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What Sort of People Did This?
Published on Thursday, September 13, 2001 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
What Sort of People Did This?
by Erna Paris
In a culture that ignores the past, Tuesday's devastating attacks on the military and financial nerve centers of Western power are portrayed as having emerged out of a void. Today, the finger seems to point to Saddam Hussein, or to someone called Osama bin Laden. Saddam is familiar, but just who is Osama bin Laden? In photos, he is rather handsome. We are told that he is a fanatic and that he is protected by another group of fanatics called the Taliban who live in Afghanistan and wear turbans.

But there is a thread that connects us to Mr. bin Laden and to other haters of the West. Here are two strands.

Picture the world in 1955, a decade after the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust (the attempted genocide that will, as the years pass, increasingly color Western perceptions of the 20th century). The ancient territories of the Middle East have recently undergone a fatal change: The State of Israel is just seven years old, but its arrival has effectively displaced most of the Arabs who had lived for centuries on that tiny sliver of land. The Palestinian refugee camps are already in place. And they are breeding a generation of angry children nourished on stories of family loss and exile.

In Europe and North America, the postwar West is ascendant. The special relationship between Israel and the United States is already firm, largely because the former is perceived by the latter as a geographical and ideological bulwark in the emerging Cold War struggle. In Western Europe, especially Germany, what matters are the pleasures of a booming economy.

Then in April, 1955, a key event occurs: A conference whose echo will be heard across many decades is held in Bandung, Indonesia. Delegates from 29 African and Asian countries (representing half the world's population) come to discuss racism, nationalism, and the struggle against colonialism. Britain has been separating from its colonies relatively peacefully, but France's eight-year war to hold onto Indochina (Vietnam) has just ended. Its war to maintain control over Algeria is still ahead.

The meeting concludes with a statement about economic and cultural co-operation, human rights, and anti-imperialist self-determination, but the single common theme among the Arab delegations is hatred of Israel. The Iraqi representative calls Zionism "one of the blackest, most somber chapters in human history." An Arab-sponsored resolution against Israel is one of the few that everyone can agree on. Israel, the conference concludes, is a base for imperialism and a threat to world peace.

Bandung gave birth to the idea of the Third World and concentrated efforts to achieve stability that continue to this day (they were visible in the buildup to the recent Durban conference). At the same time, Bandung was the first comprehensive, international opposition to Israel, Zionism, and eventually to the entire West -- an ideology that would soon mobilize elements of the radical right as well as the Marxist left in terrorist movements that paralyzed parts of Western Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.

Otto Ernst Remer, an ex-Nazi who lived in Cairo after the war, clearly expressed the developing anti-Zionist/anti-Western thinking in an 1980s interview: "There is a problem concerning who holds the real power in the United States," he said. "Without a doubt, the Zionists control Wall Street, and as a result, the Middle East foments war."

Since he voiced these words, the equation has been repeated: Zionism + Wall Street + U.S. military power = the enemy. Though we don't yet have all the evidence that this is what drove Tuesday's suicidal attackers to murder thousands of innocent people, the likelihood is high.

In a global world united by instant technologies -- a world that ought to be increasingly rational -- how is it that a culture of terror and martyrdom continues into the 21st century?

The easy response is to dismiss those who choose to die as fanatics. But a deeper answer may emerge from the unfinished business first articulated at Bandung. North Americans tend to think little about colonialism, but its aftermath has not yet been resolved.

Another answer is despair. In 1987, I traveled to the West Bank to research my book (The Garden and the Gun)about the shifting ideologies of Israel. In the dusty Balata refugee camp, I encountered young Palestinians who were enraged or numbed by the thwarted circumstances of their lives. I remember their rousing, well-rehearsed chorus of "Death to Israel." And I shall never forget the boy of 18 who said, "Our daily life is what you see here. We have no hope. . . . Maybe death is that way out." Nor shall I forget the soft-spoken professor at An Najah University near Nablus who said, "I believe that if the Palestinians continue to live as deprived as they are now, the younger, more radical generation will initiate a new round of terrible violence."

A few months after I left Israel, the first intifada began. Now that violence has evolved into suicide bombings -- martyrdom in the war against the hated West. Such martyrs struck again this week.

Who is Osama bin Laden -- this man who can (we presume) command young people to die for his cause? And when the West retaliates against him or against others, will anything really change? If we paid more attention to the currents of the past that shape the present, would we have been less surprised than Tuesday revealed us to be?

Erna Paris's latest book, Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History, won the Pearson Non-Fiction Prize, the inaugural Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, and the Jewish Book Award for History.

Copyright © 2001 Globe Interactive


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