Home Becomes More Dangerous

by Ljilluna Smajlovic

NIN (independent political weekly), Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Sept. 13, 2001

World Press Review, November 2001


Americans have a deserved reputation for neither understanding the rest of the world very well nor having much of an interest in it. But such J misunderstanding and lack of interest are not due to stupidity or ignorance: The United States has a far greater ability to affect the world than other countries have to change the life of an ordinary American.

Up until Sept. 11, one could live very nicely in America as if the rest of the world did not exist. If Osama bin Laden is the architect of the mass crime committed against America on Sept. 11, then it is to his credit that Americans now know something they could previously ignore: the real scale of hatred and resentment that a portion of the rest of the world harbors toward the United States.

Situated securely between two oceans, Americans for decades have looked at foreigners with a mixture of suspicion and superiority, vacillating between isolationism and interventionism. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall they have lived in an indefinite state of global triumph, rejoicing in their role as the only surviving superpower and enjoying a growing material prosperity. The average American has always believed his foreign-policy elite's assurances that the reason "they hate us" is "because they envy us," as naive as this view may seem in Belgrade.

It was not envy, however, that fed the hatred that motivated the suicide killers who committed the attack on America on Sept. 11. Symbols and centers of American rule over the world were attacked, but the terrorist act committed on that horrible Tuesday had another, deeper motive and meaning. Since the Vietnam War, Americans have harbored an ideal that they have come very close to achieving in recent years: realizing their strategic goals and protecting their national interests without shedding a single drop of American blood. This is no secret to everybody here [in Yugoslavia], who for months listened to American bombs. Americans, meanwhile, rejoiced at the fact that, from the safe height at which the bombing was conducted, neither American pilots nor their aircraft were endangered. Those who followed events in Somalia, Iraq, and Bosnia also know of the dream of risk-free war. Americans are full of rhetoric about good intentions and aims, but they are unprepared to die for their ideals.

The goal in the Sept. 11 attack was to kill Americans, to 4 destroy everything American, and to undermine American values. It is usually said that terrorism is a weapon of the weak against the powerful. Osama bin Laden is not poor. He comes from a rich Saudi family, with a personal inheritance of US $300 million. But his acts of vengeance against the powerful and rich are unusually effective, in a morbid and evil way. If he is behind this act of terrorism, Bin Laden has committed a kind of perfect crime, not because he has left no trail but because he has defeated American power by means of its own airplanes.

He defeated a country that has been continually arming itself with the most costly and potentially destructive technological innovations. He used America's own commercial airplanes as weapons against its symbols of power. Bin Laden did not have to invest in expensive Tomahawk missiles; instead, he invested in Islamic religious fanatics.

So the message the United States has received is that being rich and in a position to afford the most expensive missile shield in the world is meaningless. Moreover, America enjoys no protection from its own civilian aircraft, which, "in the right hands," can be even more murderous than the most expensive and most sophisticated weapon.

Not only do Americans face an enemy without a face and state, but Bin Laden has been hiding in a state (Taliban-ruled Afghanistan) that, ironically, was indirectly created by the Americans. The United States once backed Bin Laden as a fighter against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, just as they supported Saddam Hussein when they needed him as an ally against the Iranian regime. The ordinary American knew and cared little of this before Sept. 11.

Lacking an interest in the outside world, Americans seem unaware that elsewhere, in another part of the world, American weapons destroy homes and bridges and kill children and other innocent people on behalf of Western values.

In other words, Americans are sometimes hated not because they support Western values but for completely prosaic reasons. One such reason, for example, is that they ~ direct foreign policy and commit violence against foreign ,L countries and peoples in a very tangible way and for their own interest, not always in the name of higher values. America has reaped a whirlwind, however cruel that sounds.

It was no coincidence that the day after the attack, the American press quoted Leon Trotsky: "You may be not interested in war, but war is interested in you." Those who are not the least bit interested in foreign policy or terrorism discover now that terrorism is interested in them. In this war, as experts and politicians tirelessly repeat, there are no neutral observers. This war can be neither led nor observed from a safe distance.

Americans are like all other peoples of the world: If cut, they bleed; if attacked, they close ranks around their leader, flag, and national history. And they call for revenge. In thousands of American suburbs, overnight Wednesday [Sept. 12], American flags appeared on homes. The American anthem was sung in churches. Newspapers published politicians' comparisons to Pearl Harbor, though the differences are obvious: Pearl Harbor was a different historical context, where the enemy wore a uniform, and recognizable opponents fought for territory, prestige, and influence. Yet there are apparent similarities. Both Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center are symbols of American defeat that later turned into triumph.

Those among us who do not like America and believe that this is a good moment to rejoice at its torment are mistaken. It was right for us to demand that the United States not destroy our bridges on behalf of humanism and treat us, instead, in accordance with American values, Western values that we share. In a way, it is our duty to defend Western values in our part of "the rest of the world," even if America is the one that attacks them. But in our world, America, though not the fortress it believed itself to be until now, does indeed represent a bastion of cultural, moral, and civilizational values that we share. We have no desire to see America in a state of panic. America is naturally bitter at having spent $30 billion for intelligence and counter-intelligence activities that have failed to bring security and increased protection.

But despite all the criticism that we sometimes direct toward the United States, we have no reason to be happy about a great increase in U.S. defense spending and the likelihood of more arrogant behavior on its part. There is no reason to be happy about a possible recession in the world at a very difficult moment for us, when we depend on creditors' goodwill; about possible distrust and hostility in international relations, or about "secret operations" of questionable legality by the United States directed at terrorist groups. A decline in the respect for rights and freedoms in America would bode ill for those of us who live elsewhere. Since Sept. 11, the world has become a more dangerous place to live. Not only for Americans.

September 11th, 2001 - New York City

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