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Questioning how we behave and why people hate us


Chris Hedges, 46, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, was a war correspondent for 15 years. He joined the staff of The New York Times in 1990 and in the past worked for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio. He wrote a few pieces, as he recalls, for NCR from graduate school at Harvard and later wrote stories as a free-lancer for NCR during his five years covering civil wars in Central America.

He was a member of The New York Times team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism, and he received the 2002 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. He spent the academic year 1998-99 as a Nieman fellow at Harvard.

In an interview Nov. 18 from his home in New Jersey, he said he was inspired by the example of his late father, the Rev. Thomas Hedges, a Presbyterian minister, to go to El Salvador and begin a career as a war correspondent.

“My father was a minister. My mother was a college professor, who also had a seminary degree. I grew up in house very involved in civil rights and the antiwar movement,” he said. Their activism coupled with extensive reading he had done as a teenager about the Holocaust and the Spanish Civil War gave him a desire “to fight fascism.”

“I wanted that epic battle to define my own life,” he said. Latin America at the time seemed to provide the best opportunity. When he arrived in El Salvador in 1983, the death squads were killing about 800 people a month. In a small Salvadoran village he experienced his first real battle, between Salvadoran military and rebel troops. He made a deal with God that if he got out alive he would never put himself in that circumstance again. A half-hour after battle, he was hooked on war reporting. He kept going back for the next decade and a half.

In his book, WAR Is the Force that Gives Us Meaning, Hedges draws several comparisons between the United States and those we are fighting today. He compares the military campaign outlined by President Bush to a jihad, and says we have embarked on a campaign “as quixotic as the one mounted to destroy us.” He also says the hijackers learned from the United States “that huge explosions and death above a city skyline are a peculiar and effective form of communication.” Had we sown the seeds of our own attack?

“We’ve not only sown the seeds,” Hedges said, “we’ve taught them how to carry out such attacks -- violence as a means of communication. … They learned how we speak, and now they speak like us. That World Trade Center attack was a Hollywood director’s dream. They figured us out. We in America don’t see it because we are not sitting in a refugee camp in Gaza when an Apache helicopter provided by the United States fires a missile in the middle of the street.

“I lived for 15 years outside the United States, most of them in the developing world. And for most of the time, given the relative wealth and the position that I had, I could at least see how other people look at us. It is very sobering. Also in places like Gaza, to be on the receiving end, to watch the Israelis do something that the apartheid regime in South Africa never did -- bomb refugee camps -- I began to see my country in a different light.”

He said he no longer owns a television because “there’s no news on TV. They don’t do news anymore.” Television, he said, has become involved in driving “the war myth and the clichés and the patriotic drivel.”

Patriotism, as “thinly veiled self-gratification” can quickly “become a kind of racism. As we become greater and greater it is always juxtaposed against those who are lesser and lesser.” We become increasingly nationalistic; everyone is seen and judged by the tribe to which they belong, or to which we want them to belong.

“One fifth of the world is Muslim -- most of which are not Arab. The appalling demonization we have carried out of Muslims and of Islam is racist,” Hedges said. “Now I am not an Islamic scholar but I speak Arabic. I lived seven years in the Middle East, and I know enough to know that the way Islam is portrayed is no more accurate portrayal of the religion than ascribing the tenets of Christianity to Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell.”

While many commentators might say that the post-Vietnam era was a period in which America stood down as a great power, Hedges believes it was a beneficial period. “At the end of the Vietnam War we became a better nation because we were forced to confront things about ourselves that were unpleasant. It gave us a kind of humility. We were more willing to see others as they saw us, and this gradually eroded during the Reagan administration. Military triumphalists became ascendant again.

“This culminated with the Persian Gulf War, where war became not only respectable but fun,” Hedges said. “We were sold and believed the illusion that we waged war cost-free, that our technology makes us invulnerable. If history is any guide, we’re going to get burned and we’re going to get burned really badly. I don’t know if it’s going to happen in Iraq -- I think it could -- but if it doesn’t, it’s going to happen somewhere. I look at us now as being in a similar situation as European empires at the end of the 19th century where war had become sport for the aristocracy -- they thought they were protected by the Gatling gun -- and they sleepwalked into World War I, and we’re going to sleepwalk into something, and we’re not prepared.”

So the war myth takes over. “We all want to believe the myth because myth is so much more fun. We don’t have to cope with any kind of real introspection into our country. We get to revel in our own military prowess and strength. We get to have heroes,” he said.

Is there a project, other than war, that can lead to national purpose?

“I just am skeptical in finding meaning in the nation. I think meaning has to be found between individuals -- between friends, between lovers, children, families. I think people who try to seek meaning or look for meaning in what the nation gives them are doomed,” he said. “I don’t think you can find real meaning there, and that requires a great deal of humility. When you realize you can only change the world one person at a time, you also have to accept how limited we all are and how we can never finally act as agents carrying out the will of God because we don’t know what the will of God is and because we are relatively, in the grand scheme of life, fairly powerless.”

Yet he continues to urge individual action. “The person we were all supposed to emulate was abandoned by all his friends, turned on by the crowd, beaten and left alone to die with criminals. That’s a good lesson in life.”

He said he supported the Gulf War “because Iraq was headed for Saudi Arabia. I don’t think you could have left Saddam Hussein in charge of all of the world’s petroleum reserves. The sad part of the Gulf War is that there were all these promises made -- they would get a Palestinian state, we’ll listen more to their complaints, honor more the rights of Muslims in the Middle East … but soon as the war was over, everyone forgot about it. We didn’t learn anything from the Gulf War.

“We fought unfortunately in the end so that we could continue to consume 25 percent of the world’s oil,” Hedges said. “I remember sitting in a slum in Cairo with a bunch of young Islamic militants. The message that they got was that we [the United States] have everything, and if you try to take it away from us, we’ll kill you.”

While it may be folly to resist the state at times, “that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t resist.”

He said Martin Luther King and Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, both assassinated for their activism, “pretty much knew what was going to happen to them. The legacy of that moral choice is immense.”

What would he do if his two children were confronted with a draft? “I would tell them what my father told me: ‘If you are drafted, I will go to prison with you.’ ”

Hedges said there was a period after 9/11, when the rest of the world was very sympathetic to the United States, when we could have acted differently and exercised a moral instead of military force. “We could have not become like the people who attacked us. Instead, we took the easy road and formed a global troika with two of the biggest killers on the planet -- [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon.” He said we allowed “their nihilism, their love of violence” to rule the day “and became like our attackers. We failed terribly.”

To act differently, he said, “would have required us to respond with the kind of humility that characterized the country at the end of the Vietnam War, asking questions about how we behave and why people hate us.”

“I have no problem with getting rid of Osama bin Laden” Hedges said, “but that’s not going to end the war on terror, not going to end the attacks by those who want to destroy us. If we don’t begin to look at how we act in the world and reassess how we act in the world, this cycle of violence will simply accelerate.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 29, 2002