It’s August 7, 1998, and two American embassies in Africa–one in Tanzania, the other in Kenya–were just bombed nigh-simultaneously by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The shadowy figure fingered as being behind the attack had an origin story straight out of a superhero comic: scion of a wealthy family, he founded an organization which, probably with American funding and support, aided the resistance movement against the Soviet invasion of a country near his own.
The resistance movement was the Mujahideen, the organization was al-Qaeda, and we are of course talking about Osama bin Laden. Today is the day most of America first hears his name.
Whether or not the US provided funding or other assistance to al-Qaeda in its early days fighting the Soviet Union is controversial, but it is generally agreed that if it happened, this was a major error that came back to bite the people who made it. I’m not so sure.
To be clear, two hundred people died. Nobody, except maybe the people who carried them out and their ideological fellow travelers, thinks these attacks were a good thing.
But American culture, for nearly half a century, had been built around the Cold War. It was the go-to argument for the oppressor class: can’t pay living wages or fund social programs because that’s socialism and we don’t want to be like those godless commies, you know? Can’t roll back the dominance of arbitrary Christian mores standing in the way of women’s and queer liberation; that’s secularism, the kind of thing those godless commies would do. Even the Civil Rights Movement was treated as a potential communist plot!
We have, multiple times, looked at the way the sudden, anticlimactic end of the Cold War impacted the national psyche. For a solid decade, the US was a nation flailing, a massively oversized military-industrial complex suddenly without an enemy to (never actually) fight, a police and surveillance state without infiltrators and agents of foreign powers to ferret out.
Some relics remained intact. To this day, conservatives will still argue against any proposed or extant social program by pointing to the Soviet Union, but instead of implying that we will become like the Soviets at their most brutally oppressive, now the implication is that we will become like the Soviet Union in the sense of collapsing. And much of the rhetoric is unchanged; the only difference now is that we are exhorted to report suspicious activity from our neighbors because they might be terrorists, as opposed to because they might be communists. (And before that, Nazis. And before that, communists. And before that, anarchists. And before that…)
And that there is the key. These bombings are not the moment at which terrorists became the new communists, but they are the prequel. They are the moment at which the new villain became known.
He’s a great fit. The best villains, we’re always told, are mirrors of the heroes. And if the American military-industrial-police complex, which is to say the American right, is the self-declared hero, then in bin Laden we have a perfectly cast villain. Most obviously, like the American right, he is extremely devoted to a far-right regressive religion which he believes should be the basis for government, which is to say forcibly imposed on all. He also comes from money, just like the American right. Most of all, however, he is motivated by a powerful hostility to the Other, a belief that violence is the appropriate response to any difference.
Hero and villain, in other words, believe precisely the same things, with the only difference being where and in what culture they happen to have been born. But of course, when your motivating belief is the hatred of the Other, that’s all it takes to be bitter enemies.
The common refrain in the late 90s and early 2000s, regarding right-wing Muslim terrorism, was “they hate us for our freedoms.” And that’s not untrue, insofar as diversity is a product of freedom: when people are free to be openly different, their differences are naturally more visible. Of course rather more significant a factor is that we have been conquering, manipulating, and oil-drilling the Middle East for generations; those of “them” who hate “us” by and large have fairly good reason to do so. But the common thread between all the world’s right wings, whether of empires or their colonies current and former, is that us/them division in the first place. “They” hate “us” for the same reason “we” hate “them”: because once you’ve divided the world into an us and a them, a Self and an Other, a normal and a deviant, hating and fearing the Other becomes natural, and killing them feels like self-defense.
Most terrorism in the United States is carried out by American-born conservative white men. That is simply a fact, and as true in 1998 as it is now. And for them as well, it is not untrue that they hate us for our freedoms, for our difference. Right-wing terrorism is motivated by the same hatred and fear and desire to kill the invading outsider–because, to those who draw those little circles of normalcy, everything deviant is an outsider.
And so the great transference can begin. Where once communists were the terrible Other, whose agents infiltrated the state and must be expunged, now it is terrorists. Where once being anything other than a conservative Christian white allocishet man made you suspect as a commie, now it makes you, if not a terrorist, at least suspect of aiding and abetting them. (Hence the nonsense about Middle Eastern terrorists sneaking across the border among undocumented immigrants from Latin America: to the rightwing mind, Middle Eastern people, terrorists, and Latin@ people are all Other, and therefore more or less interchangeably equivalent.)
We are, at least partially, free to be who we are. And they hate us for that freedom.
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