Americans aren't used to being hated, no matter how much we may deserve it. In many ways a superpower can't avoid being hated--everyone else is smaller, weaker, poorer, and less well armed. But being hated has reached a crisis in the Middle East, where despite his senseless crimes Osama bin Laden is wildly popular while the most innocent American is despised. How do we back away from this brink?
One clue came to me from a woman who recently told me about her trip to central Turkey. An adventurous traveler, she went alone with only a young student guide, riding local buses and trains instead of hiring a rental car or joining a tour group. One day she found herself beside a dusty road after her bus stopped, as it often did, so that the male passengers could get out for a smoke and the bus driver could drink tea and gossip along his route.
She saw a vendor with a pile of oranges in front of him, and approaching, she asked for a glass of juice. He said, "Where are you from?" The woman, who covered her head to look as inconspicuous as possible, rarely revealed that she was American, but this was the middle of nowhere, so she said, "I'm from New Mexico." Instantly the vendor's demeanor changed, and he began to berate her.
"I hate all Americans," he shouted in broken English. "You kill women and babies. You make war on Islam. I hate Bush." The woman pointed out that not everyone in the U.S. approved of Bush's policies. The man only grew more outraged. "You elect him twice!" he shouted.
All the while he kept squeezing oranges, and now he poured half the juice into one glass and half into the other. "This one's for me," he said defiantly, drinking what she had paid for. Cowed, she got back on the bus, imagining that the other Turkish men were now glaring at her with hostility.
I think we'd all agree that this woman was entirely innocent, and yet how many times have I seen Arabs on TV and instantly thought, "Our enemy." Those televised faces belong to people who have done nothing to harm me or my country. If I read hatred in their eyes, I may be right or not. Maybe they're only angry because of something we did to them, or because of a perceived wrong, or because they lead dead-end lives, or simply because there's no other superpower around to hate.
After 9/11, none of us is so pure that we haven't looked at ordinary Arabs and felt animosity, despite the fact that before that date most of us knew precious little about Arab culture and society. Hatred is a reflex, which brings me to my point. The solution to being hated is this: You must recognize that both sides--hater and hated--are alike. Both feel innocent. Both feel that they are right. Both want to have their way. And deepest of all, both sides have their own story and are sticking to it, come hell or high water.
Hatred will end--or begin to soften in a meaningful way--when we realize that membership in the brotherhood of hatred is equal. I wish U.S.-Arab relations came down to issues that reasonable people can settle. They don't. They come down to you and me feeling that our animosity is special because it's righteous. Ironically, in the name of righteousness we did kill women and babies, by the thousands. So now we are reaping the fruits of hatred while being too "civilized" to admit our own dark side. All I am asking is one thing. Get the hatred out of our hearts first, and then see if we can help those who hate us to do the same. The best unilateral action we can take today is to step out of the brotherhood of hatred, no matter who follows us or not.