For a brief period after 11 September 2001, many people in the United States began asking a seemingly naïve, but vital question: "Why do they hate us?" They saw the destruction of the Twin Towers and the attack on the Pentagon — acts of a type and scale commonplace throughout much of the world, but virtually unknown within the US — and asked one of the most important questions any sane person can ask when faced with extreme violence: Why? While anyone familiar with what the US does in the rest of the world could easily provide a detailed answer to this question, and, indeed, many people from countries and regions that have been at the receiving end of Washington's "global meliorism" could have provided — and often have attempted to provide — some context in which an answer to this question could be sought, the question should not be dismissed merely because of its apparent ignorance and naïveté.

It is certainly true that those who ask questions such as "Why do they hate us?" deserve an honest answer. However, even more important than the right to know why so many people in so much of the world do not agree with the US government's own projected self-image is the need to understand the underlying motives behind attacks such as that on 9-11 in order to prevent recurrence.

Certainly, there are the Ann Coulters and John Ashcrofts of the world, who claim that those who examine the underlying motives of terrorist attacks, and the possible role of the US in inspiring them, are "apologists for terror" who, in the words of Campus Watch, "Blame America First." This is, of course, a rather odd thing to say. In many areas of inquiry, people examine the motives behind despicable acts. When psychologists and psychiatrists seek to understand why a person becomes a child molestor, are they condemned as "apologists for the child molestors" or "pro-molestation?" Would we have preferred that the physicians and scientists seeking to understand SARS abandoned the search for the responsible pathogen, instead throwing up their hands and vigourously condemning illness? Do we consider them "pro-disease" for not taking this approach? Of course not. Any rational person understands the difference between understanding and agreeing. We recognise that, in order to do anything to solve problems, we must understand their roots.

That simple, straightforward question — "Why do they hate us?" — presented a golden opportunity to conduct just that enquiry. A clearer understanding of what leads a person to decide that the best thing to do with his life is to blow himself up together with as many others as possible might lead to support for policies and attitudes that reduce the likelihood of someone making that decision. This being the case, it must be said that the people of the United States and the world were gravely disserved by the US government and the "intellectual community's" answers.

The first major official response to the population's question was George W. Bush's statement in a televised address shortly after the attacks: "They hate our freedom1," as well as "what we see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government [...] they hate our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and to assemble and to disagree with each other2.” Sadly, this was about as much self-reflection as the public could expect. This basic theme was repeated over and over in the media, and even found its way into a special episode of West Wing intended to deal with the 11 September attacks.

This "explanation" is highly self-serving, and has a rather tenuous relationship with reality. Essentially, it is pure feel-good rhetoric, designed to make people believe that the United States and its people are hated, somehow, for their good qualities. There are two components to this sort of rhetoric: first, it effectively diverts people's attention away from more likely answers and toward self-esteem boosting piffle; second, by announcing that "they" hate "us" because of "our" democratic, pluralistic values, it becomes clear that "they" are truly awful people. They hate freedom and democracy! They hate us, in brief, because we're wonderful3.

The proponents of this "theory" advance no argument or evidence in support of their assertion. Nor do they attempt to reconcile their version with the extensive body of literature written by people who want to make it unmistakably clear just "why they hate us." Nor do they explain why they are so confident that US foreign policy — not exactly the most lovable on Earth — has not caused people to hate the US. Indeed, the idea that people would hate a country because it drops cluster bombs, napalm, Agent Orange, and depleted uranium in populated areas, or that people might object to a country that installs, invents, and props up brutal and repressive regimes to further narrow economic interests (thus subverting the freedom for which they allegedly hate us), does not seem to cross their mind. Certainly, it must not cross the mind of the viewer.

If viewers did get the wrong idea, and conclude that there were more likely reasons for others' hatred of the US (apart from our utter unparalleled magnificence), they might reach impermissible conclusions about the best way to prevent future attacks. They might even begin demanding that US foreign policy be changed so as to obviate the many perfectly good reasons millions of people have to be less than enamoured with the US.

It is, of course, naïve in the extreme to expect a US administration, particularly this one, to speak honestly of the reasons people have for hating the US. What the administration needs is a vile enemy who wants to plunder us and take all we have, an enemy with whom there is no common ground and no room for accomodation. This one priority was clearly so essential that the administration had no qualms about looking slightly ridiculous4 in the process. Ultimately, however, anyone who takes the time to examine the question knows: only narcissists and liars claim to be hated because they are wonderful. Even those who sincerely believe that they are hated for their good qualities will at least consider that those who hate them think otherwise. In any event, you really have to be scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of reasons people hate you if "wonderfulness" is the best you can come up with.5

1Of course, it can scarcely be said that this was intentional deception, as the Bush Administration immediately set about ensuring that that which the terrorists allegedly hated was no more.

2Interestingly, no one accused Bush or his cohorts of being Al Qaeda sympathisers for their clearly painstaking efforts to understand the root causes of anti-US terrorism. Such accusations are reserved for those who seek to exercise "our freedom [...] to disagree with each other" by examining the evidence to see if it supports other theories.

3Of course, this fits quite well into Bush's own vapid, pseudo-Manichaean rhetoric of "evildoers," and other one-dimensional comic book villains.

4Luckily for the administration, the current acting chief executive does not seem to mind looking ridiculous.

5In a reply to this writeup, it is asserted (without argument) that "it is also true that Muslim fundamentalists do hate the USA because it is a successful liberal democracy. It's [sic] prosperity proves that their preferred system of government, Islamic Theocracy, rule of the clerics, is not the best possible form of government." This is, of course, wide of the point. The US is not only disliked (or hated) by Muslim fundamentalists or theocrats, nor only by those who oppose "democracy." Indeed, one of the main criticisms of the US throughout the world is its generally antidemocratic foreign policy, including its installation and support for brutal and corrupt unpopular regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere. While at such a high level of abstraction this may sound like a mere "policy disagreement," it seems unlikely that someone who sees his or her family member or friend murdered, mutilated, and thrown into a public street for all to see would characterise his or her feelings toward the government that encouraged that act a "policy disagreement." It is equally important to recognise that Islamic opinion is nowhere near the monolith that some, such as Samuel Huntington like to believe. Many Muslim opponents of the US specifically oppose the US because it prevents them from establishing a democratic state. Second of all, it is hard to think of the US government as proof that any other system of government is "not the best possible form of government." People who want to know why "they" hate us would do well to ask "them" instead of "us."

In a response to this writeup, it is asserted (on what basis I cannot begin to fathom) that I "lump[] together the non-American world, as if everyone outside the US is the same - as if everyone outside the US hates the America, and all for the same reasons." Leaving aside, for the moment, the intriguing question of how someone could have read the above writeup in such a way, these assertions are simply wide of the point. There is neither enough space nor time to devote to the myriad reasons a diverse and growing segment of the world's population feels antipathy or even hatred toward the United States, and I certainly am not seeking to provide a comprehensive description of all those potential reasons here. Given the rate at which new reasons surface (today, 29 February 2004, the people of Haiti just acquired a new one), such an undertaking would be a labour of Sisyphus. Thus, to reiterate: my sole intention was to point out the manifest absurdity of claiming that the United States is hated for alleged good qualities that the United States does not possess (or is keeping tightly under wraps). Any other purpose or intent is hereby specifically disclaimed.