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Commercial Morality

Ahmed Rehab

In the immediate wake of the attack, I felt a sincere sense of solidarity with everyone in this country - I mean everyone. I felt one with people whom, under normal circumstances, I would not even want to feel two with. I remember feeling a bond with the beer-guzzling, pork-gormandizing Bill's and Bob's of America that I, an Egyptian-American, would normally relate less to than to a Pygmy or an Aborigine. In a sense of melancholic amusement, I found myself more interested in what we had in common, rather than the obvious that kept us apart.

But thanks to our uniquely American ability to exploit all the innocent and pure sentiments in this world, and wind up enough propaganda around it to confuse its sincerity and render it sickeningly superficial, I am now done.

Though just as outraged, saddened, and incredulous as I was on September 12th, I no longer feel that same sense of solidarity with everyone in this country. At this point, I actually feel repelled by most people in this country.

The first two weeks saw the best America had to offer. Why, simply because for a period of time, we were too overwhelmed and distracted to engage in our usual shallow, self-centered interpretation of life and what's in it. For a period of time we were on forced leave of absence from the know-it-all mentality, we let our superhuman facade down, and allowed ourselves to be just human: vulnerable, imperfect, and hurt.

I was inspired by the compassion and good neighborliness Americans was showing to funnel their sorrow for innocent lives lost. It filled me with pride to see Americans champion life and prosperity, and condemn death and destruction. I begun to think that perhaps America really was fit to be the world's role model for peace, justice, good temperament, and civil sophistication. After all it valued life like no other. I was so touched by the atmosphere of humanity and sincerity that I had forgotten why I had previously found life in America somewhat obnoxious, and even wondered what anybody could possibly have against this great country.

But then, America got back on its two obnoxious feet, and I remembered.

From heart-felt, sincere reactions to superficial, politicized, exploitive harping on the events of September 11th and their implications, everyone in the country was jumping on the bandwagon. This obnoxious propaganda quickly exhausted my feelings and left a sour taste in my mouth. I will get back to that in a bit.

The other turning point for me was the commencement of our bombing campaign against Afghanistan. As our air force started to pound Afghanistan, I was dismayed to see reports of innocent civilian casualties met with apathy and indifference by the very Americans who had passionately rallied against the killing of innocent civilians.

I began to wonder, how is it that those who wept for the innocent American casualties, did not shed a tear for the Afghan ones, whom after all were victims of the military machine that kills in our very name? How is it that the same media that dramatized our civilian losses to maximum exploits, did not so much as solemnly report the nature of Afghanistan's civilian losses?

I began to realize that we have a double standard. When we say we are against the murder of innocent civilians, we really mean American innocent civilians. When it comes to the innocent civilians of a desolate, downtrodden nation with no CNN or congress to rally for its cause, well, then things are a little different. In such cases, as Rumsfeld casually puts it, "civilian deaths are unavoidable"; you know, just a "natural" consequence.

So unfortunately, we are not really the compassionate, sensitive-souled, pro-life, principled people we “market” ourselves as. We are selfish, biased, violent, murderous, and as short-sighted as those we condemn and vow to fight. The only difference is that we do things in style. We know how to sound good, and look good doing what we do; but we fail to realize that in God's eyes, murder is murder, and evil is evil whether you look pretty committing it or not. Unlike us, God does not put price tags on human lives, judging a man in a suit, working in an air-conditioned high-rise as worthy of life, and a man in rags living in a run down shackle as not so worthy.

We want the whole world to empathize with us, send us flowers, shake our hands, and wave our flags, even as we murder innocent people and brush it off as necessary and unavoidable. But even as we are in the process of killing innocent civilians, we do not have the decency to ease off marketing our loss to the whole world in a cheap attempt to rally support for a our political causes. We make it very fashionable to "condemn terrorism" caring little for why terrorism is to be condemned. Is it not for its capacity to terminate innocent lives? Well, isn't that what we are doing as I write?

This is not the kind of America that would make me proud.

I mentioned earlier that a few short weeks after the attack, we forsook our sincere sentiments and started to indulge in a sort of commercialized, politicized, non-stop campaign. We all too quickly fell right back to our infamous capitalist mindset that drives us to turn everything, including sincere human emotions, into a marketable product. Barely a month after the attacks, our media, government, and majority of fellow citizens bumbled off into a shameless spiel of self-righteousness that not even our terrible loss could merit. Whereas in the beginning, our coverage of the attack, its victims, villains, and heroes was heartfelt, it has quickly transformed into ardent propaganda.

I saw one TV magazine showcase a much-hyped episode in which it presented the events of September 11th through the perspectives of one of the hijackers and one of the victims. It took us through what each of them did that morning and throughout much of the day, stressing the irony of how two individuals who came from such entirely different worlds would end up colliding paths on that ill-fated plane.

