Terror and Liberalism.
THE PRESENT WAR, IF THAT IS THE CORRECT WORD, may very well be, as President Bush has observed, a war of a new kind--the "first war of the twenty-first century." But in one important respect, the present war also appears to be--and this, too, the president has hinted at indirectly--a war of an old kind, perhaps even the last war of the twentieth century. The terror assault was an astonishing event, but also a familiar event. And so it is possible, by glancing at the century that has just passed, to hazard a few guesses about the torrent of events that is already pouring over us.
The pattern of war in the twentieth century, the pattern that long ago became old and familiar, was established in the aftermath of World War I. For a hundred years before that war, the Western countries had indulged in a comforting sentiment of historical optimism, serene in the conviction that rationality and order were steadily progressing and would go on doing so into the future, and modernity was going to be good. Even the crimes and massacres committed by the Western imperialists in distant places could be pictured as part of the greater landscape of worldwide progress, or at any rate could be kept out of sight. But World War I was an outbreak of something other than rationality and order, and the outbreak took place in the heart of civilized Europe. That was a shock. And a series of extremely powerful movements rapidly arose, each of which rested on the idea that the premises of liberal rationalism and modernity had turned out to be a lie and that modernity in its conventional Western version was a horror.
The antiliberal movements took root in Europe and in small degree even in the United States. As the years went by, though, those same movements spread to other places and eventually to every remote spot where Western culture had also spread--that is to say, almost everywhere. The antiliberal movements flourished in several different versions, sometimes in versions that seemed utter opposites of one another. The Communist insurgency in Russia, dating from the world war itself, was merely the first. Then came Italian Fascists, German Nazis, the Spanish crusade to re-establish the Reign of Christ the King, and so forth, each country producing movements of its own based on local mythologies and customs. Antiliberal movements of the left and the right saw in one another the worst of enemies (except when they saw one another as allies and brothers, which did happen). Yet each of the movements, in their lush variety, entertained a set of ideas that pointed in the same direction.
The shared ideas were these: There exists a people of good who in a just world ought to enjoy a sound and healthy society. But society's health has been undermined by a hideous infestation from within, something diabolical, which is aided by external agents from elsewhere in the world. The diabolical infestation must be rooted out. Rooting it out will require bloody internal struggles, capped by gigantic massacres. It will require an all-out war against the foreign allies of the inner infestation--an apocalyptic war, perhaps even Apocalyptic with a capital A. (The Book of the Apocalypse, as Andre Glucksmann has pointed out, does seem to have played a remote inspirational role in generating these twentieth-century doctrines.) But when the inner infestation has at last been rooted out and the external foe has been defeated, the people of good shall enjoy a new society purged of alien elements--a healthy society no longer subject to the vibrations of change and evolution, a society with a single, blocklike structure, solid and eternal.
Each of the twentieth-century antiliberal movements expressed this idea in its own idiosyncratic way. The people of good were described as the Aryans, the proletarians, or the people of Christ. The diabolical infestation was described as the Jews, the bourgeoisie, the kulaks, or the Masons. The bloody internal battle to root out the infestation was described as the "final solution," the "final struggle," or the "Crusade." The impending new society was sometimes pictured as a return to the ancient past and sometimes as a leap into the sci-fi future. It was the Third Reich, the New Rome, communism, the Reign of Christ the King. But the blocklike characteristics of that new society were always the same. And with those ideas firmly in place, each of the antiliberal movements marched into battle.
The wars that ensued, one after another in the decades after World War I, likewise shared a number of characteristics. Certain of the antiliberal movements succeeded in capturing a national state, from which they launched their wars in a more or less conventional manner: thus, the Nazis in Germany and the Communists in Russia. It was possible, as a result, to describe the twentieth-century wars in nineteenth- or even eighteenth-century terms--as wars of nation-states against one another, perhaps in alliance with other nation-states, bloc versus bloc. But the antiliberal movements were never fully synonymous with national states. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was genuinely a war between national states in the old-fashioned style.
