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A Breeding Ground for Terrorists

Fanatics who are ready to go to the extreme of suicide are not born but made by circumstances, reinforced by their surroundings, and shaped by their origins. The hostility mixed with a deranged sense of mission that turns them into terrorists has well-nurtured roots. What they set out to do raises serious questions for Americans. Why do Arab terrorists target the United States? Why do so many Arabs, more than dislike, hate America?

Let's begin with the recent roots of terror in the Middle East. Beginning in the late 1940s and leading up to the first Arab-Israeli War, guerrilla tactics have been employed on both sides, by Zionists and by Palestinians. The same set of tactics was also deployed in fighting civil wars, in toppling various Arab leaders, and even in conflicts between Arab countries. So there is a large body of know-how and experience in using the tools and techniques of terrorism—an entrenched practice in the region, as demonstrated by ongoing incidents involving Palestinians and Israelis.

Enter the United States as a target for terrorism. While strongly supporting Israel from its founding, the U.S. has never hidden its concern over the supply of oil and has formed alliances, landed troops in the region, and even fought one war to protect that supply. To many Arabs, the Americans behave much like the colonial powers that occupied almost the entire region in the nineteenth century. These have included Russia, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and Turkey, with the British the most visible because of their control of Egypt, Iraq, and their lifeline to India, the Suez Canal. Great Britain and America have nearly always worked closely together, as in Afghanistan today. To an Arab, that suggests the Americans are like the British and the other colonial powers that have exploited the region.

An additional factor is the growth of militant Islamic political groups who merge political and religious perspectives. Beginning with the rise of Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s—after he overthrew the king of Egypt and several years later seized control of the Suez Canal from the British—pan-Arabism has developed into local religious and political nationalism. The ouster of the Shah in Iran and the erection of a conservative Islamic regime in that country in the 1970s continued the expansion of conservative religious governments in the region. Every country in the area today has what we in the West would call right-wing religious groupings. These groupings either run a country (as in Iran) or are so powerful that their demands cannot be ignored (as in Saudi Arabia). Militant groups train members in terrorist tactics and deploy them to further their local agendas. Repeatedly, that has involved targeting the United States.

Over the course of the last half-century, in response to Cold War politics, domestic political pressure to support Israel, and the need to protect oil supplies, the American government has sided with various political regimes that promised internal stability. That led the U.S. to support from time to time oppressive regimes that various Arab republics have opposed. Saudi Arabia is a good example, but so, too, was the Taliban when the Soviets were attempting to occupy Afghanistan. The result is widespread criticism of U.S. policies and less Arab condemnation of terrorist attacks than America expects. This helps to explain why the Arab states in general publicly criticized the terrorism against the U.S. in September 2001 but did not provide ground troops to help root out the terrorists. The most the U.S. could get were rights to fly through their air space and, in a few instances, the ability to use local air bases.

Meanwhile, over the years, the creeping violence directed toward the United States failed to arouse the American public to a crisis level. Shock and indignation, yes, but not sustained outrage and demands for retaliation. The episodes were limited to newspaper headlines and TV footage about an embassy here, a group of hostages there, Marines killed during the Reagan administration, a U.S. Navy ship attacked in Aden. Only once before Afghanistan did the U.S. reaction reach the level of direct military conflict at the level of war, and that was when a major supplier of oil to the West, Kuwait, was invaded. The thrust of U.S. efforts has been consistent: to reduce the level of terror and tension in the region while protecting the supply of oil.

The key point is that a pattern of anti-U.S. violence was not effectively quashed by the U.S. The declaration of war on terrorism finally changed that situation as America set out to impose a penalty that deters terrorism and to neutralize radical groups. But there's more to the equation. Until the Israeli-Palestinian problem is worked out, America will be branded as hostile to the Middle East and to the Islamic values cherished by its adherents. Ultimately, it will be the Palestinians and the Israelis who must make peace by succeeding where the U.S. has failed, despite its strenuous efforts.

The new normalcy calls for us to recognize that the Middle East will probably remain highly unstable for years to come. The area's governments need to sort out a large number of regional, historical, economic, even religious tensions, many brought on by themselves, others exacerbated by European colonialism and the rivalries of the past 10 decades. Arab governments are paying the price of failing to create stable middle classes by capitalizing on oil revenues and of not addressing the harsh realities of poverty and ages-long competition for limited supplies of food and water. Meanwhile, religion continues as a powerful incendiary force that inflames the atmosphere, threatens internal stability, and motivates terrorist actions. The situation calls for recognition of a clash of cultures, which hundreds of years ago would have been called a rivalry between Christians and Muslims, a view still widely held in the Middle East but which seems anachronistic to Western minds. As the area remains volatile, to the extent that we can extricate ourselves from the ups and downs of its conflicts, so much the better.

Overall, for Americans, the new normalcy calls for different ways of thinking about many issues at the global level and a return to bedrock values at the local level. Some of these have been suggested in this chapter; others will be explored in detail in the pages to come. It all begins with attitude and a way of thinking and feeling about current circumstances. George Washington, the commanding general of the rag-tag army that ultimately defeated the best equipped and managed army of its time, summed up the challenge that echoes today. On April 30, 1789, in his first Inaugural Address as the first U.S. president, he said, "The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are...entrusted to the hands of the American people." For us as 21st-century Americans, the objectives are clear and unequivocal:

  • To preserve national security

  • To protect individuals from physical harm

  • To preserve a national way of life

  • To ensure the viability and prosperity of the economy

  • To bring justice and peace to various parts of the world

  • To heal the pains of national tragedy and personal loss

These objectives pose major challenges to nation and citizen alike. In the chapters ahead, we will deal with their implementation and suggest approaches for achieving them. The overarching strategy on a day-to-day basis was summed up by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who urged us to go back to work, go out to dinner, return to the normal routines of life. President George W. Bush echoed a similar theme. The widow of one of the passengers who struggled with hijackers over Pennsylvania, Lisa Beamer, put it simply, "It's time to get back to life."

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