Why Do They Hate Us?

July 16, 2006 | By | 7 Replies More

Ever since the tragedy of September 11, 2001, there has been a fairly constant refrain heard in the United States.  Americans, who once thought their country invulnerable, their culture beyond reproach and their global image impeccable, are asking, “Why do they hate us?”  Human emotion being what it is, there is no single or simple answer to that question.  They hate us for a number of reasons, some illogical, but some very understandable.  And, while hatred is never productive, never defensible, its causes should never be ignored because its consequences can be catastrophic.

One of the things I hear Americans say they hate about us is our freedom.  I would have to agree.  There are those in the rest of the world who are as offended by our freedoms as are we by their despotism.  They hate the fact that we have freedom of religion, that we have freedom of speech, that our women are becoming increasingly free to determine their own destinies.  They believe that all these freedoms are an offense against all that is decent and holy. 

I believe they are wrong.  It is because of our freedom that I am able to write what I write, however controversial, however offensive to some.  It is because of our freedom that my family moved to the United States in 1960. We left South Africa when the white government there was stripping the people, both white and black, of their freedom to speak out against injustice, to live wherever and with whom ever they chose.   We left because it was life threatening to question the government’s policy of apartheid. 

Of course, some of them hate us because they are simply jealous of our privileges, our freedoms, our wealth.  They envy us these things, and they want what we have.  That, surely, is understandable, in light of the conditions under which so many of the people across the world live.   However, many Americans, perhaps most, do not have any idea what these conditions are.  And here, perhaps, we are coming to the crux of why they hate us.  Many of us, in this country of free public education, of free press, of wealth and privilege, of immense (but not inexhaustible) natural resources, are abysmally ignorant about the rest of the world, and too many are willfully, smugly, intractably, even belligerently so.

What has inspired this diatribe is a 60 Minutes TV newsmagazine segment I watched recently.  It included information about American dealings with South Africa.  The report actually began by describing the shortage of nurses in the United States, and the reasons for the shortage.  It described the conditions that have reduced the numbers of nurses, forcing those who are still in the profession to work long, grueling hours.  American nurses, simply put, are underpaid and undervalued.  Their wages have not even increased with the cost of living.  The nurses who are still on the job are getting older, and because of the lack of incentives to enter the field, young people are not going into nursing.  We have a desperate shortage, and it will only get worse.

But measures are being taken to remedy the situation.  Corporations have formed for the sole purpose of recruiting qualified nurses from other English speaking countries around the world.  And guess which country is one of these?  South Africa.  Apparently South African nurses, both black and white, are among the best trained, most experienced nurses in the world.  But they are working in a country that is struggling to overcome the terrible social problems created by apartheid now that it (apartheid) has been abolished.  Most of these nurses make only $5,000 a year, not enough for them to feed their families.  What America has to offer them must seem like vast wealth, especially when free plane fare, guaranteed green cards for themselves and their families, housing assistance, and insurance benefits are part of the package.  Many of these nurses are inevitably leaving South Africa.

And why shouldn’t they?  Do they not deserve opportunities?  Well, as one of the interviewees on 60 Minutes said, while it is understandable that these nurses would come to the United States, and while they do deserve opportunities, the practice of recruiting them is simply unethical.  I would add it is an example of why they hate us.  It is an example of our American belief that we are entitled to anything we can buy, simply because we have the resources to do so.

There is, of course, a history here that leads me to this conclusion.  America, God bless her, imposed sanctions on South Africa in order to bring the white government there to its knees and to force its members to abolish apartheid.  What was wrong with that?  Well, on the surface, nothing.  It was, however, typical of our rather half-assed, poorly thought-through tactics.  The sanctions did have their effect.  In 1983, when my family and I visited South Africa, the average white person drove a Mercedes or a BMW or an Alpha-Romeo. 

The disparity in wealth between white and black was glaring.  In 1990, when my husband and I visited again, there had been a dramatic change.  But, rather than the wealth having been spread around so that conditions for blacks had improved, conditions for them had become increasingly desperate.  Whites, too, had been affected, but only to the extent that they had been forced to substitute Mazdas for Mercedes.  Many white professionals, in fact, had left the country, taking their money with them.  In other words, the people who were most hurt by the sanctions were the blacks, not the whites.  As I said, God bless America and some of her bloody liberals.

Finally, the sanctions did help to topple apartheid, but, as F. W. De Klerk, the white South African Prime Minister whose statesmanship, along with that of Nelson Mandela’s, made the transition a smoother and less bloody one than any other in Africa, said, America imposed sanctions, forced the country to change, and then simply walked away, giving no thought to what was to happen next, giving no financial aid to a country that needed (and still needs) help to rebuild itself. 

