Our contest is not only whether we ourselves shall be free, but whether there shall be left to mankind an asylum on earth for civil and religious liberty.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.
—John F. Kennedy
There is no security, no safety, in the appeasement of evil. It must be the core of Western policy that there be no sanctuary for terror.
We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety. We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions—by abandoning every value except the will to power—they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way, to where it ends: in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies………Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.
—George W. Bush
The title of this essay is from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, wherein he laments the impasse that resulted in the American Civil War. Earlier, in his Gettysburg Address, he suggested the question posed by that conflict, “whether this nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” I submit to you that we are again confronted with this question.
Five years ago, in response to my friend John Andrews’ request for a 50 word summary of the contribution of the Americans to humanity in the 20th century, I wrote this: “They reluctantly assumed the mantle of world leadership; challenged and ultimately defeated the primary instruments of totalitarianism; exported the principles of democracy and human rights to regions where those concepts were unknown; and, for better or worse, initiated popular cultural hegemony over a major portion of the world’s population.”
It is essentially this, in all its variations, for which we are hated and are being attacked in what Benjamin Netanyahu has termed “a war to reverse the triumph of the West.” The American idea is not a simple, cut and dried tautology. It is a blend of the proposition of the Declaration of Independence, the Athenian pursuit of knowledge and virtue, and the holiness of Jerusalem. This often conflicted blend is what makes it the envy of the world and the enemy of the terrorists.
I had no idea of the timeliness of my book recommendations in the August 2001 issue (“A Triad On Globalization”), and I have returned to them several times since the September 11 attack. Evidently, so have others. For example, in response to Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, Jonah Goldberg has written that this thesis is not refuted by the war of terrorism because radical Islam is not a challenge to liberal democracy in any way. He is correct in that this is not a war of ideas, because the opposition doesn’t have any that are competitive. However, this doesn’t mean that there is no threat to the West, as both Thomas Friedman and Samuel Huntington illustrate. Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree calls attention to the anthropological concept of “systematic misunderstanding”, which arises when your worldview and the other person’s worldview are so fundamentally different that it cannot be corrected by providing more information. And the cultures of many traditional societies, including those of the Islamic world, are diametrically opposed to those of the Western tradition, even though they worship the same God. For example, in traditional societies, the collective or group has priority over the individual, and any change in this relationship represents a socially disintegrating threat.
Huntington, in his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, goes further. He points out that fourteen hundred years of history demonstrate that the West’s problems are not only with the extremist wing of Islam. He suggests that the battle with Marxism-Leninism is but a blip on the screen compared to the continuing conflict between Islam and Christianity, and that it flows from the nature of the two religions and the civilizations based on them. Both are monotheistic, universalistic, and missionary which, in his view, are invitations to conflict, and in Muslim eyes Western secularism, irreligiosity, and hence immorality are worse evils than the Christianity that produced them. I would add that this view is compounded by the often conflicted nature of the American “idea” (Athens vs. Jerusalem) to which I alluded above.
Where does this leave us? First, in my view, the attack on September 11 was the worst and most recent of a series of acts of war. These are not crimes in the legal sense under positive law, and they should not be pursued through police and judicial processes. Justice should be delivered by economic, intelligence, and military retaliation under wartime conditions and engagement. In looking for analogies, the best is the Cold War in terms of the sustained commitment that will be necessary over a protracted period of years. And there will be ongoing retaliation from the terrorist network. We must expect it and adjust to it without sacrificing the Bill of Rights. After all, we lived under Cold War terror conditions for 45 years, before we won it and became complacent, refusing to adjust to new realities.
Second, we must properly identify the enemy. Benjamin Netanyahu put it best: “The first and most crucial thing to understand is that there is no international terrorism without the support of sovereign states. International terrorism simply cannot be sustained for long without the regimes that aid and abet it. Terrorists are not suspended in mid air.” The media want a face on the enemy and the obvious lead culprit is Osama bin Ladin, but if he were to be captured or killed today, the war on international terrorism would have just begun. President Bush has correctly pointed out that we must make no distinction between the terrorists and the states that support them. The entire terrorist network must be dismantled and defeated, and the American people must understand that this network includes not only the Taliban, but also very likely Iraq and others.
Third, there must be moral clarity about our mission. Terrorism is a crime against humanity and there are no “root causes” that justify it. Ask yourself how it was possible to identify evil in World War II. Nazism was a violation of natural law, not positive law. Could we conduct and prosecute the Nuremberg trials today? I’ve often wondered. In order to answer in the affirmative, we must be willing to invoke natural law against regimes without distinguishing among the relative “merits” of the acts of terrorists.
Having thus identified the enemy, we will be flirting with a world war between Islam and the West, which we must not allow to happen. Huntington’s historical and cultural perspective notwithstanding, our ideological enemy is an extreme sect of radical Islam, not the Muslim religion, the leaders of which should loudly condemn the barbarians who have perverted their faith. They will have many sympathizers in the mainstream Muslim faith, however, and the leaders of the nation-states populated by those of this faith must understand that it is time for them to step forward and join the community of civilized nations in ending this perversion of their religion once and for all. This will be very difficult, because by so doing they will be exposed to instability in their own regimes, and it will test every skill we and our allies possess to see it through. We are talking long term commitment here, but if we are not successful, we may get what Bin Ladin wants—a 30-year jihad.
Since Vietnam, I have wondered whether or not America could ever again prosecute another war. Not a war fought from 15,000 feet or with “surgical” air strikes on drug factories, but one with significant American casualties requiring noticeable sacrifice and commitment on the domestic front for a protracted period (see “The Demise of the Warrior Class”, June 2000). We’re about to find out. We are now a nation at war. Those of us who are asking when we will “get back to normal” may have a further shock—the definition of normal has changed, probably forever. Not in terms of airport bag checks, wiretapping laws, and other security measures, or even the way we go about our business and personal affairs, but in our national psyche. Gone is our feeling of invulnerability, our complacency, and probably some element of our exceptionalism. Gone too may be some of our irreverence, so that some things that were humorous are now off limits for late night comedians. Hopefully, our vaunted American optimism will remain intact, for we will need lots of it in the months ahead. And hopefully we will examine again the American idea and engage in some long overdue soul-searching to determine to what extent we are committed to it. If it is, as I believe, the “last best hope for mankind”, we are now called upon to defend it, and another generation now has the opportunity to be called the “greatest”.