Blogs > HNN > Of SUVs and Internment Camps

Jan 31, 2005 3:03 pm

Of SUVs and Internment Camps

In its January 1 lead editorial, the New York Times explained the roots of what it terms "The Saudi Syndrome" in which it asked readers to bear in mind that the gas guzzling SUVs that clog our road ways are putting billions of dollars in the coffers of a dictatorial Saudi monarchy that continues to preach and fund a "belligerent and intolerant" form of Wahhabi Islam. This is no doubt true; but if "What would Jesus Drive" hasn't succeeded in transforming the car-buying habits of most Americans, I find it a bit unrealistic to expect Americans to take responsibility for helping to support the infrastructure of hatred and perhaps even terrorism against them and stop buying hemi pick-ups or SUVs. As one proud oversized SUV purchaser explained on ABC News last summer, "This is America."

Indeed, our government hasn't even begun to come clean about its role in fostering Islamist extremism and even terrorism—well, in fact the recent Defense Science Review Board's report did so, but that was released without comment and doesn't reflect the views of any senior military or political officials. President Bush kinda sorta admitted that we haven't exactly supported democracy in the region, but then decided it's better to support business ties (and so the theme of the much ballyhooed "Forum for the Future" in Morocco last month was changed from democracy to business) and to shut down any attempts to explain the US role in the current mess in region (as happened when the US teamed up with wonderfully democratic Egypt to block publication of the new UN Arab Human Development Report).

Given these dynamics, I will state here, sadly but with high confidence, that 2005 will not bring peace and democracy to Iraq or Israel/Palestine. To achieve both there would need to be a systemic transformation not just in those societies, but in ours as well. As long as America's economy and politics are based on an ethic and ideology—religion in fact—of hyperconsumption the current political economy of the ME, which is based on what the Israeli economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler rightly term in the book The Global Political Economy of Israel the "weapondollar-petrodollar" coalition of the major oil, defense and heavy engineering firms, will remain unchanged. We cannot bring peace to the region even if we wanted to when hundreds of billions (ultimately trillions) of dollars circulate back and forth from the US and Europe to the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, and then back and for to China and East Asia, to perpetuate a world economic and strategic system that is neither democratic nor designed distribute wealth in anything close to a just manner.

Of course, many could say that the rapidly escalating US contributions to the Asian Tsunami relief fund demonstrate just the opposite about our Government and American society. While I am happy that so many Americans, and now belatedly our government, have contributed a lot of money to the effort, Juan Cole's comparative analysis of per capita donations by major countries for the disaster (see demonstrates that compared with other countries on a per capita basis, the latest pledge of $350 million is not near the top of the donor list. Even more important is George Monbiot's article in The Guardian is much more trenchant (,3604,1382857,00.html) as he points out that the total US and British commitment to the tsunami relief is literally "dwarfed" by the hundreds of billions spent on the war with Iraq (for which the US's $350 million equals one and a half day's expense.

Yet a strongly disagree with many on the left who have blamed the death toll of the tsunami on American imperialism or lack of funding by the rich northern countries for the kind of system that if in place might have warned coastal communities across the Indian ocean of impending disaster. The fact is, the few billions of dollars (at most) it would have taken to build such a system was well within range of the governments of the countries most affected by the disaster, such as Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka or India), which according to the website spent a combined total of $16 billion (and that's using 1998-99 figures!). It's not just the US government that would rather spend money on war and weapons than on technologies that save lives; most governments share a similar bias, which is a major reason why the world is in such bad shape and why millions of lives were shattered the day after Christmas.

Perhaps the best piece I've seen so far on the tsunami has been Michael Lerner of Tikkun's grappling with divine responsibility for the tsunami. In response to the question that many people must have asked (as even the Archbishop of Canterbury admitted on Sunday)--"Where was God during the Tsunami?" his response was to say, "Isn't this an attempt to avoid the more pressing question of "Where was humanity? Why have we been so unwilling to take serious responsibility for the well-being of others on the planet?" Lerner continues by providing some context for his j'accuse against humanity: "Two weeks ago the United Nations issued a report detailing the deaths of more than 29,000 children every single day as a result of avoidable diseases and malnutrition. Over ten million children a year!! The difference between the almost non-existent coverage of this on-going human-created disaster and the huge focus on the terrible tsunami-generated suffering in South East Asia reveals some deep and ugly truths about our collective self-deceptions."

This is dead-on as far as I'm concerned. But I would ask Michael, why can't both God and humanity be held equally responsible? Why should anyone escape responsibility--human or divine--for this incomprehensible disaster.

