Tuesday, April 02, 2002

Illusory Universalism

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, had a compelling op-ed in the Los Angeles Times yesterday. The War on Terrorism, we are often told, is not against the people of the world, only a few crazy fringe operators and a handful of oppressive tyrants. This is not a war against Muslims, the Arab world, or the Middle East. The vast majority of the people in those categories are just like us - hungering for the Western ideals of freedom and democracy. In fact, when it comes to their aspirations and desires, The Common People all around the world are Americans at heart. Bowden disagrees:

"We cling to this belief despite ample evidence to the contrary, whether it is political oppression in China, racial hatred in Zimbabwe, religious fanaticism in Iran, tribal conflict in Somalia or ethnic battles in the former Yugoslavia. The fact that these conflicts persist is blamed on backwardness or the bad influence of oppressive leaders. We assume that the people who inhabit these countries, unlike their leaders (who are not chosen democratically, after all) long for peace, freedom and prosperity, a world where differing races and religions are respected, even treasured, and where the human family is enriched by variety and the free exchange of ideas. Well, we are not the world."

He speaks the truth. During the Cold war, there were two competing system - ours and theirs. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, we assumed that ours had won and the rest of the world would start coasting, as various speeds, toward the American ideal without serious impediment. It turns out that many of the places around the world we expected to emulate us actually despise us. They think freedom is chaos and toleration is blasphemy:

"In most places, people long for victory, not peace. Their lives are shaped as much by fear and hatred as by acceptance and love. They are often complicit in the crimes of their leaders. At heart, they want their tribe, their race, their political system or their god to rule. They want not only to live their lives in the manner they choose but to compel others to do so. They want to kill their enemies, establish traditional homelands, avenge historical wrongs and preserve ways of life many Americans fled on their way here."

Words of warning to whatever international body ends up overseeing a new Afghanistan. Just because the Taliban is gone doesn't mean that the population has changed into a cadre of fresh faced American suburbanites, eager to get back to the building a productive economy and flourishing civil society. The institutions and values that define us didn't exist there before, and they're not likely to in the near future.

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