To kill or convert? 

Try as I might, I can’t become accustomed to the idea that the best method of winning the “hearts and minds” of radical Muslims is to bomb peasants.

It’s conceivable — but by no means certain — that bombs could destroy the Taliban, and perhaps even Osama bin Laden. What is certain is that our Afghan adventure is inflaming the hearts of a people we do not comprehend.

The attack on Afghanistan illustrates the awesome technological power of our military. Unfortunately, it also exposes the breathtaking myopia of our leaders.

Is there any doubt that bin Laden could have scripted this any better? He covets a clash of civilizations, and we oblige him.

The heinous acts of Sept. 11 demand a response. But that rejoinder should actually quell the impulse to terror. It should make us more secure now and in the future, not inspire a nascent generation of Mohamed Attas.

Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is $22 billion (a robust $800 per capita!). With Tomahawk cruise missiles costing $1 million a pop and aircraft carriers playing bumper boats in the Arabian Sea, our war tab has surely eclipsed Afghanistan’s GDP. Skilled capitalists that we are, we should have been able to buy bin Laden off them for half that sum.

Hell, don’t send in special forces, deploy Amway dealers.

I want to believe in the righteousness of our cause, in the American Way. I yearn to know that the yammerings of Aaron Brown, the CNN cyborg who fancies himself a latter-day Edward R. Murrow, will certify our rectitude. That the xenophobic spew of virtually everyone on the Fox News channel, or even the patriotic World Series stylings of Melissa Etheridge can validate our quest.

But we have been disappointed many times before.

Do you recall the Vietnam-era postulation that “we must destroy this country in order to save it?”

And let’s face it — any movement that could transform George W. Bush from a stammering moron into a sage statesman overnight ought to arouse suspicions. His swagger is scary.

So, as I did a decade ago when Bush The Elder sort of vanquished our former client, Saddam Hussein, I have placed my conscience into cold storage. Temporal matters are more tolerable when your moral compass is frozen solid. I go periodically to consult with my conscience. These bone-chilling visitations leave me unassuaged, wondering whether current events are biblical or merely Orwellian.

Do the math. Our air war is galvanizing a significant bloc of the globe’s estimated 1.2 billion Muslims. If 20 percent of Islamic humanity become martyrs for mullahs, their numbers would nearly equal the population of the United States.

We are well down a perilous path that must eventually reach a fork.

It seems the desired outcome would have us ventilate the “evildoers” and convert or mollify the remaining zealots. We’d have to expand our intelligence capabilities exponentially — a dubious prospect in my view. Terror cells operate on nearly every continent, and no informants can be that ubiquitous.

Lacking those achievements, the other outcome would necessitate widespread extermination of the foe — a capability we possess.

The former seems unattainable, the latter incomprehensible.

In the interest of the quaint notion of sanity, let’s focus on a palatable alternative: Mollification.

Pimping Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice on the Al-Jazeera satellite network, which reaches 300 million viewers in the Middle East, is laughable.

Hiring advertising gurus is equally inane. The new U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy formerly hawked Uncle Ben’s Rice and, irony of ironies, Gillette razors. The Pentagon recently awarded a four-month, $400,000 contract to a PR firm to present the U.S. side of the war in 79 countries.

Such spin tactics might sell pilaf and shavers, but they will do nothing to sway the heart or mind of radical Islam.

This task is best suited to Muslims themselves.

It’s tempting to wonder why American Muslims haven’t been more vocal in their defense of the nation, why they aren’t mobilizing their own media blitzes on Al-Jazeera. If this is happening, I see little evidence of it in the Western media.

On the contrary, last week a group of 15 American Muslim organizations called for the United States to halt the bombing in Afghanistan and instead develop “a more effective and long-term policy” to counter terrorism.

Even the most red-white-and-blue-blooded Arab Americans are in untenable positions. Sadly, the prospects are meager for a groundswell of activism from Western Arab and Islamic intellectuals and clerics.

I sat down to discuss the quandary with Ismael Ahmed, director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn.

“If you’re Arab-American, you’re intimidated,” he explains. “You don’t think that what’s being suggested works. You think the American foreign policy is flawed. You know that terrorism is spawned by conditions in the Middle East, in the sense that the United States is often on the wrong side.”

He says that while nearly all Arab Americans want terrorists punished, they believe the effort will be futile without addressing wider grievances.

The United States’ perceived coddling of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians has predisposed the Arab world against America. And the carpet bombing of an atavistic nation only exacerbates that sentiment.

“If the United States knew where Osama bin Laden was, went in and surgically killed him, I don’t think people in most Middle East countries would care,” Ahmed says. “But that’s not what’s happening. I don’t think we’re killing the bad guys or the bad groups. I think were just killing regular folks. Most of the people dying today in the Middle East are innocent. Our policy is to punish innocent people and the result is supposed to be that everything will be better.”

Our frequently contradictory alliances are enough to cramp anyone’s brain — we’ve sponsored Israel, the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein. We made a disastrous foray into Lebanon, backed the mujahideen and bin Laden, then defended the Kuwaitis. Now, we cozy up to the Pakistani president (he seized power in a coup), and some of the brutal warlords comprising the Northern Alliance.

It is a legacy suffused with American expedience and parsimony.

Much as we might wish otherwise, Arabs believe our response to the terror attacks and the plight of the Palestinians are inextricably linked. Much as I might wish otherwise, I don’t blame them.

“The answer is to support democracy in these places, even though it’s hard to do,” Ahmed says. “People in the Middle East are asking, ‘Why are freedom and democracy important for Americans, but not for us?’ Israel most assuredly isn’t democratic for half its population.”

Ahmed, who has worked for ACCESS for 32 years (and whose great-grandfather homesteaded on the Dakota prairie), holds out hope that our leaders will become honest brokers in the Middle East.

“It’s a fixable thing,” he says. “If America is judged a fair player, it’s not all over.”

Jeremy Voas is Metro Times' editor. E-mail him at

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