While making a connection at London’s Heathrow airport this week, I witnessed a scene that suggested much about the West and its current struggle with Islamic jihad. People on the same flight who had not yet gone through security were being screened at the gate. The passengers, mostly European and Americans, mostly middle-aged or older, lined up, had their bodies thoroughly patted, their shoes removed and swabbed for explosives residue, and their bags inspected. The security personnel doing all the patting and swabbing and inspecting were, as far as I could tell, virtually all Pakistani or Indian Brits.
In other words, people from a demographic that has produced virtually no terrorists, were being screened by people some of whom come from a demographic that has produced all of them. What do we make of this incongruity?
The obvious conclusion, written all over the faces of the grumpily compliant passengers, is that security procedures that scrutinize all passengers wholesale, in an attempt to deter terrorists who come from a narrow demographic, are ridiculously imprecise and inefficient. Imagine if the police tried to solve crimes this way, hauling in for questioning elderly black women when the suspect they’re looking for is a young white male. “Profiling” has become a dirty word, but in truth it is simply smart policing, the concentration of resources and time on those most likely to have committed a crime. In deterring terrorists, focusing on young Muslim males would be similarly efficient, and would spare millions of passengers from the inconvenience of the intrusive security screening all now have to endure.
We all know, however, why such an obvious concentration of attention has been avoided––fear of the charge of racism or insensitivity to “people of color.” This elevation of “sensitivity to racial diversity” to the highest virtue, one so privileged that to avoid inconveniencing a few innocent young Muslim males we will inconvenience everybody, reflects the degradation of a unique feature of Western civilization––its fascination with cultures different from its own.
This peculiarity of the West begins with the ancient Greeks. No other people before them have left such a detailed record of fascination with other peoples. Indeed, the default attitude of humans is to distrust those who are different, for it is safer to assume that those who are different are a dangerous threat rather than interesting or useful. But the intellectual curiosity of the Greeks––first embodied in the restlessly curious Odysseus––impelled them to study the various cultures they encountered in the Mediterranean, to borrow from them anything useful, and even at times to prefer them to their own way. Herodotus, the father of history, exemplifies this curiosity. The whole second book of his History is devoted to the Egyptians, the Greek going so far as to attribute much of Greek culture to Egyptian origins. Indeed, so famous was Herodotus for this openness to those different from himself that he earned the epithet philobarboros, “barbarian lover.”
This curiosity about what academics these days call the “other” has continuously characterized the West. And as often as Westerners have been horrified by what they find beyond their own borders, they have just as often been sympathetic and fascinated, open to ways different from their own, and willing to steal, borrow, and adapt whatever appeared superior to their own way. Again, such attitudes are rare outside the West. Just compare the ancient Chinese, who had the ability to sail to Europe but didn’t bother, confident that there was nothing they could learn from inferior savages. This curiosity and openness of the West partly accounts for its remarkable dynamism and success.
Yet this same fascination with the culturally or ethnically “other” has its negative side as well. It too easily devolves into the “noble savage” myth, which attributes to the “other” values and qualities superior to the Westerner’s own. The “other” then becomes a stick with which to beat a degenerate Western culture on the part of people who benefit from the West’s goods but have no intention of giving them up. Modern multiculturalism is merely the latest manifestation of this phenomenon, elevating the presumed victims of Western racist crimes into emblems of a superior culture deserving of special consideration by the larger society. So of course we’re not going to “profile” the one demographic most likely to produce terrorists, and thus reveal ourselves to be blinkered xenophobes insensitive to a culture different from our own––even if that culture despises our highest goods and wants to destroy us.
Yet I find something heartening about that scene of young Pakistanis with British accents entrusted with preventing other Muslims from blowing people up. Despite a few centuries of racialist pseudo-science, the West has tended to focus on culture rather than physical characteristics as the key to identity. In this too the Greeks were pioneers. Consider this remarkable statement, by the 4th-century B.C. orator Isocrates: “The name ‘Greeks’ suggests no longer a race but an intelligence, and the title ‘Greeks’ is applied rather to those who share our culture rather than to those who share a common blood.” In other words, living a certain way, not looking a certain way, is what makes you what you are. If those South-Indian Brits are truly English, then they have every right to hold those jobs as any other Englishman.
That, of course, is a big “If.” The failure of the West, particularly Europeans, to demand assimilation to the Western way and to assert the superiority of that way, along with the multiculturalist-inspired demonization of Western civilization, has validated a hatred of the West on the part of immigrants whose lives are a thousand times superior to the lives of those living in the countries they or their parents abandoned. We need to cast off idealizations of the “other” just as we have cast off racialist demonizations of them, and make it clear that anyone can be a Westerner, but the price is to commit oneself and one’s loyalty to the Western way, which may not be perfect but in many respects is simply superior to others. After all, if you don’t think so, you are free to go to whatever culture you think is better.
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