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Pet Sins November 2001

Just who exactly comprises the 'civilized' world?

President Bush said that the U.S. and "the rest of the civilized world" will band together to fight terrorism. I fully support the president's anti-terrorism goals but I don't like his expression. Just what do we mean by "the rest of the civilized world?" In this context, it seems that anyone unwilling or unable to follow our line on the terrorist nations or organizations we eventually pinpoint or join our attack against these entities will not be considered part of the "civilized world". This would probably include a few Islamic nations.

I think we might have to explicitly redefine "civilization" to avoid misunderstandings. Webster's dictionary says "the condition of being civilized; social organization of a high order, marked by the development and use of a written language and by advances in the arts and sciences, government etc." - a rather generic definition which can be argued to include all Islamic countries today. As far as I know, they all have written languages, arts and sciences and organized governments, which may not be the same as the U.S.'s but which are nevertheless far from primitive savagery.

On top of this political arrogance - "if you're not with us on this, you're not civilized", we Americans also exhibit cultural arrogance in the wake of this disaster. An anti-terrorist expert on Fox news was commenting on the Islamic nations' resistance to "Western civilization". He said, "Pakistan and Afghanistan should see that alliance with the West is the only way of the future." Wow, I didn't know we are the ONLY way of the future.

Many major scientific and technological breakthroughs in the modern age occurred in the West and were exported to non-Western countries where they improved the lives of people. So we are the technologically superior people. But weren't the earliest tools found in Africa, which makes the Africans the first technologically superior people? Chinese, Indian and Arab empires achieved world supremacy in arts, sciences, military might and commerce during the Middle Ages. If any of these past powers had claimed they were the "ONLY way of the future" in their heyday, we would be laughing at them today, looking at how things were and how things are now. Who knows who would be the preeminent world power in the future? If we learn anything from history, it will be that European/Euro-American ascendancy will most likely not last forever. Then why are we arrogantly touting ourselves as the "only way of the future", in effect saying the Islamic world need only bother with us and with no one else, when there is a whole wide world to bother with?

Perhaps if we shared attention with the rest of the world, we won't be the main target of every other lunatic's attacks.We also add racial assumptions to the motivation for the attack. 2 guys on some 2nd-rate radio show were talking about the rewards offered to Muslim suicide bombers by their religious leaders. One guy described the Islamic teaching as "kill unbelievers and you will have 10 virgins in paradise". Now I don't know enough about Islam to tell you if this is really something written in their Holy Book. But the response of the other guy on the radio is interesting. He interpreted this statement as "kill enough Anglos and you'll get to rape virgins for eternity". Now the original saying, even if it is true, says nothing about Anglos or rape. This is something added by our American commentator. We racialize a conflict when our opponents made it about religion. This guy clearly made his statement under the assumption the only relevant target of Islamic terrorism is the Anglo-American. Is this isn't racial arrogance I don't know what is.

Fortunately, not all of us are so brain dead. A speaker on NPR made the point that Americans of all backgrounds, including Muslims, were killed in the WTC attack.This kind of cultural, political and racial arrogance, though not always intended, still forms the basis for many of our assumptions and reactions. Our attitudes may very well be the underlying cause for U.S. actions that cause other countries to hate us. Having said that, I cannot stress too strongly that none of these actions or attitudes justify an attack against innocent Americans any more than this terrorist attack justifies an attack against innocent Muslims. U.S. mistakes and alleged abuses should be addressed in a legitimate manner.

This is the time to rally behind America and defend ourselves, but this is also the time to reflect humbly on how the fanaticism and narrow-mindedness represented by Ben Laden and his cohorts are just bigger, uglier and deadlier reflections of our arrogance and unquestioned assumptions about race and "civilization".