In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant!, George Lakoff cites “social and political conditions [that lead to] cultures of despair” as potential sources of radicalization for, in this case, Islamic terrorists. The idea that geopolitics and its immediate effects on the lives of Muslims could be the cause of their radicalization is a type of systemic causation, comprised of a network of direct causes and systems of feedback loops. In this sense, the United States is partly culpable for radicalization as it is an influential and aggressive actor in the geopolitics that directly shape these corrupting “cultures of despair,” not to mention all the racist hate mongering that is conjured up by the right. Our nation’s hand is certainly in the pot and, in turn, we must accept some responsibility for retributive terrorist attacks on U.S. soil like 9/11 and the underlying radicalization that caused them. This is not something conservatives are willing to consider, and seemingly something only the most radical of liberals are coming to terms with.
Progressive philosopher and activist Cornel West drew attention to this in a 2015 interview with Al Jazeera, in which he called President Obama a “war criminal” for his authorization of drone strikes in countries like Pakistan where civilian deaths were incurred and anticipated. When pressed by the interviewer as to whether Obama made the “right decision,” West reasoned that we must not consider whether the decision is right, but rather if the system that forces someone to choose between certain death and certain death is right. Perhaps West was suggesting that the United States is inherently responsible for global terror because of its sheer involvement in the Middle East and South Asia. Our war politics have led to undeniable complicity in the heightening of tensions in the Middle East and South Asia, and certainly the tensions between the United States and those countries.
These tensions and the “cultures of despair” that they create are what radicalized Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people during the Pulse Night Club shooting in June earlier this year. Patience Carter, who was shot in both legs and trapped in the bathroom with the shooter, reported that Mateen said “that the reason why he was doing this is because he wanted America to stop bombing his country [Afghanistan].” A progressive Pakistani-American myself, it seems so obvious to me that an overwhelming amount of radical Islamic terrorism is in reaction to the horrors perpetrated on Middle Eastern and South Asian soil by the United States government. While our war efforts exist to end the war (on our terms, of course), they equally perpetuate the tit-for-tat violence between the United States and its warring nations.
Because the physical war rarely plays out within American borders, it can be hard for Americans to see that actual effects and damages it causes; again, war itself is not some disconnected agent, we as a nation are largely complicit in the ills of our warfare. We as Americans experience very few “social and political conditions [that lead to] cultures of despair,” for we are very much physically disconnected from the warfare we participate in. Perhaps this disconnection is what impedes so many Americans from seeing our nation’s complicity in the radicalization of Islamic terrorists. While this is likely, there is much more at play that prevents especially conservatives from admitting U.S. complicity, like racist and nationalist rhetoric from Republican politicians that then trickles down the rhetorical ladder and becomes commonplace in conservative circles and households.
Following 9/11, California Democrat Barbara Lee publicly stated she was “convinced that military action will not prevent further attacks of international terrorism against the United States.” Omar Mateen’s own radicalization supports Lee’s thesis. Progressive politicians have been regretful to adopt “us versus them” rhetoric, and justly so. The right’s demonization of Muslims and non-Muslim South Asians and Middle Easterners (although they’re blanketed as Muslims still) contributes to a false zero-sum game picture of war where opponents are polarized and one (the United States) is undeniably in the right while the other is undeniably in the wrong. This simplicity is too idealistic to be realistic, but it still contributes greatly to conservative hate-mongering, justified by the taking of a falsely higher moral ground.
In my opinion, any diplomatic end to this increasingly complex warfare will include some formulation of responsibility. With this logic, there are two possible outcomes for the end of the war: the liberal discourse takes over and the United States publicly and openly admits its complicity in radical Islamic terrorism and the perpetuation of brutal warfare, paving the way for civil and honest discussion, or we hold true to the conservative grit, blame the Browns, and continue a contentious relationship with our oil-rich enemies for the foreseeable future. With Donald Trump’s racist and misinformed rhetoric and Hillary Clinton’s complicity in drone warfare as Secretary of State, it’s not looking too good for us.
By: Yasmeen Najeebi ’18