The premise of the show is fine, but its presentation was not. Almost like a soap opera, it was over-dramatized and a little too obvious. The anchors did not let us come to any conclusions of our own but spoon-fed us the statements they wanted to make in the form of fancy little catch phrases that typically preceded breaking for commercials in order to maximize their effect. As a Piano played in the background, we saw images of the happy American playing with his children, mowing the lawn, clowning around a Christmas tree, and fishing on a Golden pond, juxtaposed with images of the terrorist brandishing a gun, slapping a fly, and messing around an ATM machine. As if we did not already know who was the criminal and who the victim. I had come to watch that episode with the hopes that it would shed some light on the dark motives and reasoning of the terrorists in a way that would lead me to understand why my country, and not another, was the victim of the September 11th catastrophe. Instead I was served a cheap, propagandist slideshow that was not meant to educate me, nor enlighten me, but to exploit my emotions and increase the networks ratings.

Oscar-winning Gwyneth Paltrow wants to go on with Saturday Night Live as a statement that Osama Bin laden will not interfere with her plans. That is very cute, except that Bin Laden will not receive her statement because he does not usually watch Entertainment Tonight. However, we, the couch potatoes, non-terrorist viewers, who watch Entertainment Tonight will get to see Gwyneth's message. Gwenyth knows this and that is just fine with her. You see, that is exactly who she is targeting by her statement, not the terrorists, but us. It's called good PR. It's also called exploitation, and riding the wave. John Travolta does it too, so does almost every other celebrity who gets a chance to flash their "concerned look" on TV that is as much staged as Zoolander's “blue steel” look. And then they scurry back into their maximum security mansions, yachts, and limos.

It is not just the media; regular citizens do it to. One day on my way back from work, I heard a woman sobbing on the radio. Concerned, I paused to listen in. In as agonized a voice as she could put forth, she asked how she could begin to explain the hate and violence to her kids. I couldn't help but smirk in wonder and amazement; she must have been an angel who fell from heaven on September 11th, not someone born and bred in America. I would have loved to be the radio jockey at the other end of the line. Rather than reinforce her false sense of self-righteousness, I would have jolted her of her high chair and asked her where she had been all these years, and why she had waited so long to begin to explain hate and violence to her kids. As if hate and violence have had no feature role in our history and society; as if they were a recent, sudden discovery to her and her children. This "innocence" ironically coming from a woman living in one of the few societies in the world in which children not much older than her own chase and gun down their friends and teachers within the hallways of our schools. Was the Columbine School massacre anymore acceptable than the September 11th terrorist attack? Was it not brutal, violent, hateful, and most of all, senseless? How did she explain the hate and violence to them then? Moreover, how does she explain to them our history, in which blacks were lynched for being blacks, and Native Americans wiped out for being Native Americans - or does she? Was this brutal racism not hatemongering and violent? How does she explain to them the evening news that is nothing short of an ode to hate and violence? I am even more curious to know how she explains to her children our ongoing killing of innocent Afghan civilians. People, like this woman, make such statements and expect a pat on the back or a cookie for making them. "Good woman, you fit in the mould - for having made such statements, you are a real American". She does not think about what she is saying, nor does the listener think about what he is hearing, it is said and heard through a mechanical process. It is cliché.

We have gotten a little too caught up in the new comfy role of the unassuming, civilized victim of raw anti-civilization, that we have begun to believe ourselves. We've begun to buy into the cheap fiasco that ours is an innocent, angelic world suddenly introduced to evil when brought into contact with the outside corrupt world.

Sure, terrorism is rotten and evil; we should by no means refer to terrorist acts as anything but evil. But can't we do that while remaining real about ourselves, and the evil that targets us. Can't we avoid exploiting the situation into propagandistic proportions that only serve to confuse and mislead our more gullible citizens? Can't we admit that evil exists everywhere and that it knows no nationality, race, or religion? Can't we remain vigilant of the evil of our own past and present? Can't we stop defining our own evils within context, yet disassociating the evil of others from all contexts? Can't we call evil by its name wherever it may be and irrespective of who perpetrates it, and call goodness by its name wherever it may be and irrespective of who perpetrates it? Must we politicize good and evil? Can't we realize that it is only our citizens and our children that we hurt by propaganda? Didn't we condemn propaganda when Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein fed it to their people? Why do we do it now? It may not be as blunt as theirs, but ours is propaganda.

I am reminded of a memo I once received at work. It asked us to remember to say thank you to our clients because they were the source of our paychecks. I had always thought one should say thank you because it is the polite thing to do, not as a part of a monetary equation. But that is the difference between capitalist morality and true morality. In our system, goodness is put forth not for the sake of goodness, but for pursuit of some materialistic reward. A politician will condemn racism not because he values goodness for its own sake, but in pursuit of people's vote. A sales clerk will say "have a nice day" not because he so wishes it for you, but because he was taught that this is a necessary part of retaining a customer’s patronage, indeed he comes to say it almost automatically and without so much as a smile that would normally accompany a heartfelt wish. Likewise, we do not champion life, heroes, and justice for their sake as our propaganda suggests, but only as they are capable of providing us with the personal gains we need. That explains the dilemma in which our passionate humanity, gushing out in the wake of the September 11th loss, has completely dried up in the face of the murder of innocent Afghan civilians, carried out in our name.