Eva Hoffman: Such a facile response to terrorism

'A vision of the world in which we treat "America" as giant bad parent and others as helpless victim children is insufficient'

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On Tuesday, 11 September, we walked into a new phase of history as into a nightmare from which we keep hoping to awaken. The specific horror of that day's events cannot be undone; and yet, awaken we must. But to what?

It was Karl Marx who observed that consciousness usually lags badly behind reality. The realities of what happened on 11 September are admittedly difficult to absorb by any mind; still, the gap between a radically new situation and curiously predictable categories of explanation has been striking in these strange days, and it has been no less evident in the responses emerging from the left than in the orthodox conservative reactions. The discussion has latterly grown more textured and less polarised; but the first impulse of many progressive commentators in the wake of the terrible events was to reach for their holsters and come up brandishing standard-issue anti-Americanism as if it were a brave new piece of subversive analysis.

I am not a temperamental Americanophile. After spending most of my adult life in the US, I decided to come back to Europe after all. Still, the instant deflection of rage from the perpetrator to the target, the undercurrent of schadenfreude evident in many statements ("What do you expect, given American foreign policy? They had it coming to them. We have to have a more complex view of where terrorist rage comes from. Americans will just have to learn why the world hates them so much") has been astonishing and dismaying.

Dismaying because I fear that such facile formulations may divert us from trying to understand the truly complex circumstances confronting us today. The reflexive anti-Americanism expresses not only a politics, but a kind of political psychology, whose assumptions are worth examining.

For one thing, the automatic projection of blame on to "America" (a largely metaphoric entity in this discourse) for all of the world's, and now its own woes, attributes to that country a phantasmagoric omnipotence that goes much beyond its actual, admittedly considerable powers. For another, this conception of the world discounts, with unconscious condescension, the agency of others and the fact that various countries and regions have their own histories, cultures, long-standing conflicts, and their very own, internal causes of inequality, poverty and oppression.

Yes, American foreign policy has often been misguided and sometimes reprehensible. But the attacks in New York and Washington, or the larger phenomenon of fundamentalist fury, are not reactions to actual American policies. If we think that a change in any one of those policies – including a magic solution in the Middle East, which supposedly lies within the touch of America's wand to accomplish – would induce the lion to lie down with the lamb, we are kidding ourselves.

Where the fury stems from is less clear. Undoubtedly, a widespread impoverishment and sense of powerlessness provide fuel for the anger. And the growing gap between the rich and the poor is something the West will have to tackle energetically – although there are dimensions of this unhappy phenomenon that no amount of Western good will could easily fix.

But above all, if we are to believe the perpetrators and participants themselves, the rage is an expression of an incredibly powerful, incredibly reductive mythology. A progressive critique of the politics of that mythology is something that is urgently needed and (with the exception of analyses emerging from a few knowledgeable commentators) oddly absent from the larger discussion so far.

In our eagerness to distance ourselves from a wholesale anti-Muslim sentiment (as we of course should), we forget that for fundamentalist leaders it is much easier to scapegoat the Great Satan than to address problems caused by their own repressive regimes. We seem to have unlearned all the lessons about dictatorships and their ruthlessness in exploiting their own populations. We forget that there is such a thing as populist fascism, easily incited among the disaffected by rhetorically extremist demagogues. We underestimate the extent to which the linchpin (or at least propagandist raison d'etre) of traditionalist mullahs' policy is a titanic struggle between putative good and evil, victims and oppressors, Islam and the West.

As a Polish Jew, I happen to be intimately familiar with the temptations of the martyrological mindset, and acutely aware of its dangers. In my study of Polish-Jewish history – among all the contested pasts, one of the most bitterly contested – I examined the ways in which Polish Jews, even though a minority and often a target of prejudice, were nevertheless hardly unimplicated in their fate or free of prejudices of their own. For example, their insistence on separateness in the service of preserving religious and cultural identity, had, I concluded, its own costs and sometimes tragic consequences. I raised these painful issues because it seems to me crucial to decode our own tribal mythologies, and to understand both the parameters of our external circumstances and the extent to which we are actors in our own histories.

But it is also the better part of respect to treat others – even if they come from less "privileged" societies than our own -- as responsible agents, with a capacity to think, diagnose their situation, and exercise at least some choices and options. We keep shouting at America to "learn its lessons". What do we have to say to those responsible for the attacks and their supporters? Should their motives, mindset, reasons, be the object of our concern, or address? Or do we want to say to them (as we tacitly have been doing), "You are right, America is hateful, and the source of all your troubles. We understand your outrage, and America will just have to learn why you hate it so much?"

But here too, the Critical Spirit lies strangely supine. Is that because we see all mass anger as the righteous wrath of the people and therefore beyond question? But if we perceive all eruptions of grievance as necessarily justified, we treat "the people" as a natural phenomenon of sorts, an uncontrollable force beyond human responsibility. And that, it seems to me, is ultimately not a service even to those whose anger and beliefs have been recruited so potently on behalf of a profoundly retrograde ideology.

A vision of the world in which we treat "America" as giant bad parent and others as helpless victim children is insufficient. With all sensitivity to cultural difference and disparities of vantage point, it would surely be useful to enter into an honest and rigorous dialogue with moderate segments of the Islamic community in this country, and to identify elements of democratic opposition within Islamic countries – to find out what they are thinking, and what they might want from us. Beyond that, we need to start thinking seriously about the sources of religious fervour and fanaticism; about the benefits of creating a demonised enemy, and the attractions of subsuming one's individuality in a system of laws and a collective cause.

It is still unclear what the American course of action will be. It is unfortunate to have a man as inarticulate as Bush at the helm at a moment when we long for some eloquence to shape our feelings. But so far, amazingly enough, his administration has not reacted in a hysterical or trigger-happy way. Let us hope that when it comes, military retaliation will be limited to the actual sites of terrorism.

The progressive left has an important role to play in what is bound to be a long-term crisis; but it cannot make meaningful contributions by clinging to comfortingly familiar paradigms. I keep thinking of a man interviewed on a news programme recently – a rare Egyptian dissident, who spent some years in prison, and hundreds of whose colleagues are in prison still – who suggested, in hesitant and regretful tones, that the problem in many Arab Peninsula countries is the lack of democracy. It probably took great courage for him to make this modest statement; but, unless we want to be unwittingly guilty of yet another trahison des clercs, we need to keep in mind people like him.

At the beginning of a perplexing new era in geopolitics, we too indulge ourselves in our old preconceptions not only at our own, but at others' peril.

The writer is the author of 'Lost in Translation', 'Shtetl' and 'The Secret'

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