But the war between France and Germany in World War II was complicated by Nazism's ability to call on sympathizers and co-thinkers all over Europe, including in France--which is one reason why the French went down to defeat. Communism was likewise an international affair, even if simpleminded analysts on the anticommunist side found it comforting to picture communists all over the world as mere agents of a reconstituted Czarist Empire. Likewise the Warriors of Christ the King, who may have described themselves as narrow nationalists but nonetheless drew their support and even their Warriors from all over the Latin world. And the twentieth-century wars displayed one other pertinent trait. The liberal side in those wars, the side that stood for a liberal and democratic society, was never entirely sure of itself.
The liberal side was internally divided. On the liberal side, there were always people, sometimes in large numbers, who suspected that the antiliberals might be correct in their view of liberalism and might even have justice on their side. And so the twentieth-century wars were ideological in a double sense. There was the struggle of liberalism against its enemies; and there was the struggle of liberalism against itself, a self-interrogation, which was liberalism's strength as well as its weakness.
The present conflict seems to me to be following the twentieth-century pattern exactly, with one variation: the antiliberal side right now, instead of Communist, Nazi, Catholic, or Fascist, happens to be radical Arab nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist. Over the last several decades, a variety of movements have arisen in the Arab and Islamic countries--a radical nationalism (Baath socialist, Marxist, pan-Arab, and so forth) and a series of Islamist movements (meaning Islamic fundamentalism in a political version). The movements have varied hugely and have even gone to war with one another--Iran's Shiite Islamists versus Iraq's Baath socialists, like Hitler and Stalin slugging it out. The Islamists give the impression of having wandered into modern life from the 13th century, and the Baathist and Marxist nationalisms have tried to seem modern and even futuristic.
But all of those movements have followed, each in its fashion, the twentieth-century pattern. They are antiliberal insurgencies. They have identified a people of the good, who are the Arabs or Muslims. They believe that their own societies have been infested with a hideous inner corruption, which must be rooted out. They observe that the inner infestation is supported by powerful external forces. And they gird their swords. Their thinking is apocalyptic. They imagine that at the end they, too, will succeed in establishing a blocklike, unchanging society, freed of the inner corruption--a purified society: the victory of good. They are the heirs of the twentieth-century totalitarians. Bush said that in his address to Congress on September 20, and he was right.
It is worth remarking how often an antipathy for the Jews has recurred in these various movements over the years. Nazi paranoia about the Jews was an extreme case, but it would be a mistake to suppose that Nazism was alone in this. At the end of his life, Stalin, the anti-Nazi, is thought to have been likewise planning a general massacre of the Jews, of which the "doctors' plot" was a foretaste. The Nazi paranoia, just like Stalin's, was owed strictly to ancient superstitions and especially to psychological fears--the fears that were sparked by the mere existence of a minority population that seemed incapable of blending into the seamless, blocklike perfect society of the future. The Arab radical and Islamist antipathy to the Jews naturally displays a somewhat different quality, given that, this time, the Jews do have a state of their own. And where there is power, conflicts are bound to be more than imaginary. No one can doubt that Palestinians do have grievances and that the grievances are infuriating. Israel has produced its share of thugs and even mass-murdering terrorists. It has even managed, at this of all moments, to choose as its leader Ariel Sharon, whose appreciation of Arab and Islamic sensibilities appears to be zero. In these ways, the Israelis have done their share to keep the pot boiling.
