The meaning of ‘they,’ &c.

Pro-democracy, anti-militia Libyans march through Benghazi, September 21, 2012.


When a few hundred people mass in front of a U.S. embassy, Americans are apt to say, “See? They don’t want us there. They hate us.” This is a perfectly normal reaction. But it ought to be challenged, or at least thought about.

Consider a story out of Benghazi several days ago. Its opening paragraph read, “Galvanized by anger over the killing of the popular American ambassador here last week, thousands of Libyans marched through this city on Friday, demanding the disarming of the militias that helped topple the dictatorship but have troubled the country with their refusal to disband.”

And let me share a memory from 2008. I was in Iraq. And our group was visiting a marketplace in Greater Baghdad. It was a Saturday morning, as I recall — sunshiny. The atmosphere was peaceful and festive. People mixed easily with the American soldiers about. The picture was one of goodwill, satisfaction, and life all around.

As we strolled, an American general said to me, “If a person wanted to roll a grenade through here, there’s nothing we could do to stop him. He could blow the place up.” And I thought — perhaps said — “Yeah. And everybody back home would say, ‘See? They don’t want us there. See? See?’”

In Iraq, I met a great many people who were extremely grateful for the U.S. presence. But they never get to count among the “they.” Only the bombers and madmen get to be “they.” “See, see? They don’t want us there. They hate us.” They!

We should be careful when we utter this potent little word, “they.”

Well, let me talk about the “they” in Egypt! Years ago, an Egyptian told me, “When the people here get a chicken, and on the wrapping it says, ‘Food gift of the American people,’ they burn a little, with shame. They resent this help. They feel their powerlessness.”

I once put this question to an Egyptian prime minister, Ahmed Nazif. “Does our aid earn the resentment of the Egyptian people? Is our aid counterproductive?” No, no, Nazif said — not at all.

I thought of this when reading a mysterious statement by the new president, Mohamed Morsi. You’ll find it in this article. Maybe the translation is funny. Maybe the president was referring only to U.S. aid to Israel. But here’s the statement: “Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region.”

Hmmm . . .

For many years, there have been Americans who have said, out of frustration, “Cut ’em off! Be done with them!” I’ve always thought this would backfire, that we would be shooting ourselves in the foot if we stopped our aid. But I find it harder and harder to argue against my fellow citizens who are simply fed up.

In a recent column, I had a line about women in combat. Later, I was talking with a colleague who is for women in combat, and thinks the opposing view is just benighted.

I must say, I find it very hard to argue about women in combat. This is bad news, because I’m supposed to be an opinion journalist, whose business is persuasion, right? But either you find the idea of women in combat appalling or you don’t.

Many regard the issue as a matter of women’s rights, even civil rights. To them, a woman in combat is like a black citizen in a voting booth. Hurray, progress!

Other people think that women in combat represent some kind of civilizational breakdown: Our mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, aunts, and nieces in combat? What kind of monsters are we? It runs against nature, it cuts some kind of vital cord.

As I say, I find it hard to argue about women in combat. Either you feel its wrongness in your stomach or you don’t. I know a conservative intellectual who said, “The day they try to draft my daughters is the day I divorce my country and take to the hills.”

(The matter of individual choice — “Do you want to serve in the Army, miss? Would you like to serve in combat?” — comes up in this discussion too, of course.)

I have just read a news story headed “Israel’s only co-ed combat unit proves its worth.” (Go here.) Oh, well: Should there be an Israeli exception? Is Israel too small and vulnerable to exempt its women from combat?

I think I’ll think about this issue another day . . .


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