The recent near-terrorist incident involving the bungled attempt by Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to cause an explosion on the Christmas flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, following the horrific shooting spree by the American soldier Nidal Malik Hassan at Fort Hood, Texas in November, have brought forth responses in the media, the public and our politicians that again illustrate a general American inability to respond to these difficult situations with anything more thoughtful and probing than a knee-jerk reaction of seeking to punish the perpetrators of these actions and to blame those who did not stop these situations from progressing to where they nearly caused, or in the case of Nidal Hassan, actually did cause harm and tragedy. There is also the infantile desire for government to provide a guarantee of 100% security to all Americans at all times. This writer will concede that more could perhaps have been done to prevent these incidents from unfolding as they did--or nearly did--but what he finds sadly lacking from the discussion is any serious consideration of WHY these Muslim individuals are so willing to take up the cause of violence against the USA and/or the West, even at the cost of their own lives. The general discussion seems to assume that these "bad guys," as labeled by former President Bush, are beyond understanding. They are simply "bad." Or maybe crazy. Or maybe misled by bad, crazy ideology. Or all of the above.
Rarely will you hear any discussion of how the Islamic world in general has been suffering a long-burning sense of humiliation, frustration and anger since being unsettled, disabled, carved up into pieces and then rearranged this way and that by Western colonial powers from the British to the French to the Russians to us for the last several hundred years. The post-WW II creation of the state of Israel by non-Islamic powers from outside the Middle East is one particularly grating example of events that have often taken place against the will of Islamic countries and without their consultation or any serious consideration of their interests or sensitivities. To put it bluntly, the Muslims are tired of being pushed around. Americans may recall we had a similar feeling toward the British in our colonial days, a feeling which prompted us to undertake a certain war of independence. To our British rulers in that period, Americans seeking to break away from the British Empire must have seemed like crazy, evil terrorists, "the worst of the worst."
So, when Islamic radicals take up arms against American forces occupying their lands, their actions, however regrettable or horrific, are not really all that crazy or irrational, nor are they so impossible to understand. What is needed is to seriously and thoughtfully consider their own point of view--which is not the same thing as agreeing with it--and not simply condemn it as evil or insane. These radicals are responding to what they see as unfair American domination of their world, an "American empire," if you will, and this is their attempt to make it end, or die trying.
I would argue that we will never succeed in stopping these repeated attempts at destabilizing our world through terrorist violence until we seriously consider how past and present actions of America and other Western countries have destabilized others' worlds, particularly those of Islamic peoples who once lived in proud, powerful Islamic states that boasted an advanced sophisticated civilization. We tend to assume that the rest of the world should accept American dominance, including allowing our military forces to freely operate in or near their territories--though we would never allow others to bring their military forces onto American soil--and merrily join in with our economic system and form of government.
Consider how we would feel in the reverse situation. If Saudi Arabia used its oil wealth to construct a huge military and then, after some perceived humiliation of some Saudi citizens in the United States, demanded that we allow Saudi soldiers to set up military bases in say, upstate New York and the Florida coast, and to be allowed to occupy these bases for an indefinite period, we would think it crazy and never accept it. Yet we expect other countries around the world to acquiesce to exactly this kind of humiliating and infuriating arrangement. Our military presence in the Middle East and Southwest Asia needs to be considered in this light.
But the kind of discussion I am calling for will probably not happen, certainly not in the mainstream USA media nor the halls of government. The media and the government prefer to hew to the party line of "American exceptionalism," believing that we are a particularly blessed and virtuous nation, beyond all criticism or objections, and that other countries should "naturally" accept our leadership--or else.
In a strange way, this is actually a very tribal point of view. Our tribe of the USA is incapable of seeing any other point of view other than that which glorifies and justifies our own greatness and entitlement. Any disruption of our tribal interests will be met with maximum harshness, without excuses or compassion. A one-day attack in 2001 that kills a small number of our total population but involves no disruption of our government nor any occupation of our territory becomes the justification for eight plus years of war in which we invade two other countries, overthrow their governments, kill tens of thousands, take prisoners that we ship to overseas prisons for indefinite detention, and ignite or re-kindle interminable civil wars. Our armies march through foreign lands with no apparent understanding of how frightening, disturbing and humiliating our presence may be, establishing fortress-like bases wherever we like, like crusader castles of old, giving orders and issuing demands to local rulers that make a mockery of our supposed belief in democracy, and killing those who dare stand up against our occupation of land that is not our own.