Even so, how can it be that, after 120 years of Arab-Zionist conflict and more than 50 years of a Jewish state, the hostility to Israel seems to have remained more or less constant? For Israel's borders have been broad, but have also been narrow; its leaders have been hawkish and contemptuous, but have also been dovish and courteous; there have been West Bank settlements, and no West Bank settlements; proposals for common projects for mutual benefit, and no proposals. There have even been times, such as the 1980s, before the Russian immigration, when most of Israel's Jewish population consisted of people who had fled to Israel from the Arab world itself, instead of from Europe. And not even then, in a period when Israel, in its dusky-skinned authenticity, could claim to be a genuinely third-world nation, did the Israelis win any wider or warmer acceptance. Why was that, and why is it still?
It is because the anti-Zionist hostility may rest partly on the hard terrain of negotiable grievances; but mostly it goes floating along on the same airy currents of myth and dread that proved so irresistible to Nazis in the past. The anti-Zionist hostility draws on a feeling that Arab and Islamic society has been polluted by an impure infestation that needs to be rooted out. The hostility draws, that is, on a lethal combination of utopian yearning and superstitious fear--the yearning for a new society cleansed of ethnic and religious difference, together with a fear of a diabolical minority population. Does that sound like an unfair or tendentious description of Middle Eastern anti-Zionism? The curses of the clerics, the earnest remarks of the presidents of Syria and Iraq and other countries, the man-in-the-street interviews that keep appearing in the press and on radio--these are not pretty to quote. Even now the newspapers in parts of the Islamic world are full of stories claiming that the World Trade Center was attacked by (of course) a Jewish conspiracy. And so, the Arab and Islamic world burns with hatred for Israel in part because of issues that are factual, but mostly because of issues that are phantasmagorical.
No one should doubt that hatred for the United States likewise draws, in some degree, on real-life terrible things that America has done to the Muslim world. But to what degree? The United States is resented for supporting Israel. Then again, President Clinton did spend eight years trying to help the Palestinians negotiate a state--and hatred for the United States seems to have abated not one bit. Everyone agrees that America is loathed for its 20 years of fighting against Saddam Hussein. Yet there is reason to suppose that without military opposition from the United States the dictator who slaughtered 200,000 Kurds in northern Iraq would go on with his slaughters, as he has promised to do. (And he may yet.)
In any event, America was not always at war with Saddam; and in the antebellum age, anti-Americanism throve even so. America is resented for propping up autocracies such as the one in Saudi Arabia. And yet a Saudi collapse, if such a thing occurred, might well bring to power still worse despots whose government would inflict still more pain on the Arab masses. Or perhaps, as is sometimes said, America is resented because America's power, regardless of our intentions, ends up perpetuating Christendom's attacks on Islam from long ago--the medieval wars of the murderous Crusades. And this resentment is understandable; but it is understandable only in the realm of myth. In the Balkans during the 1990s, when the Serb nationalists invoked a medieval Christian zeal and set out to massacre and expel the Kosovo Muslims, the United States went to war--on the Muslim side. This seems to have done nothing to improve America's reputation in the world of the Islamists and the radical Arab nationalists.
It is because America's crime, its real crime, is to be America herself. The crime is to exude the dynamism of an ever-changing liberal culture. America is like Israel in that respect, only 50 times larger and infinitely richer and more powerful. America's crime is to show that liberal society can thrive and that antiliberal society cannot. This is the whip that drives the antiliberal movements to their fury. The United States ought to act prudently in the Middle East and everywhere else; but no amount of prudence will forestall that kind of hostility. And this should not be news. For the radical nationalist and Islamist movements are not, as I say, anything new. Movements of that sort are a reality of modern life. They are the echo that comes bouncing back from the noise made by liberal progress. And this should tell us truths about the struggle that has suddenly fallen upon us.
One of those truths has to do with the terrorist tactics. In the middle 1960s, when the various groups within the PLO launched their disastrous war on Israel, the word terrorism by and large connoted the actions of a guerrilla army--small-unit strikes against the Israeli military. But terror evolved, and in recent years the terrorist method among Palestinians has consisted mainly of attacking random groups of civilians, who appear to have been selected because of their numbers and vulnerability. Discos and pizza parlors have replaced the army stations of yore. And this is also true of the Islamist and Arab nationalist terrorists in France and in Argentina, who in the 1980s and 1990s hurled their bombs wherever they could find a large enough crowd of ordinary Jews.