One of the consequences of apartheid was an uneducated black population, almost completely unprepared to assume the reins of government.  Because of the sanctions, professional white people, the very people who had the means to rebuild the country, had left, taking their wealth and expertise with them.  They were leaving, almost literally, in droves.  (At one point, 2,000 professionals a month were leaving the country.)

Where there is economic despair, of course, there is crime, and not just crime, but angry crime, violent crime.  There is an epidemic of violent crime in South Africa, not simply black on white crime, but black on black crime.  It is brutal, it is mindless, it is horrifying, and there is no way of knowing how or when it will end.

Where there is lack of education, there is ignorance, and one of the consequences of this ignorance in Africa is AIDS.  South Africa has not been spared.  It is as much of an epidemic there as it is elsewhere on the continent.  (My cousin and her husband both work and the University of Port Elizabeth; at that university, 50% of the students are either HIV positive or have AIDS.) 

Is the United States helping South Africa economically or in any other way?  Of course not.  The country is now on its own, left to work its problems out alone.  This is why recruiting nurses there is unethical.  This is why they hate us.  This is a perfect example of our greed, our sense of entitlement, our complete disregard for the consequences of our imperialism and our shallow thinking.  Not only do we not help a country like South Africa to rebuild, we steal their brightest and best, leaving them to their chaos and suffering.  And we do it simply because we can.  We have the power, we have the wealth, and we believe we deserve to do it. 

It is no different than what we have done to encourage sweatshops in Asia and South America.  We cannot induce our own people to work for slave wages, so we go to countries where people are so desperate that they will work for almost nothing, and we exploit their desperation.  We support corrupt regimes around the world simply because they can provide us with goods and services we need; we pay no attention to how these regimes treat their people, how these regimes exploit their countries and their own people (as long as these regimes are not communist). We will not pay our nurses decently, and because our young people will not buy into our system, we steal nurses who are desperately needed in their own countries and bring them here because it’s cheaper than doing the right thing – giving economic aid to a country that needs it and paying our own nurses decent wages.  We did the same thing with teachers: we could not find teachers to teach in our inner cities because American teachers, too, are underpaid and undervalued, so where did we go to find teachers?  South Africa.

Meanwhile, we build our Disney Lands and Disney Worlds; we buy our “cool” cars; we use up our natural resources and those of the rest of the world; we drink our Starbucks coffee in our air-conditioned cafes; we live in gated communities or flee our inner cities to escape from urban crime and desperation, and we say “Why not? We deserve it.  We earned it.”  Well, we didn’t.  We are simply incredibly lucky to have been born (or to have been able to move to) a country that hasn’t been used up yet.  Too many of us are completely ignorant of and indifferent to the plight of our own poor and the poor and desperate in other in other parts of the world, many of whom have been devastatingly impacted by our shortsightedness, our greed, our imperialism.

And we are an empire.  Call us what you like, we are an empire.  We would do well to remember that empires such as ours never survive.  None of the great empires of the world, from the Roman to the British, survived.  They all crumbled under the weight of their self-satisfaction, their arrogance, their sense of entitlement, their greed, their corruption.  One way or another, they were toppled, either from within because of the hatred of those who had been marginalized, or from without because of the hatred of those who had been exploited and discarded. 

The trouble is, of course, that we, in our infinite wisdom, have now created the where-with-all for them to not only destroy us and each other, but the entire planet.  Ours may be the last empire because ours was the one that initiated the nuclear age.  There may never again be an “us and them,” and it will be our own fault.  We have had the lessons of history to examine; we have the material security that makes it possible for people to become reflective because they are not simply struggling to survive.  The answers are all there as to why they hate us, why they want to destroy us, but we are lost in our self-pity, our rhetoric of revenge against “evil-doers,” and, worst of all, our militant denial of our sins.

By the end of the day on September 11, I thought to myself, “If you have, and you do not share, if you have because you have stolen from others, if you have and you do not care that others do not, eventually those you have hurt will either take what you have from you, or they will destroy you, even if, in the process, they destroy themselves.”  I pray I am wrong. 


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Economy, Education, History

About the Author ()

Chris Van Mierlo is a South African of British descent who left the country with her family in 1960 when her father was in danger of being arrested by the white government because of his anti-apartheid activities. She has lived in the St. Louis, Missouri, area since 1969, and previously lived on Cape Cod, in Boston, and in Syracuse, New York. Chris teaches and tutors English at St. Charles Community College. In addition to her English degree, she has degrees in music, which she has also taught. Her home away from home is Montana where she and her husband hope to retire in the not too distant future. Chris is the mother of two sons, one of whom lives in St. Louis and the other in Missoula, Montana. She is the grandmother of two girls, 10 and 16.

