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Commentary: Us vs. Them

By Peter Siedlecki

Buffalo, NY – It was October 25th of 1983. I was in Poland as a Fulbright Lecturer. I had to take care of some business at the American embassy in Warsaw; and, as usual, I learned that it would be some time before I could see the diplomatic officer with whom I had an appointment.

In the embassy anteroom the ever-present, grim looking U.S. Marine guard stood like a ramrod. Only two days earlier, the Marine barracks in Lebanon had been hit by terrorist bombers. Casualties were in the hundreds. There we were standing together. Hoping for an escape from awkwardness, I tried to strike up a conversation:

I guess morale in the Corps is pretty low right now, I said.

A sardonic expression came to his face as he replied:

Yeah, but we're getting some back today.

I had no idea what he meant. I had left Cracow early that morning to catch the train for Warsaw, so I hadn't listened to the BBC World Service. If I had, I would have learned that the U.S. Marines had invaded Grenada to combat the military coup that had been launched in that small Caribbean nation. Only later did I have time to digest the irony of the Marine's perception -- that we could get some back for that attack in Lebanon by attacking a defenseless country thousands of miles away.

The questionable logic that allows one to paint everyone who is not pro-American from the Middle East to the Caribbean with the same broad brush is excusable in a young Marine. However, that kind of skewed logic becomes disturbing, and even frightening, when employed by a country's leaders.

Taxonomists have enlightened us regarding the importance of differentiation. When attempting to define and classify, it is important to know what something is not in order to help determine what it is. Differentiation is, of course, only a part of definition; nevertheless, throughout the 20th century, the United States has employed it almost exclusively in attempting to determine its own definition. The Soviet Union was convenient to this process. That leviathan was always out there waiting to become part of our self image -- because we were not the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately our taxonomy was shaken when the Soviet monolith crumbled and left us scrambling for definition. Cuba was too insignificant, China was becoming too much like ourselves, ancient memories of fallen villains were too abstract. A new administration whose validity was suspect found itself confronted by these dire straits, made even worse by the fact that these were mostly ex-corporation guys who understood the value of competition.

In many respects, the perpetrators of one of the most horrendous deeds in world history provided the current administration with definition, but the taxonomy was flawed. It is too difficult to differentiate yourself from a moving target. Osama bin Laden is like a ghost, the Taliban has been fragmented. Al-Qaida is everywhere and nowhere. How can you say you are not like something that will not stand still and participate in its own extermination.

But, lo and behold, the administration has discovered a viable middle-eastern candidate for differentiation, a villain who will take attention away from the sagging economy and the dirty deeds of all those old corporate-guy cronies at Halliburton and Enron. It is that Satan from Iraq, the great embarrassment of that previous bunch of corporation guys who controlled the country in the eighties. So what if he is as much like al-Qaida as Grenada is like Lebanon. We can re-inflate the Saddam Hussein balloon take aim at it; and, once again, enjoy the comfort of knowing who we are.

Dr. Peter Siedlecki is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Daemen College.