Making the World Safe for Terrorism
 Nuh Ha Mim Keller

In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and  Compassionate

By what one can gather from the press, the FBI and CIA have seemingly been unable to prove who precisely, if anyone, may   have masterminded the attack earlier this month on the World TradeCenter other than the immediate assailants, who   are presumed to have been several young men from Saudi Arabia and one from the United Arab  Emirates. Whoever they were, the facts point to a number of inescapable conclusions. The planning of it argues for a method to the madness, coupled with at least normal intelligence and a technical education, while the psychological facts entail that such people do not destroy themselves unless they see some advantage  for themselves in doing so, which entails that they believed in an afterlife, meaning that according to their own standards, they were in all probability “religious.” The question arises: “What sort of  religion condones killing thousands of ordinary civilian people?” The answer is “No religion at all.” 

  As far as I know, there is no religion or system of morality that justifies deliberately killing or injuring someone unless (1) he is an  aggressor seeking to take one’s life, against whom one may defend oneself; (2) he has been proven to be guilty of a capital crime, or (3)  he is a combatant in war. Most ethical systems agree upon these 
hree justifications for deliberately inflicting death or injury upon someone. The WorldTradeCenter tragedy raises 
the question of what on earth may have made some contemporary  people think that these principles may be set aside?

If there are altogether no moral reasons for this crime, there is perhaps a discoverable mentality behind it. We call it “terrorism,” in  view of its typical motive, which is to strike terror into the hearts of   those conceived to be guilty by committing atrocities against those  of the innocent who resemble the guilty closely enough, whether in  race, citizenship, or social class, for the terror not to be lost on the  guilty. But its enormity as a crime, as I apprehend it, lies less in the  motive of its perpetrators, which is bad enough, than in the fact that shedding innocent blood is wrong. All previous moralities and religions agree that one cannot kill the innocent, but only the guilty. 
One cannot, for example, kill a generic “American” for the actions of  other Americans, or for the actions of his country’s army if he is not part of it, or for the foreign policy of his government. In general,  moral law mandates that one may not kill a man for what another man has done.

How has this now come to be set aside in some minds? While I am  not a specialist in the history of atrocities, it seems to me that this  basic principle of morality was first violated, and on a grand scale—and with the tacit and the spoken support of the  intelligentsia, press, and policy makers—in the Second World War,  with the advent of “carpet-bombing.” Here, ineffective attempts at precision bombing of military targets and factories gave way first to 
  incendiary bombing of particular German cities to burn them down,  then to “area bombing” of as much urban acreage as possible  Bombing everything—soldiers and civilians, combatants and  non-combatants, residential areas and strategic targets—would shorten the war; so the bombs rolled out, and eliminating civilians  became itself a major strategic aim. In Cologne, in Hamburg, in Dresden: the numbers of the dead were  unprecedented and horrendous. In Dresden, where there were no war industries at all, some 130,000 were killed. Perhaps the 
  ultimate “area bombing” (there is little reason not to call it “terror bombing”) was the atomic bomb dropped on the old Japanese   provincial city of Hiroshima, and later   on Nagasaki. Men, women, babies, schoolgirls: the first   instantaneous flash of atomic radiation burned their clothes off them   and cooked the outside of their bodies, then the concussion blew it   off so that it hung down in flapping strips seen by those who survived when they looked at each other. One can read the  eyewitness accounts. We were showing them what would happen if  we dropped one on Tokyo. They got the picture.

My point is that a mentality has been given birth in this century, and  the attempts by its beneficiaries to draw some legitimacy for it from  existing morality or religion, if understandable at a psychological level, have nothing to do with morality or religion. This kind of  terrorism is going on today, indeed has been carried out by American  presidents and their proxies in Nicaragua, in Sudan, in Lebanon, and in Iraq for the last twenty years, as described by Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and others whose books and articles about  these events are many and documented, and blithely ignored by  almost everyone in America. 

 +The little bands of bomb makers and plane hijackers are not at bottom religious men, but desperate men. They are inspired less by religion than by hope that on a symbolic scale they can somehow emulate the “success” of America’s and Israel’s  “punitive strikes,” and “preemptive attacks.” Civilians die all the time  in the West Bank and in Iraq. Someone in Jordan told  me of a relative from another country who needed a kidney and could  not find a donor of suitable blood group from his extended family, so  he went to Iraq and bought one for two thousand dollars. The don  did not have food to eat, and was willing to sell his kidney. People  are starving there. Birth defects and cancer are burgeoning from all the chemicals and explosives that have that been dropped on the  people. Bombs are dropped from time to time to show them who is  boss. According to Chomsky we have by now succeeded in killing 
  one million civilians in Iraq, one half of whom were small children. The United States continually vetoes the 
  United Nations initiative to allow UN observers into Israe  to see what is being done to Palestinians there. In 1998 Clinton destroyed one half of Sudan’s pharmaceuticals and  the means of replenishing them in punitive bombing raids on that  country and killed untold numbers of civilians. How many? We don’t  know, because the United States prevented the UN inquiry  Eighty percent of the refugees of the world bear Muslim last names.  Desperation grows among these throngs, as hope wanes for  balanced U.S. foreign policy, or even an abatement 
  of U.S. bombing and violence against Muslim civilian  populations. There is no hope for people who know from the example  of Nicaragua, Sudan, Iraq,  and Israel that any attempt of redress or appeal to the  United Nations or World Court will be vetoed or defied by  the attackers. People without hope do a lot of things  Someone recently informed me that half the terrorist organizations officially listed on some or another “terrorist watch website,” were 
Muslim. Though Islamic law does not countenance terrorism or suicide of any sort, and I know these organizations represent an extreme splinter of an extreme splinter of Islam, I did not find the statistic particularly shocking. Rather, if in the last fifty years worl  governments like the United States and Britain have somehow convinced themselves that it is morally acceptable to kill, starve, and maim civilians of other countries in order to persuade their 
  governments to do something, it would be surprising if this conviction did not somehow percolate down to the dispossessed, the  hopeless, the aggrieved, and the powerless of every religion and ethnic group in the world. It looks as if it has.

