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Back to normal? Please, let’s not

Randy West, Editor

Let’s pretend you’re a young teenager in Afghanistan. The only notion you have of America is what you see in a small box, a TV set, in a market outside Kabul. You’ve probably never met an American. A missionary or a reporter with a personal interpreter and driver might have passed through your community once or twice. You watch commercial airliners pass overhead, and wonder what it would be like to travel and see other parts of the world.
You have almost no chance at an education, and there are few job prospects in Afghanistan. Your father scratches out a living at a rug factory, and your mother rarely leaves home. When she does, she must wear a robe that covers her, from head to toe, and be accompanied by a male family member. If she appears in public without her robe, she’s likely to be beaten by the religious police, the Taliban, who control your very repressive government, with support from neighboring Pakistan.
Your country is desperately poor, ravaged by war for two decades, by invading Russians, who were defeated by the mujahadeen (with crucial aid from America, ironically) and then by civil war between the Taliban and many indigenous tribes.
About the only hope you have for joy or peace in your life comes from your religion, Islam, and you pray with everyone else five times a day. The Taliban doesn’t allow Christianity.
Your view of America, as seen through Arab TV (whose images are probably controlled by the government), is both skewed and fascinating. America is the land of Britney Spears, the young blond entertainer with the bejeweled navel. Or Madonna, who flaunts her sexuality on stage before thousands of immodest, frenzied fans.
American sports consists of constant re-runs of huge behemoths crushing opponents in football games, horrendous race car wrecks, basketball players who congratulate themselves after violent “slam dunks,” or boxers like Mike Tyson, who maul their opponents in the ring and rape women outside it.
The young man sees little about what has made America extraordinary: our democratic system of government, our respect for civil rights, freedom of speech, religion and the press, our court system, our great universities, our stock market, our wide range of churches, our respect for minorities, our acceptance of vast numbers of immigrants. The young man probably doesn’t realize that our last two wars were fought to protect Muslims from oppressors in other parts of the world.
Most of the news the young man sees on TV involves school shootings in America and violent, never-ending clashes in Israel and Gaza and Lebanon. Almost every day, Palestinian youths throw rocks at Israeli soldiers in occupied territories. All too often, a terrorist martyr associated with Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad blows himself up at some crowded Israeli community, which causes a heavy response by the Israeli military.
Despite the great loss of life on both sides, America always sides with Israel and doesn’t seem to care about the carnage. America has removed itself from the peace process. Where is the search for peace, the search for justice?
The young man doesn’t understand why the oil-rich Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Iraq and Iran condemn the Israelis’ harsh treatment of their brother Arabs but do little to stop it. Those countries are wealthy and have non-democratic governments. Some of them, like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, are exceedingly friendly to the U.S. Their chief concern is staying in power.
To the young Afghani, the world seems terribly lopsided in favor of rich western countries and their rich oil-producing business partners. Poor Muslims have no future.
Then comes Sept. 11.
Osama bin Laden’s Al Queda terrorists hijack commercial airlines and plow them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, American symbols of wealth and power. Thousands of people, innocent people, are slaughtered. To the young man in Afghanistan, those people have become the enemy, they’re the infidels. America the all-powerful is vulnerable. The war of religions, the clash of cultures, the rich against the poor, have been brought to America. Even though bin Laden is a religious fanatic who has twisted Islam to suit his propaganda purposes, he has become a cultural hero in the Middle East.
America responds with precise military fury, bombing the intransigent Taliban and Al Queda terrorist strongholds around Kabul and elsewhere. Terrified, the youngster and his family struggle to find a place to hide. They want to run away to escape the bombs and the fierce ground fighting that’s sure to follow. They have nowhere to go — even Pakistan has turned against Afghanistan.
The U.S. planes drop bombs as well as food, to prevent thousands from starvation, but those strange little packets of food — are they poison? The Taliban confiscates most of them.
President Bush has urged all Americans to return to normal, to show terrorists that they cannot change our way of life. But, please, let’s not. Part of our culture is incredibly good and humane, but part of it is offensive to Third World countries who see no help or encouragement from the U.S. as we drain their natural resources. To millions of Afghanis and others throughout the world, the American way of life, as seen on Arab state-run television and interpreted through terrorist propaganda, is an abomination.
Yes, we are flawed — arrogant, convinced of our superiority in wealth and power — but we are also democratic, we elect our governments. We are idealistic, generous at times, compassionate and concerned about our fellow man. We can do wonderful things — like having schoolchildren send money to Afghani children — and we did create the Peace Corps, which needs to be revived.
We just haven’t done a good job of being good neighbors to the rest of the world. In addition to carefully destroying terrorism throughout the world, America must lead the world in showing how a progressive culture can be compassionate, sharing, tolerant and pluralistic, dedicated to improving life for everyone around the globe, including that kid in Afghanistan.