Simply Out of Touch

“You don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.” — Bob Dylan (song)

The annual White House Correspondents Dinner is traditionally a jocular affair, an opportunity for leaders and press, usually at each others’ throats, to let bygones be bygones and share a few yuck-yucks. But there was one joke at last weekend’s dinner that fell flatter than a Fargo flapjack– at least on the international stage.

“Jonas Brothers are here, they’re out there somewhere,” President Obama warned the teen idols, who were sitting in the audience. “Sasha and Malia are huge fans, but boys, don’t get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You’ll never see it coming.”

Okay, so it was a tasteless joke, and the gag writer should be fired. But more importantly, it reveals a larger problem: Americans and their leaders tragically out of touch with how we treat other countries. Isn’t that why we’re having to fight this futile war in the first place? Because we just don’t get it. We’re simply out of touch.

The gag may have gotten a laugh from the American press, but the people of Pakistan didn’t think it was very funny. Far from curtailing his predecessor’s drone policy, Mr. Obama has increased drone strikes in Pakistan. According to the Pakistani government, over 700 people were killed by drones last year alone (US statistics are not surprisingly much lower). Even when the strikes reached their intended targets, of those killed 90% were innocent civilians, including women and children.

Drones are silent, remotely piloted aircraft designed to save American lives. How ironic. Predictably, the increasing civilian casualties have outraged Pakistanis, doubtless encouraging the very terrorist recruitment we are fighting against. Once criticized for the quantity of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Gen. Tommy Franks snorted, “We don’t do body counts.”

Yesterday a suspect was apprehended in the plot to detonate a crude car bomb in New York’s Times Square. The man was a naturalized Pakistani-American. As of today authorities say his “motive remains a mystery.” Really?

In his notes on Shakespeare’s Othello, 19th-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that the villain Iago was “motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity,” meaning that the character constantly seeks reasons to justify his evil actions, when all along the real motive is simply the evil nature inside him. Many would like to paint jihadists in this way.

Do we need to go that far to seek a motive for the attempt to blow up innocent Americans and tourists? Are we so out of touch with our common humanity that we cannot put ourselves in the shoes of an average Muslim man who feels so powerless and enraged that he is ready to take desperate, if unjustifiable, homicidal action? Think of the rage and vengeance we all felt on September 11, 2001. Or think of the feelings of anger and impotence that recently led a white American terrorist to fly his private plane into a government building (to the cheers of other angry white Americans). Could it be possible that people belonging to other ethnic and religious groups are human beings capable of the same emotions and tipping points?  Is Faisal Shahzad’s motive really such a mystery?

The drones that fly over Pakistan are piloted remotely by military personnel somewhere in the Nevada desert. It’s rather like a video game. Another symbol of our being “out of touch.”

Terrorism is not a military problem but a perceptual one. In other words, if we want to stop terrorism, we need to change how the world sees us. And for that to happen, guess what? (I’m not talking about spin.) We’ll need to change how we operate in the world. To become a genuinely benevolent and humanitarian power (the one we think we are), instead of the selfish and clumsy-footed behemoth that strips the forest bare, chases other animals from the watering hole and muddies the water so nothing else can drink.

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