RSS FeedFacebookSearch
Gary Younge
How could they cheer?

It is a sorry reflection on the state of international relations that, while Americans shed tears at the terror that shook New York on Tuesday, across the world others wept tears of joy. Satellite television saw to it that the world was united before their television screens, where the horror of the attacks and their aftermath was endlessly replayed. Politics ensured that they remained divided in their reaction to what they saw and how they interpreted it.

Americans were witnessing a ruthless attack, not only on their physical air space; others - particularly, but by no means exclusively, in the Arab world - saw a spectacular and dramatic display of revenge.

"It's payback time," said one Egyptian driver in Cairo. "Terrorism begets terrorism," said an Arab reporter. "The United States finally reaps what it sows."

"Now they know how the Iraqis feel," writes Patricia Tricker from Bedale in rural North Yorkshire. Andrew Pritchard in Amsterdam says: "If the US's greatest peacetime defeat results in deflating America's overweening ego as the world's sole remaining 'superpower', it will be a highly productive achievement."

This display of vengeful satisfaction, it should be emphasised, is popular rather than official. Condemnation of the attacks is predictable when it comes from the west; rare from those who could never be described as friends of the US and have often been on the wrong side of its wrath. Even so, the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was quick to denounce the attacks. Alongside him came the Libyan leader Muammar Gadafy, who said: "Everyone should put human considerations above political differences and offer aid to the victims of this gruesome act."

Egypt's principal fundamentalist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, said the attacks "contradict all human and Islamic values". Even a one-time leader of Hizbollah rejected "methods of this sort". A small celebration in the West Bank city of Ramallah was quickly broken up by Palestinian police.

The exception was Iraq, where state television has been showing the crumbling towers to the tune of a patriotic song that begins "Down with America!" One official there hailed the attacks, saying the "American cowboy" deserved them for "crimes against humanity".

While that mood is popular, it is by no means clear whether it represents a majority view. "I'm astonished and sad," said Elias Khoury in Beirut. "I think it's terrible. This is pure madness, which can't help anybody's cause."

But there can be little doubt that, in some parts, a sense of celebration is prevalent. As the death toll rises and survivors' traumatic accounts become more vivid, the temptation would be to discount the cheers of so many as the flawed ravings of the psychologically disturbed. Such a conclusion would be as mistaken as describing the four intricately coordinated suicide attacks, striking at the heart of the most powerful country in the world, as "mindless". For if the cheers that greeted Manhattan's mayhem were emotive in their expression, they were political in their nature. That does not excuse them. But if there is any desire to understand why this happened - and so how it might be prevented from happening again - then it would help to comprehend why some have derived pleasure from carnage.

Central to an understanding of why some rejoiced at Tuesday's events is the conflict in the Middle East. It is a year since the latest intifada in occupied Palestine started. So far, the uprising has left more than 700 people dead - most of them Palestinians. The US backing of Israel throughout this time, and before, has entrenched anti-American sentiments that have existed since Israel was founded in 1948. The US government is blamed not only for giving Israel political support but military aid as well.

As hope for a negotiated settlement in the region fades, the level of random and punitive violence on both sides has increased - as has public support for it. It is an area where political violence and acts of individual and state terrorism have become so commonplace that many are all but desensitised from the shock of it.

Suicide bombings are immensely popular with the Palestinian public. According to the most recent opinion poll, about 70% support them. Meanwhile, the first Israeli poll after the two most recent bombings suggests that the same proportion of Israeli voters believe that the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, will fail to end "violence and terrorism on the part of Palestinians". The trouble is that just over half of them think he is failing simply because he has not been tough enough.

"Let them get a taste of what we have been getting daily for the past 50 years," said a taxi driver in Jordan's capital, Amman. "Maybe now they will feel our pain."

The editor-in-chief of the semi-official Egyptian newspaper al-Akhbar blamed Israel directly. "I say without any hesitation that it is Israel that has sacrificed Washington to concentrate its occupation and injustice," said Galal Duweidar. "The joke is that the murderer Sharon offered help for Washington to get through this trial. He could indeed help - by adhering to justice and international law."

However, alongside the Middle East there is the wider global perception of America as the world policeman that keeps making up the law as it goes along. With the Soviet Union gone, its international hegemony, ranging from trade to military intervention, has opened it to accusations of hypocrisy. For some, Tuesday's attack marks a single reprisal for more than a decade of attacks that have gone unavenged.

"As they did it to other people [it] is happening to them now," said Izzat Hassan Ali, who owns the Jihad grocery store in Cairo. "They hit innocent people in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now it backfired on them."

An Iranian grocer, Payman Bahrami, said: "Shedding blood is always bad, but shedding blood comes from hatred, and this hatred the Americans themselves produced. They are bullying the world and this is the result of their bullying. It is the innocent people who suffer."

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
Dispatches From The Diaspora
latest book

'An outstanding chronicler of the African diaspora.'

Bernardine Evaristo

 follow on twitter
© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc