Why is the United States Despised?
Local U.S. policy experts and activists grappled with grief and shock along with the rest of the country following the violence of September 11. While they took pains to explain that they in no way excuse or condone the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, some were willing to offer their insights into the reasons so many people hate America.
Understanding the motives behind terrorist attacks against the United States is hampered by the assumptions many Americans hold, said Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Related to that assumption is the belief that the United States is both innocent and invulnerable, which prevents Americans from listening to the message behind such events.
"The important thing is to be able to listen insofar as we can to the people who carried out this thing," Chernus said. "We start out with the assumption that there's no point in listening to what they have to say. The general assumption is that if you listen to what they say, that endorses (the attack)."
Chernus points out that the message of terrorists on trial for other acts of violence around the world has been left out of court coverage. People never get a clear picture of what's bothering these people and why they were driven to such extremes.
While some critics claim that U.S. policy is motivated by greed or aggression, Chernus believes foreign policy since World War II has been focused on defending the country against perceived threats like communism and the Soviet Union. Those efforts to protect and defend often extend far beyond U.S. borders, however, forcing the United States into conflict with other peoples.
"We believe the only way to defend the United States is to organize the world. We step on other people's toes every day in ways we can't understand," Chernus said. "It's a stupid way to defend yourself because in the end you experience more risk."
According to David Barsamian, host of the nationally broadcast program Alternative Radio, risk to American lives comes as a result of rage generated by U.S. foreign policy and economic and cultural hegemony.
"It's directly related to its foreign policy and its perception as the primary agent and enforcer of the status quo of the global capitalist system," said Barsamian. "What's extraordinary about these attacks is the level of sophistication. Where is the CIA? Where is the FBI? Where are the tens of billions of dollars being spent?"
Speculation since the attacks has centered on various Islamic fundamentalist groups, particularly Saudi Arabian exile Osama Bin Laden and his followers. While pointing out that we don't know who is responsible for the attacks, Barsamian stressed there is a great deal of rage toward the United States in the Middle East.
"U.S. foreign policy is seen by many Middle Eastern people as being overwhelmingly one-sided in favor of Israel," he said. "There's tremendous anger toward the United States, and there's a tremendous irony in this. If it is traced to Bin Laden, he's a product of U.S. foreign policy."
In an effort to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, the U.S. swallowed its repugnance toward Bin Laden and men like him, who were trained and funded by the CIA in a bit of Cold War strategy that has had devastating consequences as the students turn their weapons against their teachers.
"This is an example of blowback," Barsamian said, adding, "if it can be traced to this particular group, which is not farfetched."
Joel Edelstein, professor of political science at CU-Denver and producer of programs at KGNU radio, acknowledged that Israel has legitimate concerns about its safety. Still, the struggle in the Middle East has been over land, with the United States supporting a policy that is devastating to Palestinians, he said.
"You have this ongoing degradation of Palestinians," Edelstein said. "They really were forced out of their houses. Their houses really were bulldozed."
The United States spends $3.5 billion annually on aid to Israel, which goes to support these actions and to defend Israel's continued settlement on the West Bank.
"Americans would not sit quiet if they were treated like the Palestinians are treated by the Israelis," Edelstein said.
Barsamian said Israel's policies build desperation in Palestinian people.
"If you lose your land, if you cannot feed your family, if you've been culturally humiliated, if you've been denigrated on all sides -- this creates a reaction, and that reaction can take extreme forms," he said. Terrorism, Barsamian said, is the "poor man's B-52."
But it's not just U.S. policy in the Middle East that makes the United States a target, experts agree. Nor is dissatisfaction with the United States limited to Muslims. U.S. indifference toward World Court rulings, its refusal to fulfill its financial obligations to the United Nations, and its global military presence also inspire antipathy in people around the world, including America's allies.
"To Americans it seems perfectly normal that we have military bases in scores of countries, but imagine if Thailand had bases in Canada," Barsamian said, conjuring up images of Thai fighters enforcing no-fly zones over parts of the United States.
The U.S. military presence is offensive to people around the world, he said. This is particularly true in the Middle East, which has become a sort of "floating military base," with U.S. warships continually stationed in waters surrounding the Persian Gulf.
"This is arrogance. This is imperial behavior," Barsamian said.
The "American imperial swagger" that accompanies the U.S. military only makes matters worse, Barsamian said. This swagger reveals itself in the U.S. tendency to act unilaterally, rejecting international opinion and even U.N. authority on issues like sanctions against Cuba, the Kyoto Accord, and nuclear weapons treaties.
"International treaties are not us," he said. "Bush has never met an international treaty he liked. This is John Wayne politics."
Resentment toward the United States extends to Europe, as well. "Any top dog faces resentment, but some of it is rooted in quite strong political feeling," Barsamian said.
Europeans are mystified and outraged by American use of capital punishment and the opposition of some Americans toward abortion. And while European nations have tried to voice their opinions on U.S. decisions and actions abroad, the U.S. government has not welcomed the feedback, ignoring resolutions made by the European Parliament.
"We're a rogue nation," said Edelstein. "The European nations are looking at us in terms of putting missiles in space, refusing to sign Kyoto. Europe thinks we're crazy."
Allies that used to vote with us or abstain from voting on controversial issues of importance to the United States are now voting against us as our isolation grows, Edelstein said.
