In the wake of a catastrophe on the scale of the destruction of the World Trade towers, one question is obvious: Why are fanatics so consumed by rage and hatred that they would give up their lives to kill thousands of civilians in the United States?
Even before investigators identified Arab militants as the apparent hijackers, the media assumption was that the terrorists had ties to the Mideast. But rather than a serious examination of what political realities might contribute to an anti-American climate there, many media commentators offered little more than self-congratulatory rhetoric.
Blaming the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on “the enemies of civilization” (Washington Post, 9/12/01), columnist George Will wrote that “Americans are slow to anger but mighty when angry, and their proper anger now should be alloyed with pride. They are targets because of their virtues—principally democracy, and loyalty to those nations which, like Israel, are embattled salients of our virtues in a still-dangerous world.”
Retired Air Force Gen. Charles G. Boyd wrote in an op-ed in the same edition of the Washington Post: “This nation symbolizes freedom, strength, tolerance, and democratic principles dedicated to both liberty and peace. To the tyrants, the despots, the closed societies, there are no alterations to the policies, no gestures we can make, no words we can say that will convince those determined to continue their hate.”
Sean Hannity asked on Fox News Channel (9/13/01), “Are Americans afraid to face the reality that there is a significant portion of this world’s population that hates America, hates what freedom represents, hates the fact that we fight for freedom worldwide, hates our prosperity, hates our way of life?”
CBS’s Dan Rather, in an emotional appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman (9/17/01) gave a different explanation for the reasons behind the attack: “They see themselves as the world’s losers and it drives them batty. There’s no rationality to it. These are crazy people, they are haters.” It’s not clear who “they” are in this sentence; if he means terrorists, it doesn’t make much sense to say that terrorists see terrorists as being the “world’s losers.” One hopes that he did not mean that Arabs or Muslims see themselves as losers, and are therefore “crazy people.”
But none of these explanations address the United States’ deep involvement in Mideast politics, including military actions over the past two decades involving such countries as Libya, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. Bringing up this history would have complicated one of the themes of media discussion, that of America’s “lost innocence”—as in “we must grieve for our nation, which has truly lost its innocence” (Long Island Newsday, 9/12/01). It’s a phrase that too easily glosses over the difference between the public and the government.
One exception to the self-flattering approach was ABC‘s Jim Wooten (World News Tonight, 9/12/01), who tried to shed some light on what might motivate some anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East, reporting that “Arabs see the U.S. as an accomplice of Israel, a partner in what they believe is the ruthless repression of Palestinian aspirations for land and independence.” Wooten continued: “The most provocative issues: Israel’s control over Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem; the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia near some of Islam’s holiest sites; and economic sanctions against Iraq, which have been seen to deprive children there of medicine and food.”
In the Washington Post’s Outlook section (9/16/01), religion reporter (and former Cairo bureau chief) Caryle Murphy provided a thoughtful analysis of the roots of Mideastern anti-Americanism, concluding: “If we want to avoid creating more terrorists, we must end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly and in a way both sides see as fair. We must demand that authoritarian governments open up, and we must make a greater effort to engage and encourage those Muslims who promote moderate and modernist versions of Islam. That’s an anti-terrorism program worthy of our lost loved ones.”
Pieces like Wooten’s and Murphy’s, which examine the U.S.’s role in the Middle East and illuminate some of the forces that can give rise to violent extremism, contribute far more to public security than do pundits who flatter Americans that they are hated for their goodness.
Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume (9/23/01), however, warned against inquiring too deeply into the motives of terrorism, portraying such efforts as an attempt to excuse the hijackers’ crime: “Some of these views that you’re hearing now that blame America, that say that this country was responsible for what happened in one way or another, that all of this grows out of American support of the terrorist state of Israel, this sort of thing…. We can now see these views for what ultimately they are. They are a critique of our country…the views of people to whom anti-Americanism is a political philosophy in itself.”