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Well, Dear Candidates, Which Is It? A Tactical War On Terror, Or A Genuine Clash Of Civilizations?


From a national survival standpoint, the candidate debates remain pretty much beside the point. Not a single presidential aspirant has answered (or even attempted to answer) a very important question: Are we Americans now involved in a merely tactical struggle against particular terror groups and individuals, or are we, instead, embroiled in something much larger? Should we now be focusing on assorted political, military and logistical issues (the effective position, more or less, of all candidates), or upon the much wider religious and cultural context from which our principal terror enemies are spawned?

These questions are politically sensitive, to be sure, but the answers will determine precisely which security measures we should adopt. Here are some preliminary answers: The roots of past and still-impending anti-American terror lie deeply embedded in civilizational hostility, in a partial but widespread Arab/Islamist hatred for Western values and post-Enlightenment modernity. This constructed and codified hatred extends primarily to Judaism, but also to certain parts of Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. Although it is true that the greatest portion of Arabs and Muslims strenuously reject terror violence as a means of fulfilling Islamic expectations, the remaining minority portion numbers in the tens of millions. Literally millions of Jihadists are still unhesitatingly prepared to enter “paradise” at a moment’s notice. For them, there can be nothing better than an obligatory “martyrdom.”

The current “War on Terror” should not be based solely upon the operational eradication of “extremists.” This is not a truly military matter. Rather, our war must be founded upon the grim but correct understanding that, for the most part, Arab/Islamist terror is simply the most visible and painful expression of an enraged civilization. Steeped in fundamental hatreds, this fragmented community is not coextensive with the entire Arab/Islamic world, but it does explicitly affirm a perilously primal union between violence and the sacred.

More than anything else, it is this portentous union that now threatens America. Our War on Terror must confront a far-reaching enemy effort to usher in a new Dark Ages. We must wage a genuinely civilizational struggle against a resurgent seventh-century medievalism that seeks to bring fear, paralysis and death to whole legions of “unbelievers.” In the next several years, a preferred terrorism tactic in this war is apt to involve chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons – a dire but informed prediction that should be more openly affirmed by all presidential contenders.

Our truest war is not against Osama Bin Laden or even those 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/Islamist world would not cease their planning for an impassioned destruction of “infidels.” 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 steadfast conviction and pure heart.

Sanctified killers, these millions would generate an incessant search for more “Godless” victims. Though mired in blood, their search would be tranquil and self-assured, born of the altogether certain knowledge that its perpetrators were neither evil nor infamous, but “heroic.”

For our current enemies, terrorism is fundamentally an expression of religious sacrifice. For them, violence and the sacred are always inseparable. To understand the rationale and operation of planned terrorism it is first necessary to understand these particular conceptions of the sacred. Then, and only then, will it become clear that most Arab/Islamist terror is, at its core, a distinct manifestation of worship.

All civilizations hope for immortality. Political scientists may prefer to identify global power with guns, battleships and missiles, but the most sought after form of power in this world is always power over death. In essence, Arab/Islamist terrorism is a longstanding form of sacred violence oriented toward the sacrifice of both enemies and martyrs. It is through the presumably indispensable killing of Americans, Jews and many others that the “Holy Warrior” embarked upon Jihad can buy himself free from the unendurable penalty of dying.

It is only through such sacred killing, and not through compromise or diplomacy, that divine will can actually be done.

Forget the so-called “Road Map” or shortsighted plans for durable economic ties with Saudi Arabia. Everywhere in the Arab/Islamic world, America is routinely characterized as a pathology. A recent and very typical article from an Egyptian newspaper speaks characteristically of the U.S. as “the cancer, the malignant wound, in the body of Arabism, for which there is no cure but eradication.” Such inflammatory references are more than a vile metaphor. They are profoundly theological descriptions of a despised enemy that must be lanced, cut out, excised. Where this liquidation can 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 this zero-sum, end-of-the-world thinking, but such denials would be dishonest.

The unvarnished truth of the terrorist threat to the United States and the West still remains widely misunderstood. We face suicidal mass killings with unconventional weapons in the future not because there exists a small number of insane 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 and primal source of our existential danger, and then proceed to fight the real war on terror from there.

Copyright © The Jewish Press, February 8, 2008.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is author of many books and articles dealing with terrorism, war and international law. Among these was one of the earliest books on nuclear terrorism (Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat, Westview, 1979). Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.

About the Author: Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.


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