A tall order
As grieving turns to rage
By Ahmad Sadri
September 17, 2001
Rage, Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus's son Achilles, Murderous,
doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, Hurling down the house
of Death so many sturdy souls.
-- Homer, Iliad, Book one, 1-3
The Western Tradition starts with a poem about rage. The muse sings the
story of Achilles who unleashed his suicidal, righteous rage and caused
rivers of Greek and Trojan blood to flow. But the same muse sang through
the blind poet the praises of one who managed his rage well. The wise Odysseus
controlled his anger even as the ogre devoured his friends within the slashing
range of his sword. Odysseus fought no less ferociously than Achilles. But
his eyes were fixed on a farther horizon. He harnessed his anger to the
cause at hand but unlike Achilles, he never indulged in bloodlust.
It is uplifting to see young Americans lining up for military duty, buoyed
by the spirit of fervent patriotism. But it is disconcerting that their
elders have chosen the ways of Achilles to avenge the victims of September
11th, 2001. As I am neither a fool nor a pacifist (definitely not the latter),
I do not call for America to forgive, forget, hug their enemies and make
love instead of war. But I do caution against acting with the abandon of
a vengeful hero. And I caution against the righteous anger and Manichean
delusions of leading the world to victory and uprooting the universal evil
embodied in global terrorism.
Picking out and punishing Bin Laden's squalid band of murderers is justified.
Waging an open-ended war against a nebulous enemy that is spread all over
the world is a bloody act of monumental foolishness. I wonder how one would
declare war against an enemy that is not a nation state? Maybe I am taking
"war" too literally here. Could it be that "waging war"
in this context is only a metaphor for sustained campaign against the enemy,
say like the war on drugs? It took us a decade to abandon that useless metaphor
and let Michael Douglas speak for us at the end of the movie Traffic:
"We are here to listen"!
I wonder what makes our leaders believe that the war on terrorism is
any more winnable than the war on drugs. Are the tribal networks of terror
any easier to penetrate than the loyalties that under-gird drug cartels?
Is a suicide bomber's persona any less complex than that of a drug user
or drug pusher? Are terrorists easier than drug smugglers to tag and trace?
I wonder how many bombs and body bags it will take to make us listen to
the causes of terrorism rather than fight its symptoms?
I know that the powers that be are not "here to listen." So
I will address these remarks to my fellow American citizens.
We often itch to squash the bloodsucking mosquito who wakes us with a
painful sting even if it means staining the freshly painted wall -- at least
I do. But once we have done so, we would be wise to abandon the crusade
with the flyswatter. We must quickly shut the doors and mend the holes in
our screens. Then we make certain the pools of stagnant water where the
critters breed are dried up. Let us first bring the perpetrators of the
ghoulish acts of September 11th to swift justice. Simultaneously, we have
to think of security measurers to prevent further acts of terror.
But, as Collin Powell admitted shortly after the terrorist acts, there
is precious little any free nation can do to stop a determined suicidal
terrorist. So, the next logical step is not to hunt down the individual
bands of terrorists, but to look into the etiology of terrorism. To my thinking,
the most effective way of preventing terrorism is not waging war but waging
peace against it. We must reduce the sum total of misery (poverty, injustice
and helplessness) that flows into the pool from which the fanatics like
Bin Laden recruit. Misery is the incubator of the kind of numbed self that
can be persuaded to self-immolation. Hannah Arendt explored similar hothouses
of false selflessness and potential hero/martyrs in her trilogy on origins
I can hear the objections already: reducing global misery is a tall order.
But it is not quite as tall as uprooting terrorism without triggering the
Third World War or securing America from terrorists without undermining
its democratic way of life. Besides, unlike our president, I do not talk
about "leading the world to victory against" misery. I just set
the goal of "reducing" it, and I am willing to moderate even that.
What is as crucial as reducing misery is appearing to do so. We have to
mind -- for the first time since Tocqueville -- what the world thinks of
us. Globalization has overrun our cushion of safety. Trite as it sounds,
we need a better global image. But why don't we have that already despite
our foreign aid and Peace Corps? Because we have acted as a global bully
long enough to more than upstage our philanthropy. We have to change our
political and social image in the world.
On the political front, we must no longer be the giant who walks slowly
and carries a big stick when he is good; and tramples on millions of people
to protect the tiniest sliver of its national interests when it decides
to use the stick. We can no longer be seen in the company of "our SOBs,"
the likes of Suharto, the Shah, Noriega and Pinochett whom we assisted with
coups and oppression of national uprisings. We can no longer afford aiding
and abetting transnational invasions and the mistreatment of occupied peoples.
On the social front, we must stop acting as a giant exception to the
global rule. Only in the last few months we walked out of the Small Arms
Proliferation and Kyoto Environmental conferences for no better reason than
protecting our narrow business interests. We walked out of the racism conference
because we could not brook criticism of Israel. That is not to say that
America should have accepted the "Zionism is Racism" formula.
But we could have remained and negotiated as it was clear that the slogan
would not stand as indeed it did not. We must at least wince when our opposition
to the international community on issues such as chemical weapons, production
of land mines and the prosecution of war criminals, lands us in the company
of the likes of Iraq and North Korea, the very countries have vilified as
How can all this happen? Only through political involvement of citizens
in issues of foreign policy. The events of the September 11th show that
foreign policy must no longer be trusted to politicians, bureaucrats and
generals. We must stop voting our pocketbooks and get involved in the conduct
of foreign policy. In other words, American democracy must be turned into
American polity. Now, even I admit that that is a tall order.
Ahmad Sadri is currently chairperson of the Department of Sociology
at Lake Forest College, Illinois. Homepage