In “Response to cartoons lacks empathy” (2/20), Jordan Trevino makes a decent point regarding the need for the West and America, to avoid reducing Muslims to cartoons. Regrettably, he doesn’t hold himself to the same standard — he casts both sides as garish, hysterical caricatures. There is indeed a point to be made regarding the need for understanding on both sides of what some cast as a clash of civilizations, but his editorial was not the one to make it.
Any reasonable American is capable of understanding Muslim anger at Western transgressions, but what Muslims need to understand is that these transgressors are the most barbarous members of our society. When “a mentally disturbed captive” at Guantanamo is used by guards “for amusement and for practicing immobilization techniques,” this is not acceptable behavior in the eyes of the American people. This inhumanity is a black mark on the liberal values America and the West pride themselves on upholding.
Trevino is uninterested in a nuanced understanding of American people, opting for the “essentialist” view he argues unconvincingly against. Apparently, we “have either no opinion with regard to these machinations of [our] government or have lost all rein on what [our] rulers do,” as we’re utterly incapacitated “evil bogeymen who might jump out of closets, for which [we] forsake right after right.” We’re at the mercy of a craven elite who “manipulate and pervert the American government to condone torture, espionage and other instincts of a latent fascism eager to inscribe its interests onto its betrayed electorate and the larger miserables of the world.”
Back in the real world, Americans do not cede “right after right” without thought or question, as is evident from even a mild familiarity with the public debate the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act and the goings-on at Guantanamo Bay have occasioned. Trevino asserts that the current actions of our government have been “paid for by the gospel of fear, the true currency of this democracy — if we still have the persistence, faith or innocence to call it that.” Americans must be behind the curve, because, as much as people complain about the vagaries of the electoral college every four years, we know that our government is still representative of the American people — and if our government looks conflicted and torn up inside, it’s because Americans feel the same way. We’re uncomfortable with giving our government expanded powers of surveillance, but we recognize that there are more than “evil bogeymen” out to do us grievous injury. Sept. 11 forced the American people to understand we had very real enemies abroad who were willing to do terrible things to advance political aims. It’s difficult to make a hard-and-fast trade-off between liberties and survival, but that’s the choice that’s been forced on us; we’ve made mistakes, but we’re still doing our best.
In hoping that the Muslim world — and Trevino — arrive at a more complete grasp of the concerns of the American people, it’s necessary for the American people to attempt a better understanding of the Muslim world. This does not necessitate, as Trevino suggests, “striv[ing] to uproot talk of ‘terrorists’ and Muslims that functions at the level of the cartoonish.” It means sensibly drawing a distinction between moderate Muslims and terrorists — or “terrorists,” because this is apparently an insensitive label. Lamenting that Americans, in our incomplete understanding of the Middle East, “are as guilty as those who have the mindless courage to detonate themselves in a crowd of their enemies” is not only insulting, it’s probably racist, too; by acting as an apologist for the very worst, most intolerant Muslims and treating suicide bombings and other violence as the legitimate voice of Muslims around the world, Trevino does a profound disservice to all of Islam.
Trevino is quick to denounce America’s elites, “the rich and powerful [who] moralize over those who can only promote their ‘interests’ not by access to huge media corporations or by making campaign contributions, but by taking to the streets with stones.” As fun and quirky as it is to imagine Muslims as only capable of real political expression by throwing rocks at each other’s faces — surprise — the Muslims who don’t react to cartoons by trampling each other in the street and setting fire to things are capable of civilized political discourse. Breaking things is not part of a real debate on political and religious issues, even among “those people.” There is indeed a genuine need for the West and the Muslim world to acknowledge and understand each other’s concerns and initiate a meaningful cultural dialogue — but championing thugs and terrorists (sorry, “terrorists”) is distinctly unhelpful.
Sam Heller is a sophomore in Pierson College.