The Apologists

As the bombs explode, get ready for an orgy of hand-wringing from the "experts."

Published July 29, 1996 9:20AM (EDT)

As evidence from the wreckage in the Long Island Sound and in Atlanta's Centennial Park is sifted, it looks increasingly as if we Americans are being attacked from both within and without.

Apart from obvious questions about who did it, we are likely to see in the coming days and weeks much speculation on why they did it -- and we are going to be told that somehow it's all our fault.

The Sunday New York Times Op-Ed page got the ball rolling two Sundays ago, when Ronald Steel, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and author of "Temptations of a Superpower," was given considerable space to expound this apologist view of anti-American terrorism.

First, in a thumbsucker following the TWA explosion, Times correspondent Tim Weiner quotes Professor Steel approvingly as describing terror as "the weapon that the powerless use against the powerful. We don't have any conception of what an ideologically threatening power we are to people who have different beliefs. Globalization and modernization are truly threatening to people. They're even threatening to the working class in this country because they drive down wages." That presumably explains the Oklahoma City bombing and the Arizona Vipers.

Enamored of such trumpet blasts, The Times gave Professor Steel half of the Op-Ed page to further explain the terrorists' point of view.
Terrorism, we are told, is "the means by which the weak frighten and punish the strong." The bomb-makers, both at home and abroad, are "both products of a world whose rules they do not understand and which they feel does not understand them." The U.S., Steel adds, is the "locus of power for a 'new world order' that would render irrelevant traditional faiths and even whole societies." So, of course they're going to bomb us. Wouldn't you?

Apart from giving aid and comfort to every murderous crackpot from Cobb County to Khartoum, this is arrant nonsense. Terrorism is not a weapon of the weak against the strong. There is nothing "weak" about Timothy McVeigh or Terry McNicol, both of whom had every opportunity to live vaguely normal and quite affluent lives. Neither is there anything "weak" about a Sheik Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric who has inspired a great deal of anti-American terrorism. His more murderous followers are not to be found starving on the banks of the Nile, they are in Jersey City, enjoying the good life as engineers. Mideast terrorist organizations could not exist without the succor of regimes like Syria and Libya, both of which are anything but "weak." Syria has the second most powerful army in the region, while Libya remains awash in oil wealth.

These terrorists, domestic or foreign, could not care less about the unjust distribution of economic power, or religious tradition, or, pace the Unabomber, the force of technology. They are totalitarians who are viscerally repelled by
democracy, theocrats who want to be in charge of societies in which no light would be allowed to shine, envious, pathological would-be tyrants who, if they are afraid of losing anything at all, are afraid of losing control over those nearest to them -- their "women," for example, whom they regard as less than human.

Ultimately, apologists like Steel, as they intone from their comfortable, tenured ivory towers, betray a deeply condescending attitude towards those they purport to understand and defend. As the revolutions in Eastern Europe show, the dispossessed and downtrodden -- unfortunately for the terrorists, and for Steel -- like what they see when they look to the West. They like the marketplace and consumerism and individualism -- all those supposedly American characteristics that Steel sneers at in his essay. Not only do they not wish any longer to subscribe to "traditional faiths," they can't wait to get rid of them.

Steel is probably right that terrorism (which he oversimplifies as a "war between modernizers and traditionalists") will be a fact of life here for the foreseeable future. He and his ilk are utterly wrong in drawing some kind of moral equivalence between the attackers and their target. But it does make for a good quote.

Quote of the day

Stiff upper lip

"Even in war-torn places, people go on. There's a little mechanism called denial. In order to survive, you have to say, 'Look at the odds of this happening.' (Otherwise) we could become numb and frozen and trapped in our homes."

-- Dr. Robert R. Butterworth, a Los Angeles clinical psychologist and trauma specialist, on how to live with the threat of terrorism. (From "Americans Are Rattled, but Grow More Resilient," in Monday's Wall Street Journal).

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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