There is no alternative to war

Blame-the-U.S. pacifism misses the point. Bin Laden wants to eradicate Western modernity, not liberate Palestine, and the U.S. has no choice but to fight him.


We will resume our normal lives, but the fear will not go away. The airliner as bomb, the bomb in the stadium, the sarin gas in the subway: These are the prospects that will haunt us. Such thoughts will be paranoid, of course, and somewhat self-indulgent. Obviously most people will live out their lives with no more contact with terrorism than the horrific images they see on their television sets. But it will be enough.

The terrorists chose their targets well when they struck on Sept. 11, 2001. By destroying the symbolic center of international capitalism — the World Trade Center; what name could be more alluring if your aim was to bring globalization to its knees? — and the military command center of the most powerful nation in the world, the reality that no person, no place and no institution is beyond the terrorists’ reach was driven. It will not be forgotten in the lifetime of anyone alive when the towers fell, whatever the outcome of the war against terrorism to which the United States has committed itself.

Whether Americans of the left or right really understand what such a war entails is open to question. Our leaders fairly openly admit they do not. On the left, those in Western Europe and North America implacably opposed to the use of force feared that the United States would respond with saturation bombing or even a nuclear strike. Many anguished opinion pieces were written bemoaning the Bush administration’s rhetoric and warning against, as the liberal cliché has it, the “spiral” of violence.

Some on the left — there are, it seems, still a few good Fanonists left — all but legitimized the attacks. Writing in the London Guardian, Dutch migration expert Saskia Sassen wrote, “The attacks are a language of last resort; the oppressed and persecuted have used many languages to reach us so far, but we seem unable to translate the message. So a few have taken the personal responsibility to speak in a language that needs no translation.” Or as Sara Pursley wrote in Salon about the Sept. 14 National Cathedral memorial ceremony: “There was not an ex-president in that church who did not have the blood of tens of thousands of Arab and Muslim civilians on his hands, and who did not commit these acts in the name of the American people.”

Admittedly this sort of exercise in depraved rationalization — the murder of more than 6,000 people as a message from the oppressed; bin Laden couldn’t have put it better himself — was the exception rather than the rule. But once again, not only in Western Europe but also, though to a somewhat lesser degree, in the United States, that by now familiar gap between leftist activists and intellectuals and artists, who tended to oppose American retaliation and called for the attack to be treated as a criminal matter (as if there were in place an international police force capable of “arresting” bin Laden), and large majorities of the population, who favored American military strikes, was exposed. By now, it is probably unbridgeable.

The left actually took a few steps away from its reflexive blame-the-U.S. pacifism during the Bosnian war and the run-up to the conflict in Kosovo, when some intellectuals and politicians actually supported military action against the Milosevic regime. But now such arguments are almost never heard. Now the left warns against “bellicism,” and insists that, in the words of the American radical Howard Zinn, people in the United States needed to “think about the resentment all over the world felt by people who have been the victims of American military action,” and to understand “how some of these people will go beyond quiet anger to acts of terrorism.” There’s a stubborn determination to inform the American people that the terrorist assault had been a response, albeit a mad and wicked one, to American power and American foreign policy.

So far, no one has updated the ’70s-era poster that circulated widely in radical circles, in which a Vietcong in a conical hat hands his Kalashnikov like a runner in a relay race to a Palestinian fighter in a keffiyeh — by having that Palestinian, perhaps, hand the rifle on to Osama bin Laden. But the question of Palestine specifically, and United States Middle Eastern policy generally, has been the unavoidable subtext of most of the calls for the need to look for the root causes of terrorism. Such a view has many attractions. Greatest among them, I think, is that it permits anyone subscribing to them to go on believing that the attacks were on the United States for what it has done and continues to do — provide arms and diplomatic support for Israel, maintain the embargo on Iraq, etc. — rather than on modernity itself. Thus there’s an imaginable way — ending those policies — to prevent such attacks in the future.

Because if the attacks, however reprehensible, are rooted in bad American actions, then it is still possible to believe that terrorism is a reactive phenomenon that would be vastly diminished if the United States started to behave differently, if it was more “even-handed” in the Israel-Palestine dispute, if it lifted the embargo against Iraq, stopped supporting emirs and sheikhs, and so on. By this account, the way for the United States to fight terrorism is to mend its ways, morally and geopolitically — and not to lash out at the terrorists, which, it is confidently asserted, will only breed more terrorists. Those holding this view tended to focus most fervently in their writings and pronouncements on the evil being done to Muslim immigrants in America, for it buttressed the case that the United States badly needed to put its own house in order.

But while grimly judgmental about America, this view is comparatively optimistic about the future, assuming, that is, that the United States starts behaving better. That is perhaps its deepest attraction. In effect, those holding it can pretend that nothing changed on Sept. 11, 2001; in other words, that the event, however tragic, was epiphenomenal. Unsurprisingly, those who believe this version of what has happened tend to talk not of the future but of the past — Sabra and Shatila, the Gulf War, the Iraqi embargo, the dirty wars in Central America. For them, the World Trade Center attack changed nothing, and they can go on as before.