While Americans tend to view the United States as a force for freedom, justice and democracy in the world, many other peoples see the United States as an oppressor, he said. "We are the sole hegemon. We're returning to the concept of Manifest Destiny."
A World In Poverty
"Not only does the United States export foreign policy. It also exports its culture," Barsamian said. "There's not sensitivity to local culture and local traditions, particularly in the Islamic world where tradition is stronger than it is in Europe."
This culture takes the form of Hollywood movies, Starbucks, and Burger Kings on street corners in places like Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where American culture is considered suspect at best.
"We tend to view the United States as the universal culture to which all others aspire," said Edelstein.
This is based, in part, on misconceptions Americans have of their own country, he said. "We think we have the highest wages, which is not true," Edelstein said. "We think we are the freest country, which is debatable. We tend to think we have the best democracy, which is absurd."
Such blind faith in our own culture creates the mistaken belief that it is welcome everywhere.
In the United States, culture is intimately tied to economy, and the U.S. government promotes the latter with a vengeance. Barsamian said U.S. diplomatic policy could be summed up this way: "We're going to do what we want."
Barsamian recalls a story Vandana Shiva shared with him during an interview. Shiva, a human-rights activist from India, quoted a U.S. trade representative speaking with Indian officials as saying, "'If you don't open up your markets, we're going to break them open with a crowbar.'"
"This is how the Mafia don speaks," Barsamian said. "I often say if you want to understand U.S. policy, watch 'The Godfather.'"
Despite the effort put into the economy, global capitalism has not delivered to many people around the globe, Barsamian said.
"It has not delivered the kind of benefits that are meaningful to segments of the population. Having a Burger King around the corner is not meaningful."
Edelstein agrees. "The U.S. government represents the wealthy in our own country," he said. "And our friends are the wealthy in other countries. You can see it in the development model we support through the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank."
This model ensures that a small percentage of people in developing countries move up financially but leaves the vast majority behind, he said.
Intense protests against the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization over the past two years indicate that some Americans are concerned about the connection between poverty and global development, Edelstein said.
Carolyn Bninski, a local activist who was arrested in April 2000 during the IMF protests in Washington, D.C., said the current model of development accounts for about six million deaths worldwide each year.
"We use economic power to impose policies on countries that benefit wealthy corporations in the United States but harm local people," Bninski said. "A lot of people die -- slow deaths perhaps -- as a result of those policies. I am in no way downplaying the horror (of the terrorist attacks). I think it's a horrible tragedy. But I think we need to start seeing our relationship to every life and everybody on this planet."
Scott Silber, a local community organizer who has also participated in protests against the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization, said people from all segments of U.S. society have become concerned about these economic policies.
"People have been able to link the symptoms they're fighting to global corporate power," Silber said.
Those symptoms include violations of human rights, workers' rights, the rights of women and indigenous people, as well as the destruction of the environment and the blind pursuit of capital, he said.
"People are suffering," Silber said. "The vast majority of the world is in poverty, and the United States is on the benefiting end of that."
A Call for Empathy
Bninski said it's time for Americans to learn to empathize with people who are suffering around the world. While they connect to the suffering of other Americans, they seem blind to the suffering of non-Americans.
"I think we have to think about every human life as being of equal value, not just Americans," Bninski said. "We need to start thinking of global citizens and think of the impact of U.S. decisions on other people."
On Bninski's mind are the deaths of an estimated one million Iraqi children since 1990 due to U.S.-imposed sanctions and the destruction in Yugoslavia brought on by 68 days of bombing.
"I think of the images of Burmese workers on (American-owned) pipelines with chains around their ankles," said Silber. "I think of the workers I see every day all around me who are working 16-hour days to survive and feed their families. I think of the little children who are born into war-torn areas of the world where it seems like their lives are hopeless. If only war weren't profitable, these kids wouldn't have to grow up in fear and suffering."
But most Americans don't make an effort to learn about the ways in which their nation contributes to tragedies in the world around them, Chernus said.
"It's willed ignorance," he said. "There's a cultural divide in the United States. There's a segment of our population that is able to -- perhaps imperfectly -- empathize with suffering in the world. And there are those Americans who simply can't seem to relate."
Chernus fears this attack will be written off as the work of "unprovoked crazies," and America will lose a chance to benefit from what could be a wake-up call.
"If things were going right, we would ask ourselves what role we may have played in the chain of events that led to this disaster. If we were doing the right thing, we would think of ourselves as part of a network of relationships," Chernus said. "It's not a question of 'our fault' or 'their fault,' but of how that network of relationships has gotten us to where we are today."
A constructive response, Barsamian said, would be: "Start obeying international law. Show sensitivity for other cultures. Stop bullying the world. Stop acting like a Mafia don. Work with difference. Accept criticism. Radically relook at our behavior in the Middle East."
Edelstein would like to see the United States respond by turning its effort inward.
"For the American government to respond in a way that I would consider constructive would include the establishment of democracy in the United States."
And if the United States continues on its current path?
"U.S. foreign policy has not given people hope. If you rob people of their dignity and self-respect, they have nothing," Barsamian said. "That's how you can become a suicide bomber."
Pamela White can be contacted at email@example.com