Monday, June 9, 2008

From Distrust to Suspicion to Conspiracy

In one of my English classes yesterday, we found ourselves discussing the “war on terror.” Not surprisingly, none of my students found this phrase remotely helpful. Not that they leapt to the defense of Saddam Hussein; they simply heard the phrase as an American invention, intended to defend and justify U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.

Nothing in this response surprised me. What did get my attention, however, were their remarks about 9-11. All four students subscribe to a 9-11 conspiracy theory according to which, as Lev Grossman of TIME summarizes,

the entire catastrophe was planned and executed by federal officials in order to provide the U.S. with a pretext for going to war in the Middle East and, by extension, as a means of consolidating and extending the power of the Bush Administration.
(If you don’t know of the many alternative 9-11 historiographies out there, start here and here.)

Thus, according to my uncontrolled, completely unscientific, statistically insignificant sample consisting of four young professionals from Nablus, the question of what exactly happened on 9-11 is not at all straightforward. Did George Bush plan the attacks to garner world support for his campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Iran? Is the CIA still secretly supporting Al Qaeda, as it allegedly did during the ‘80s? Such questions may seem silly to many in the West but they open a window onto “reality” here in the Middle East.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find 9-11 conspiracy theories in Nablus. After all, Grossman cites a recent poll suggesting 36% of Americans “consider it ‘very likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ that government officials either allowed the attacks to be carried out or carried out the attacks themselves.” As Grossman observes,

If we went to war to root out fictional weapons of mass destruction, is staging a fictional terrorist attack such a stretch?

Let me clarify a key point: these students of mine—two men and two women—are not at all the type to be recruited by Islamist radicals to take up arms. They are not “fighters.” They are culturally Muslim but not ideologically Islamist. Nor are they simpletons. They all have university degrees and hold decent jobs. One studied in Germany for a year. Another is an engineer who installs water systems in West Bank villages.

What disturbs me about this discovery is not that speculative theories about 9-11 are popular in Palestine. My concern is with the antecedent distrust of the U.S. government that lends these theories so much credence. So deep are suspicions of American intentions in the region that not even a deadly terrorist attack on New York and Washington can reverse them. Readers may disagree on whether such distrust and suspicion are warranted. But they can’t really deny their existence, even among young, urban, English-speaking, West-looking professionals.

Whoever leads the next U.S. administration, we must hope that they will recognize the central importance of rebuilding trust and restoring credibility in the Middle East. I shall be bold enough to hope, further, that any such campaign will proceed by means of sincere, aggressive, even-handed diplomacy, wisely targeted economic development initiatives, culturally sensitive demands, and a non-combative foreign policy that gives reasonable people in places like Nablus reason to consider giving America the benefit of the doubt.

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