Comments (7)

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  1. John says:


    Thank you for this very interesting piece. I find myself unable to disagree with you (and not that I would want to either).

    So many of us Americans are ignorant of how our daily actions impact the rest of the world. In fact, I think far too many of us are ignorant of how our actions affect our immediate communities. The start of removing (at least one form of perhaps multiple) this ignorance is the exposure to other perspectives, in this case your first hand experience, and actually thinking about it. Again, too many Americans, even when they are exposed to the perspectives of others, are too arrogant to think that they have anything to do with it or have the capacity to do something about it.

    Please keep up the great writing

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    We Americans like to believe that we each have our own moral "oasis." We think that we have each been blessed by times and places when and where we are free to do anything we can afford "for me," damn the consequences for anyone else on the planet (well, maybe save our closest of friends and family).

    I want to go on vacation where my American dollars can make the locals dance like my own private puppets. I'm going to buy that huge polluting SUV because "I deserve it." Another fancy dinner out? Of course, why not? I might even chastise the waiter that the coffee was not quite up to snuff.

    I'm not going to concern myself about what that money could do for a starving child. I certainly won't consider that many people around the world are drinking directly out of the same polluted ponds as the farm animals they manage. And I buy those designer clothes made by sweat shops because they are CHEAP. Look at this bargain!

    I'm living in my own moral oasis, you see–it's actually a tiny bubble that follows me around, wherever I go. Dollars fall from the sky into my little oasis. When I spend money or blow time on my own personal luxuries, it's money or time that simply disappears.

    That's what "independence" has become for so many Americans, actually all of us, some of the time. I am independent in that I am entitled to impose moral blinders on myself. I am free to run around doing and buying anything I want while I'm in my portable moral oasis (= amoral oasis). I'm not TRYING to hurt others–if anything, it's original sin–I've simply been born into the regrettable CONDITION.

    But to those people, I would suggest that morality is never only local. Everything we do has serious consequences, if only we had the courage and honesty to look farther and listen carefully. We live in one of those complex adaptive systems that strethes out around the entire globe (something GrumpyPilgrim just pointed out.

    If we forced ourselves to consider all of this, we would pout and we would curse the thought that the things we do have such wide-ranging consequences, many of them horrible, if we only dared to look and listen. But we don't think of these things, at least not often.  Never from the political bully-pulpit and rarely from the religious pulpit–truly, how many of those self-proclaimed preachers of religious morality have truly challenged their flocks to substantially change their out-of-control consumerist lifestyles? 

    The many people we hurt through our presumptively entitled lifestyles must certainly wonder what the hell we are thinking.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Chris has hit on many of the same points I think of when I wonder "why they hate us:" America's imperialism, its selfishness in the face of a suffering world, its arrogance from having stolen a country that was not yet used up and then convincing itself that its prosperity is primarily the result its own actions, its arrogance of believing it is blessed by God when much of its success comes from having the protection of two oceans to shield it from its enemies, etc., have all been on my list of the possible reasons. I would depart from Chris' essay in but three ways.

    First, I would go much farther in attributing hatred toward America to its outright atrocities against other people of the world. When it has suited America's short-term purposes, American leaders have propped up cruel dictators (Saddam being but one of many), sought to topple elected governments, and used our own devastating weapon of mass destruction: economic sanctions. South Africa is but one of many countries in which the innocent have suffered as a direct result of America's economic sanctions. Although America can be a kind and generous nation, it can also be unspeakably cruel, and I have no doubt that international news outlets report such details far more often than do domestic ones — and that this is why so few Americans are aware of it.

    Second, I suspect that another reason people hate America is simple human nature: nobody likes the richest or the smartest kids in the class, and America often pretends to be the richest and the smartest nation on earth. Yes, this is related to jealousy, but it comes from a darker place than merely wishing that one could have what someone else has. Jealousy alone does not make someone *hate* the person who has more. There appears to be a deeper instinct that begins during adolescence and that causes people to simply *hate* the best and the brightest.

    Third, and this is where I depart from Chris' post, I do not believe people in other countries hate America because of our freedoms. One reason I disbelieve this explanation is because it is the one we constantly hear from the Bush Administration, and they've been systematically dishonest and disingenuous about the entire issue of terrorism. I believe the only reason they use this explanation is to avoid discussing the truth: that America's own malignant foreign policies are what cause people to hate us. Saying that they hate our "freedom" simply plays much better to the electorate.

