|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
4 - 10 October 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The beginning and the end
We stood in line at JFK, waiting to board a plane for Tampa. We had missed the check-in counter and had been sent back to get our boarding passes. We were among the last passengers to be processed perfunctorily. There was one couple before us at the counter: he, dark, good-looking, rather sleek and meticulously dressed; she, a dizzy blond in uncomfortable designer sandals and a little cropped top. They were buying their tickets at the last minute. The credit card extended by the wily Oriental gentleman was declined. He looked rather miffed but not terribly rattled, almost as if he had expected this to happen. He turned to his pretty companion questioningly. She quickly extracted a number of crisp hundred-dollar bills from her beaded purse and they obtained their tickets. "I don't want to go," I whispered to my daughter. "Let's wait for the next plane: they are certainly terrorists." My daughter shrugged, handed our tickets to the attendant and signaled that she was going on the plane. I followed, against my best judgement.
"They are not terrorists at all," said my daughter reasonably after we had settled down. "Didn't you see his hands? They were professionally manicured. Besides, she would not be wearing her Manolo Blahniks to hijack a plane. I would say he's just a gigolo -- a cheap one, at that." I was not convinced, but now there was little I could do. I couldn't locate the couple among the passengers, so I just sulked in my corner.
We eventually landed safely and I forgot about the suspicious couple until recently, when open season was declared on terrorists and anyone looking remotely Arab has been subjected to various forms of harassment. Apparently, the few American travellers who still dare to travel by air have been insisting on having wily Oriental gentlemen evicted from the aircraft before departure. Although I do sympathise with the reaction (in Cairo, I refuse to ride in taxis sporting bearded drivers), I know that such prejudices are not only extremely childish, but unnecessarily offensive as well. Why should a terrorist look like an American movie stereotype? Couldn't terrorists be women, for instance? Imagine a woman who has lost her husband and sons in Palestine or Iraq, a woman who no longer has anything to look forward to; would she not accept to carry a bomb (or a vial of deadly germs) on a plane -- or train, or bus, or into a busy department store? How about the terminally ill, who might wish to avenge the wrongs visited on their people before their imminent demise? How about the young and impressionable sheltered sons and daughters of affluent families? They would look quite aboveboard, but we know that some of them do dangerous drugs; why couldn't others find their kicks in dangerous "missions"? Would a man on crutches, on a stretcher, or with his arm in a cast qualify as a potential mass murderer? Think of the possibilities.
Given a certain set of circumstances -- breeding enough despair or revulsion against injustice -- anyone at all can turn into a terrorist. Applicants need not necessarily be dark-skinned, burly and bearded; nor must they tote a Qur'an to announce their status and intentions. America in particular has had quite a bit of experience with religious cults whose members (from all walks of life) are willing to die to achieve a higher purpose. The extremists' frame of mind should not represent such an impenetrable mystery.
Americans, newcomers to the feeling that one's life is in unpredictable danger every day, are at a loss when facing the uncertainty that will now accompany their every step. They are calling on their government to find the culprits, to punish them severely, naively proclaiming (and believing) that once they are caught, the world will be a safe place once more. One is left with the eerie impression that they are talking about a war in the kindergarten and that peace will be restored when the bad are castigated and the good rewarded. This is no Little League game turned sour -- especially not when it involves bombing countries simply because they are "suspected" of harbouring wicked elements. Can the planners of such future atrocities be sure that they will exterminate not only every active evildoer but every potential one as well? What about future generations? Will they not in their turn rise to avenge their parents, unjustly sacrificed in the process of "smoking out" the culprits and their cronies?
It is all very well to divide the world between those who are with "us" and those who are not, the latter being slated to experience "our" wrath; but are the many nations that have been dealt with unjustly in many different ways for so many years likely to wipe the slate clean and pretend that nothing matters when compared to the catastrophe that befell the United States when one of its many enemies caught it off guard? Are Palestinians, Iraqis or Turkish Kurds expected to lend a hand joyfully to their erstwhile oppressor?
The arrogance of power breeds the desire to cut the powerful down to size. This is true for individuals, groups or nations. Terrorism is just a matter of degree. Much has been made of the anger of Americans following the terrible pain of their loss. They want vengeance and it is certainly a very legitimate desire, condoned by the entire civilised world. But as the call is sounded to rally former enemies and allies alike to a common cause, someone must ask questions and examine scenarios. What will happen to countries that join the witch-hunt after the United States no longer has any use for them? Will they revert to the status quo ante and suffer once more from double standards and sanctions? What price will their people have to pay? How many will be asked to die? What capabilities are needed to declare a global war on terrorism? Can it be completely wiped off the face of the earth, and is America as equipped to do the job as it claims? Could terrorism not be like a cancer, spreading maliciously once the knife has been put to it? What are the guarantees that the enterprise will be successful, and what will happen if it is not?
Many nations are slowly realising that, in a unipolar world, the only superpower has to be infinitely just, if it is to rule supreme for any length of time. Instead of going after a bunch of terrorists, it should begin to put its own house in order. Only then can it hope to eradicate the evil that is otherwise bound to destroy us all.
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