Don’t oversimplify terrorism and the Middle East

In the Nov. 28 edition of “The Northerner,” Mr. Binney takes exception to both the content and tone of a faculty panel held some nine weeks before and entitled “Addressing the Tragedy,” (a response to the attacks of 9-11). Describing the event as a “tawdry affair”and “hasty retorts (sic) to emotions and misinformation,” Mr. Binney was particularly offended by one particular statement, which he (mis)quotes as “How many of you feel guilty for all of the starving children in Iraq?”. As both a participant of the panel and as the speaker in question, I feel compelled to remedy Mr. Binney’s misquote and also respond to some of what he sees as the shortcomings of the panel discussion.

Through the miracle of videotape, I was able to check both the context and actual content of the statement in question. In response to a question from the moderator regarding the lack of popular awareness regarding harmful US policy in the Middle East, I asked the audience “How many people here spend time fretting about the loss of Iraqi civilians as a result of US sanctions?” The tone here is very different from what is presented in Mr. Binney’s misquote, and the absence of the term “guilty” is critical, since he relies on a “guilt” theme throughout his letter. This is erroneous, since I recall no one on the panel suggesting Americans should feel guilty.

I do recall some very interesting discussion of how to help one’s children cope with such disaster, and distinctions between moderate vs. fanatical Islam, as well as debates over appropriate US response and the sanctity of Civil Liberties.

Indeed, the real thrust of Mr. Binney’s article is not what was actually said during the discussion. Rather, Mr. Binney has created an issue with which to take exception, and which appears to be that any recognition of misplaced or misguided American policy in the region legitimizes the actions of terrorists such as bin Laden.

Since the key issues in question for Mr. Binney seem to be Saddam Hussein and the sanctions against Iraq, let us examine these topics in a bit more detail. In fairness, I must first agree with Mr. Binney that a key element of the problem in Iraq is Saddam Hussein, and there is no doubting that Hussein is a malevolent soul who has committed any number of atrocities against his own people and others.

I disagree, however, with Mr. Binney’s oversimplified “Hussein bad/U.S. good” dichotomy. The question, rather, is whether the U.S. has done anything to actually stop Hussein, or whether certain U.S. actions have actually made the situation worse. Certainly, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, he was supported rather than condemned by the U.S., since we were perfectly happy to help him cause death and suffering among the Iranians (similarly, we supported the Taliban in the early 1990s because they too were opposed to the Iranians).

When Hussein killed approximately 200,000 Kurds in 1988, the U.S. government looked the other way. Only when Hussein’s rampant aggression threatened to monopolize the flow of Kuwaiti and Saudi oil did the US oppose him.

Further, when Iraqi Kurds rebelled (with US encouragement) in 1991, we stood by as the recently “defeated” Iraqi military crushed the Kurds (with the aid of poison gas). Mr. Binney attacks the “wholesale ignorance” of Americans with great vigor, yet his own knowledge of recent Middle Eastern history, like his recollection of the panel discussion itself, appears selective, at best.

There is no doubt that were the government of Iraq more noble, there would be far less suffering in the country