, at the very moment when Washington’s hand in the Mideast is critical.
American newspapers and television stations have all but abandoned any commitment to international coverage. The most powerful nation in modern history has become an ostrich with its head in the sand.
In the last days of the Bosnian war, a young couple, both of them U.S. Air Force officers, were traveling by train to Paris. She was a ground analyst with a graduate degree from Duke University. He was an F-16 pilot, educated at the Air Force Academy, participating in the NATO assault on the Bosnian Serb Republic. “Now this place Sarajevo,” he asked another American passenger, “is it a country? Or is it just a city?”
America has a fondness for oversimplification. Most Israelis, in dress and lifestyle, resemble us. Most Muslims do not. The Arab-Israeli conflict, in mainstream American perception, pits a civilized, democratic state — born of the Holocaust, the 20th century’s most heinous crime and the moral bulwark of Israel’s existence — against barbaric tribes under the leadership of satanic monsters: Osama bin Laden today, following on the heels of Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Moammar Khadafy of Libya, Hafez Assad of Syria and the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran.
Each of these leaders has deserved our informed contempt and level-headed hostility. But the reality of their societies is infinitely more complex. It is partially to be found in the images that galvanize ordinary Arabs and help keep them under the sway of despots: children confronting tanks and missile- equipped Israeli helicopters with stones, Jewish “settlers” consuming hundreds of square miles of Arab land in the Occupied Territories — with the consent of no authority apart from that of the Israeli government and the acquiescence of Washington.
In 1996, during a spate of suicide bombings in Israel, a Palestinian official living in the West Bank hills between Jerusalem and Ramallah asked, “Do you know what it means that four consecutive generations have lived here?” His squalid refugee camp was within walking distance of Israeli settlers’ walled ranch-home subdivisions.
“Two generations held onto the hope that they would once again see the land where they were raised,” he said. “The next was raised in the camp and lost hope.” He paused, then went on: “As for the fourth generation, even I am afraid of them.”
At that time, almost all of the bombers had come from the area around Ramallah. Five years and many “targeted assassinations” later, a far more lethal generation of martyrs has emerged, across the Islamic crescent from Algeria to Afghanistan, with New York City and Washington, as its latest targets.
The enveloping despair, the erosion of human values, are neither a sudden development nor a permanent feature of Arab life. This is a disaster that has been evolving, building, for four generations.
Now we appear ready to unleash our vast power on some part of the Muslim world. A world that recalls the past much more vividly, and remembers the fact that radical Muslims like Osama bin Laden and his followers were trained and armed by the United States to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. That such retaliation may set in motion an endless exchange of atrocities haunts many people around the world today.
“My God, I hope that America will not allow this horrible event to drive the world into war,” wrote Zhou Qiu-xiang, a Chinese travel agent, in an e- mail to The Chronicle from Southeast Asia.
“What will become of America if it takes revenge on other innocent civilians to make up for these deaths?” Danielle Morand, a French educator, asked in a phone call.
As if in reply, President Bush said: “We will make no distinction between those who carried out the attacks and those who harbor them.”

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