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Action Alert 

Despair Feeds Hatred and Extremism

20 September 2001

An hour after the attacks, I was sitting catatonic at my computer screen, trying to get some news, when my neighbor poked his head in my office.

"Ever wonder," he asked, "why we're so hated? Fifty years ago we were so beloved. What happened?"

His question penetrates the simple facade built in recent days by the mass media: of America in a battle of Good vs. Evil; of the attacks portrayed only as the work of hate-filled religious zealots.

The men in the four doomed airliners were filled with hatred and a twisted interpretation of Islam. But this explanation alone is not sufficient. It does not account for the flammable mix of rage and despair that has been building up in the Middle East since the Gulf War's end.

Seven years ago, in Hebron in the West Bank, I attended a funeral for a Hamas follower, shot by Israeli soldiers after he lunged at them with acid. In the funeral tent, mourners handed out candy to celebrate the martyr's ascent to heaven. Afterward, in the street, young boys stopped their laughing and roughhousing long enough to tell me that they, too, hoped to grow up and die in such an honorable way.

My question then was like my neighbor's on Sept. 11: "Why?"

Decades of humiliation

As a journalist working regularly in the West Bank and Gaza, I repeatedly witnessed the humiliation and anger of a population living under decades of occupation: Israeli bulldozers knocking over families' ancient stone homes and uprooting their olive groves; military checkpoints, sometimes eight or 10 within 15 miles, turning 20-minute commutes into 3-hour odysseys; the sealing off of Jerusalem and the third-holiest shrine in Islam to Muslims across the West Bank; the confiscation of Jerusalem identification cards, and hence citizenship, from Palestinian students who'd been abroad for too long; the thirst of villagers facing severe water shortages while Israeli settlers across the fence grew green lawns and lounged by swimming pools; U.S. M-16s used to shoot at stone-throwing boys.

Again and again, Palestinians asked me: Why does the American superpower support this? Do ordinary Americans know about this? Do they care?

Death tolls

It was no surprise when West Bank streets later filled with men burning American flags and waving posters of Saddam Hussein, given our country's lead role in sanctions against Iraq. Children there were dying from dehydration and disease -- a half-million excess deaths, according to a 1999 UNICEF study, or 5,000 a month. This is almost the projected death toll of the World Trade Center blasts.

Again, the questions: Do Americans know about this suffering? Do they care?

At work in the Arab streets is the rage of the weak and ignored. Young men, out of work and nearly out of hope, look for someone to blame. In such an atmosphere of despair, absent any perception of justice or equal treatment, extremism grows. In its most perverse form, it helps turn commercial airliners into flaming missiles, causing unfathomable suffering.

It can be comforting to blame it all on the insane religious fervor of The Other. Much harder is to understand that our own failure to witness and address the suffering of others -- the children of Iraq, for example -- has helped create fertile recruiting ground for groups seeking vengeance with the blood of innocents.

Now the network theme music pounds out the drumbeat of war. Talk shows speak of "dusting off the nukes" and wiping out entire countries. Last week, the deputy secretary of defense spoke of a "sustained campaign" aimed at "ending states who sponsor terrorism." (U.S. officials later said he misspoke.)

But if the attacks on the United States lie just as much in rage and a sense of injustice as they do in religious fervor, will bombing a country senseless make us safer? Or will it help perpetuate more rage, more hatred, more despair -- and, quite possibly, more terror in the United States?

Sandy Tolan,
Independent journalist and radio documentary producer.
Copyright 2001 USA Today, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
Forwarded by William J. (Bill) Thomson.

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