Since the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center there has been a insistent effort to excuse perpetrators of violence against innocents. Not simply by conservative Muslims, but by many Westerners. The line of Muslim thought has been examined exhaustively. (Whether it has been examined competently is another matter.) This line of Western thought, however, has been either ignored or reacted to with frenzied flag-waving.
The line of Western thought I’m speaking of goes like this: Every action, especially by people or peoples with less power, is a function of historical forces. Identify the historical forces that have “caused” an event and you will explain that event. The US has made political decisions (specifically in the Middle East) and these decisions have “forced” other groups or entities to do what they have done (kill 3,000 people in the Trade Towers, for instance). There is no personal will, therefore no responsibility. The US, it is reasoned – despite, presumably, being itself no more than a function of still other forces – is therefore guilty of its own victimization. Perhaps the desire to be fair to those with less power has blended with the desire to identify with “victims,” thereby ironically absolving oneself of guilt.
An example of this thinking is from a British reporter who was attacked by a mob of Afghanis in a village just inside the Pakistan border. “I later found out,” he was later quoted as saying, “that the village housed lots of Afghan refugees, whose relatives had been killed just last week in the American bombing of Kandahar. It doesn’t excuse them for beating me up so badly but there was a real reason why they should hate Westerners so much.”
It was perfectly reasonable, the reporter testifies, for a mob of people to attack him, because they had been attacked previously, by a polity to whom the reporter did not belong but to whom they believed he bore some resemblance.
But the “real reason” the reporter was attacked was not due to his guilt, not due to historical forces. He was attacked because the particular individuals that constituted that particular mob did not possess sufficient reason, self-restraint and perspective to allow them to stop their own base impulses. They attempted to murder a man they had never seen before not because they were compelled to by historical forces or by the policies of the United States but because they chose violent retribution; they believed it to be more desirable than restraint.
On the larger world stage, the fiction is also larger, but essentially the same: Because of America’s policy decisions, it brought about the murder of its own citizens. The wives, husbands, sons and mothers of the 3,000 murdered secretaries and attorneys, stock brokers, chefs and fire-fighters have only their own government, and, by association, themselves and the deceased, to blame for their loved ones’ deaths. The men who hijacked the planes and crashed them into the buildings, those who planned, funded, trained and arranged for this event to happen, are victims.
That political decisions contribute to political atmospheres and that political atmospheres effect those in them, is beyond argument. To assert however that political decisions by a polity justify the murder of innocents (or in the language of the times “make it understandable”) is faulty and should attract more critical attention than it has, especially when those political decisions are objected to based not on their effects but on their ideological appropriateness.
The two most commonly referenced excuses for the attacks are America’s support for Israel and American military presence in Saudi Arabia. However, America’s support for Israel is objected to not because it is hurting Arabs, which it may be, but because Israel is thought of as a ritually unclean intrusion into the Arab world. Likewise, American military presence in Saudi Arabia is not objectionable because it has compromised Arabian sovereignty but because it is ideologically undesirable.
But regardless of the nature of the objection, the murder of innocent people, non-combatants in the clearest expression of the term, is not “understandable” as a function of historical forces. Historical forces do not excuse the guilty or indict the innocent. And, naturally, this is a knife that cuts both ways.