Losing Moral Proportion As We Watch the Arab World
Photo credit: 2006 Nassar Nouri/flickr. Use does not represent endorsement by the photographer.
Thomas Friedman, the well-regarded Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, wants the Arab world to do some soul searching. His recent article ‘Look in Your Mirror‘ argues that American-grown hate speech like the recent anti-Islam video on Youtube does not justify violence in the Arab world, and that those in the Middle East must examine their own religious hate speech aimed at Christians, Jews, Sufis, and Shiites before they demand an apology from us. I want to examine Friedman’s writings here, because he’s got a point, but it’s a common, disproportionate view which ignores our contribution to the present unrest, and exposes prevalent confusion and numbness about that part of the world.
Friedman writes of the U.S. embassy attack in Libya and fierce protests:
An insult — even one as stupid and ugly as the anti-Islam video on YouTube that started all of this — does not entitle people to go out and attack embassies and kill innocent diplomats. That is not how a proper self-governing people behave. There is no excuse for it. It is shameful.”
It is a point so obvious that it doesn’t warrant publishing.
And a proper self-governing people? I wonder if Friedman offers a model for what proper self-governing people talk like and the kinds of policies they support? Certainly those words could never advocate needless bloodshed. Let’s check.
Friedman on Iraq:
The neocon strategy may have been necessary to trigger reform in Iraq and the wider Arab world.”
Hmmm, what does he mean by that? Friedman again:
Former President George W. Bush’s gut instinct that this region craved and needed democracy was always right. It should have and could have been pursued with much better planning and execution. This war has been extraordinarily painful and costly. But democracy was never going to have a virgin birth in a place like Iraq, which has never known any such thing.”
I see now. Those unrefined people in the middle east, as Friedman would argue, needed us to show them a thing or two, and sure, we got some things wrong, but the larger point is they never could have done it without us, nor without force (hence the neocon strategy).
If the Arab Spring has shown us anything, it’s that many in the Arab world are quite capable of rising up against repressive forces at a great risk to their safety in order to strive for a more democratic process.
The Past Hurts More For Those Who Were Actually Harmed
Just a few more words of edification from Friedman, on Iraq:
I think it was unquestionably worth doing…You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society? You think this bubble fantasy, we’re just going to let it grow? Well, suck on this, ok. That Charlie [Rose], is what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia, it was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could.”
Here’s the video in case you don’t believe that quote, and there you have it, from a well-regarded, Pulitzer Prize-winning representative of proper, self-governing people.
On Iraq, Friedman was a huge cheerleader. On at least 12 different occasions between November 30, 2003 and May 11, 2006, he argued that six more months were the make or break period needed in Iraq to ensure victory, carrying water for a war of choice, that unnecessary conflict, a war of aggression, fashioned out of manipulated intel and sold to the American people using falsified threats.
Resetting the Scoreboard & Calling Foul on the Other Team
In the article ‘Look in Your Mirror,’ Friedman focuses his outrage not for the Iraq war, the horrific results, or his intolerant words (to put them mildly), but on the recent events in the Arab world:
I know that these expressions of intolerance are only one side of the story and that there are deeply tolerant views and strains of Islam espoused and practiced there as well. Theirs are complex societies. That’s the point. America is a complex society, too. But let’s cut the nonsense that this is just our problem and the only issue is how we clean up our act.”
Friedman represents the new American mainstream, grappling with selective amnesia thanks to a swollen sense of nationalism. Nationalism, puffed up in patriotic echo chambers, helps us to have tunnel vision focused only on the consequences of the other side’s deeds, regardless of our contribution to the present climate.
There is an undercurrent of nationalistic hubris embedded in our discourse; you could hear it loud and clear during the GOP and Democratic conventions. Under the fraudulent glory of American exceptionalism, we believe so often in the right (or divine instruction) to invade and occupy- or otherwise tamper with through force or sanctions- any country that we so choose, making a game board out of the world map, and once we arrive, we can comfortably reduce the deaths (200,000 – 1.5 million in Iraq), injuries, resulting unrest, and mass evacuations (2.2 million Iraqi refugees, roughly the population of Chicago) to a bunch of political fodder and cold analysis. Let’s not just remember the damage done in Iraq, but the fact that lives and generations of families will be forever altered because we decided to invade a sovereign nation posing no threat to us.
Rethinking the Golden Rule
As a nation at ease with our permanent war culture, we have often failed to do unto others as we would wish to be treated ourselves, and this does not require one to be anti-military, or anti-war in all cases. Not only that, we often don’t even want to consider what our actions might feel like if they were done to us.
Can we begin to consider how our meddling in the Arab world might incite violence and hate, instead of doubling down on the red white and blue rhetoric or ignoring the troubling impact of our drone strike policy, for example?
There are many Americans of many faiths, including Christians such as myself who would like to say to those in the Arab world, and to the Muslim and Sikh community here in America under surveillance and intimidation: Please hear our apology. Our nation has made grave mistakes and wronged you on a large scale, and while we realize there are threats to our country from extremists, we must learn to defend ourselves in ways that don’t create undue harm. We mourn the deaths of Chris Stevens and the three other American men killed in the U.S. embassy attack, and we long for justice and healing for those impacted, in the same way that we mourn the innocent lives lost in the Arab world at the hands of our war on terror, and long for justice and healing there too. As for looking in the mirror, let us be the ones to go first.