Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 23, April 2002

Those who understand Bin Laden

Warning: this article is not an exaltation of terrorism or a defense of Bin Laden. But the very fact that I have to start with this disclaimer is a sad commentary on the state of freedom of opinion and speech in contemporary US. What I’d like to talk about here is what my compatriot Umberto Eco recently referred to as "the subtle art of making distinctions," an art that seems foreign to much of the post-9/11 discussion or to the thought processes of many of our leaders.

Many commentators initially said that 9/11 brought about a dramatic shift in the American psyche, and that this nation will never be the same after that terrible day. Perhaps, but the change may be more superficial than we thought. A few months after the tragedy, we have a Georgia company selling commemorative medallions made with steel from the World Trade Center, and some families of 9/11 victims marching and suing to seek millions of extra dollars despite the large amount of governmental and private help that was proffered in record time. Bombing or no bombing, some Americans are still more attached to the mighty dollar than to elementary standards of human decency.

Our government doesn’t seem to fare much better at the helm of a war-prone president, son of a war-prone president. The US government, on the one hand, insists in calling this a “war” against terrorism (even though, technically, only Congress can declare war—and it hasn’t); but, on the other hand, it refuses to treat its prisoners as POWs. Worse, since the Taliban were obviously a ridiculously puny enemy for the mighty US, we are now looking for additional ones, and Bush nonchalantly threatens Iran, Iraq and North Korea, lumping them under the laughable label of the "axis of evil." Never mind that it is difficult to see communist North Korea plotting together with Islamic fundamentalists (or, for that matter, the mortal religious enemies of Iraq and Iran working with each other). Worse yet, Bush’s irresponsible actions (for which he gets a whopping 90% approval rate) threaten to simultaneously undo years of work at reconciliation by the South Koreans and to throw the Middle East in an even worse state of affairs than it already is.

As a byproduct of all this, Americans are seeing their civil rights reduced and an already ballooning military budget further increased in the name of a war that—we are told—will last at least seven years (did anybody notice that that is exactly the span of time of two Bush administrations?). I don’t know to what extent Bush is doing this with a cynical eye at maintaining power, or if he is simply extremely naïve in his view of the world; but it is interesting to note that leaders as far back as the Roman emperors have always realized that the threat of military danger and terrorism is an extremely efficient way of keeping your own people under control (the Romans tolerated border skirmishes and used them to exercise their legions; similarly, the comment of an American soldier sent to Afghanistan revealingly was that “This is what we are trained to do, we had been inactive for too long.”).

I am most certainly not missing the Taliban. Heck, I think somebody should have kicked their asses long ago. I have no sympathy for people who use religion to subjugate women, annul civil rights and destroy priceless historical monuments. What I am questioning is the assumption that, just by bombing people, we will solve our problems. That is where Eco’s “subtle distinctions” become important. We have to make a distinction between condemning and firmly reacting to terrorist acts on the one hand and fooling ourselves into thinking that such reaction will eradicate the problem. The war on terrorism will never be won, just like the equally misnamed and misconceived “war on drugs.” That’s because to solve these problems we first have to understand their roots. Until we acknowledge that human beings will always go after the easy pleasure of drugs and that people outside the US (especially in the Middle East) have a justifiable rancor against America, we will not make progress on either front. That this is the case should be obvious from the similarly endless conflict that has engulfed Palestinian and Israelis. Their differences are profound, cultural and historical, and cannot and will not be solved by blasting each other to pieces.

Where does said anti-US acrimony come from? If you don’t know, you haven’t paid attention. Even the European allies of the US have repeatedly taken action against what they see as the cultural and economic imperialism of Americans, and if you add the extreme poverty, ignorance, and religious fanaticism of many people in Middle Eastern countries, you have the perfect recipe for disaster. But it takes a much more serious commitment, and the art of making subtle distinctions, to address the problem seriously. It requires a radical revision of American foreign policy, and perhaps even a bit of a self-critical attitude toward the sacred cow of free-market capitalism. But of course it is far easier to keep bombing the “axis of evil“ instead.

We are told by countless bumper stickers that unity is what makes us great and patriotism is proudly expressed with small flags on big SUVs. But what makes this country great is diversity and its respect. To be a real patriot means to support one’s government when it does the right thing, but be ready to march against it when it takes the wrong turn. I know there already is a list of “dissenting” and potentially subversive academics being kept since 9/11, and this article will surely get me added to it. I still hope that Americans have learned from their past mistakes and we are not about to spiral into a second McCarthy era, but that would again require cultivating the subtle art of making distinctions, realizing the difference between understanding and condoning. Are we up for the real challenge?

Next Month: The meaning of life

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2001