Once you take off the self-justifying, other-distorting glasses of American exceptionalism, this is not so hard to see. It also helps to travel and talk to non-Americans once in a while.
In my writings in this blog on Paganism, I have struggled a great deal with the relationship of tribalism to ethnically-based forms of Pagan revivalism, particularly Asatru/Heathenry. Now I see a new and disturbing connection with the world situation. It is my impression that the same American Heathens or Asatru followers who are most enthusiastic about the retro-ideal of a closed tribal community are the ones most likely to unquestioningly support the US military in carrying out its imperialistic duties in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It seems that they view the American military as the most wonderful tribe of all; a tribe beyond criticism, whose legitimacy or purpose cannot be questioned.
A few months ago, on a Yahoo Heathen group that I often peruse, I read many messages of congratulations to a young man going off to war in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Not one voice was raised to question the wisdom of the war; there was just the simplistic, sentimental "support the troops" point of view. I didn't want to spoil the party, so I said nothing.
Does Norse Pagan tradition have anything to say about the current situation beyond the easy glorification of war that one may derive from the battle-scenes in the Eddas ans Sagas? This is obviously a matter of interpretation, but I believe there are several strands in Norse mythology and history that show something more complex and nuanced than a simplistic glorification of the tribe and exultation in war.
(1). In the account of the "first war in the world" between the Aesir and Vanir tribes of gods described in the poem Voluspa, the resolution of the conflict comes not from one side completely subduing the other, but through truce and compromise that results in a blending of the two tribes. Could this be applied to America's conflict with Muslim militants? It might save some money and lives if we tried to figure out what these "bad guys" wanted, instead of assuming that they are insane and should all be killed, and see if we could work out some kind of compromise. I have a feeling that they would first of all like to see our troops leaving. Guess what? So would many Americans, including this one.
(2) In the satirical poem Lokasenna, the suspicion is voiced that Odin, in his function as arbiter of war, often gave victory to the less deserving side on the battlefield. Other texts show Odin as being fickle in terms of his support of one side or the other. Does this apply to anything today? Well, it might give us a little humility in viewing the odds for American victory in Afghanistan and elsewhere (Yemen? Somalia? Iran? Sudan? Pakistan?), when we reflect on how the god of war does not guarantee victory to anyone.
(3) When the Norse explorers attempted to settle in North America, probably on the coast of Newfoundland at the site of L'Anse aux Meadows, they were eventually driven off by the hostility of the Native Americans. Victory is not assured when occupying foreign lands.
(4) Both the Norse gods, in mythology, and the Norse peoples, in history, often blended with and assimilated with other beings/peoples/cultures. The Norse gods fight giants, but also mate with them. The Vikings fought the English, Irish and French, but also settled among them and in time became completely mixed with them. This suggests something that the American military is realizing about Afghanistan: it helps to get to know people and form relationships with them, not just order them around and bomb them when they become disagreeable. This is quite different from assuming that we Americans all have the answers and that the other side should become our obedient subjects.
(5) We also find, when we examine the course of Scandinavian history, that the Scandinavian countries became much more pleasant and prosperous places when they gave up their dreams of empire and conquest. That's the good news. The bad news is that no one gives up empire willingly. I imagine that American imperialism is in its final stages, because we are rapidly reaching the point where we simply cannot afford to keep all these troops trained, equipped, and deployed all around the world. Not if we want to preserve any kind of public services within the home base of the empire. I think the sun is starting to set on America as the dominant world power, but it will take a while. I look forward to the quiet day when we become a modest, medium-sized power, like Britain after World War II, when it gave up its African and Asian colonies. I also believe that when we stop trying to dominate the world, Islamic extremism will lose its raison d'etre and the Muslim world will calm down too. However, it is going to take a while.
This is all quite painful to ponder. I take none of this lightly. I seek solace in the spirits of nature, the quiet patience of trees and water and stones.