Commentary

American Carefree Tourists, Beware

This article originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on October 6, 2003.

JAKARTA, INDONESIA – ‘It’s dangerous here for Americans,” said my cab driver. No question.

A few blocks away sat the J.W. Marriott, its facade broken and blackened. Windows were blown out; mutilated blinds swayed in the wind. Wrecked autos sat as silent sentinnels in the hotel driveway.

I noticed Westerners were almost entirely absent from Jakarta’s streets. The Indonesians I visited worried about my safety. “People hate Americans,” said one. Osama bin Laden posters still sell in some Islamic neighborhoods and rumors circulated that the CIA arranged the Marriott bombing.

To fear being murdered for one’s nationality is humbling. The mere fact that Americans are resented doesn’t prove that they or their government is wrong. But the fact that such sentiments pervade friendly and hostile nations alike should cause serious reflection.

Common was the “they hate us because we are beautiful” American thesis, expressed in the aftermath of Sept. 11. And, no doubt, some people, particularly Islamists and other traditionalists, do resent a culture that they see as licentious and degrading. But people typically don’t kill because they dislike Disneyland, MTV, or liberal democracy.

Independent pollster John Zogby found that Muslims and Arabs like many of the attributes of Western culture. They like American products and freedoms. What they don’t like are policies of the US government. It is such policies - long centered on Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabia - that have helped spark a hatred strong enough to kill.

Unfortunately, this anger has been inflamed by the Iraq war, further encouraging terrorism and endangering Americans. Mr. Zogby found that positive ratings toward the US have collapsed with the war.

During the Iraq war, the owner of Jakarta’s McDonald’s franchises let it be known that he was a Muslim. It was one city where I did not jog, even though I’ve run everywhere from Pyongyang, North Korea, to Pristina, Kosovo.

Security precautions were ubiquitous. At the Sheraton, guards examined every car at driveway checkpoints. They used an electronic wand to check guests and luggage. Arriving vehicles were inspected at an upscale mall, and my bag was searched at the Hard Rock Cafe.

Even as the Indonesian terrorist Hambali, thought to be involved in the bombings of both the Marriott and in Bali, was arrested, the American and Australian governments warned their citizens to avoid any Western-owned hotel in Jakarta. Hambali’s group, Jemaah Islamiah, remains a potent threat.

This violent response to US policies should surprise no one. Terrorism around the world typically represents a vicious battle front in an ongoing political struggle. For instance, the killers of Americans at the World Trade Center, Australians in Bali, and Westerners in Jakarta are acting in response to a perceived crusade against Islam. None of this justifies terrorism, but we must understand its context.

Were America’s only critics Islamic tribalists, they could more easily be ignored. But antagonism toward the US is increasingly evident even among friendly peoples and states.

In my recent personal encounters alone: a British conservative MP privately bemoaned American support for Israel’s Ariel Sharon; a Thai intellectual criticized US arrogance; a Kuwaiti government official worried that restrictive immigration policy is losing the US friends; a Portuguese tour guide rued US unilateralism; an Australian wondered how a superpower could act so frightened of a decrepit Middle Eastern dictatorship; a German journalist denounced an administration so determined on war without allied support - but then so insistent on postwar aid. The list could go on.

Such criticism resonates, given popular ignorance about American foreign policies. For instance, many fervent Christian supporters of Israel seem blissfully unaware that more than 3 million Palestinians live under Israeli control in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. There are obvious reasons to back Israel, but peace is unlikely to come as long as Palestinians live in conditions that neither Israelis nor Americans would accept.

Criticism, however, doesn’t mean Washington shouldn’t act when it believes itself to be right and its action to be necessary. It doesn’t mean the US should flee unpopularity when great principles and interests are at stake. But US policy often puts Americans at greater risk. And, although Americans don’t deserve to be put in danger, they must realize they are hated for far more than their beauty.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.