The Washington Times
Violent anti-American demonstrations are mounting in a number of Islamic countries. Meanwhile, the deranged conviction is taking hold in some circles within them that the real perpetrator of the Sept. 11 attacks was Israel, for the purpose of kindling a broader war against Islam. Both of these are indicators of how long and difficult the war on terror is going to be. We can surely accomplish a lot by way of improving our security with the measures the United States and our allies are currently taking, from military action against al Qaeda and the Taliban, to intelligence efforts to break up terror cells and networks, to coordinated international criminal investigations, to aggressive moves on the financial assets of the terrorists. This is all necessary, but it’s insufficient. What we really have to overcome, in the long run, is a certain frame of mind that, while hardly universal in the non-Western world, is nevertheless deeply rooted there, and not just in Islamic countries.
It’s a species of irrationalism that takes as a given that the world is fundamentally a place of esoteric meaning. Nothing is as it presents itself; there are hidden hands operating everywhere. And, whatever is wrong, whatever grievance one may hold, can be traced to the operation of these hidden hands, the hands of the enemy. What is the explanation for the spread of AIDS in Africa? The CIA. Who really benefits from the attacks on the United States? Israel.
The administration has repeatedly emphasized that we are not engaged in a war on Islam, and President Bush on numerous occasions has argued that terrorist acts are in fundamental violation of the teachings of the Koran. The effect – a Christian lecturing Muslims on Islam – is more than a little awkward, and is probably playing better as reassurance to his Christian audience than as instruction in the faith to his Muslim audience. Mr. Bush is right that it is necessary to distinguish. It would be a grotesque disservice to Muslims around the world not to do so, and frequently. But the struggle in which we find ourselves is not merely against terrorists. It has a cultural component, and there is no use pretending otherwise – first, because there will be no lasting security short of a favorable outcome in the cultural struggle, and second, because a favorable outcome here, though it will be difficult and take time, is also achievable and should not be lost because of embarrassment about speaking of such things.
What we need is for people to quit seeing “us” as an enemy causing all their sorrows. There is really only one thing you can do with such an enemy, which is, when and where you have the power to do so, to try to kill him. We know that we are not that enemy. We want to live in peace with those who want to live peaceably. Yet, for the time being, we are under attack, and we have to respond. That means treating our enemy as an enemy. But it does not mean treating as enemies people who have not acted against us as enemies. The idea of dropping bombs as well as food in Afghanistan strikes some people as absurd, but it strikes me as good sense – like President Bush’s appeal at the end of his press conference last week for American children each to give a dollar to help Afghan children. These are steps to reach for “hearts and minds” where previously we were largely indifferent. It’s only a beginning, but it’s an important beginning. We need to give people all over a reason to reject the political paranoia that sees the world as full of secret conspiracies to oppress them. They need to be able to believe their own eyes, and one way to make them more inclined to do so is to try, across all fronts, to give them something a little better and more hopeful to look at.
If we are able, over time, to diminish the impulse to see us as an enemy, the societies in which this impulse exists are apt to become more bourgeois. People will have better things to do than pursue our destruction or cheer it on. Accordingly, they will be less tolerant of the internal disruption caused by those who insist not only on seeing us an enemy but also in acting against us with terror. We need societies that will police themselves. Whether this is something that can be achieved in the context of the autocratic governments most of these societies labor under is a tough problem, related as it is to the problem of what can happen when widespread irrational sentiment against a supposed enemy gains a democratic foothold. But these are solvable problems. And, in the long run, working on them will lead to a better-rooted form of security for us than what we will obtain in the short run by military and other means – even though right now, such means are absolutely necessary.