Are the violent demonstrations in the Middle East which are directed at the American embassies and apparently now the embassies of other nations examples of that old adage “no good deed goes unpunished”? It is difficult to give aid to nations who in a sense “bite the hand that feeds them”. I think many Americans just want to drop a few bombs or make some show of strength in Egypt and Libya. After all, a popular and savvy American diplomat was killed along with some of his assistants. This is an extreme outcome for violent demonstrations, even in a region where feelings are already running high and violence is frequently erupting.
We have very complex feelings about the Middle East and there is a lot of complexity involved among the groups in the region. Much of the behavior in modern America is at odds with the seemingly stern beliefs adhered to by many Muslims. Our religion sits lightly on us; theirs does not. We find their devotion uncomfortable and they find our lack of devotion abominable. Much of the conflict between America and the Middle East probably does result from the clash between religious beliefs and also religious practices.
If we imagine New York City as an Old Testament town with Abrahams and Isaacs and Sarahs and Ruths everywhere and then we imagine some time travelers from modern New York City arriving suddenly in locations they call Wall Street or Park Avenue, what do we guess might happen? Of course it somewhat depends on how many modern New Yorkers arrive on the scene and whether they outnumber the ancients or not. I think we can certainly be safe in expecting some real culture shock. I think we can posit that the residents of New York with stern values and religious rules would be appalled by the behavior of the moderns with their revealing clothing, loose lips, and constant desire for “wild” entertainments. I believe we would expect there to be some clashes even if the moderns got together and decided to try to be less outrageous than usual.
This is certainly a situation that pertains in the Middle East. I get the sense that many Muslims are not envious of our modern Western behavior. They feel that very culture shock that occurred in our New York fantasy. It is possible they see their younger people being seduced by Western values and vices. It is possible they want to practice their Muslim religion as it has always been practiced. With all the influx of “modern” devices and attitudes they may see their religion changing in ways they don’t like.
Giving aid to countries with values different from those of the giver has long been a problem around the world. Lots of countries don’t mind our aid but when they finds strings attached they balk, and yet who gives aid without strings attached. American strings are not usually tied to the beliefs or traditions of the receiver nation or group; they are instead tied to the expectation of a certain amount of reciprocity of friendliness towards America and American financial interests. After all, we believe in freedom of religion. But can we allow for religious freedom when that includes the freedom to hate Americans? We do not seem to be that understanding. We expect a measure of respect in exchange for our support.
War has definitely begun over killings of a country’s official representatives (World War I, for example). We believe embassies are sacrosanct and embassy personnel untouchable and we offer similar respect to embassy employees in America. But we also would not want to be pushed into war by a small group who acted to try to provoke such an outcome which may actually be the case here. We don’t want to be pushed into a war when violence was provoked by the actions or an American citizen, especially when those actions are not representative of our official policy towards the nation targeted. It is most likely true, as news sources have suggested today, that Egypt and Libya do see America as a single bloc (see The Daily Beast), with all Americans acting in concert, which could not be further from the truth.
Not only are these nations trying to protect their own customs from outside influence but they are, paradoxically, countries in the middle of revolutions that have resulted from those very outside influences that make them so nervous. Perhaps keeping embassies in nations where political chaos is the order of the day doesn’t make sense. It puts important Americans in harm’s way and then sets up situations where we might be forced to act in ways that are more extreme than we find expedient given the disorder of an emerging government. Did the British maintain an embassy in America while we were trying to write and accept our Constitution? Can we vacate a new nation after a revolution while they form their new government, or is it absolutely necessary that we stay and protect American interests? So many questions. So few answers. Can we look to the past to make our decisions about the level and content of our reaction, or do we need to feel our way through this modern conflagration.
Whatever we choose we are all in mourning for our diplomatic people who were killed in Libya and it is difficult to hold back. Our instinct is to hit back now with a big stick to make sure the hate ends. Can you fight hate with guns and expect to get love? We are still left feeling, regardless of what we decide to do, that no good deed goes unpunished. (i am not saying we shouldn’t do good deeds, I’m just saying it’s complicated. Sometimes even the best intentioned actions have unexpected results.)