Thirty-seven years ago I drove a VW beetle ($800 new) from Madrid to Beirut, where I taught school for a year. Beirut in those days was cosmopolitan, affluent, hedonistic, a bustling commercial center and an educational magnet for the entire Middle East. Lebanon was a land of seductive beauty, a playground where you could ski near the biblical "cedars of Lebanon" in the morning and swim in the Mediterranean the same afternoon. Girls on the beach wore bikinis. I can't once remember seeing a woman in a black chador.
The Lebanese I met were sophisticated, energetic, confident. They spoke English at the office, French on social occasions, and Arabic in the home. They idolized America. The most popular restaurant for young people to gather was called "Uncle Sam's." The American University drew the best and brightest students in the Middle East.
Israel was remote from the concerns of the Lebanese back then. They were too busy making money and having fun. I never heard an anti-Israel rant. The only suggestion of hostility was the rule that to return to Lebanon from Israel you had to go through another country first, as if to remove some taint.
The division of Lebanon between Christians and Muslims was a portent of conflict. But the distinction between Sunnis and Shiites didn't seem to be a cause of friction. One of my students was named "Jihad," but Holy War was the last thing on his mind. He was a thoroughly Americanized teenager, primarily interested in the girls and rock and roll.
What has changed?
Today, Lebanon is in ruins, its people torn between hatred and despair. Lebanon's future is in the hands of apocalyptic terrorists whose fondest dream is the destruction of Israel. When I traveled throughout the Middle East in 1963, the only time I experienced fear was the night on a sidewalk when I learned that President Kennedy had been shot. Today, fear grips the entire region. Life has reverted to a primeval cycle of violence in which the only response to murder is a retaliatory murder, an eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth. It's hard to imagine that anyone is profiting from this catastrophic state of affairs.
What happened? The answers are murky, complex, almost beyond comprehension. But the debate is carried on in terms of simplistic assertions, bombast and vituperation. Words such as "Islamo-fascist" are flung about like sorcerers' spells. Bush is compared - unfavorably - to Hitler and to Saddam Hussein.
A man returning to his home in southern Lebanon swears eternal allegiance to "The Resistance," as if Israel were like Nazi Germany occupying Europe in World War II. "Islamic extremism is the most explicit and dangerous expression of human bigotry since the Nazi era,"writes Shelby Steele.
"Contempt for Arabs is a theme in Israeli conversation," reports Philip Weiss from Jerusalem. At the same time, some Arabs categorize Jews as "monkeys." Jews murder children to use their blood for Passover bread, according to one theory. Arabs and Muslims are supposed to be "in love with death." And Jews are scorned because they are "in love with life."
Financier George Soros calls the "War on Terror" a false metaphor. "A misleading figure of speech applied literally has unleashed a real war : that has killed thousands of innocent civilians," he writes. Others declare that we're already engaged in "World War III."
Solution sought in policing
Panaceas abound. British success in foiling a terrorist plot is cited as an argument that intelligence gathering and policing are the answers rather than military force. But some of the same critics deplore intelligence gathering that violates civil liberties. It was the very failure of intelligence operations that opened the door to 9-11, argues Christopher Hitchens. Political candidates promise to "bring the boys home." And unleash genocide in Iraq? others retort. We must wean ourselves from Middle Eastern oil, some say. Perhaps if we all drove hybrids, these problems would disappear.
Terrorism has been described as a psychological, rather than a political or a religious phenomenon. What sort of response does that call for? If we pulled out of Iraq would the hatred some young Muslims feel toward the West just go away? According to the leadership of Iraq, if Israel were "wiped off the map," most of the problems in the Middle East would be solved. Would the destruction of Israel end the fratricide between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq? And how exactly is it that Israel threatens Iran?
We're told that the Muslim-Arab world craves dignity and respect. How can we assist in this in this quest, which has forever eluded most of mankind, by the use of politically correct platitudes? When the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered for a perceived insult to Islam, an artist in Rotterdam painted an angel on his window along with the words, "Thou Shalt Not Kill." The imam from a neighborhood mosque complained that the message was "racist" and Dutch authorities sent trucks with power hoses to remove the offensive sign.
The implications of this anecdote send the mind into dark and bewildering corners. Is murder justified from the imam's point of view? At any rate, how are we to reconcile the demand for religious sensitivity with the Taliban's destruction of ancient Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan?
Some 700 years of history, at least, have been brewing this deadly concoction. But angry voices demand ultimate solutions - now. Peace, mutual understanding and a return to the mundane unhappiness of life seem a long way off. Moderation is out of fashion. And some opportunists see moderation as a sign of weakness. It would be a beginning of sorts for everyone to take a share of the blame and to agree on one small thing that would be beneficial to everyone. Anything is more useful than a conversation carried on with rockets and bombs.