U.S. Caution and Arab Restraint Mark a New Terror Era

People learn from catastrophes. Amid the grief and speculation over the Boston bombings, two things stand out to me: a refusal to rush to judgment in the U.S. commentary and the absence of schadenfreude in the Arab media.

There was the early report that a young Saudi student had been on the scene, that his apartment had been searched, that he had suffered an injury, and that he was under watch in a hospital. Here we go again, many thought. Memories of those 15 young Saudis on the planes on Sept. 11, 2001, were not far off. But the authorities soon pronounced the Saudi student a witness, not a suspect in the deed.

In the decade or so that separates us from the Sept. 11 attacks, tens of thousands of Saudi students have been sent by their government to the U.S. on scholarships, so keen has been the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, to rid a new generation of the poison and radicalism that had infected an earlier generation that had stayed at home during their university years.

These are no small developments -- our caution and the absence of Arab malice. Those of us who lived and worked on that fault line between the U.S. and the large Middle Eastern world that beckons American power and derides it at the same time, can only experience a sense of relief.

Memorable Judgments

I vividly recall the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995. Before we came face to face with Timothy McVeigh and homegrown terror, there was a rush to judgment.

“It has Middle Eastern terror written all over it,” was one of the memorable expressions of that day. The suspicions fed off an earlier trauma: the first attack on New York’s World Trade Center two years earlier. An Egyptian-born preacher, the “blind sheik,” Omar Abdel Rahman, had brought sedition and trouble onto American soil. He had found followers in Brooklyn, New York, and in Jersey City, and had given religious warrant to drifters at odds with the regimes in their home countries, and with the U.S.

McVeigh with his record of military service, his crew cut, his all-American background, jumbled the discussion of terrorism; we had pathologies of our own here at home.

But Arabs who had been eager to seize on McVeigh’s deed for exoneration were not destined to know genuine relief. A trail of anti-American terror, perpetrated by Arabs and Muslims, would target American military compounds, embassies, even battleships. An Arab of high birth, and substantial means, Osama bin Laden from the city of Jeddah, had issued his own “declaration of war” on the U.S.

The terror was relentless: the bombing of a military housing complex in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia in 1996, two deadly attacks on the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in the summer of 1998, and the brazen attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, as it docked to refuel in Aden, Yemen.

The drumbeats of anti-Americanism were steady. John Burns, the gifted reporter for the New York Times, filed from Aden a report that caught the malice on those shores toward the U.S.: What he saw there was “a halting, half-expressed sense of astonishment, something of satisfaction and even pleasure, that a mighty power, the United States, should have had its Navy humbled by two Arab men in a motorized skiff.”

On Sept. 11, the Arab-American encounter hatched a monster. There befell America a calamity that appeared for a moment to silence and embarrass the drummers of anti-Americanism. The cruel truth is that there was little if any sympathy for the U.S. in Arab lands.

Miserable Company

The intellectual class, perfectly respectable American-educated men and women, gloated over what had stricken the U.S. That fabled Arab street was jubilant, and families with sons and daughters working for our big financial houses gave voice to an unrestrained sense of satisfaction. Misery loves company; their world was in distress, and perhaps now, they said, we would understand and share their bitterness.

It is different today. The comfortable folks who winked at al-Qaeda came to see the jihadis as a menace to all they knew. Terrorism came their way -- the car bomb became a weapon of choice, terror hit Saudi Arabia in 2003 and Jordan in 2005, as it had Beirut a generation earlier. The jihadis had ignited a Sunni-Shiite war in Iraq and beyond. In Iraq itself, the Sunnis who had initially welcomed al-Qaeda fighters wearied of them and of the restrictions they sought to impose in the region they dominated.

Mainstream Arab society came to dread the dystopia of virtue and terror that the foot soldiers of al-Qaeda had in store for them. The fling with mass violence, that vicarious pleasure that met bombings in Tel Aviv and New York, had backfired. The chickens had come home to roost.

All are wiser now about terror. We leave it to the investigators and the professionals to sift through the evidence. We know that terrorism shall always be with us. And we have acquired a scent for those who give it a pass when it hits other people in other lands.

(Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of “The Syrian Rebellion.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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