Terrorists may have a reason, but not an excuse

Posted: Mar 06, 2002 12:00 AM
I recently gave a speech to a college audience titled "All I am Saying is Give War a Chance" (my apologies to P.J. O'Rourke). During the Q&A, a student asserted something to the effect of "I believe the terrorists attacked the United States for a reason ... these people hate us for a reason." This is a common refrain on college campuses today, in part because academia is the only place left in America where unthinking anti-Americanism is considered thoughtful. (Remember the professor at the University of New Mexico who commented shortly after 9/11, "Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote.") But another reason is that young people - like the kid who disagreed with me - often get confused about the difference between a reason and an excuse. Of course, Osama Bin Laden had a reason for blowing up the World Trade Center. Every murderer, thug and fool has a reason for doing what they do. If you watch the TV show "Cops," you'll hear guys in handcuffs explain that they drove their car through someone's living room because they were in a hurry to get home. The cops don't unlock the cuffs and say, "Oh, sorry, we didn't realize you had a reason." This distinction, between reasons and excuses, seems to be lost on a lot of people these days. Last week the Gallup Organization released an extensive poll of nine Middle Eastern and Muslim countries. The poll revealed - gird your loins everybody- that Arabs and other Middle Eastern Muslim nations don't like us very much. Only 17 percent of Muslims have a favorable view of President Bush. Only 9 percent believe our war in Afghanistan is "morally justifiable," while 77 percent think it isn't. And 74 percent of respondents do not believe Arabs carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. Frank Newport, the head of the Gallup organization, writes in his conclusion, "At almost every opportunity within the survey, respondents overwhelmingly agree that the United States is aptly described by such negatives labels as ruthless, aggressive, conceited, arrogant, easily provoked, biased." Now, I am perfectly willing to agree with America's critics, when they say that we've been bad at "selling" our ideas in the Middle East. Columnist Tom Friedman is correct when he writes, "We've been pathetic at telling Arabs and Muslims who we are. Have U.S. diplomats pointed out in any sustained way how, for the last decade, America has fought to save Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia and Kuwait?" Fair enough. But there's a huge difference between the need to explain to foreign countries why we are right and the assumption that we must be wrong because other countries think we are. Now, this week, Gallup has released a new poll of Americans, reporting that we have negative views of the Arab and Muslim world. Well, does this shock anybody? I mean, the United States has an understandable gripe with large segments of the Islamic world, right? Or maybe I missed something that explains why the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the U.S.S. Cole, Danny Pearl, etc. were really our fault. The way these polls are being reported and discussed on the chat shows, however, is that this is all just a geopolitical game of Rashomon. But that's absurd. "Only one in four Americans have a favorable opinion of Muslim countries. That's roughly the same percentage of the Islamic countries' residents who look favorably on the United States," reports USA Today, which helped conduct the U.S. poll. In other words, they're saying they don't "get" us, and we don't "get" them. The reigning "let's not offend anyone" conventional wisdom says it's all just a misunderstanding. Or as James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute and the leading apologist for Arab regimes, explained to USA Today, this is all about "gaps in perception and gaps in compassion." "We feel our pain and don't feel theirs," he says. "They feel their own pain and don't feel ours." But just because Middle Eastern nations don't like America, and Americans have problems with Middle Eastern nations, that doesn't mean the two positions are equally justifiable. After all, if the Arab world is 100 percent convinced that Israelis or, for that matter, Muppets blew up the World Trade Center, does that mean they're right? The facts aren't up for grabs. After Sept. 11, the Arab countries may have reasons for their negative views, but we have justified excuses for ours.