Why Do They Hate Us? A 20-Year Update

Monday, September 13, 2021
Nations bombed by President Obama (graphic: Steve Straehely, AllGov)

In the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many people I spoke with simply could not understand why anyone, anywhere, would not like Americans, even if it was just a few dozen fanatics. In one form or another, they asked: Why do they hate us? Back in 2001, I tried to address this question in a short essay I wrote one month after the attacks. Given the mood of the country at the time, I did not submit the essay to any newspapers or magazines. I gave it to friends and posted it on the Internet and left it at that. Twenty years later, I thought it might be useful to rewrite and update the essay. But when I reread it, I discovered that there were only a few sentences that I would change. So I have decided to repost it, without changing a single word, as a sort of time capsule. The only change I have made is to correct the number of people who were killed. I have, however, added a few updates.


Why Do They Hate Us?
By David Wallechinsky
October 11, 2001

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, President George Bush, with the support of the American people, has embarked on a war against terrorism. It would appear that there are two parts to this war. The first is to punish Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. The second is to eliminate terrorism. The two are not necessarily connected. Excuse me for being blunt, but every US president has to kill some foreigners in order for the American public to take him seriously. In the current situation, these killings seem even more necessary than usual because 2,624 innocent Americans and 353 innocent non-Americans have just been murdered. Once this revenge attack has been completed, Americans will be able to concentrate on the more important task of trying to eliminate, or at least drastically reduce, terrorism in general. This more complicated battle cannot be seriously begun until we answer the question that has been bothering many Americans: Why Do They Hate Us?


In his speech to the Joint Session of Congress on September 20, President Bush tried to address this question. His answer was, “They hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”


Unfortunately, he is wrong.


The United States is a symbol of domestic freedom and democracy, but that is not why Islamic terrorists — and others — hate us. The longer the American people delude themselves into thinking that Bush’s explanation is sufficient, the longer it will be before we can seriously begin to reduce terrorism. The real reasons why they hate us are more complex and varied. Some of the reasons are irrational and should not cause us to alter our policies. But they are still worth considering, if for no other reason than to better understand where terrorists might attack next. Other reasons deal with specific foreign policy decisions that can and should be changed. Let us examine a few of these reasons.


Update: One of Bush’s biggest mistakes was declaring, on September 16, 2001, a “war on terrorism.” Terrorism is not an enemy; it’s a tactic used by our enemies. To launch a war on terrorism is like declaring a war on tanks. It diverted attention from the real problem. In addition, Bush made the mistake of declaring the September 11 attacks an act of war. This elevated the al-Qaeda terrorists to the level of warriors. If Bush had, instead, labeled the attacks a criminal act, the pro-al Qaeda partisans would have been viewed by potential supporters as merely “criminals” rather than “warriors.”

Writing in the LA Weekly (September 21-27, 2001), John Powers put it directly: “They hate us because we don’t even know why they hate us.” Most Americans have no interest whatsoever in what goes on in other countries. If we lived in Bhutan or Equatorial Guinea or some other country that really is relatively isolated from the rest of the world, this ignorance might be excusable. But the United States is intricately involved with almost every other nation on the planet. We buy and sell raw materials and finished goods everywhere; we are the biggest weapons broker in the world; the CIA operates in every nation, and so on and so forth. Several years ago, when patriotic Americans tried to launch a “Buy American Only” campaign, they discovered that it couldn’t be done. Our toys come from China, our oil comes from Saudi Arabia, even products that are advertised as “Made in the USA” use parts that are produced abroad. There is nothing inherently wrong with this interdependence, but as long as we are so deeply involved with other countries, we really should take the time to find out what is going on “over there” and what other people think about our actions.


Update: Although most Americans don’t pay attention to U.S. involvement with other countries, the U.S. military is quite engaged. According to the Watson Institute at Brown University, between 2018 and 2020, the United States conducted military exercises in 41 countries and counterterrorism training in 79 countries.


