What’s a 17th-century French philosopher doing in our 21st-century War on
Think about it.
Thinking was what Rene Descartes did most and best. So much so that he enshrined
Think as the key word in Modernity’s main adage: “Cogito ergo sum — I think; therefore
“I think” in this case means “I engage in rational mental behavior.” (We moderns
have congratulated ourselves ever since on how rational we are.) “Therefore I
am” speaks to the deepest urge of all: the need to know that one exists. For Descartes,
thinking meant existing.
Now enter anthropology — in particular, an anthropologist colleague and expert
on the Pashtun people of southern Afghanistan. Not one for armchairs, he used
to leave Kabul (in a memorably yellow Land Rover) and study rural culture for
weeks at a time. Field research is arduous, especially so among hyper-contentious
Pashtuns, but my friend survived — thanks in part to a flair for humorous incongruity.
One of his wry observations serves as text for today’s column. “Pashtuns are sort
of like Descartes,” he said, “except that they’ve changed the words. A Pashtun
says, ‘I have enemies; therefore I am.’”
Pashtuns have stayed on script — with notable exceptions — in Operation Enduring
Freedom. They formed the bulk of our Taliban enemies. Remote Pashtun valleys continue
to harbor our al-Qaida enemies. Pashtun enemies take potshots, more each week,
at U.S. troops. Most of all, Pashtuns remain enemies of each other, sniping at
kinsmen allied (temporarily) with the United States and menacing their fellow
Pashtun, the excellent Hamid Karzai.
Where would Pashtuns be without enemies? Would they be real in each other’s
minds? Would they, in their own minds, continue to exist?
What about us? Anthropology is a mirror; knowledge of other peoples provides
vantage points from which to consider ourselves. Let’s use the Pashtun version
of Descartes to ask ourselves this question: Do Americans need enemies — bad guys
— in order to give our lives meaning?
Not individually, and not on the surface. Other peoples reckon us, as individuals,
the friendliest folk in the world. Once back home in Spain or Singapore or Sao
Paolo, travelers who’ve been to America regale their friends with tales of our
openness and hospitality. As a nation of strangers from somewhere else, we’re
not afraid of strangers and don’t assume them to be enemies. Some America-watchers,
many of them British, say that our friendliness is superficial … and therefore
artificial. Maybe so, but visitors to both countries enjoy Uncle Sam’s glad-handing
more than John Bull’s subtle disdain.
Collectively, it’s been different. Here America, like all nations, has had
a long list of enemies. And, yes, our adversarial experience has helped form national
identity. Beginning with Nature (which our forefathers “conquered” and which our
president boycotts by not attending this week’s Earth Summit), the roll call features
Native Americans, various hot war opponents, and Cold War Communists. Opposition
to each of these enemies gave us unifying slogans and heroes. Winning wars against
them reinforced basic values in happy history books. Now that past enemies have
been routed, here’s militant Islam.
If militant Islam didn’t exist — which it does, as a real and proven menace
— would we have to invent it? As well as fearing and opposing militant Islam,
to what extent do we need it? Put differently, how has our country and our culture
(consciously or unconsciously) already furthered militant Islam’s inimical existence?
Not all individual Americans need enemies. Most of us, I believe, are more
temperamentally akin to Hamid Karzai: eager to avoid acrimony when we can and,
when it can’t be avoided, determined to resolve it as constructively as possible.
So, rather than generalize, let’s investigate this urge-toward-enemies by groups.
Let’s start with our top group.
Where would the Bush administration be without enemies? Think about it.
To help the thinking process, consider the political landscape on Sept. 10,
2001. The attacks that led to America’s War on Terror had begun the day before,
in Afghanistan, with the assassination by al-Qaida of northern alliance leader
Ahmad Shah Masood. Not everybody noticed.
We were concerned, instead, with an economic recession and a Bush II administration.
Dubiously put in power, Bush had thus far distinguished himself by saying No to
the rest of the world on a wide array of issues. And by a needless tax cut which
soon turned budget surplus into deficit. And by appointments like that of Attorney
General Ashcroft, who had lost to a dead man in Missouri’s senatorial election
and was then made chief cop as a sop to Christian fundamentalists.
Some applauded. Those drawn to Lone Star imagery (political hard right), Reaganesque
voodoo economics (economic hard right), and rattlesnake worship (religious hard
right) encouraged W’s medieval unilateralism. The rest of us, on 9/10/01, were
What a difference a day makes! President Bush wouldn’t — couldn’t — have wished
it this way, but 9-11 presented him with a Pashtun’s greatest gift. It satisfied
a Pashtun’s deepest urge. It gave Bush an enemy whom the rest of us could not
help but acknowledge. You can’t argue with the reality of airplanes being crashed
Suddenly — understandably — there were enemies everywhere. Pashtuns would have
felt especially at home with W’s State of the Union address. With (authentic)
hero Hamid Karzai seated next to Laura Bush, her husband first announced the (phony)
Axis of Evil.
This speechwriter’s fantasy evokes World War II (against the Fascist Axis)
and the Cold War (against Reagan’s Evil Communist Empire). Now famous, the phrase
is equally fatuous. First, because there’s no significant, ongoing cooperation
among North Korea, Iraq and Iran. Second, because one of the three — Iran — has
a far from entirely evil government. True, its supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameni,
is a hard-right Muslim fundamentalist who remains virulently anti-American. (Likewise
hard-right American Christian groups and hard- right American Jewish groups now
unite in virulent opposition to Palestinian aspirations.) But Iranian politics
has another side. Its president, Mohammed Khatemi, was democratically elected
in the name of open- minded, anti-xenophobic reform.
Think of Iran as a glass whose liquid level stands at 50 percent. Our manner
of regarding it — as a glass half full or half empty — says as much about us as
about the Iranians. And the Bush administration, time and again, has cast Iran
in negative terms, as another of its (much
Thinking makes it so. Each time a Bush official abuses Iran, its anti-U.S.
segment is reinforced. Reformers are undermined. Mohsen Mirdamadi, a leading liberal
MP and head of Iran’s parliamentary commission on foreign policy, recently observed,
“I believe that the axis of evil classification of Iran was the harshest insult
ever made against the Iranian nation and what the U.S. should do in the first
place is skip these kind of insults.”
What do such U.S. insults accomplish? The eventual, inevitable reconciliation
between our two countries — both, incidentally, real countries which will outlast
transient concoctions like Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and not a few U.S.
Third World allies — is deferred. The Bush administration can display another
enemy to the American electorate … and to their own psyches.
President Khatami visited President Karzai in Kabul earlier this month. They
both speak Persian and regard each other as — gasp! — allies. Khatami has consistently
supported Karzai. He took this occasion to label 9-11 “horrific.” But, despite
Karzai’s being flanked by U.S. military bodyguards, the Iranian president continued:
“American leaders have a misunderstanding and an incorrect perception both about
their own power and their own interests. ... By misusing the bitter incident of
11 September, they have created a warlike and rough atmosphere in the world.”
Words like “perception” and “atmosphere” help frame this question: Whether
to support a president — our current president — who, along with like-minded appointees,
needs enemies to make himself feel whole, not to mention re-electable? In the
spirit of Descartes, let’s think about it.
Dr. Whitney Azoy, a cultural anthropologist and former U.S. diplomat in
Kabul, has worked for 30 years with Afghanistan and the Muslim world. He was last
in Afghanistan in May on a U.S. government contract.
©2002 Bangor Daily News