Luckily, this isn't a blog about religion and theodicies, although the subject is fascinating and certainly deserves one. But what I am trying to do is to understand the motivations and ideologies underlying the actions of people who believe themselves to be acting in the name of God. And this brings me back to the theme of the first posting, that of the right-wing neoconservative attacks on academics. This past week the king of the neocon attack pundits, Daniel Pipes, reached a new low by using the example of the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II to support "bothersome or offensive measures" ranging from racial/ethnic profiling of Muslims to, one can imagine from the theme of his piece, internment--just like in the 1998 movie The Siege—of Arab/Muslim Americans. (

Pipes's justification for this position is the publication of a recent book by the journalist Michelle Malkin in which she argues that in fact the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II was both morally right and not nearly as bad as people imagine. And since Japanese internment turns out--according to Malkin, I don't know enough to comment but will find out asap and discuss this further in a forthcoming posting--to have been not all that bad, "she correctly concludes that, especially in time of war, governments should take into account nationality, ethnicity, and religious affiliation in their homeland security policies and engage in what she calls "threat profiling."

I remember the first and only time I ever heard Pipes speak, at Hunter College back in the late 1980s. It was frightening then to listen to him rant on about Islam and how Muslims hate Jews and Christians and Israel was right to take any action it wanted against Palestinians because they were basically all terrorists (or terrorists-to-be), but it's even scarier hearing or reading him now that he has real political clout. What is scarier is that he is now on the board of the "US Institute of Peace," and is quite possibly acting as a sounding board for neocons within the Bush Administration who, not content to torture and otherwise murder Muslims and other enemies outside the 50 states, are busy thinking of new ways to bring the war on terror home.

While Pipes rails on about the Muslim menace, a Dec. 31 Washington Post article titled "Average Wage-Earners Fall Behind" by By Jonathan Krim and Griff Witte demonstrated just how hard life is becoming for middle class middle Americans to stay afloat in the neoliberal economic order that emerged under Reagan and Bush I, was lovingly tended to by Clinton and Gore, and has been put on steroids by Bush II. There is nothing about terrorism, Iraq or al-Qa'eda in this article; just the depressing statistics that today, the median wage of $17 per hour, coupled with little or no health insurance or pension funding and increasing job insecurity, is making life increasingly difficult for millions of Americans, particularly those in their thirties and older who either have to support children, aging parents, or are themselves trying to save for retirement.

The main protagonists in this article, a couple from Missouri, explain that "with a little hope and a little prayer here and there, things will work out." I sure hope that's true, but I fear that as long as American spends $400 billion per year on defense and continues prosecuting unwinable wars on terror and drugs, in the process feeding our own addition to the arms, oil and prison industrial complexes, more and more Americans are going to see their standards of living, savings, health care and related indicators of a decent life fall farther behind the rest of the so-called "developed world." This as the war on terrorism, and more particularly Iraq, continue without end, paid for by the very people who are watching their futures slip away with each new pink slip.

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More Comments:

William Davison - 5/2/2005

Should hope most people could agree that using a tsunami to make incoherent and probably largely inaccurate criticisms of US is not just silly, but also counter-productive.
What can be constructively said is that a significant difference between the injustice of the Tsunami and the general injustice that afflicts huge swathes of Africa, Asia and latin American is that even the most apolitical Westerner is aware and comprehends the suffering caused by a tidal wave. The suffering caused by patents, tariffs, volatile commodity prices, and interest repayments (for example) is slightly less well clarified. The compassion and solidarity is clearly there. Westerners (for want of a better term) understand the concept of global injustice and are willing and able to help, they just need to be better informed on the niggly details.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/5/2005

Pipes' description of Malkin is correct. As is your description of Pipes. For a most thorough demolition of Malkin, I highly recommend Muller and Robinson.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 1/5/2005

i will do my best to respond as often as possible... thanks to everyone for their comments.

chris l pettit - 1/4/2005

It is good to have a reasoned and logical perspective to rise above much of the drivel that permeates the discussion here at HNN. I have greatly enjoyed the articles in the past and look forward to some good conversation. I do hope that you will be quite responsive to some of the comments if you have the time? I did not see any sort of response to any of the comments below. I know the New Year's holiday has just past and that we are all preparing for our lecturing priorities for the coming semester, but would love to keep some good conversation going!

It will be enjoyable to read the silliness of Klinghoffer and other posters on the main page (such as Pipes and Klinghoffer) and then come here to get some reasonable response based on logic and rationality instead of fear, nationalism, bigotry and hatred.