The violent acts that are conventionally described as terrorism against American targets have followed the same trajectory, starting with targets that were strictly military (the 1983 truck-bomb attack in Lebanon on the U.S. Marines, who were trying to protect one group of Lebanese from another; the 1995 attack on the U.S. Army base in Saudi Arabia; the attack on the USS Cole in the waters off Yemen last year) and advancing to targets that may have been governmental but were certainly civilian (the 1998 bombing of two American embassies in East Africa in which large numbers of ordinary people, especially Africans, were killed). But the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, together with the subsequent foiled plan to blow up New York's subways and tunnels and throw bombs in midtown Manhattan, already showed where the trajectory was heading.
Some people have argued that the terrorists chose to attack the World Trade Center for a second time because the towers were a symbol of American power. Perhaps so, though it would certainly have been possible, in that case, to attack other symbols with even greater fame--the Statue of Liberty, for instance. But how many people would have been killed at the Statue of Liberty? A mere few hundred tourists and workers. The Trade Center offered one of the greatest concentrations of ordinary people to be found anywhere in America. And in this grisly fashion, Islamist terror against the United States has ended up outdoing, in the scale of its murders, even the Palestinian terror against Israel. It is worth asking if there is anything genocidal in this kind of terrorist impulse.
Someone might reply that murdering several thousand people in the United States cannot be compared in sheer numbers to other massacres--Saddam's gassing of the Kurds, for instance. Yet nearly everyone seems to grasp intuitively that if the anti-American terrorists were to get their hands on a nuclear bomb, they would use it at once, and may perfectly well be planning such a thing even now. The word genocidal may go too far, but there is nothing excessive in observing that, like Hitler's Nazis and other such groups, these modern movements do seem to be entranced with slaughter for slaughter's sake. Nor do their motives and personal style set them apart from totalitarians of the past. It is not any kind of material desperation that pushes these people forward. It is a species of idealism, even piety. The terrorists in the United States were men with excellent German and American educations--flight-school alumni, no less. Their leader, assuming it is Osama bin Laden, is a multimillionaire. These are not the wretched of the earth. And so, given the strength of their beliefs, we can assume that the struggle will go on for years. Bush was right to make that point in his address to Congress. And if, in their grotesque fashion, the terrorists are idealists, what are we?
We are, to begin with, naifs, and of the worst sort. That much is certain, given what we have discovered about our own security arrangements and intelligence. (Even now the Senate has voted up a far-fetched and wholly irrelevant missile defense, instead of, say, voting up 10,000 new security guards.) And the naivete goes on from there. It is naivete that has already led any number of commentators to go on a hunt for possible ways to minimize the dangers we face. There is an impulse to describe our enemy as a mere handful of people, perhaps a few dozen--far too small a number to merit the kind of opposition that could be called a war. How reassuring that would be--to learn that our enemy has the dimensions of a small street gang! It may even be true that, at least in regard to the attacks of September 11, only a few dozen people were involved. But that would be like saying that Pearl Harbor was attacked by merely a few hundred Japanese pilots.
Some people have emphasized that, so far as we know, not one of the national states in the Middle East or anywhere else seems to have been directly responsible for the attacks. Thus it is said that without the involvement of a national state, we cannot properly speak of something as capacious as war (as if wars can take place only between national states--when the great majority of wars in recent years have been, in fact, civil wars, meaning, conflicts in which only one side possesses a state). This is another way of making the same minimizing point: that we are not facing any kind of substantial or well-organized enemy, even if we have suffered a disastrous blow. But we are facing a substantial and well-organized enemy. Our enemy is the combat wing of radical and Islamist movements that are genuinely enormous.
