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Forgetting 9-11 By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, August 12, 2002


As summer ends and the anniversary of the attacks on 9-11 draws closer, I wonder if America gets it — really gets the magnitude of the struggle our civilization is waging. After a summer spent obsessing over which teen advances on American Idol, monitoring the yo-yoing stock market, and handicapping the fall elections, our attention doesn't seem to be sufficiently concentrated.

Sure, Israel still occupies the front page, but I suspect that for many Americans, the struggle there is like the conflict in Northern Ireland: an incomprehensible "he said, she said" spat with plenty of blame to spread around on both sides, but ultimately a quarrel that doesn't directly involve our interests. How else explain the relative lack of outrage over the deaths of five Americans in the recent terrorist attack at Hebrew University? What else accounts for the surreal rhetoric of moral equivalency that still dominates the media, which seem incapable of understanding the difference between cold-blooded murder and the inadvertent deaths that occur in the legitimate pursuit of self-defense?

What we don't seem to get is that the conflict in Israel is the front-line of the same war we are fighting — a battle against a backward, dysfunctional sub-culture that will murder innocents in the name of religion. As such, Israel is what northern Virginia was during our own Civil War — the "cockpit" of war, the space where the collision of two radically different world-views is most intense and bloody. After all, those impoverished Southern soldiers weren't fighting for higher tariffs or slavery — they were fighting for an idea, and such fights are always vicious.

So too the current war is not one waged over territory or resources or economic interests, despite the hallucinations of Chomskyan material determinists obsessing over oil pipelines and global-capitalist conspiracies. It is rather a war of ideas about the human good, and about what is the best way of living: in a culture where individuals are free to pursue their visions of secular or divine happiness, or one where a self-selected elite decides for everybody else, and then imposes a narrow, oppressive paradigm which just happens to enrich and empower that same elite. Thus the war we are fighting is part of the age-old struggle between freedom and autocracy that began at Marathon and Salamis, and as such is as serious as the fight between the Western democracies and Japanese militarism, German Nazism, and Soviet communism.

Those conflicts were not resolved by diplomacy or dickering or quid-pro-quos. The peoples who embraced those ideologies were filled with what the poet Yeats called "passionate intensity," a deep conviction about the rightness of their causes, and a commitment to them strong enough to wager the very existence of their whole societies on the superiority of those ideas. As such, they were not going to be argued or work-shopped or self-esteemed or bribed out of those beliefs. Only after a demonstration of the severe, destructive consequences of clinging to those tyrannical visions did they finally reject systems that sacrifice freedom on the altar of some utopian vision of the perfect world.

In short, the battles between such radically conflicting visions are always decided by force. In the current war of ideologies, the removal of the Taliban from Afghanistan is merely the beginning of the long struggle. There still exist regimes that harbor, finance, and promote terrorism in the service of a particular vision of Islam that cannot coexist peacefully with the rest of the world. Iraq is merely the most egregious offender, the most obvious force of terrorist disorder.

Yet even in the case of Iraq, the voices of appeasement or indifference continue to chip away at our resolve. Allies need to be consulted and brought on board, Congress must be mollified, money must be considered, dysfunctional Middle-Eastern states must be appeased, and a thousand other contingencies are endlessly dredged up to excuse inaction. And all the while I wonder, what if our fathers had done the same thing in 1942? How much greater then were the risks of declaring war on Germany and fighting two enemies simultaneously! Yet that generation understood the gravity of the threat and accepted the price that had to be paid to meet it.

Some will argue that the comparison is false, that radical Islam does not represent the same danger as did imperial Japan or Nazi Germany, that the Middle Eastern states are not ideological monoliths. There are forces of moderation in the Middle East, they say, and if only we support them adequately the tide will turn and radical Islam will wither away. And what invariably tops the list of things we should do to show that support? Pressure Israel into capitulating to terror! That is, prove that terror works, and then terrorists will be weakened. I don't think so. The chain of American inaction in the face of terror starting with the Iranian revolution and culminating in nearly 3000 vaporized and dismembered New Yorkers suggests otherwise.

Indeed, some Middle Eastern states are divided between radicals and modernists. But in the final analysis, it is up to those people to work out that difference, and come to a decision about what sort of society they want to live in. This in turn will require the moderates and modernizers to choose sides, and they can do this today by rejecting absolutely terrorism, most importantly in the case of Israel — reject it without the qualifying "buts" and "howevers" that always end up rationalizing and excusing terror. Yes, resolving those differences within Islamic states will likely be a violent process — just as resolving the American differences about slavery cost over half a million U.S. lives. But that resolution has to happen before the Islamic states can begin to create societies characterized by freedom and the rule of law.

Meanwhile, however, we in the West can do only so much to help the moderates along. More important, our first priority is the protection of our citizens and interests. I believe that prosecuting the war on terror with all the fervor and commitment with which our fathers fought fascism and communism will ultimately achieve both ends — ensure our own security and create the conditions in which the moderates of Islamic societies can take control. But as each day drives 9-11 further into the calm of memory, it seems that the material and psychological mobilization necessary to win this war is increasingly unlikely.


Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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