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Putting The Moment On Human Terms
First, I wish to convey my sincerest condolences to the bereaved families of the victims of the atrocious crimes of September 11, and my solidarity with all of you. I share your sense of loss, for I studied, worked, married and was blessed with my first child in New York. In this letter, please allow me to humbly provide my own perspective on the context of that horrific and utterly unjustifiable attack.
Dear Fellow Humans:
I address you as such for two reasons: a) "human" is the universal component of your identity that you share with the rest of us; and b) you are human by necessity and American only by chance, to borrow the insightful distinction of the French thinker, Montesquieu. Furthermore, regarding you as predominantly "American," with all that term has stood for in the eyes of much of the world in the last few decades, would render you directly or indirectly responsible for some of the most cruel forms of oppression since the Roman Empire.
Plainly put, your ancestors are responsible for the genocide of Native Americans and for the wicked slavery enterprise. Your democratically elected governments are accountable for unspeakable crimes worldwide, from Hiroshima and Vietnam to Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. This is why your national flag is the most popular combustible item in rallies around the world. It has nothing to do with hating you as a people, or even envying your "way of life." It has everything to do with the fact that your representatives have systematically plundered other nations' wealth, destroyed their ways of life - killing and injuring masses in the process - and reduced them to little more than pathetically subservient nations.
None of this could have persevered without your approval, or at least your apathy toward those essentially non-Western nations. This regrettable apathy is both cause and effect. It is a prime cause of your leaders' freedom to be bellicose and dictating in international affairs. But this apathy has been cultivated and internalized over decades, mainly, but not exclusively, through media manipulation, omission and disinformation. One of the most consistent themes in that process has always been the view of the world as "us" vs. "them."
A quick look at your mainstream papers' headlines and editorials immediately after September 11 can demonstrate how we, Arabs and/or Muslims, have replaced the former demons, the "Reds," in being the reviled "them" nowadays.
A New York Post editorial bellowed: "Forget justice: we want revenge!" "Justice," it said, "should not take precedence over vengeance ... we should turn their country into a glowing desert." Sen. Zell Miller, D-Georgia, said: "I say bomb the hell out of them. If there's collateral damage, so be it. They certainly found our civilians to be expendable." [Emphases are mine.] The "them" referred to are stripped of their fundamental human attribute, justifying the calls for their annihilation. It is precisely this dehumanization that has accompanied your entrenched "us" vs. "them" dichotomy.
In plain terms, dehumanization to me means that our victims are regarded as mere numbers, waste, things unworthy of respectful mention, even in their miserable deaths. When our houses are gratuitously razed by American-made bulldozers, or indiscriminately bombed by American-made helicopters and missiles, most of you do not notice, or if you do, you do not lose sleep over it. Even whales trapped in Alaska, pandas suffering from loneliness in China, or little elephants stranded in Kenya solicit more attention, more human compassion, from you. Why? This is the "why?" that you must answer before you ask your own "why?" No answer to the former, though, can ever provide justification for the latter.
As a Palestinian, and as a human being who seeks justice rather than revenge, and who strives to uphold a consistent ethical perspective, I cannot address you as a monolithic entity responsible for all the injustices inflicted by the U.S. government throughout the world. I emphatically reject perceiving all of you solely as citizens of the new Rome. Despite being a member of a dehumanized nation labeled by your elected representatives as "terrorist," perhaps because of that, I cannot accept simplistic - and, in my view, immoral - definitions of identity. I prefer to view nations and cultures more as domains of shades of colors, interacting and mutually influencing one another, never absolutely separate from the rest, nor independent of them.
Hence, I choose to make the crucial distinction between you, the people, and your government, with its longstanding collusion with, and protection of, the systematic crimes and violations of international law committed against the Palestinian people by Israel during and since its creation on top of the ruins of Palestinian-Arab society. And I am not alone in this. Soon after September 11, a statement issued by prominent Palestinian intellectuals reflected on the crime, saying: "Nothing, nothing can justify this terrorism that kneads human flesh with iron, cement and dust ... and nothing can justify dividing the world into two camps that can never meet: one of absolute good and another of absolute evil." The signers of this statement and I may not have suffered to the extent that we would see the world so starkly; but, unfortunately, many others have.
Asked by a TV interviewer for his reaction to September 11, a young Palestinian boy from a refugee camp in Gaza, holding shrapnel from a missile fired near his shack by an Israeli Apache - both missile and gunship manufactured and generously supplied by the U.S. - said, in a typical reaction: "Look what America is sending us every day - how can I sympathize with them?" Perhaps sympathy would be too much to ask for from this kid whose life was shattered partly because of you. It is my deep conviction that as U.S. citizens you carry an incumbent civic responsibility to at least attempt to change your leaders' policies that victimize us and many other weak nations like us across the globe. As humans, you assume an ever-more fundamental duty in opposing oppression wherever it might occur, especially if buttressed and nourished by your country, by your tax money.
The "us" vs. "them" dichotomy overemphasizes group identity, and makes it much easier to demonize and target nations, races and individuals. Hence the concept of collective responsibility emerges. In its extreme, this concept leads to collective punishment, which is immoral and condemned by international law. Killing thousands of guiltless Afghanis, or Palestinian civilians, or Iraqis, or innocent Americans in the World Trade Center, all fall under this category, despite the obvious differences.
Since you are currently the superpower, you carry most of the responsibility to change the unjust world order. But even we, the predominantly oppressed peoples of the world, have a crucial obligation as well: to struggle for justice and the application of international law, rather than revenge; to focus on the human dimension that unites, more than all the attributes that divide; to seek an end to all oppression, rather than merely reversing the roles of oppressor and oppressed. As the prominent late Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, prophetically argued, "... the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both."
In the spirit of Freire's words, I shall leave you with the following real story.
Three days after heavily armed Israeli soldiers occupied our apartment building earlier this year, my 5-year-old daughter, Nai, overcame her initial trepidation and went out to the balcony to sing her favorite Arabic song. She stood in view of a throng of nervous occupation soldiers sitting in and around three tanks and five armored personnel carriers parked underneath. Her voice cracked at first, but soon enough she regained her typically higher pitch and confident notes, and beautifully - yet defiantly - sang: "Tomorrow the feast will come, it will come, it will come. Tomorrow the feast will come and we will celebrate. We shall have no masters then. No one will have a master. W e shall all celebrate the feast."
Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian doctoral student of philosophy at Tel Aviv University. He is also an electrical engineer and a dance choreographer of El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe, in Al-Bireh (Ramallah). His journalism has appeared in Al-Ahram (Cairo) and Z magazine.