Those movements are supported by clerics and businessmen. They are protected by the apologies of the shrewdest of intellectuals. They deploy worldwide networks of organizations. They enjoy popular support not just in one or two remote places--a support that is strong enough to have pushed one state after another into an ambiguous attitude toward those movements: not willing to endorse, and not willing to suppress, either. The few dozen people who are thought to be responsible for September 11 could be arrested or killed, and Osama bin Laden could end up captured or strung from a tree--and even so, with popular enthusiasm and political and intellectual structures to back them up, the terrorist assaults would very likely continue. For the assaults were already under way before bin Laden entered the scene, and there is no reason they could not continue without him.
There is a great deal of liberal and left-wing naivete about this matter in the United States, and not just there. But there is also a conservative and right-wing naivete which may be still greater and is much graver in its possible consequences. (And I'm not even bothering with the Jerry Falwells of this world.) It should be remembered that George Bush the Elder was anything but astute about the dangers in Arab radicalism. Saddam Hussein would never have been able to invade Kuwait in 1990 if Bush the Elder had been on his guard. And Saddam would never have been able to survive his eventual military defeat if Bush the Elder had not decided to let him go. I have always wondered why the elder Bush was so easily taken in by Saddam. Maybe the Texas oil connection had something to do with it. Perhaps Bush had too many friends in Saudi Arabia, instead of too few, and the Saudi friends (being halfway implicated in these movements themselves) advised him to go easy. I don't know; I am speculating.
In any case, the first days after September 11, it seemed that Bush the Younger was likewise tempted to view our present conflict through a minimizing lens. His call for bin Laden to be delivered "dead or alive," Wild West-style, struck a very odd note. Dick Cheney, in a similar mood, acknowledged to a television interviewer that he would like to see bin Laden's head "on a platter"--quite as if our enemy were a lone bad guy, someone like Manuel Noriega or a cowboy bandit who ought to be brought in, limply slung across the saddle of a horse. The tone in those comments--a jaunty braggadocio, hinting of Hollywood--was worrisome all by itself. Then Bush delivered his September 20 address to Congress, and the speech turned out to be serious in presentation, realistic in its account of the complex nature of the enemym--an admirable speech. But the remarks about the Wanted poster and about bin Laden's head on a platter popped from Bush's and Cheney's lips spontaneously, whereas a very clever speechwriter wrote Bush's address to Congress. It has been hard to know which set of phrases expresses the true thinking of the administration.
The genuine solution to these attacks can come about in only one way, which is by following the same course we pursued against the Fascist Axis and the Stalinists. The Arab radical and Islamist movements have to be, in some fashion or other, crushed. Or else they have to be tamed into something civilized and acceptable, the way that some of the old Stalinist parties have agreed to shrink into normal political organizations of a democratic sort. The solution, in short, lies in effecting enormous changes in large parts of the political culture of the Arab and Islamic world--the sort of transformation that can be achieved, if at all, only after many years or even decades of struggle, and not through any single decisive strike. It is a transformation that would require a vast range of actions on the part of the liberal world--military and commando raids when necessary and possible, constant policing, economic pressure, and much else, all of it conducted under the kind of urgent and relentless mobilization that does go under the label of "war" and not with the kind of modest activity that might fit under the mild name of "policing." Is there any serious person who doubts the need for covert action today?