If the names Sabra and Chatila do not ring a bell, please reread the first sentence of reason #1 before going on. From an emotional point of view, Sabra and Chatila are the Pearl Harbor of the movement for Palestinian independence. In September 1982, Israeli troops surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in southern Lebanon and stood by while Christian militiamen, over a three-day period, massacred at least 800 people, including women, children and the elderly. Foreign journalists, including Americans, who entered the camps as soon as the killing was finished, were sickened by what they saw. Unfortunately, the Israeli defense minister who approved the action was none other than Ariel Sharon, who is now the prime minister of Israel.


One might wonder why an act committed by Lebanese and overseen by Israelis would arouse hatred against the United States, particularly as the US government officially condemned the massacres. The reason is simple. The United States provides $3 billion in aid a year to Israel. As the rest of the world well knows, Israel could not survive without US aid. Those Muslims who hate us do so not just because of Sabra and Chatila, but because they blame us for every outrage and brutal act committed by the Israeli government.


I happen to be both American and Jewish. I am glad that the United States supports Israel. But that does not mean that I feel compelled to agree with the actions of either the government of the United States or the government of Israel. (Remember what President Bush said in his speech to Congress? “They hate our freedom to disagree with each other.” I am exercising my patriotic right to disagree.)


Update: Unfortunately, twenty years later, there continues to be a disconnect between the way Americans perceive their government’s Middle East policy and the way it is perceived by Muslims. When Israel attacks Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, it does so with U.S. weapons. The F-35 combat fighter that Israel used to bomb Gaza in May 2021 was made by Lockheed Martin. The F-16, used in the same conflict, was made by General Dynamics. The gravity bombs used in Gaza? General Dynamics again. The GBU bomb guidance kits used in Gaza? That would be Boeing. For most Americans, their reaction is So what and Who cares. Israel is justified in attacking Hamas. If civilians die too, too bad. Actually, the majority of Gazans are not supporters of Hamas. But for the victims of these U.S. weapons, they don’t forget our involvement.


It is difficult for most Americans to imagine why anyone other than Saddam Hussein would hate us as a result of our actions in the 1991 Gulf War. To Americans, the Gulf War was a clear-cut battle between Good and Evil. To us, Kuwait was a defenseless maiden who was raped and brutalized by a vicious thug. The US, like a knight in shining armor, went in, rescued the maiden and chased away the vicious thug. But the Muslim world saw it differently. To them, Kuwait was a spoiled and arrogant rich kid, who did nothing to earn his wealth and who, nonetheless, treated his poorer cousins like dirt. Muslims know that the US would not have intervened on Kuwait’s behalf if the Kuwaitis had not been sitting on top of a hoard of oil. They view US military action in the Gulf War not as a brave and noble action, but as an act of hypocrisy.


There is an old saying: “Idealism increases in direct proportion to one’s distance from the problem.” Prior to the war, most of his neighbors detested Saddam Hussein because he is, in fact, a vicious thug. But because he fought against a superpower, a non-Muslim superpower, he was transformed into something of a hero in parts of the Islamic world, particularly in its farther reaches.


Remember how much trouble President George Bush Senior had dealing with the “D word” (democracy) during the Gulf War? If young soldiers are going to lose their lives, Americans want to believe that it is for a noble cause — that these ultimate sacrifices are being made to defend ideals in which we believe. In Kuwait, Americans were dying to defend a nation in which no elections were held, no legislature existed, and women were not even allowed to drive. Of all the beleaguered peoples in the world, the United States chose the Kuwaitis to defend.


Of course the US has a long, long history of supporting repressive and despicable dictators all over the world, not just in the Middle East. If we need these dictators for geopolitical or economic reasons, then we are more than willing to overlook human rights violations. This policy may benefit our short-term best interests, but the people who live under the oppressive rule of these US-supported dictatorships see it differently. It is only natural that some of them might hold it against the United States. And, unfortunately, it is not surprising that some of them want to seek revenge.


