Peace Porridge #26: Why Do They Hate Us?
5 February 2002
I rarely go to the cinema; and when I do, I'm almost always disappointed. I'd much rather see a play or read a good book. I particularly dislike war movies; but after reading a BBC wire on the reception of Black Hawk Down in Somalia, I had to see the film. Here are some excerpts from the BBC wire.
"Thousands of Somalis have flocked to cinemas in Mogadishu for the opening night of Black Hawk Down, the war blockbuster based on the shooting down of two US Blackhawk helicopters in Somalia in 1993.
"In Dualeh cinema, young spectators clapped and cheered every time they saw a white man killed or wounded. The downing of each helicopter was met with even more enthusiastic applause.
" 'In this fighting, I lost nine of my best friends on one spot,' said movie-goer Warsameh Abdi, '... It was that very helicopter,' he said, pointing at the screen. 'It hovered on top of us and shot us one by one.'
"Not surprisingly, some were less than impressed with the film's portrayal of the Somali people. 'There's not one single word of the Somali language nor Somali music, almost nothing of our culture in the movie,' said Mohamed Ali Abdi. 'This is absurd.'
What's going on here? Weren't we in Somali on a "peace keeping mission?" Shouldn't the Somalis have applauded our efforts to save them from themselves and starvation?" If this is the reaction to our "peace keeping missions," what about Iraq, Yugoslavia, Panama, and Afghanistan where we wage war?
Here's a few facts about Somalia, none of which you will learn from watching Black Hawk Down.
Somalia is on the coast of the Horn of Africa, across the Gulf of Aden from the Arabian Peninsula, and projecting into the Indian Ocean. Somalis are predominately Muslim. Somalia's climate is tropical and ranges from arid to semi-arid. Traditionally, Somalis were largely nomadic pastoral people. Somalia has suffered from environmental degradation, desertification, overgrazing, and deforestation, largely as a result of the introduction of inappropriate agriculture by Westerners.
One of Somalia's earliest encounters with Europeans was in the 16th century when the Portuguese navy invaded and established bases on the coast. The Horn of Africa became a theatre for European power rivalry. Somaliland was divided between the British, French and Italians, with no regard for the Somalis. After independence the entire Horn of Africa was the scene of a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Somalia was abandoned by its American "friends" to starvation and warlordism. 300,000 Somalis died in the ensuing chaos.
Somalia is among the poorest countries in the world. 21% of Somali children die before the age of five, mostly from preventible diseases like diarrhea, dehydration, pneumonia, and malaria. Maternal mortality is among the highest in the world. Literacy rates are among the lowest.
Black Hawk Down has received rave reviews. While a few reviewers criticize the movie for excessive violence and lack of substance, they miss the most important point: Black Hawk Down is pure propaganda, designed to prepare the American public to accept the extension of war to this impoverished nation. Produced with "advice" from the Pentagon, this film is unabashed racism, and gives a totally false picture of the event it portrays.
Black Hawk Down portrays Americans soldiers as real people who bleed, suffer, and die. Somalis on the other hand are mere caricatures of people. They never bleed. When shot, they fall off the screen and disappear like icons in a video game. Somalis are referred to throughout the movie by the ethnic slur, "skinnies." Objecting to war against the "skinnies," would be like objecting to Nintendo. (How would we feel about a movie that portrayed Americans as "fatties?" There would be some truth to this. Obesity is epidemic in the United States with over one of four adults and one of eight children clinically obese.)
Always observant, George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian of London is the exception. He notes the inherent racism:
"The more powerful a nation becomes, the more it asserts its victimhood". In contemporary British eyes, the greatest atrocities of the 18th and 19th centuries were those perpetrated on compatriots in the Black Hole of Calcutta or during the Indian mutiny and the siege of Khartoum. The extreme manifestations of the white man's burden, these events came to symbolize the barbarism and ingratitude of the savage races the British had sought to rescue from their darkness.
"Today the attack on New York is discussed as if it were the worst thing to have happened to any nation in recent times. Few would deny that it was a major atrocity, but we are required to offer the American people a unique and exclusive sympathy. Now that demand is being extended to earlier American losses."
Monbiot also describes the facts surrounding the raid which led to the death of 18 American soldiers and thousands of Somalis, mostly women and children.
"Before the US government handed over the administration of Somalia to the United Nations in 1993, it had already made several fundamental mistakes. It had backed the clan chiefs Mohamed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi against another warlord, shoring up their power just as it had started to collapse.
"After the handover, the UN's Pakistani peacekeepers tried to seize Aideed's radio station, which was broadcasting anti-UN propaganda. The raid was bungled, and 25 of the soldiers were killed by Aideed's supporters. A few days later, Pakistani troops fired on an unarmed crowd, killing women and children.
"As the feud escalated, US special forces were brought in to deal with the man now described by American intelligence as 'the Hitler of Somalia'. [Funny how there is a Hitler clone every place we make war.] Aideed ... was blamed for all Somalia's troubles. The UN's peacekeeping mission had been transformed into a partisan war.
