Issue Contents OAM Home Oberlin Online
Unburied Treasures
Statutes of Liberty
In Bloom
New Media, Old Media
Around Tappan Sqaure
Alumni Notes
Inside Oberlin
The Last Word
One More Thing
Staff Box

While growing up in Pittsburgh in the early 1960s, I was afraid of just two things: nuclear war and Tony Santaguido. I was afraid of nuclear war because my parents had assured me that, should war come, Pittsburgh’s steel mills would be among the first targets the Russians bombed. When I learned in school, however, that I would be safe from radiation if I were to “duck and cover” under my wooden desk, I immediately relegated nuclear war to a much less prominent place in my litany of worries.

That left Tony Santaguido, the neighborhood bully. One time Tony caught me with a left hook to the jaw that persuaded me on the spot to go into the ministry.

The most obvious way to have dealt with Tony, I suppose, would have been to bloody his nose right back. If I had been one to fight with anything other than words, I probably would have taken that approach. But I was not confident of my skills as a pugilist, and I knew Tony had a large family. I suspected that if by some miracle I managed to prevail, his brothers or cousins would have sought me out to exact their revenge; I would have been living in a world of perpetual fear that might have made the alternative of nuclear war seem welcome.

Bill Schulz spoke with students about his own Oberlin experience, including his realization that ideas "are not just fun or pretty, but have consequences in the world. And if ideas are warped into rigid ideologies, they can have profoundly negative, disastrous consequences."

So I settled on a different tack. I made sure to surround myself with as large a group of friends as possible whenever I sensed that Tony was on the prowl. I decided to strike up an acquaintance with one or two of Tony’s own gang who weren’t as ill-disposed toward me as he was. I wanted them to prevail upon him to leave me alone.

After a time and somewhat to my surprise, these dual tactics began to work. Tony still glared at me when we crossed paths, but as long as I had allies with me, he left me alone. Once or twice when I did encounter him by myself, it was obvious that his fury against me had ebbed. I never knew what exactly had changed the dynamics within Tony’s gang, but I figure now that it had something to do with Casey Stengel’s famous observation that “the secret of a great [baseball] manager is to keep the two guys who hate your guts away from the three guys who are undecided.”

I also figure that this little parable has a thing or two to teach us about fighting terrorism. On the face of it, the best course would have been for me to beat Tony senseless. Sometimes you just have to stand up to bullies. But, as French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand observed, you can do anything with a bayonet except sit on it. If I had taken the martial course and stopped there, not bothering to nurture my own alliance with others or find ways to reach out to the more persuadable segments of Tony’s retinue (the three guys who were undecided), I might have been in for a long, nasty battle with either a resurgent Tony or his proxies.

The United States government has gotten the bayonet work down mighty well in the war on terror—witness our swift military victory in Iraq—but it keeps trying to sit on the tip—witness our utterly inept handling of the war’s aftermath. The war on terror will ultimately not be won on the battlefield; it will be won by encouraging allies around the world to stand with us in the struggle and by encouraging moderates in the Muslim and Arab communities around the world to reject the terrorist ethic.

Contrary to ill-informed, right-wing opinion in the United States, the vast majority of Muslims did not applaud when the planes hit their targets on 9/11. But the vast majority of Muslims are keenly acquainted with poverty and corruption. One in five Arabs lives on less than $2 a day. Arab unemployment averages around 60 percent for males under the age of 25. Moreover, responsibility for the lack of Arab development lies squarely at the feet of Arab governments. It is the absence of democracy, lack of good governance, denial of human rights, and lowly status of women (with its attendant waste of human resources) that account for the backwardness of these societies. Arab countries score abysmally low on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. As Prince Bindar, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States put it dismissively, “If you tell me that in building this whole country we misused or got corrupted with $50 billion, I’ll tell you, ‘Yes, so what? We did not invent corruption.’”

Unemployment, economic stagnation, and widespread looting of the public treasury would be difficult enough for Muslim populations to bear even if they had access to mechanisms through which to regularly replace regimes or voice dissent. But of the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, only Bangladesh and Turkey have sustained democracy over an extended period of time. Absent nonviolent, democratic ways through which people can express frustration, where do they turn to seek political change? It is hardly surprising that they sometimes look with sympathy upon political and religious extremists who offer that most rare of commodities—an alternative vision.

The best way to dissuade the “three guys who are undecided” from extremism is for the United States to champion an end to Arab autocracy and to model respect for human rights ourselves. But every time we cozy up to the Saudi royal family, every time we overlook Egyptian President Mubarak’s repressive ways, every time we allow the Chinese to get away with persecuting Tibetan Buddhists or Uighur Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism, we put the lie to President Bush’s contention that the war on terror is being fought in defense of freedom and the rule of law.

And similarly, every time we violate rights here at home, we make it harder for moderate Muslims, to say nothing of our European allies, to stand with us. The Office of the Inspector General has confirmed what Amnesty International has been saying all along about post-9/11 detainees like Cheik ould Belai—that they were unduly denied access to family and lawyers, manhandled, and treated discriminatorily. The U.S. government is violating the Geneva Conventions by refusing to allow a “competent tribunal” to determine whether prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are “prisoners of war” or, as the government unilaterally and arbitrarily contends, “unlawful combatants.”

Did we ever think we would see the day when two U.S. citizens, Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi, would be denied the most fundamental rights, the right to know what you are charged with and the right to legal counsel? Or that a man on trial for his life, Zacarias Moussaoui, would be refused the right to question the one man who might exonerate him? Or that foreign students studying in this country would be singled out for registration solely on the basis of their ethnicity? Or that American interrogators would unapologetically engage in torture, as alleged by the New York Times and the Washington Post, with prisoners held at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan? Practices such as these turn the hair white of even our most ardent Muslim supporters, hand fodder to our adversaries, sacrifice the sympathy of the undecided, and in the long run make not for a safer world, but a more frightening one.

Next Page >>