As we weep and rage tonight for friends killed and missing in this horror, I try to understand why it happened and how we must respond. In America’s history never has there been so brazen, vicious, and cowardly an attack, yet it reminds me of so many other attacks we have tolerated in the past. And it is precisely our lack of significant retaliation that has led us to this agonizing blow today.
One morning in 1983 I was standing at the mirror shaving in my apartment in Beirut when the floor shuddered and the windows shattered with a terrible roar. Beyond the windows a pillar of gray and orange smoke blazed into the sky. An Islamic suicide bomber had driven a truck through the front gates of the U.S. Marines barracks, killing over three hundred and fifty U.S. Marines. For months in vain I waited for President Reagan to order retaliation. Except for a few ineffective and tragic naval bombardments, no response ever came. The terrorists came to believe the U.S. was a paper tiger.
When Libyan terrorists bombed a Pan Am plane, it took over two decades to begin to bring one terrorist to justice. An attack on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi killed 224 people, with no significant retaliation. Nor have we retaliated for the 1996 attack on the U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia, or for attacks on American and European tourists in Egypt, or last October’s bombing of the USS Cole. When a fanatic Egypt Air pilot crashes his plane from New York into the Atlantic, we tell weeping relatives that Egypt is a U.S. ally and we must not embarrass them by too close an examination of the facts.
Islamic radicals pass death sentences on western writers and we do nothing. President Bush senior, Dick Cheney, and Colin Powell had Saddam Hussein cornered in Baghdad and let him off the hook. Nor was there response when Somali crowds killed American helicopter pilots and dragged their bodies through the streets of Mogadishu – the same crowds we had dispatched our soldiers to protect.
As the years have gone by the Islamic fundamentalists have laughed not only at how easy it is to attack us, but how safely they can get away with it. We pretend it’s Osama Bin Laden, but that’s like blaming a single pickup truck for world climate change. In the Middle East, hatred of the United States has been bred over a generation into millions of people, and along with it the mistaken assumption that we are responsible for the narrowness and misery of their lives.
Hatred of our country, and of the western way of life, spews from newspapers, radios, mosque speakers, and Moslem religious teachers not just in Palestine and Iraq but also in Syria, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Pakistan, and other Moslem countries. Young men are urged into terrorist groups with promises of eternal life. “The ungodly and unbelievers,” says the Koran, “God shall render unto Hell . . . When ye encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads.”
On television, joyous crowds in Palestine and Iran and Iraq exult while American firefighters die trying to rescue our fellow citizens from burning buildings and families weep for the thousands dead and missing. In my own experience in the Middle East, both as a journalist and in other capacities, I learned that nothing incites fundamentalists more than a lack of retaliation. They may be vicious, but they are cowards. In the Six Days’ War in the Sinai I watched Egyptian troops rabid with desire to attack Israel, then run in terror at the first sight of Israeli soldiers.
“Oh prophet,” says the Koran, “stir up the faithful to war.” That is their raison d’etre: how much longer are we going to be their sacrificial lamb?The Denver Post, 9/13/2001