    The second reason I do not believe this explanation is because I simply do not believe that someone in some distant land would want to blow himself up (and some of us in the process) merely because Americans living tens of thousands of miles away can buy Big Macs, shop at Sears, vote for our elected officials, and allow our women to drive cars. Sorry, I just don't buy that story. If an American bomb falls on Baghdad, destroys some guys house and kills his entire family, then I can understand why he might want to become a suicide bomber (i.e., because he believes he has nothing else to live for and he justifiably hates the country that killed his loved ones), but just because we have particular freedoms does not strike me as sufficient grounds to explain the sort of venomous hatred that leads to terrorism.

    The final reason why I do not believe the "they hate our freedom" explanation is because I cannot imagine anyone actually believing that a suicide bombing attack will deter us from our freedoms. I very much doubt that Muslim extremists could motivate their followers with the argument: by blowing up the World Trade Center, America will wake up the next day and say, "Damn, this all happened simply because we allow our women to walk in public without veils, so we'd better change that." Sorry, I just don't think Al Qaeda could convince people to sacrifice their lives for such absurdity.

    No, I believe what motivates people to hate America is much more visceral, and has a whole lot more to do with the many vile and evil things America has done. Like a bully on a schoolyard, America simply hasn't yet realized that there are eventually consequences for shoving other people around.

  4. Chris Van Mierlo says:

    I agree with your additional points. I don't think people in the Middle East blow themselves up because they are jealous of us. I think it may be the result of the way they have suffered through two world empires — first the British, and now the American. We are, I believe, simply an extension in time of the British dominion and exploitation of the world. (I'm not an Anglophile.) I believe we have stripped people, worldwide, of any opportunity for real self-actualization, and a martyr's death is the closest they can come to having any sense of affecting the course of their own lives.

  5. Jason Rayl says:

    Apparently my original post got lost. This is much abbreviated.

    The suicide bombings and terrorist assaults are not aimed at the West except coincidentally. They are myth-making propaganda aimed at their own people. These are the martyrs, do not betray their memory by compromise.

    But in fact they hate us because we are there. We're there with our McDonalds and our movies and our music and all the things they, quite paradoxically, want from us, but want somehow stripped of the infectiousness of the messages therein contained. Granted, these representations are distortions, but they are nevertheless us. It is a form of colonialism.

    But it has all become perverted. It will no longer be possible to just keep us out (look at the problems Iran is having with its disaffected youth). They have to find a way to make us look more evil than we are. What better way than to goad us into unwise military actions and thereby ruin it for everyone?

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Jason's last point — "What better way than to goad us into unwise military actions…" — indeed, I bet the leaders of al Qaeda are laughing their heads off at the mess Bush has created by invading Iraq. Bush's idiotic over-reaction to 9/11 has undoubtedly filled the terrorist recruiting pipeline for decades to come, while simultaneously hampered recruiting efforts for the U.S. military. Al Qaeda could not have hoped for a more incompetent opponent.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Let's do some math. Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. In response, Israel has launched an assault that has killed nearly 400 people in Lebanon, of whom only 11 are Hezbollah fighters: (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060724/ap_on_re_mi_ea/lebanon_israel_393).

    Israel's bombs have also caused an estimated $100 million in damage.

    In Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 (in which 3000 people died) and for which the US had no credible evidence of WMDs, the death toll of Iraqis is over 100,000 since the US invasion.

    Does it not occur to anyone in the West that causing the death of TWO HUNDRED innocent Muslim or Arab civilians for every American or Jew who dies might be seen by Muslims and Arabs as an outrage of Biblical proportions? I'm just curious, because it seems to me that when the Nazis wanted to retaliate against a town for killing German soldiers, the Nazi's kill ratio would typically be much less than 200. Of course, the Nazis deliberately murdered civilians, which obviously was worse, but aren't America's and Israel's victims just as dead? And doesn't the excessive size of the kill ratio destroy any argument the US or Israel might have that it is merely "defending itself?"

    I am an especially grumpypilgrim today. The number of innocent people that America and Israel have slaughtered in the name of "defending" themselves cannot possibly decrease the threat of terrorist attacks against them. And what happens when the next attack comes? Will the target country "defend" itself by killing 500, 1000, or more, innocent people for every Western person who dies?

    I don't care if it is euphemistically called "collateral damage;" when 200 innocent people die for every individual victim in an original attack, that's just wrong. For a president who recently vetoed federal funding of stem cell research on moral grounds, I have to wonder what moral yardstick Bush is using. In any case, I'm confident I'm a lot closer to understanding the answer to "Why Do They Hate Us?" And I bet I'm not the only one.

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