AR-Online Posted Thursday, October 4, 2001

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Sydney, Australia, Thursday, October 4, 2001

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Asking why is not to excuse the terrorists' actions

A bid to understand the grievances that led to the atrocities in the US is not being offensive to the victims, argues Scott Burchill.

Consider, for a moment, the effort which goes in to understanding the causes of crime in our society. Psychologists, social workers and criminologists, to name only three professional groups, have a primarily heuristic vocation. There is almost no dissent from the proposition that by better understanding the motivations of criminals, we are in a stronger position to minimise the incidence of crime.

There is, of course, no contradiction between understanding the causes of criminal activity and maintaining the rule of law and a proper legal process. When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, much thought was given to the personal motivation of a "home-grown terrorist", as he was prosecuted under the law. No-one suggested that Washington should retaliate by bombing Montana or Idaho, where his ultra-right militia supporters are based.

Similarly, after each IRA atrocity, discussion soon shifts to the political motives of the perpetrators, as the legal system gears up to uncover and prosecute them under established legal procedures. No-one expects Whitehall to instruct the RAF to bomb the Catholic community of Boston, which provides much of the IRA's funding.

Or take an example of extreme human depravity - the Holocaust. No other period of modern history has been as extensively examined by historians. One reason for this - and for the growth of genocide studies across the world - is that few people are satisfied that a "collective act of madness" is a sufficient explanation for such a human tragedy.

World Trade CenterSo why is a similar response unworthy of consideration in the case of those who attacked the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11? Or to put the issue another way, why has there been such opposition to treating this atrocity as an international crime?

The mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, has told the United Nations General Assembly that to inquire into the motives of the terrorists is offensive to its victims. "Let those who say that we must understand the reason for terrorism come with me to the thousands of funerals we're having in New York City - thousands. And explain those insane maniacal reasons to the children who will grow up without fathers and mothers."

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has told his party's conference that there can be "no point of understanding with such terror".


A number of Australian journalists have also attempted to discourage inquiries into the motivations of the terrorists. Michael Scammell and Greg Sheridan have invoked the Cold War staple "moral equivalence" to imply that efforts to explain the causes of the attacks are equivalent to condoning them and "blaming the victims". It is the suggestion that these terrible events have a pre-history, which may begin to explain them, that is being suppressed here.

An increasingly popular response to the atrocities has been to portray efforts to explain the causes of hostility towards the US in the Middle East and Central Asia as attempts to excuse the attacks. To excuse is to defend, to justify and exculpate. To explain is to examine and to understand. They are quite different responses and to deliberately conflate them without providing any examples of Western intellectuals who have blamed the US for the attacks, or defended them, is disingenuous.

Reducing the causes of the attacks to the psychic disorders of their perpetrators, rather than a serious examination of the motives of the terrorists, is unlikely to remain comforting for long. No student of the Holocaust, for example, would be content with such an explanation.

A parallel response has been to label those who ask the why question as "anti-American", a pejorative term bestowed on those who even suggest that the people of the Middle East and Central Asia have grievances with Washington (Miranda Devine, Herald, September 27). The history of US involvement in Palestine, Iraq or Afghanistan must be either forgotten entirely or disconnected from recent events, otherwise it is said to be rationalising the atrocities.

No-one should argue that al-Qaeda seriously represents the aspirations of Palestinians or Iraqis. But this should not dissuade us from a serious examination of US behaviour towards Palestine, the Gulf States, Afghanistan and other countries in the region. Anyone who thinks that the US is, at most, only guilty of "mistakes" (William Shawcross), "peccadilloes" (Greg Sheridan) or the occasional "unintended tragedy" (Michael Scammell) is wilfully ignorant of Western state terrorism.

Disparaging the efforts to understand these horrific events is myopic and undemocratic. Responding to them "extra-judicially" with a military strike implies that US casualties, unlike, say, Palestinian or British deaths, are worthy of a more serious response. Refusing to understand why the US is so hated and feared in the Middle East and Central Asia is also a profoundly immoral stance because it increases the likelihood that these crimes will be repeated.

Scott Burchill is a lecturer in international relations at Deakin University.

Related items on this website:

  David Irving: A Radical's Diary
  Five Israelis detained for "puzzling behavior" after WTC tragedy
  Washington Post: "Instant Messages To Israel Warned Of WTC Attack"
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