Her parents escaped Vietnam in a rickety boat. Now a proud
graduate of the University of California, she, unlike her parents, has only
known peace and prosperity.
September 11 ended that chapter of her life.
In a letter to her friends and former professors, she writes, "My youth is
over; my innocence has ended." Like so many Americans, she describes a
traumatic wound, a certainty that she will never again enjoy a sense of
"Why did this happen?"
In the first days after the attacks, many people felt too shocked and
overwhelmed to ask this question. Now, along with millions of other Americans,
this young woman wants to understand the enemy who committed the most
audacious terrorist acts in our nation's history.
What are the origins of such intense hatred against our country? Can
history help us comprehend terrorists who are willing to die as they kill
To ask such questions is not unpatriotic. Nor do historical explanations
absolve those who have committed these heinous crimes. Whether or not history
can help us heal, it can offer us the perspective and wisdom we need to fight
this unprecedented threat.
Arab and Islamic hatred of the West is hardly new. Some historians locate
its origins during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, when the Crusades
effectively wrested the Holy Land from the Muslims.
In the 20th century, antipathy toward the West only deepened. Each war
resulted in consequences that intensified hatred toward the West.
After World War I, for example, European colonial powers carved up the
Ottoman Empire into arbitrary states and hand-picked leaders who owed their
political power and wealth to the British and French. The result was a
dramatic rise in secular Arab nationalism.
The end of World War II, during which the Nazis had tried to annihilate the
entire European Jewish population, helped establish the state of Israel --
right in the heart of a hostile Arab Middle East.
The Cold War, for its part, helped ignite the growth of a new Islamic
fundamentalist movement. As the United States and the Soviet Union divided the
world into separate spheres of influence, Islamic dissidents increasingly
viewed both superpowers as godless, soulless empires.
American support of wealthy, corrupt royal families in the Middle East
outraged many Arabs and Muslims who contrasted the poverty of their own people
with the extreme wealth flaunted by their leaders. By the 1970s, a new Islamic
fundamentalism began to challenge U.S.-backed Middle Eastern leaders who had
protected American access to oil.
The Iranian revolution catapulted Ayatollah Khomeini to international
prominence and cast the United States as "the Great Satan." Soon afterward, an
Egyptian writer, Abd al-Salem Faraj, wrote "The Neglected Duty,"a manifesto
that called for a holy war to restore Muslim dignity.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, 35,000 idealistic
Islamic men from all over the world rushed to defend that Central Asian
country. Many of these young men, supported and trained by the CIA, learned
the art of warfare as they waged a jihad against Soviet troops.
Unexpectedly, the war transformed a generation of fundamentalist idealists
into a disciplined network of terrorists. "It was the Woodstock of the jihad
generation,"says ex-CIA agent Milt Bearden. Unlike earlier Arab nationalists,
these religious fundamentalists embraced a deeply reactionary, anti-modernist,
view of the world. Among them was Osama bin Laden, the scion of a wealthy
After they defeated the Soviet Union, these hardened fighters then turned
their attention to the other perceived infidel, America. The 1991 Persian Gulf
War fanned their growing hatred of the United States when the Saudi royal
family allowed Americans to attack Iraq from Saudi soil. After the war, some 7,
000 U.S. soldiers remained in Saudi Arabia, which, in bin Laden's view,
desecrated Islam's most sacred sites -- Mecca and Medina -- and justified a
holy war against America.
And then there is Israel. For half a century, the United States has
steadfastly championed this tiny nation that emerged from the jaws of the Nazi
Holocaust. But American support of Israel's occupation of Palestinian
territory, as well as its expanding settlements, has intensified Arab and
Islamic sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Nearly every night, Arabs and
Muslims watch televised broadcasts of Israeli helicopters, missiles and
bullets killing Palestinian civilians. These weapons, they protest, are
purchased with the annual $3 billion aid provided by the United States.
Which brings us to the painful present. For the last decade, bin Laden's
network has waged a relentless war against the United States -- bombing our
embassies and training thousands of terrorists in camps scattered throughout
Afghanistan. U.S. bombing of Iraq, the Sudan and Afghanistan -- all Muslin
populations -- has only justified their jihad against America.
Terrorism cannot be tolerated or excused in any way. The United States must
identify and eliminate the terrorist network behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
Still, understanding the historical sources of Arab and Islamic resentment may
help us address the poverty and human misery that fuel fanaticism and acts of
But how do we fight terrorism without creating new terrorists?
That, alas, is the question of the day.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle