We were a huddled mass that morning; not quite “wretched refuse,” but after hours spent on frozen ground we looked more like refugees than the elite of American academia. Our departure from the inauguration festivities was most definitely “tempest-tost,” as the teeming National Mall broke loose – south toward the river, east toward Union Station, west toward the Hilltop.
I heard the new president promise this: “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken.” That warmed my frozen bones. It is not just neoconservative but socialist, capitalist, conservative, liberal, libertarian and feminist to believe that we must wipe terrorism from the face of the Earth.
We see it emerge from the crevasses of central Asia. It practices ruthless and indiscriminate murder. We’ve seen its soldiers, of various ages and temperaments, often described posthumously as kind, gentle, respectful and polite. Mohamed Atta, the fellow who flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, had such words bestowed upon him by those who knew him; they could not believe that the man they knew would do such a thing.
“Syriana” and “Rendition” stand out among the post-9/11 political films; in them we see a stylized depiction of how combining a broken family, an exogenous shock and exhilarating and poisonous fundamentalist rhetoric can produce a terrorist like Atta.
In these cases, real and fictional, the terrorists started out as passionate young men brimming with potential. Both films brought these men so close to us that we knew their names and their faces. They became real, and then they blew up.
But Hollywood, generally adept at telling searing truths, has missed something in its depiction of terrorists. Muhammad Ajmal Kasab, a Pakistani national involved in the Bombay attacks in November, presents a different picture altogether. The famous Agence France-Presse/Getty photo of him shows him in a Versace T-shirt walking through central Bombay with a smile on his face and his eyes gleaming. “They brainwash our youth about jihad, there are people who do it in this village. It is so wrong,” a resident of Faridkot, Kasab’s hometown, told The Observer.
To bring an end to the War on Terror we must target the source of the instability that breeds terrorism, rather than focusing completely on preventing acts of terrorism in and of themselves.
“Syriana” and “Rendition” represent a first step toward understanding this; they’re useful because they depict these realities in full color, instead of the black and white of three-paragraph National Security Agency daily briefings. A full anthropological and cultural analysis of central Asia would serve as a good next step for President Obama – after a movie night in the Oval Office.
Awareness and understanding of Islamist jihadism might prevent us from committing such follies like developing armored vehicles with names like “The Crusader.” While that howitzer was never deployed, one can see the value of a bit of political correctness when naming vehicles to be deployed in the Middle East.
The hatred of America by Islamist fundamentalists was most succinctly presented by Osama bin Laden in his October 2002 “letter to America”: “You are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind: You are the nation who, rather than ruling by the Shariah of Allah in its Constitution and Laws, choose to invent your own laws as you will and desire. You separate religion from your policies, contradicting the pure nature which affirms Absolute Authority to the Lord and your Creator.”
No matter what bin Laden might think, those laws give us our strength and moral authority. Terrorists aim to destroy our identity. They do not couch their movement as a fight against a hegemonic superpower, but as a holy war against infidels. It falls to us to defend our ideals.
At this time of renewal and new direction, it is imperative we follow through on the president’s proclamation; terrorism cannot outlast us, and we will defeat it. Our victory will be all the more resounding because we will do so in adherence with our highest ideals: justice, equality and freedom.
Udayan Tripathi is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at tripathithehoya.com. History Never Repeats Itself appears every other Friday.
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