"The special forces, over-confident and hopelessly ill-informed, raided, in quick succession, the headquarters of the UN development program, the charity World Concern and the offices of Médecins sans Frontieres. [U.S. Special forces raiding Western humanitarian relief organizations? I thought we wanted to feed the poor starving Somalis.] ... they succeeded in making enemies of all the Somalis. The special forces were harried by gunmen from all sides. In return, US troops in the UN compound began firing missiles at residential areas.
"...The troops who captured Aideed's officials were attacked by everyone: gunmen came even from the rival militias to avenge the deaths of the civilians the Americans had killed. The US special forces, with an understandable but ruthless regard for their own safety, locked Somali women and children into the house in which they were besieged."
What's this? American special forces taking civilian hostages? I thought only the evil Hitler clones did that.
So, why do they hate us? I don't think it is just because we make lousy movies.
I don't propose to speak for anyone else, but let me offer a hypothesis. I don't think they hate Americans. I think they hate what America has done to them. They hate that our government gives them warlords and dictators, when they want democracy; poverty and disease, when they want food and health care; and war, war, and more war, when they want peace. Here is some supporting evidence from my own experiences:
After returning last March from rebuilding water treatment plants in Iraq with Veterans for Peace, I went on a speaking tour to talk about the devastating effect of economic sanctions on the Iraqi people.
We are invited to speak at an Islamic center. The imam introduces us. He is Iraqi. Our audience is predominantly university students from Islamic countries. Our spokesperson tells of the half million Iraqi children, dead from preventible causes due to sanctions, and how we are working to end sanctions.
I listen and feel as if I am in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass world. Everything is backward. Why aren't they telling us about the effects of U.S. foreign policy on their countries? They have experienced it first hand.
After the program, I say to the imam. "Thank you for inviting us." "Yeah, yeah, thanks for coming and telling us about your work." He starts to walk away. "I am sorry for what my government has done to your country." He stops. Dead silence. Then, "Oh, that's just politics, just politics." (I know you wouldn't do that personally. Just politics. Your government. You can't help what your government does.) "There are only a few of us, but we will do what we can to end this terrible situation." Again, "Oh, that's just politics."
Can you imagine a conversation with the roles reversed? Middle Easterner: "I am sorry that over 3,000 Americans died in the attack on the World Trade Center." American: "Oh, that's just politics." If you can imagine this, you have a better imagination than I.
Well, one can't help what one's government does, can one? "One can't perhaps, ... but two can. With proper assistance, ..." We can change our government's behavior. (see Through the Looking Glass, for a similar exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty.)
I'm in Amman, on route back home after rebuilding water treatment plants in Iraq. We have several hours to kill, so I go for a walk. Ed and Alf come with me.
We're walking up a hill and there is a young lady coming down the hill. I swear she is looking at us out of the corner of her eye. We pass. I turn around. She is looking right at us. "Assalamu aleikum," I say. "Aleikum assalam," she responds, "are you English?" "No, Ed and I are American. Alf is from Greece." "Why are you in Amman?" "We were in Iraq rebuilding water treatment plants. We are with Veterans for Peace." People who come to the Middle East to build peace are very much appreciated. There has been so much war. "Will you come to my apartment and have a cup of coffee? Wait here, while I go to the store." She has a small apartment on the roof of a building. She fixes coffee, and we sit on the roof and talk. She speaks perfect English, although its her third language after Arabic and French. She tells us about Amman and her life in Jordan. We tell her about our trip to Iraq, and our lives back home. We say goodbye and leave.
Again, the Looking Glass world. Everything is backwards. She lives in a culture which, we are told, is oppressive to women. But, here is a young single women inviting three male foreigners to her apartment with no trace of fear. Could this have happened in New York? Chicago? or even Rolla, Missouri? I doubt it. We live in such fear in the United States. Is that why we are always waging war? Or maybe we live in fear because we are always waging war.
I'm in Amman on the way back from Iraq. Six of us go out for dinner. We sit down. Its early and there are few people in the restaurant.
The proprietor comes to our table and sits down with us and asks us about our business in Amman. We explain that we were in Iraq with Veterans for Peace rebuilding water treatment plants. He smiles, and tells us to order anything we want. Its all on the house. We seem dubious. He asks if we would like him to order for us. We say, "Yes, thank you."
After the meal he drives us back to our hotel, and tells us he will come the next day and show us Amman and then take us to the airport. He asks me, "Why doesn't America want peace?" "Well, most Americans would like peace, but they don't understand. Our government tells them such lies." "But, you will tell them the truth?" "Yes, I will tell them the truth, but they won't listen." "Why?" "They are so busy with their own affairs, and the war doesn't effect them directly. Most don't even know there is a war. Maybe when the war touches their lives. Maybe then they will insist on peace."
When I return to Amman, I must apologize to him. On September 11, the war in the Middle East touched the lives of every American. The result has not been peace. Instead, we have given them even more war.