The LookOut columns


What I Say
About Frank Gruber Send email to:

Looking Over the Horizon

by Frank Gruber

This summer I sailed on Puget Sound with my Seattle cousins. Experienced sailors, they said to look at the horizon if I felt sea-sick.

I am glad I live in Santa Monica, because this week I could look west, to the Pacific, hoping that the unchanging line between sea and sky would calm my emotions, even as the ship I stand on rolls with the storm.

I grasped at other straws, too. Tuesday evening I attended a special service for peace at my synagogue, which was unusual for me. I am not religious, and the synagogue is not the primary focus of my community, even though I like and admire the rabbi and the congregation.

I went to synagogue to hear something different from what I had heard all day on television.

There are certain times when only religious figures speak to the better angels of our nature. Priests and rabbis can speak of compassion and loving thine enemy instead of retaliation, of justice instead of punishment. They also can say nothing, when everyone else is making noise.

I was not disappointed. Our Rabbi did not say much at the service. It was not a time for a sermon, and he let the old songs and prayers -- and silence -- do most of his work.

He did, however, include in his prayers a prayer for people who were so "wounded" that they would celebrate at the news of such destruction. He was referring, of course, to those Palestinians who cheered the news of America's loss.

Although I understand the rabbi's point, I disagree with his description of these Palestinians as being "wounded."

If you perceive a nation as your mortal enemy, it is not unusual to cheer its loss. I am sure my parents celebrated when Allied bombers turned German cities into rubble, and I would not fault them for it. Hell, I celebrate in retrospect.

The word that best describes the collective psyche of our enemies is angry, not wounded.

Why do Islamic extremists hate the U.S. so much? Understanding that is key, not only to defeating them, but also to ensuring a lasting peace.

The resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism as a political force throughout the Muslim world is a reality that frightens many. But appearances are deceiving. Remember how mighty the Iraqi army appeared before the Gulf War.

Islam has been on a losing streak for a long time. The word that best describes Islam is besieged, not resurgent.

For Americans analyzing the history of the past four or five centuries the dominant narrative has been the rise of the west and western ideas.

Conscientious chroniclers may identify crimes like extermination of indigenous peoples and the slave trade, or complain about more venal sins like fast food and pop culture. Critics may criticize the bad western ideas, like all-pervasive materialism, rather than extol the good ones, like democracy and human rights, but no matter what, the big story has been the rise of the west, and we have identified this with progress.

Muslims must look at these centuries differently -- as a constant battle against the encroaching west.

The Arabs reached their high-water mark in the 8th Century, and by 1492 were gone from Europe. The Ottomans surged, but peaked in 1683 outside Vienna. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Islam retreated broadly, in Eastern Europe, north of the Black Sea, and in the Caucasus. European imperialism overwhelmed Muslim populations in North Africa, subcontinent Asia, and the East Indies.

In the 20th century, the west almost consumed itself in wars hot and cold, but in the meantime destroyed the Ottoman Empire and accomplished the economic domination of Islam by co-opting the political leadership to control the oil resources of the Middle East.

The second half of the 20th century was especially galling: the United States, the brash apotheosis of all western values, became the dominant world power (capable of utterly destroying the strongest Muslim army at long distance and without breaking a sweat) and the west, to atone for its own sins against the Jews, established the State of Israel right on the fault zone straddling the western and the Islamic tectonic plates.

As a Jew I find it ironic that a Jewish state is the west's spear point into Islam, but I imagine the irony is lost on the Muslims. Imagine the shame of a hundred million Arabs stuck somewhere in a mental 12th century defeated by a few Jews who had experienced the worst of the 20th.

But also as a Jew, I understand this attitude well. In a former time when a great empire extended into the Middle East, bringing peace and prosperity and liberal thinking to the world, the Jews resisted with the stiffest necks. Think of Afghanistan as Masada and you may better comprehend what motivates Islamic radicals.

We cannot judge Islam on the basis of the extremists and the terrorists, just as we would not have others judge us on the basis of Timothy McVeigh, Buford Furrows and Mormon polygamists. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who just want to get along.

But those millions are not the ones crashing jets into the World Trade Center, and the violent rejection of western values by the Islamic extremists is exceptional. Other traditional societies -- Hindus in India, Buddhists and Confucians in China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea -- largely accept the materialistic western agenda, although they jealously guard their political independence.

(Within the west there are atavistic movements of fundamentalists who want to return to pre modern ways of thinking, and radical groups of the right and left that reject the modern state, but essential to the rise of west has always been a dialogue with its own, internal critique.)

No armed resistance -- conventional warfare or terrorism -- has ever had or will have any effect on the continued advance of western culture. Bombs cannot stop the spread of ideas and technology, and, even if they could, we Occidentals are war-like and, although democracy and some of our higher behaviors may sometimes temper our bellicosity, we will always respond to violence in kind.

We Americans have, in fact, already started fighting back: the passengers in the fourth jet, when they learned what was at stake, did not hesitate to join the terrorists in battle -- and win.

(Interestingly, although the Japanese are credited with the kamikaze, and we shake our heads at Islamic "suicide bombers," at the Battle of Midway American pilots won because they took off from their carriers not expecting that they had enough fuel to hit their targets and return.)

I hope we are as smart as we are tough. I have a fantasy that the U.S. will obtain and show the Taliban convincing evidence that Osama bin Laden is guilty, and that the Taliban will give him up to our justice system. Think what a triumph it would be to show that we can give our sworn enemy a fair trial.

I know that is a fantasy, and an unlikely one. We rightly characterize these atrocities as acts of war. We will not limit ourselves to judicial process.

I accept that, but as I look out over the Pacific, trying to calm my emotions, I see peace for half the globe, notwithstanding that other "day of infamy" 60 years ago. In a vast sea that recently saw vast strife, ships and planes carry trade and tourists and the hope of mutual understanding.

But I also think of Vietnam, where we lost a war because we did not understand what the other side was fighting for.

In the day of missiles and nuclear weapons and, yes, terrorism, peace does not depend on the Seventh Fleet alone. The Pacific is peaceful because our former enemy, Japan, and the nascent powers of Asia realize that their interests are better served by being part of the modern world, not setting themselves against it.

Sooner or later we must reach that understanding with Islam or the 21st will not be the peaceful century we want it to be.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
Lookout Logo footer image
Copyright 1999-2008 All Rights Reserved.
Footer Email icon