On 20 September 2001, George W Bush stood before Congress and uttered the fateful words, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”. How loudly those words would echo through the decade as the world was increasingly presented as the choice between two extremes.
In one sense the words were understandable. The psyche of the world’s greatest superpower had just been grievously wounded in the 9/11 attacks. Almost everything that America took for granted had just been shaken to its very core. The president of a country so mortally offended needed to come out in his first official address to the country’s legislative body, a joint session of Congress, and offer solace to all by promising swift and deadly revenge.
Did Bush ever contemplate that his polarising words (and the subsequent actions of his government) would curdle relations between his country and a good portion of the world for a decade to come? Probably not. But is this not how the extremist’s mind works? To Bush’s administration, the correct response to 9/11 was to establish a massive military presence in the Middle East, ostensibly to pursue a few hundred terrorists who had orchestrated the attacks on the World Trade Centre. It was an over-the-top reaction to any reasonable person, but it was fitting for Dubya.
Did Bush ever think that his actions would legitimise al Qaeda to a new generation of young, disaffected men in the Middle East and Africa? Did he realise he would create a crazed ecosystem where Islamic jihadists would feed off the belligerence of Uncle Sam in the Middle East and vice versa?
When Eugene Terre’Blanche was brutally murdered on his farm last year, for the briefest of moments it seemed there was a choice of two paths for South Africa, and both choices meant militancy, hatred and eventual destruction. On the one hand, the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging of the slain Terre’Blanche represented itself as the only logical counterweight to the nationalistic ANC Youth League. On the other hand, the cabal of nationalists within the ANC, grouped around Julius Malema, presented themselves as locked in a sacred war against the racist whites and AWB (and the obvious side to support in this ghastly squabble).
This is how extremists operate to propel the rest of society into turmoil and war. In all too many instances, they succeed. We need only glance at the lesson of the Croatian war of independence, where the Serb nationalists and Croat nationalists plunged the former Yugoslavia into civil war by convincing ordinary citizens that the choice lay between picking up arms for one side against the other.
In recent days, the world has seen a spate of riots in Afghanistan in response to one lunatic in Florida who decided to set fire to the Qur’an. Eleven days after Terry Jones (no stranger to anti-Muslim controversy) set fire to a copy of the Qur’an, Afghan President Hamid Karzai made mention of the incident, and the resultant protests and riots left 22 people dead and scores injured.
It is indicative of the times we live in that extremists in Afghanistan have to leap on this Jones character as fuel for their protests, and not the actions of the US military or government as in times gone by. Barack Obama has done huge work in healing US-Middle Eastern relations after Dubya’s presidency.
By acting as fuel for each other’s fires, extremists on all sides of society are very much on the same side. There is no difference in the rhetoric of the ANCYL and the AWB, the actions of Terry Jones and the Islamic extremists and the violence of George W Bush and al Qaeda. They all operate against society when all is told. They try to box all people into binary worlds where picking one side means exterminating the other. To them, violence and bloodshed is an end unto itself.
We must never arrive at a situation where we are forced to choose a side on one extremity. It starts with silly little things like being told that merely voting for one party at election time isn’t enough – we must demonise the opposing party as well. Or Malema unfoundedly saying Helen Zille hates blacks, and on the strength of his rancid opinion, we should vote against her party. Fortunately for the world, America eventually grew weary of Dubya’s neoconservative claptrap. In South Africa, there are growing signs that we’re becoming quite tired of politicians who attempt to win votes by using race as a polarising factor in society. Elections are becoming about service delivery. I can’t applaud that enough. It means we’re pulling back from the brink and bringing the country back to the people to whom it truly belongs – the majority in the middle. DM
Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.
"The surest defence against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity." ~ Joseph Brodsky