There's more to this war than `goodness vs. evil'

October 19, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Why do Osama bin Laden, his gang of cutthroat fanatics and so many others in the Islamic world hate us? President Bush on at least two occasions has taken a crack at explaining, and his reason comes down to they despise our political and religious freedom and they just don't understand what good people we are.

In his first explanation, in his televised address before Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks, the president said, "They hate what they see right here in this chamber - a democratically elected government. ... They hate our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

In his second try last week, Mr. Bush, in his first prime-time news conference, asked himself: "How do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America? I'll tell you how I respond: I'm amazed. I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. ... I just can't believe it because I know how good we are."

The president went on to say, "We've got to do a better job of explaining to the people in the Middle East, for example, that we don't fight a war against Islam or Muslims. We don't hold any religion accountable. We're fighting evil. And these murderers have hijacked a great religion in order to justify their evil deeds. And we cannot let it stand."

You can't argue with any of this. Yet I'm amazed that President Bush is amazed because he thinks the only problem is that the terrorists hiding in Afghanistan and elsewhere don't care for democracy and don't appreciate the innate goodness of the American people.

It seems abundantly clear that bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist organization are motivated by the much more pointed objective of arousing the Islamic world to drive the United States and its political influence out of the Middle East, and more specifically out of Islam's holiest places.

The barbaric attacks on the symbols of American financial and military power, the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon across the Potomac from Washington, obviously were intended as signals to the Islamic world of the vulnerability of the globe's remaining superpower at the hands of only a few determined revolutionaries. The subsequent outbreak of anthrax cases here, whether orchestrated by the same terrorist group, serves the same purpose for it.

In light of such an ambitious goal as driving us from the Middle East, the president's description of our current persecutors as "evildoers" almost reduces them to the likes of those dark characters in a comic book in which Batman must intercede on behalf of goodness and the generosity of America.

This sort of simplistic appeal to our patriotism can go only so far in providing the American people with an informed understanding of what the country and the West are up against in this new war on terrorism.

A decade ago, the senior George Bush's secretary of state, James A. Baker, candidly if impoliticly gave as one justification for reversing Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait the U.S. dependence on Middle East oil. This commercial and political interest still fuels much of the hate toward us in many parts of the Islamic world as much or more than how free and "good" we are as a people.

A certain amount of casting the war against terrorism will necessarily be in terms of good against evil. And the decision to demonstrate our sensitivity to civilian casualties in Afghanistan by dropping food along with our bombs can be effective psychologically, but only to a degree.

As the confrontation goes on, perhaps for years, as the president is saying, we must not only do a better job telling the Islamic world what a good and generous country we are, but we must also be more candid and effective in explaining and justifying to our own people our geopolitical policies in the Middle East that so inspire the passion and hate of the zealots now bent on using them to mobilize fellow Muslims against us.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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