In the Islamic world, the US was burned pretty badly because of its support for the Shah in Iran. Our hatred for the government that replaced him even led the US to cozy up to Saddam Hussein. For that matter, as recently as last May, President Bush Junior gave $43 million to the Taliban to reward them for their efforts in the War on Drugs. One of the Islamic dictatorships that the US passionately supports is the one that rules Saudi Arabia. It would appear that it is this unholy alliance that inspired Osama bin Laden to intensify his terrorist campaigns.


In organizing a coalition to fight the Taliban, the United States is again ignoring human rights considerations. Pakistan is ruled by a military dictatorship. Uzbekistan’s president won last year’s election with 92% of the vote, easily defeating an opponent whom he had personally selected. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the least open regimes in the world. Finally, Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban Northern Alliance has an awful history of brutality and drug running. At the moment, our friendships with these governments seem to be necessary compromises with our ideals, but in the long-run they could backfire just like our earlier support for Saddam Hussein and for the Taliban.


Update: Americans like to think that we support ending dictatorships and replacing them with freedom and democracy. The US deposed Saddam Hussein in Iraq, spoke out against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and fought against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. But this righteousness has been selective. George W. Bush literally held hands in public with King Abdullah, the head of the Saudi dictatorship, and Barack Obama was filmed and photographed bowing down to him. Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden refused to sanction or otherwise punish Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman after his thugs murdered and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. In the Muslim world, this behavior is viewed as the same old pre-9/11 strategy of ignoring the human rights abuses of despotic regimes if the dictators have something we want (usually oil or access to military bases).


You don’t have to look any farther than Afghanistan to understand this one. The United States had almost no interest in Afghanistan until the USSR invaded that country in 1979. Suddenly Democrats and Republicans alike rose to the defense of the Afghan people. We began arming the anti-Communist opposition, known as the Mujahedin, which included the ultimately victorious Taliban. Never mind that they were religious extremists with a disturbing agenda. President Ronald Reagan called them “freedom fighters.” I recall an incident in 1988 when I was interviewing two members of Congress. One of them, Dana Rohrabacher of Orange County, California, began talking about the Afghan “freedom fighters.” I became so incensed that I was unable to maintain my journalistic comportment and burst out at him. I tried to point out to Rohrabacher that just because a group opposes Communism does not mean that they support freedom and democracy. The good Congressman was clearly taken by surprise. I watched as he tried to process this unusual perspective. Evidently he failed, because he actually changed the subject.


When the USSR finally pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, the US was presented with a great opportunity to help the Afghan people and to gain some long-term goodwill towards the US. Not a chance. As soon as the Soviets were gone, Americans once again lost interest in Afghanistan. We left the Mujahedin factions to fight it out amongst themselves and didn’t even offer to perform the most basic humanitarian acts, like clearing landmines. I am sure our newly found allies, the Northern Alliance, are harboring no illusions about the constancy of our friendship.

Unfortunately, this fickleness on the part of the United States is not limited to Afghanistan. Just ask the nearby Kurds, who hold the world record for being repeatedly embraced and then abandoned by the US.


Update: One of the most shocking betrayals of allies was committed by Donald Trump in October 2019. The United States had been working beside Kurdish fighters in Syria to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). Supported by the U.S., 11,000 Syrian Kurds gave up their lives in this war. Trump ordered the U.S. troops to withdraw, a decision that brought shame and outrage to the troops themselves, particularly the Special Operations forces who had been fighting alongside them. With a simple phone call, Trump gave the Turkish dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan, permission to attack the same Kurdish troops who had been our partners.


Although most Christians don’t hate Muslims and most Muslims don’t hate Christians, it is foolish to ignore the fact that Christians and Muslims have been battling for more than 1,400 years, not just for souls, but for land. Islam had a good millennium of progress, winning over most of the Middle East, North Africa and what is now Turkey. Islam even made incursions into Europe: in Spain, Portugal, Sicily and parts of France. Meanwhile, Christianity fought back with the Crusades, but Islam kept on coming, particularly in southeastern Europe. Finally, in 1683, the Turks were turned back in Vienna, and it has been all Christianity for the past 318 years.


