Who's to blame? Perhaps they are

Radicalism, terrorism and war are organic and authentic societal developments.

seth frantzman 88 (photo credit: )
seth frantzman 88
(photo credit: )
One of the recurring myths concerning both the Middle East and much of the world is that "we" are responsible for what "they" do. Whether it is Israel's responsibility for the rise of Hamas or the imposition of the Versailles Treaty in 1918 that is responsible for the rise of Hitler or the American bombing of Cambodia that is responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge, there is an enduring belief that the evils and choices of others are in our hands.
This is a sort of modern version of the self-flagellating Christian monks or Jewish prophets of old who blamed disasters on the sins of their community. A recent book by James Bradley, The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, illustrates the point. The book covers the 1905 voyage of American president Teddy Roosevelt's special envoy to Asia, William Howard Taft (who later became president).
According to Bradley this single voyage is the fountainhead for all the ills that subsequently afflicted Asia in the 20th century. For instance, by recognizing the Japanese occupation of Korea, America became responsible for Japanese imperialism and thus was responsible for Pearl Harbor and World War II.
In a similar vein Matthew Alexander writes in an op-ed in The New York Times entitled "Torture's loopholes" that unless the US stops confining terror detainees in solitary confinement (and other less than pleasant conditions) "we will only continue to give al-Qaida a recruiting tool." This reminds one of Israeli Nobel Prize winner Ada Yonath, who claimed that if Israel released all the Palestinian prisoners, it would end the abductions of Israelis by terrorists: "If we wouldn't have these people here there would be no one to release and no motivation to kidnap."
CONSIDER THE recent disaster in Haiti. One often hears, in background to the current suffering, that Haiti was already the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere (which is true) because of what foreigners have done to it (which is debatable). It is never Haiti's fault, or the Haitians', that the country is poor. Although it gained independence in 1802, it is "impoverished partly because of debts due. France imposed a huge debt that strangled Haiti... only 2 percent of the country is forested today... [cut] either by foreigners or to pay off the debts of foreigners," writes Nicholas D. Kristof. Haiti's problems supposedly have everything to do with a debt imposed on the country in 1825 (paid off in 1879).
Gaza is another example where the behavior of people is not blamed on the people themselves but on others. Everything that happens in Gaza is supposedly a reaction to the actions of Israel. Alex Awad, a Palestinian pastor, claims that "the rise of Hamas and militancy in Gaza is directly related to a vacuum that Israel and the United States have created." Onetime Israeli resident and scholar Avi Shlaim writes that "Israel turned the people of Gaza into hewers of wood and drawers of water, into a source of cheap labor." Then Shlaim argues that "Israel has never in its entire history done anything to promote democracy on the Arab side." The rivalry between Hamas and Fatah is part of a "sinister plot to instigate a Palestine civil war" by "American neoconservatives."
Zhou Lie, a professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, parrots the belief of many Middle East scholars when he blames the problems of the Arab countries on the "divide and rule" tactics of colonialism. Despite the fact that the "Arab people are of an innovative nation that has experienced great suffering but has never yielded," it is the "Palestine-Israel conflict which has most severely affected the development of the Arab world." The US "sowed discord in the Arab world." This view is timid compared to UK born, Nazareth resident Jonathan Cook, who has written on how "Israel is engineering the clash of civilizations" in his book of a similar title (Israel and the Clash of Civilizations).
MARC GOPIN, the coexistence rabbi profiled in The Jerusalem Post Magazine ("The lonely man of peace," January 22), claims that "in the Middle East radicalization grows where social services don't exist. So, if you want to win, start city by city creating alternatives."
Gopin claims that "people take revenge when you don't give them respect." The rabbi is ensconced in the same myth as the rest: that the behavior of others is entirely contingent on the behavior of ourselves.
In most cases, the behavior of others, the rise of political groups, radicalism, terrorism and war are not reactions, they are organic and authentic developments of society. The myth that our society can always change other societies by making them more or less violent is in fact part of a wider ethnocentrism that is usually condemned by the very people who make such statements. Self-blame for the actions of others insinuates the same "white man's burden" idea that was behind colonialism.
Building schools in Gaza or giving more respect to Ismail Haniyeh would not have changed the trajectory of history, just as the Western democracies could not have changed Stalin and Hitler, and Rome could not have changed the Goths. We must give others the credit and allow them the responsibility to make their own decisions, whether bad or good. For better or worse, we cannot always change them.