The alternative view, to which I happen to subscribe, is that the destruction of the World Trade Center was one of those rare events that symbolically marks a new and much bleaker era. I oppose the embargo against Iraq (which I believe is an abomination and at least possibly a crime against humanity in the strict legal sense), and while I support the state of Israel I loathe the occupation and favor unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. But those issues are beside the point. Bin Laden and the rest of the Islamic fascists for whom terrorism has become the central element in their war with the West would not stop their campaign if Palestine was given statehood. They are not for a two-state solution; rather, their demand is the abolition of the Israeli state. As for Saddam Hussein, he is far too secular for their liking, and they support him (and may well be supported by him) only on the age-old principle of statecraft that says the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

One must give these people their due, not pretend, as Saskia Sassen did, that they are somehow people who are putting forward the message of the worlds oppressed, no matter where they are, what religion they practice, or what ideological beliefs they hold. Bin Laden himself has been quite categorical on the subject. He is not fighting for the oppressed. He is fighting for Islam, or, rather — and the point cannot be emphasized enough — for his primitive, barbarous version of Islam. As he put it in a speech in November 1996, “after the end of the Cold War, America escalated its campaign against the Muslim world in its entirety, aiming to get rid of Islam itself.” He added that “terrorizing the American occupiers is a religious and logical obligation.”

There is no reason not to take him at his word. There is still less reason to assume that if the United States supported Arafat, or made peace with Saddam Hussein, that the Islam bin Laden represents would be mollified. But if these are not the real root causes, then one is left with the prospect that what is actually at the root of all this is not the violence of one empire — that is, the American empire — but a war declared on the United States by another empire, that of the Islamic fascism of which bin Laden is only an emblem.

In one way, albeit perversely, those who lay the terrorists’ crimes at the door of American aggression are right. Islamic fascists believe that the United States is waging a cultural war against them. As one Palestinian textbook distributed in Hamas-run schools in Gaza put it, “Western civilizationdeprived man of his peace of mind, stability, and noble human examples … when it turned material well-being into the exemplary goal.” They believe, probably quite sincerely, that they are only defending themselves against what they call Westernization and we call modernization, which they believe will lead to the end of human stability and belief. Fascism is almost always based on the fear of pollution, and Islamic fascism is no exception. And it is that fear that not only has impelled terrorist acts but has defined the experiment in Islamic fascism that Taliban rule has become — an experiment led by Osama bin Laden who has, for some years, been a key power behind the throne in Afghanistan.

But he is not the only power.

That this movement has arisen in the Islamic world should come as no surprise. For it is in the Islamic world and sub-Saharan Africa (much of which, of course, is Muslim) where the experience of the last 10 years has been of worsening economic misery and social breakdown. The fact that in these two parts of the world, globalization was experienced quite literally as a catastrophe, whereas not just in the West, but in East Asia, Latin America and India, the new economic order seemed to hold the promise of prosperity, largely explains why retrograde and barbaric tendencies like that of a bin Laden have such authority.

People talk rightly of the attack on the World Trade Center representing a colossal failure of intelligence. But it’s a failure of intelligence in both senses of the world. Not just our spy agencies but our smarts deserted us when appraising the challenges ahead. Even more colossal is the failure of imagination that permitted us to imagine that the only resistance to modernity would come from the Jose Boves of this world, the French farmer whose crusade against genetically modified food has become a symbol of the movement against globalization. But he is a disenchanted citizen of the rich world. We took for granted that the poor nations would welcome modernity, find it irresistible, especially to those whose standards of living we thought could only rise.

Anyway, in the aftermath of the fall of communism, nothing was left to stop it. The West, its churches empty (except, curiously, in the United States itself), its women at least on the road to equality, and its culture transformed, and, perhaps despite itself, “cosmopolitized” by the multiculturalism born of the interface between commerce and the new mass migration, was leading the way. And from Lima to Tientsin, people seemed to be following along. “One World, Ready or Not,” the title of a book published on globalization some years ago, seemed to sum up where the planet was going.

Perhaps it still is. But what the World Trade Center’s destruction made clear is that the process will not be as cost-free as we believed and the resistance will be far fiercer and bloodier than we could have imagined. For unlike adjustments in American foreign policy, adjustments in the global system that would, without transforming other cultures, still bring wealth are difficult to even imagine, let alone implement. And the attacks themselves will make the rich world less rich, and, as a result, probably less inclined even than it was in the past to commit massive sums to the economic improvement of the poor world. With stock markets plummeting and resources being committed to alleviate mass unemployment, who imagines that voters will support the massive allocations needed to fight AIDS in Africa, sponsor serious development in Bangladesh, or offer debt relief to the Third World generally.

But the changes go deeper and are likely to prove more enduring than even a period of comparatively severe economic hardship in the West. The genius of the terrorists was to turn the artifacts of modernity into weapons against modernity. Civilian airliners were transformed into flying bombs; it turned out to be that simple to demonstrate that nothing, not the World Trade Center nor the Pentagon, could be protected against people with 13th century morals and 21st century technical skills. There will be a war — What else is there to do? — because there is no assuaging the anger of people like bin Laden or mitigating their resentment. The truth about the world that is to be found in both Max Scheler, who anatomized the resentments of those who felt marginalized, and the United Nations Human Development Report may, between them, explain what is going on, but offers no clue about what to do.

Odd and indeed disgusting as it is to find oneself writing that there is no alternative to war (and knowing full well how filthy and degrading that war will be), I find myself nonetheless with nothing else to suggest. Modernity, newly vulnerable, is, for all its faults, infinitely preferable to fascism. And that, I fear, is the choice that confronts us.

David Rieff is the author of "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West," and the editor, with Roy Gutman, of the forthcoming "Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know."

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