The European colonial powers spread around the world. Although Muslims retained their religion, they lost their political power. By the 20th century, the Islamic world was so marginalized that during World War II the two European sides simply used Islamic countries as battlegrounds. In the Cold War that followed, the situation was little better. Muslim nations were reduced to currying favor with one superpower by threatening to curry favor with the other one. To some Muslims, this whole history is humiliating. They are bitter about the military victories of the West, and they resent the widespread incursions of Western culture.


The United States entered this story relatively late in the game. However, since the end of World War II, and particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union, the US has emerged as the strongest Western nation and thus as the symbol of Western culture. When the September 11 terrorists attacked the Pentagon, they were attacking the symbol of Western military power. When they attacked the World Trade Center, they were attacking the symbol of Western economic power. I have little doubt that the plane that went down in Pennsylvania was headed towards the White House, the symbol of Western political power.


So, what is to be done? There is probably nothing that will change the minds of the fanatic followers of Osama bin Laden. However, Islamic terrorists need the support of more moderate Muslims. That is why bin Laden, in the video he released on October 7, spoke about the sufferings of the Palestinian and Iraqi people. In reality, he probably could care less about Palestinians. He has paid little attention to them in the past. And, given the animosity between Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, it is hard to take seriously bin Laden’s supposed compassion for the Iraqis. As insincere as bin Laden is, he understands that he needs allies outside his own power base. It is here that the United States would be wise to rethink its foreign policy.

Throughout its history, the US has repeatedly helped nations that have been devastated by warfare or natural disasters. The goodwill engendered by this aid has lasted for generations. I firmly believe that most people in the world are predisposed to like Americans, if only we don’t give them cause not to.


To really end terrorism, we need to isolate the terrorists by limiting the number of non-terrorists who tolerate their actions. If we pay more attention to how our own actions are perceived abroad, if we stop supporting unpopular dictatorships, and if we pursue more balanced policies in the Middle East that are based on considerations that go beyond oil and Israel, violent extremists like Osama bin Laden will have a more difficult time convincing Muslims that their actions are just, and potential terrorists will have trouble finding safe havens.


Update: Back on October 11, 2001, pro-American sentiment around the world was as strong as it had been since World War II. But George W. Bush’s bullying “you’re with us or you’re against us” attitude put a quick end to that window of opportunity. When he invaded Iraq, a nation with no connection to the 9/11 attacks, he made the American reputation in other countries much, much worse.


When Americans complain about the debacle of the end of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, they tend to concentrate narrowly on trying to blame either Joe Biden or Donald Trump, as if the Democrats and Republicans were nothing more than sports teams fighting for a league title. But this diverts attention from a much bigger issue. War is profitable for some investors, even if we lose the war.

In his Farewell Address on January 17, 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower warned against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower, who had led the Allied forces in World War II and served as president of the United States for eight years, knew what he was talking about.


In 2021, we are living in the world that Eisenhower warned us against. Despite one military failure after another, the U.S. military-industrial complex not only grinds on, but the U.S. military budget keeps increasing, from $305 billion in 2001 to $754 billion in 2021. During one weekend alone in September 2016,  Barack Obama bombed and killed people in six Muslim countries. Like Obama, Donald Trump eventually bombed and killed people in seven Muslim countries.


The best homicide detectives, while investigating serial killers, try to understand the thinking of their adversaries. The best generals try to understand the mindset of their enemies before going into battle. The same process applies to fighting anti-American terrorism. As I said twenty years ago, there is little that can be done to change the minds of fanatics. However, by looking at the actions of the United States from the point of view of potential enemies, it is possible to significantly reduce the number the people who actually try to commit terrorist acts against us.

David Wallechinsky



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