Last month, we heard quite a furor about how the FBI and CIA failed us in the months leading up to 9/11. How, like children wielding a dull crayon, they failed to "connect the dots." Congress is probing; the media is probing; even Egypt and Britain claim that they warned the US about terrorist attacks. And now the government is gearing up for a new federal information clearinghouse: the freshly empowered and consolidated Department of Homeland Security.
While pundits consider the nuts and bolts of such a proposal, we seem to have forgotten that the administration was ill-informed not only about the means of terrorism, but about one of the deepest motives behind it.
The USA is widely loathed, but our leaders never fully grasped that before last September. Shortly after the attacks, President Bush claimed to be "amazed" that anyone hates America, because "I know how good we are." This naivete is a failure of "intelligence" not the kind the FBI and CIA specialize in, but a lapsed ability to see the global political landscape from any perspective outside one's own.
My own exposure to such alternative perspectives was painfully enhanced during my fieldwork as an anthropologist in east Africa. I happened to be living in a Muslim area of coastal Kenya in 1998 when the US embassies were bombed in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. The FBI swarmed to the Muslimized areas of the coast, eventually arresting a man (Mohammed Sadiq Odeh) who had circulated through the same towns, even the same apartment buildings, where I did my research.
The vast majority of my Muslim Swahili friends and acquaintances would never dream of committing such vicious acts, and were sorry for the loss of life. At the same time, however, a conspiracy theory began to billow through the community: the United States, through a CIA operation, had willfully obliterated its own embassies in order to have an excuse for open season on Muslims. President Clinton's subsequent bombings of a pharmaceutical company in Sudan and an Al Qaeda training site in Afghanistan (back when Al Qaeda was not so infamous) merely confirmed my friends' impression that Muslims worldwide were victims of a capricious American bully.
Conspiracy theories, it turns out, were hardly new to them; several Swahili men bolstered their case by showing me a photocopied letter ostensibly written by then-British Prime Minister John Major to his Foreign Office Minister Douglas Hogg in 1993. In the letter, Major describes colluding with the United States and other Western nations to ensure that the Muslim population are "totally displaced" from Bosnia-Herzegovina to prevent the emergence of a "possible Islamic state in Europe." These harsh prescriptions, he writes, emerge from a "real-politic" [sic] based on a broader European "Christian-Civilization and ethic" [sic].
At first, I was maddened by what I saw as the paranoid slant of these narratives, and I argued vigorously against them. I pointed out the wild exaggerations and near-hilarious grammatical solecisms in the "John Major" letter that clearly indicate it wasn't penned by an elite Englishman. I argued that while the CIA is hardly a compassionate body, it would never cost the US so much financial damage and inconvenience only to justify Clinton's haphazard retaliatory gestures. My friends were unmoved. Why?
Conspiracy theories say a lot about their perpetrators. They are weapons of the weak, usually circulated by subordinate groups who feel oppressed. They don't require evidence to make the rounds; what they need is perceived plausibility. My Swahili friends pointed to the scores of children who have died in Iraq because of US sanctions. They pointed to Western media bias that favors Israel over Palestine and even to the 16th-century Portuguese destruction of Muslim towns on the East African coast, an historical moment that stands, to them, as a synecdoche for Western/Christian hostility.
They are knowledgeable about world history (even if such knowledge is marred by bias and fear), well-connected to Muslim communities in other nations, and, as a result, highly suspicious of the United States government. The conspiracy theory surrounding the embassy bombings seemed like one way of saying: We may not have direct evidence for our claim, but judging from your track record, you might as well have done it.
President Bush might be baffled by such accusations, but they are a potent symptom of the low regard in which our country is held. I wonder, furthermore, if our future attackers are aggrieved not only by US political actions, but also by the failure of our country to validate their feelings of oppression. Dare I say, in fact, that the despicable final videotape of Daniel Pearl contains a vital clue about terrorism that has been overlooked.
Pearl's murderers force him to say that he had come to a new understanding of their point of view, and to compare his anguish in captivity to that of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. The video-makers interspersed Pearl's scripted words with images of dead and weeping Middle Easterners, presumably victims of US political and military actions. In crafting this pastiche, it is as if they were splicing together a fantasy world in which Americans finally understood, in the depths of their hearts, the suffering and resentment of some Muslim peoples.
Our government should know that fathoming the point of view of potential terrorists is not the same as approving of their acts, but it became "unamerican" right around the time Lynn Cheney's ACTA task force spit-roasted a list of academics for pointing out why the US is so reviled. Yet to refuse to grasp terrorists' perspective is to encourage a short-sightedness that will cost everyone dearly.
So what solution could possibly remedy this problem? I don't aspire to fix a global mess, but my experiences in Kenya provided a sharp reminder of the fact that a vast number of Muslims across the world (most of them peaceful, humane people, and a few of them not) are weighing our country's actions. Every US hypocrisy, fib, or denial is registered; every US policy is picked over for the way it affects Muslims on political, economic, and humanitarian grounds. A just foreign policy then, especially on issues like sanctions against Iraq and the US support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is the avenue to peace.
Social justice and fairness have not yet motivated the United States government to overhaul such policies, but perhaps, once it realizes this is the only long-term solution to terror at home, it will be willing to do so on grounds of self-defense.
Prof. Janet McIntosh teaches cultural anthropology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.