I still remember the politeness with which one elderly gentleman addressed me in a bookshop. He held a copy of my latest novel, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," and examined the face on its cover, comparing it to mine. Then he said, nodding once as if to dip the brim of an imaginary hat: "So tell me, sir. Why do they hate us?"
Talk about why so many Muslims hate the United States these days, and you'll hear plenty of self-flagellation, at least in some quarters of post-9/11 America.
Part of the reason people abroad resent the United States is something Americans can do very little about: envy.
But there is another major reason for anti-Americanism: the accreted residue of many years of U.S. foreign policies. These policies are unknown to most Americans. They form only minor footnotes in U.S. history. But they are the chapter titles of the histories of other countries, where they have had enormous consequences. America's strength has made it a sort of Gulliver in world affairs: By wiggling its toes it can, often inadvertently, break the arm of a Lilliputian.
The residue of U.S. foreign policy coats much of the world. It is the other part of the answer to the question, "Why do they hate us?" Simply because America has -- often for what seemed good reasons at the time -- intervened to shape the destinies of other countries and then, as a nation, walked away.
For an example of this, you need only look to East Africa:
The report, obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, said Eritrea has shipped a "huge quantity of arms" to the insurgents, known as the Shabab. The shipments continued despite U.N. efforts to bring peace to Somalia and the deployment of African Union peacekeepers.
Eritrea denied providing any assistance to the Shabab, the militant wing of an Islamic group that ruled much of southern Somalia for six months last year. U.S. officials believe the militants have close ties to al-Qaida.
There are more arms in Somalia now than at any time since the country's civil war broke out in 1991 and "there is no clearly established authority that has the capability of exercising control over a majority of the arms," the report found.
We're not responsible for Eritrea sending arms into Somalia. We're not responsible for Ethiopia's gross human rights abuses. We're not responsible that guerilla fighters attack and kill civilians as part of their war against the Ethiopian-backed government. At least, we're not respnosible in the sense that we have asked anyone to do these things on our behalf. But we are responsible, in part, for the destabilization of Somalia and the outbreak of open war yet again. As part our ham-handed response to the threat of terrorism, we conflated the Somali Islamic government with the threat of terrorism, based on tenuous and unconfirmed connections between members of the ICU and supposed members of Al Qaeada. It is widely presumed, and almost certainly correct, that we gave Ethiopia the okay to intervene in Somalia militarily. Our forces attacked ICU militants who have so far posed no threat to us, and our intelligence and law enforcement agencies have interrogated prisoners that the Ethiopian military has rounded up wholesale without discriminating between actual militants and civilians. And now, whereas before some Somalis might possibly remember that we tried to help feed their country (before we killed a thousand or more fighters and civilians in the events recounted in the book and movie "Blackhawk Down") instead now they will remember that with something approaching the equivalent of a raised eyebrow or the nod of a head, we endorsed the invasion that plunged Somalia back into civil war. Having failed even to capture the "terrorists" that were supposedly in the country, we have walked away. The Somalis are on their own, and we leave the U.N. to try and clean up the mess.
So yes, something that will be a minor footnote in our history books-if it's mentioned at all-is now killing thousands of Somalis. And no, most Americans know nothing about it. Which, quite frankly, is inexcusable. It's not merely that with cold (and flawed) calculation our leaders decide to endorse the destabilization of countries and governments, but it's that in our laziness and selfishness, we as ordinary citizens don't even know anything about it. And then we have the gall to ask "Why do they hate us?" with naive and sincere puzzlement. That we have to ask the question at all is an indictment of our ignorance and arrogance as a nation.