NEW HAVEN, CONN. — 'Why do they hate us?" The question has been asked insistently by a wide cross section of Americans, from children to President Bush, since the heartbreaking attacks of Sept. 11. As if hatred were reason enough for such deadly assaults. As if Americans could have prevented these acts of terror, if only they had known that they were hated and been given a chance to fix the problem. The question is in many ways odd, suggesting a remarkable willingness to take on blame for actions that are fundamentally out of balance.
Nowhere has this fallacy been more in evidence than in the sometimes sanctimonious and embarrassingly automatic alacrity with which some academics and intellectuals have invited Americans to take responsibility for the attacks. Their almost relentless insistence on contextualization and their unwillingness to focus equally on the need to separate context from cause, let alone responsibility, have added up to blaming the United States for the terrorist attacks. It is, of course, important to try to understand why others might resent America's unprecedented economic, political, and cultural dominance. It is something else altogether, however, to go on to represent American power as the primary cause of the events of Sept. 11.
Indeed, how did it come to pass that an attack on US soil by a foreign enemy that has tried to harm it before, and will undoubtedly try again, should have been greeted with a rush to engage in collective self-flagellation, instead of reflecting on the need for self-defense and the strengths of a culture where critical inquiry is not only possible, but valued?
It is true that the other prevalent response to "why do they hate us?" - because they hate freedom and all that is great about America or the West, not to mention "civilization" - is not much more edifying. It does, however, have the merit of recognizing that terrorism is indefensible. US foreign policy did not cause the Sept. 11 attacks any more than the federal government caused the Oklahoma City bombing. Hatred of the US, anger at the federal government - these are not sufficient causes. Unless, of course, we have suddenly come to think "honor killings" are fine, that rape victims get what they deserve, and that the attacks were caused by the secularization of America by feminists, abortionists, gay activists, the ACLU, and whoever else does not embrace a certain strain of fundamentalist Christianity.
I am not saying that one should stop looking at US policies critically in the name of national unity, or dismiss the powerlessness felt by so many. I am saying, however, that one should take care not to discuss these issues in such a way as to suggest, let alone claim, that they have caused the events of Sept. 11. Nor should one believe that the massacre of thousands of civilians from some 80-plus countries was intended to "invite" Americans to redress economic or political wrongs.
Terror on this scale is hardly political discourse. Not only were the hijackers neither poor nor uneducated; they left no list of grievances or message detailing the logic behind their assault, and no terrorist organization has actually claimed responsibility for the attacks. One reason for this is that the attacks cannot be justified. People and institutions can be criticized for what they do wrong. They are terrorized for what they do right, or for no reason at all - other than some people's desire for power and their fear of an open system of government.
Although I mistrust the logic behind the "why do they hate us?" question, it also has a uniquely American quality that is worth noting. I have lived in this country for about 18 years, but am still sufficiently European to be both baffled and impressed by the earnestness behind this persistent interrogation. For one thing, I am less likely than Americans to be surprised by expressions of anti-Americanism from abroad. Also, I am perhaps more easily reconciled than most Americans to the idea that resentment is an inevitable byproduct of formidable wealth and power.
Yet, it will not do to dismiss the American "why do they hate us?" question with a European "Why not? That comes with the territory." Though it betrays a certain naiveté - and perhaps even a regrettable ignorance of the world outside the US, that can occasionally seem too convenient or even hypocritical - the question also exposes a remarkable strain in American republicanism, in the broader sense of the term, that expects foreign policy to be guided by moral principles.
That no country can live up consistently to such an ideal takes nothing away from the American willingness to affirm it. More important, Americans' uneasy relationship with their own power and their reluctance to let it go unchecked will presumably affect for good rather than ill their government's ability to have continued support for its counterattacks and to lead a sustained worldwide campaign against global terrorism, in which moral authority will play as crucial a role as military superiority.
Catherine Labio, originally from Belgium, is an assistant professor of comparative literature and French at Yale University.