Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Elicits a Mix of Loathing, Longing

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Of all history's great powers, from Athens and Rome to Byzantium and imperial Britain, perhaps none has ever so dominated the globe as America does now.

Nor has any of these powers aroused such a complex of feelings, positive and negative, that could go some way toward explaining how extremists from a distant world could mount an attack of the unfathomable hatred seen last week in New York and Washington, followed by the unrestrained outpouring of support from some of the very peoples America's terrorist enemies claim to represent.

The United States, with its daunting economic, political and military power, its pervasive popular culture and its instinct to spread the freewheeling, secularist ways of American life, has an impact to the farthest corners of the earth. Just how great this impact is, and how, in many places, it is resented, may be more than many Americans can grasp.

Many Americans may see their country in uncomplicated terms, as the "beacon of freedom'' President George W. Bush spoke of with moistened eyes last week. But the feelings of many of the peoples who live in America's shadow are frequently deeply contradictory. Grievances run side by side with a consuming passion for things American.

Such paradoxes present themselves almost everywhere, but nowhere more starkly than in the Arab and wider Moslem worlds. There, bitter political grievances abound, among them: the United States' support of Israel in its confrontation with the Palestinians; the presence of its troops in the "holy land'' of the Arabian peninsula; its military encirclement and economic strangulation of Iraq; and its alliances with governments widely perceived as corrupt.

But the complaints are often accompanied by an unquenchable appetite for Marlboro cigarettes and Levi's -- enthusiasms inseparable from the deprivation that besets much of the world -- and a yearning for the bounty of America.

It is, however, not only the tangible things that excite. Freedom, to those without it, is irresistible, too.

"America, free!'' say visa-seekers in Beijing, Cairo or Islamabad, even if they are the only English words they know.

But to be free, rich and powerful in a world that is mostly none of these things is, inevitably, to engender resentments. Freedom itself can be considered deeply disturbing in many of the world's poorer societies that are anchored to the old pillars of faith, tradition and submission.

Much the same can be said for the flood of American popular culture.

When the Taliban began their rule in Afghanistan in 1996 by hanging television sets from trees, banning radios and tape recorders, and outlawing music and films, they were at the extreme edge of an uneasiness that is widespread in traditional societies that have begun to feel inundated by Western culture.

Americans can find it difficult to grasp how vulnerable other societies can feel as their own cultures begin to erode.

Islamic terror groups have their own ideology, rooted in a deeply conservative reading of the Koran. They reject values like democracy, tolerance and respect for individual rights, then rouse their followers by arguing that the United States violates those principles in supporting Israel and with the sanctions stifling Iraq.

Osama bin Laden rails against American "falsehood'' in claiming that principle drives its interaction with the world.

On the core issues between itself and Islam, the United States stares across an unbridgeable gulf. Even the word terrorism has conflicting connotations. The United States and its allies, in their actions against Iraq, and Israel, in its violent confrontations with Palestinians, exercised within the laws of democratic nations, have endowed their actions with presumptions of moral rectitude widely disputed among disempowered peoples.

Often the suffering of Moslem civilians -- in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Lebanon, Kashmir, Somalia and, above all, Palestine -- is evoked. By comparison, to some Moslems, the killing of 17 sailors in last October's bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole seems insignificant.

Anybody traveling in the Moslem world in recent years has sensed how even more moderate Moslems have been swept by an ascent of anger against the United States, and sensed, too, that this fury was all the greater for the sense that official America, at least, was indifferent to the causes of their rage.

After last week's attacks, this anger seemed suddenly stilled among a vast majority of the world's Moslems, as if those who cried for some accounting from Washington, and remained silent during earlier terror attacks, had never imagined that the radical groups could carry it to such cataclysmic extremes.