We Americans are not bombing people, young and old, whose lives  when they survive, are brutally interrupted by the loss of an arm or a leg, or a father, or a son, or a mother, or a house that the family saved for years to build. We are too civilized for that. Rather, we bomb Iraq. We bomb Sudan. We bomb Southern Lebanon. We bomb “Palestinian positions.” We don’t cause the tens of thousands of birth defective and mentally retarded babies with the chemical mayhem and ten-year famine we  are currently paying for in Iraq: We are “imposing sanctions.” We don’t kill actual human beings with all the explosives we are dumping on these coutries. We are killing generic Iraqis,  generic Sudanis, generic Palestinians. It sounds like we  may now have to kill some generic Afghanis. And now the shock of  all shocks, the devastation of all devastations: some crazy people 
 this past month decided to kill a lot of generic Americans. What on earth made them think it was morally acceptable to kill people who hadn’t committed any crime, who were not combatants, and were not 
killed in self-defense? 

The answer, I apprehend, is not to be found in Islam, or in any  religion or morality, but in the fact that there are fashions in  atrocities and in the rhetoric used to dress them up. Unfortunately these begin to look increasingly like our own fashions and sound increasingly like our own rhetoric, reheated and served up to us. The terrorists themselves, in their own minds, were doubtless not killing secretaries, janitors, and firemen. That would be too obscene Rather, they were “attacking America.”
  “Muslim scholars and clerics” across the board, and indeed by all 
people of decency around the world. I have read Islamic law with   scholars, and know that it does not condone either suicide or killing non-combatants. But what to do about the crime itself?

The solution being proposed seems to be a technological one. We will highlight these people on our screens, and press delete. If we cannot find the precise people, we will delete others like them, unti everyone else gets the message. We’ve done it lots of times. The problem with this is that it is morally wrong, and will send a clear 
  confirmation—if more is needed beyond the shoot-em-ups abroad of the last decades that show our more or less complete disdain for both non-white human life and international law—that  there is no law between us and other nations besides the law of the jungle. People like these attackers, willing to kill themselves to  devastate others, are not ordinary people. They are desperate people. What has made them so is not lunacy, or religion, but the 
perception that there is no effective legal recourse to stop crimes  against the civilian peoples they identify with. Our own and our  clients’ killing, mutilating, and starving civilians are termed “strikes,”    “preemptive attacks,” “raiding the frontiers,” and  “sanctions”—because we have a standing army, print our own 
  currency, and have a press establishment and other trappings of   modern statehood. Without them, our actions would be pure  “terrorism.” 

Two wrongs do not make a right. They only make two wrongs. I think  the whole moral discourse has been derailed by our own rhetoric in recent decades. Terrorism must be repudiated by America not only by words but by actions, beginning with its own. As ‘Abd al-Hakim Winter asks, “Are the architects of policy sane in their certainty that 
  America can enrage large numbers of people, byerut contain that rage  forever through satellite technology and intrepid double agents?” I  think we have to get back to basics and start acting as if we knew that killing civilians is wrong. 

As it is, we seem to have convinced a lot of other people that it is right, among them some of the more extreme elements of the  contemporary Wahhabi sect of Muslims, including the members of the Bin Laden network, whom the security agencies seem to be pointing their finger at for this crime. The Wahhabi sect, which has not been around for more than two and a half centuries, has never been part of traditional Sunni Islam, which rejects it and which 
it rejects. Orthodox Sunnis, who make up the vast majority of  Muslims, are neither Wahhabis nor terrorists, for the traditional law they follow forbids killing civilian non-combatants to make any kind of point, political or otherwise. Those who have travelled  through North Africa, Turkey, Egypt, or the Levant know what traditional Muslims are like in their own lands. Travellers find  them decent, helpful, and hospitable people, and feel safer in Muslim 
  lands than in many places, such as Central America, for example, or for that matter, Central Park. 

  On the other hand, there will always be publicists who hate Muslims,  and who for ideological or religious reasons ant others to do so  Where there is an ill-will, there is a way. A fifth of humanity are Muslims, and if to err is human, we may reasonably expect Muslims to err also, and it is certainly possible to stir up hatred by publicizing bad examples. But if experience is any indication, the only people convinced by media pieces about the inherent fanaticism of Muslims will be those who don’t know any. Muslims have nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to hide, and should simply tell people what  their scholars and religious leaders have always said: first, that the 
    Wahhabi sect has nothing to do with orthodox Islam, for its lack  of tolerance is a perversion of traditional values; and second, that killing civilians is wrong and immoral. 

  And we Americans should take the necessary measures to get the  ship of state back on a course that is credible, fair, and at bottom at least moral in our dealings with the other peoples of the  world. For if our ideas of how to get along with other nations do no exceed the morality of action-thriller destruction movies, we may well get more action than we paid for.