Neither President Bush nor Senator Kerry addressed an absolutely key issue of current American foreign policy in the opening debate. Are we now involved in a largely operational struggle against very particular terror groups and individuals, or – rather – are we embroiled in something much larger? Should we now be focusing on political, military and logistical issues (the position of both candidates) or upon the much wider religious and cultural context from which our principal terror enemies are spawned?
The answers are important, as they will determine what security measures we choose to adopt. And, if we can finally ignore the constraints imposed by considerations of political correctness, these answers are plain and incontestable. The roots of current and still-impending anti-American terror lie deeply embedded in civilizational hostility, in a partial but widespread Arab/Islamic hatred for Western values and post-Enlightenment modernity. This constructed and codified hatred extends to other major religions, primarily Judaism, but also to certain parts of Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Although it is probably true that the greatest portion of Arabs and Muslims reject terror and violence as a means of fulfilling Islamic expectations, the remaining minority portion numbers – at the very least – in the tens of millions. And literally millions of Muslims are unhesitatingly prepared to enter “paradise” at a moment’s notice by becoming “martyrs.”
It follows that the current American-led “War on Terror” should not be based solely upon the tactical eradication of “extremists.” Neither President Bush nor Senator Kerry says anything remotely worthwhile with his tough-sounding promise to “hunt down and kill” the bad guys. Rather, our war must be founded upon the grim understanding that, for the most part, Arab/Islamic terror is the most visible and painful expression of an enraged civilization. Steeped in fundamental hatreds, this civilization is assuredly not coextensive with the entire Arab/Islamic world, but it explicitly does affirm a primal union between violence and the sacred.
The War on Terror must now confront a far-reaching enemy effort to usher in a new Dark Ages, a civilizational struggle in which resurgent Seventh Century medievalism seeks to bring fear, paralysis and death to legions of “unbelievers.” Moreover, in the next several years, a preferred terrorism tactic in this war is apt to involve chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons – a dire prediction affirmed by both presidential candidates in their first debate.
Our truest war, therefore, is not against Osama Bin Laden or even the particular Arab/Islamic states that nurture and encourage his program for mass murder. Even if Bin Laden and every other identifiably major terrorist were apprehended and prosecuted in authoritative courts of justice, millions of others in the Arab/Islamic world would not cease their impassioned destruction of “infidels.” Naturally these millions, like the zealots who destroyed the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon, would not intend to do evil. On the contrary, they would mete out death to innocents for the sake of an imagined divine expectation, prodding the killing of Israelis, Americans and certain Europeans with conviction and purity of heart.
Sanctified killers, these millions would generate an incessant search for more “G-dless” victims. Though mired in blood, their search would be tranquil and self-assured, born of the knowledge that its perpetrators were neither evil nor infamous, but “heroic.”
For those millions engaged in a terror war against us, violence and the sacred are inseparable. To understand the rationale and operation of current and planned terrorism, including the September 11th attacks, it is first necessary to understand these conceptions of the sacred. Then, and only then, will it become clear that most Arab/Islamic terror is, at its core, a manifestation of religious worship.
Arab/Islamic terrorism is essentially a form of sacred violence oriented toward the sacrifice of both enemies and “martyrs.” It is through the indispensable killing of Americans, Jews and certain others, including Christians, that the “Holy Warrior” embarked upon “Jihad” can buy himself free from the penalty of dying. It is only through such cowardly killing, and not through diplomacy, that “Allah’s will be done.”
America is now routinely characterized as a “cancer” in the Arab/Islamic world. A recent article from an Egyptian newspaper speaks of “the cancer, the malignant wound, in the body of Arabism, for which there is no cure but eradication.” Such references are far more than a vile metaphor. They are profoundly theological descriptions of a despised enemy that must be excised. Where this liquidation would be accomplished by self-sacrifice, possibly even terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, it would be life-affirming for the killers. Naturally, most Arab/Islamic governments and movements would deny such end-of-the-world thinking, but it operates nonetheless.
The unvarnished truth of the terrorist threat to the United States and the West remains widely misunderstood. We face suicidal mass killings with unconventional weapons in the future not because there exists a small number of pathological terrorist murderers, but because we are embroiled – however unwittingly – in an authentic clash of civilizations. While we all wish it weren’t so, wishing will get us nowhere. Our only hope is to acknowledge the relentlessly bitter source of our existential danger, and proceed to fight the real war on terror from there.
This crucial point was missed in the first presidential debate.
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is author of many books and articles dealing with terrorism and war. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.