Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

TERROR AND TABOO IN THE HOMELAND

A chemical plant in Louisiana was blown up, exposing thousands to toxic fumes. A Washington hospital, filled with attack victims, was bombed and destroyed. Then the radios and televisions all went dead. No way to find out what was happening.

Then I began to wake up.

Some would say I was dreaming about "terrorism." It certainly was terrifying. But the greater terror came in that lucid twilight between sleeping and waking, when I thought: This, or something like it, really could happen. The Madrid train bombings were a grim reminder of how close the danger is, every day.

How will U.S. society respond the next time it happens here? The government will promise even greater efforts to protect our "homeland security" and defeat Al Qaeda. Military spending will take another quantum leap. A Son of PATRIOT Act will breeze through Congress. Few will object, amid the patriotic prayers and flag-waving.

In other words, we will simply do much more of what weíve already been doing. We will make yet another attack inevitable.

Most terrifying of all, after the next attack we will still live under the Great Taboo, the unspoken rule that forbids us to talk about the only question that really matters: Why do they hate us? What can we do to reduce their desire to attack us?

As long as people want to attack us, they will find a way, no matter how much we spend on military repression. We wonít be safe until they no longer want to attack us. To get to that point, we must first start talking about how to get there.

Since 9-11, though, there has been a conspiracy of silence throughout the land. Democrat and Republican elites have joined hands to insist that there is nothing to talk about. They just hate us, thatís all.

So we should pay no attention to the videotape message from Al Qaeda spokesman Abu Dujan al-Afghani. He explained that the Madrid attack was "an answer to the crimes that you have caused in the world and specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ö If you don't stop your injustices, the blood will flow more and more."

Suppose we do stop our injustices? When the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades (named for a slain Al Qaeda leader) claimed responsibility, they said: "Stop targeting us, release our prisoners, and leave our land, and we will stop attacking you." Hard to make it any clearer than that.

These are merely the latest examples of the same simple message that has been coming from bin Laden and Al Qaeda since long before 9-11. They donít care much what we do in our infidel lands (though they encourage us to clean up our act). They just want us to leave them alone.

Maybe we should. Maybe we shouldnít. Whatís most terrifying is that hardly anyone here talks about it. Even in the peace movement, we are so busy bashing the Bushies that we fail to deliver our most effective message, a simple message about elementary self-protection:

If a gang jumps out, smacks you unexpectedly, and tells you clearly why they are angry at you, how can you avoid more attacks in the future?

    1. Ignore their explanation and start fighting back, against them and everyone you think resembles them
    2. Listen to their explanation, think it through, and talk about how you might behave differently, to make them less angry

The powers that be, Democrat as well as Republican, are desperate to have us choose option A. Thatís why they have tried so hard (with all too much success) to impose the Great Taboo on option B, even though it certainly seems the more logical choice. If we choose B, we would have to hear the attackersí grievances: U.S. troops are stationed throughout their lands. The U.S. kills and dominates the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. supports the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Then we would have to discuss a very disturbing question: How many of us are willing to risk our lives, or the lives of our loved ones, for those policies? If that question ever became central in our public discourse (and our presidential campaign), the answer would soon be obvious: We arenít willing to risk very many lives at all. If thatís all the "terrorists" really want, let them have it and let them leave us alone. Then itís "goodbye" to the long-standing bipartisan plan for U.S. hegemony in the Middle East.

That is why the Great Taboo is so crucial. To protect the bipartisan plan, we must believe that the "terrorists" are driven by irrational evil or a bloodthirsty drive to take away our freedom. That means we have done nothing to provoke our assailants. No U.S. policy changes could reduce their desire to attack us again. So nothing to talk about. The Great Taboo survives. We just hunker down, spend billions more on "security," and wait for the next attack.

John Kerry is just as devoted to the Great Taboo as George W. Bush. The genuine causes of 9-11 and Madrid will never be debated in the presidential campaign. Only we, the people, can start that debate and have some chance of averting future attacks.

On March 20, and every other day, the peace movement should be shouting from the rooftops the insanity of this taboo on the only question that really matters: Why do they hate us? We should be explaining over and over again that there are real answers to that question. There are real changes we can make in U.S. policy that just might make us safer.

If we refuse to talk about those changes, and my dream or something like it comes true, we will condemn ourselves to another round of senseless violence, with no end in sight. And we will bear part of the blame for our own fate. Doesnít it make sense to wake up and come to our senses now, before the next nightmare?


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