The most obvious reason is the Persian Gulf War in 1991, ostensibly waged to defend Kuwait from the aggression of Iraq (similar aggressions and genocides around the world that did not involve oil have not required U.S. intervention). According to a 1992 report prepared by Ramsey Clark (a former U.S. attorney general) for the International War Crimes Tribunal, the U.S. military deliberately targeted non-military facilities in Iraq--in particular, facilities necessary to civilian life, ranging from electric power plants to water treatment centers.
Schools in Iraq were bombed; hospitals were bombed; mosques were bombed. Clark's report estimates that the total death toll in Iraq may have been as high as 300,000. The Red Crescent Society--the Muslim version of the Red Cross--estimated 113,000 civilian casualties, 60 percent of whom were children. After Saddam Hussein announced a complete troop withdrawal from Kuwait, U.S. planes bombed and strafed a 60-mile-long convoy fleeing Kuwait--a mixture of military personnel and civilians--resulting in "tens of thousands of charred and dismembered bodies." But when asked by the press about the number dead in Iraq from air and ground assaults, General Colin Powell replied, "It's really not a number I'm terribly interested in." (The New York Times, March 23, 1991)
Some other numbers Powell probably isn't interested in:
• In 1986, in response to a bombing in a German disco, 18 Air Force F-111s bombed Tripoli, even though there was little evidence linking Libya to the bombing, which was eventually traced to Iran and Syria.
• In 1988, the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger jet over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people. An accident, we said. But the Vincennes had been sent to the gulf to support Iraq, at that time our ally, in its war against Iran. Iran demanded reparations in the World Court; the U.S. rejected World Court jurisdiction.
• In 1993, in response to a supposed assassination plot on the life of former President George Bush--foiled in its planning stages--President Clinton lobbed 23 Tomahawk cruise missiles into downtown Baghdad. Twenty hit their mark, the Iraqi intelligence HQ; three hit the surrounding residential neighborhoods.
This list--far from comprehensive, and which doesn't even touch on our actions in Latin America, Asia, and lower Africa--is not to justify the appalling actions of the Islamic radicals who murdered thousands of people in the United States last week; it's to put them in perspective. History demonstrates again and again, from schoolyards to battlefields, that violence begets violence. An overwhelming display of force may make its victims feel helpless, but helplessness doesn't lead to quiet submission--it breeds hatred and desperation. America has committed acts of tremendous violence in the Middle East; some Americans are unaware of them, others turn a blind eye.
The result is a sense of moral purity that inspires statements like these: Brent Scowcroft, a former national security advisor, was quoted in the September 13 New York Times as saying, "My sense is, the president would be delighted to do something really tough and soon." In the same article, Senator John McCain declared, "I say to our enemies, we are coming. God may show you mercy. We will not."
The severe retaliation consistently chosen by the U.S. springs from a lack of patience and imagination. As Robert Gates, former director of the CIA, argued in a 1998 NY Times editorial, "[The] mix of force and diplomacy [necessary to deter terrorism] is not satisfying emotionally. It does not quench the thirst for revenge or justice; it does not offer beguilingly simple answers to complex problems and difficult choices."
Reflecting on the U.S.'s relationship to the rest of the world, British terrorism expert Paul Rogers said, "It is analogous to the position of the British during the days of the empire. The British saw themselves as a civilizing force, but unfortunately the people who were colonized did not agree."
Research assistance by Jennifer Pratt.