But what is troubling is the alacrity and even the enthusiasm with which the clandestine measures have lately been discussed, as if the main obstacle standing between us and freedom from terrorism consisted of legal inhibitions on the CIA's ability to assassinate its enemies. For neither the most ruthless of covert actions nor the most gigantic of military actions, veritable D days in this or that part of the world, will entirely rid us of terrorism--as the Israelis, who are greater experts than we, can certainly tell us. A few dozen or even a few thousand fanatics might conceivably collapse under the weight of violent repression. But we are dealing with movements of millions, who can only be persuaded, not forced. We need the Arab radicals and Islamists to adopt a new outlook--not all of them, but enough to discourage the others. And what might bring about such a change? It would have to be something like the pressure that encouraged the communists of Eastern Europe to adopt new outlooks of their own: the pressure of a long Cold War (which was sometimes hot), culminating in the pressure of dissidents and critics at home, whose persistent campaigns and superior arguments made the Communists lose heart. And the long campaign against Arab radicalism and Islamicism that has now begun will have to resemble the Cold War in yet another respect. It will have to be a war of ideas--the liberal ideal against the ideal of a blocklike, unchanging society; the idea of freedom against the idea of absolute truth; the idea of diversity against the idea of purity; the idea of change and novelty against the idea of total stability; the idea of rational lucidity against the instinct of superstitious hatred.
Bush did insist on the importance of ideas in his speech to Congress. It was astonishing to hear him touch on such a theme (though he didn't mention actually doing anything to further our ideas). On one point, he was exceptionally eloquent, and not for the first time, either. He went out of his way to salute the Muslims of America--even though here and there, in a few reactionary mosques in Brooklyn or in Texas, it would be possible to dig up some of the social bases of Islamist terror. He honored the overwhelming majority of American Muslims and of Arab Americans who do not share the radical or Islamist ideas, and he spoke against ethnic and religious prejudice and praised Islam. And by doing all of that, he made clear to our own society and to the world and even to our enemies that ours is not a racist or a bigoted fight (which it had better not become). He tried to show that Islam can survive in a liberal environment and that fervent believers do not have to turn in radical directions simply to uphold their religious identity--a crucial point.
But this is the same Bush who appointed John Negroponte to be ambassador to the United Nations--an ambassador who comes to his new post trailing an abysmal record of official mendacity and a murky relation to the darkest of deeds. At least, that is Negroponte's reputation among some of us who constituted the Central America press corps back in the 1980s, when he served as ambassador to Honduras. (The New York Review of Books recently published a concise account of Negroponte's Central American career, written by Stephen Kinzer of The New York Times.) At the United Nations, we need right now someone who can summon the nations of the world to a principled alliance for liberty and law. Bush has appointed an ambassador whose every speech will make those words seem like lies. It is as if, in his heart of hearts, Bush is a man given to Hollywood jauntiness and a cult of dark adventure, but now and then a wise adviser catches his attention, or a skillful writer hands him a well-considered speech to read aloud, and then a second Bush suddenly speaks up, who turns out to be a man of thoughtful principles.
The Bush administration is likely to go on wavering between those poles--sometimes principled and penetrating, other times drawn by the lure of the simple and by a cowboy romance of ruthlessness. That is our misfortune, and the world's. Those of us who worry about the administration's instincts and deficiencies will have to decide how to behave now. Of course, we should criticize the administration when appropriate, and we will. But the most important thing we can do is to try to make up for the deficiencies ourselves, to articulate certain points in our own voice, and to promote our own idea of what the present war will have to be about, whether the administration joins us in doing so or not. We should say that in putting up a struggle against the terrorists and against the movements that support them, we are defending public safety in the short run, which will have to be everyone's business now. But we should also explain that we want to defend public safety in the long run, which can only be achieved by securing and spreading liberty and democracy. We should explain that one day even some of our enemies will want a free society in their own part of the world, and on that day those people will be our friends. We ought to acknowledge that in the meantime America may well end up undergoing sufferings on a scale that can never be evoked by a modest word like "policing." It is not that we have chosen war; it has chosen us, and all we can do is behave correctly under the circumstances. But a glance at the past ought to steady our nerves. For one day the liberty that we enjoy will be enjoyed also in those portions of the Arab and Islamic world that lack it now, and liberty for them will mean safety for us.
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|Title Annotation:||terrorism by Islamic extremism is an attack on the liberalism of the United States|
|Publication:||The American Prospect|
|Date:||Oct 22, 2001|
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