Appalling as the loss of innocent lives is, the question has to be asked as to why the United States is so totally oblivious of the strong hatred it excites in so many despairing corners of the globe.
The people who chose to carry out the suicide attacks on New York and Washington left horrendous death and destruction in their wake. But they also sacrificed their own lives into the bargain. For all their meticulous planning they would not have succeeded had they not been willing to die. What then was the pain and anger lying behind their actions? After all, passionate belief or dark despair foreshadows the readiness to embrace death. In all the saturation coverage of this disaster, the theme played upon the most has been the fight between good and evil. Only in passing, if at all, has anyone cared to mention the supreme motivation of the attackers.
Callous though it is to say this, innocent lives lost in random or even calculated acts of violence can often be a great spur to hypocrisy because the feelings they evoke can never be the same for all people. Surely, the death of Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli soldiers will not arouse the same feelings in New York as they will in the Palestinian occupied territories. Are all people everywhere affected in the same measure by the plight of Iraqi children suffering the effects of sanctions imposed on their country? Has anyone at a distance foregone his supper for the massacres of innocent people in Burundi and Rwanda?
The events in New York and Washington have plunged the United States into grief. Across parts of the Middle East and especially the Palestinian occupied territories they have led to completely different feelings. While no one publicly has condoned these acts, the Hamas leader, Sheikh Yassine, spoke for many people when he said that the United States was reaping what it had sown.
It is not a failure of military intelligence, as much of the TV commentary would have it, which lies behind the devastation in New York and Washington but a failure of understanding. And, in equal measure, an excess of arrogance. For the US refuses to recognize that its stance in the Middle East - principally, its blind support of Israel - is what fuels anger across wide swathes of the Muslim world, giving a fillip to militancy. Sole superpower status has also lent an arrogant edge to American behaviour encouraging it to think it can get away with anything. This is not to say the US is an evil empire. Far from it. But in the Middle East its judgement and vision are distorted by its special relationship with Israel.
Children killed by Israeli bullets are victims of "crossfire", one of the most misused words in the on-going intifida. Cold-blooded assassination becomes "targeted killing" as if that somehow is a more excusable form of murder. Seldom has the truth been twisted in so blatant or sophisticated a manner.
Does not this selectivity give birth to resentment and, when resentment alone is unavailing, to despair? Unless the US realizes this it will keep catching the wrong end of the stick, stressing punitive action when it should be considering the causes of what it considers to be terrorism. Osama is not cause but consequence. If the US was at all inclined to look for causes it could take a closer look at the role of Ariel Sharon who has done more to harden common Arab attitudes than any other Israeli leader in recent years.
Another dynamic is also at work. After the taming of Arafat, the destruction of Iraq and the restraint imposed on Qaddafi, the US thought it had licked the problem of Middle Eastern terrorism. But it was wrong. Three factors gave birth to a new militancy: the Iranian revolution, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the rise of the Amal and Hamas militias in Lebanon.
In Lebanon the spirit of resistance against Israeli aggression was encouraged by Syria and influenced by Iran. In Afghanistan the brand of militancy which came into existence was totally different. More 'fundamentalist' in character, it was bolstered by Zia-ul-Haq's Pakistan and fuelled by Saudi and American money. In an ironic reversal of roles, it is this militancy, born in the crucible of the cold war and baptized in Afghanistan by the US itself, which the US now proclaims as its principal enemy. Osama, let us not forget, earned his jihad spurs fighting the Soviet army before he saw Satan's likeness in the shape of the US. Thus do demons come to haunt their own creators.
As for Iraq, it served American interests by acting as a counterweight to Iran. It was only much later that Saddam Hussein was swept by delusions of grandeur when he invaded Kuwait. Had he not committed that blunder he would have remained in the good books of the US.
But the mood in Washington is not introspective. It is angry and it is looking for quick villains. Even if hard evidence is yet to come by, fingers are already pointing at Osama bin Laden. This has direct implications for us as the road to Laden passes through Pakistan. Or so at least our American friends insist on thinking. We should therefore brace ourselves for more pressure, more direct than ever before, to help deliver Laden. Being in an angry mood, the US will not take kindly to our disclaimers that there is just so much influence we exercise with the Taliban (Osama's protectors) and no more.
In any event, we must look to our dignity, or what after our perennial begging bowl is left of it. While there can be no question of Pakistan staying aloof from any concerted effort against 'global terrorism' - never mind the fact that apart from being the sole superpower the US is also the world's leading lexicographer, giving its own spin to words and their meaning - Pakistan should be allowing no one to walk over it.
The manner in which we delivered Ramzi Yousef and Aimal Kansi to the US was less that of a sovereign country and more that of a vassal state doing the bidding of a distant godfather. What did we get for our pains? There are just so many blows our battered dignity can take. While doing the right thing we should take care not to be stampeded into ill-considered acquiescence.
Far greater than anything physical or economic, the disaster that has struck the US is a blow to its pride. Such things happened to other countries, not the US. But Fortress America, as television commentators have not been slow to point out, has been breached with comparisons being drawn with Pearl Harbour. But Pearl Harbour was way out in the Pacific. These suicide attacks have penetrated to the heart of America: Wall Street and the Pentagon, the one a symbol of America's financial power, the other of its military might.
Even so, it would not do to exaggerate the effects of what has happened. America is not only the military and economic superpower but also the most dynamic nation on the planet. The work of rehabilitation has already begun and before we know it the physical scars will heal. But some of the psychic impact will remain.
This time terrorists struck with hijacked aircraft. What if they get hold of nuclear weapons? Pakistan, seen increasingly in alarmist literature as a power teetering on the brink of collapse, should brace itself also for a fresh round of nuclear fundamentalism.
In American eyes the arc of crisis now visible across the skies stretches from Palestine to Afghanistan. More than any other country, Pakistan will feel the fallout of this perception.
But what about civilization? From Bush and Powell to Blair, the events of the last few days have been likened to a war on civilization, with the twin gods of global information, CNN and BBC, picking up and reinforcing this refrain. Israeli bullets killing Palestinian children do not constitute an attack on civilization. The bombing of Vietnam and the invasion of Cambodia qualify for no such epithet, not even in historical retrospect. The plight of Iraqi children is not an affront to human feelings. But different standards rule when death and destruction strike at the heart of Manhattan and the Pentagon.
To state the obvious, the loss of innocent lives is despicable and worthy of the strongest condemnation wherever it occurs. We could all do, however, with a little lowering of double standards.