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The Longest War
The fight we’re in didn’t begin on September 11; it started thousands of years ago. It’s the struggle between East and West, and history can both encourage and help us—if we read it properly.
February/March 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 1
Rather than allow real constitutional change that might lead to democracy, such Arab rulers have instead either quietly paid bin Laden bribe money (the Gulf states) or allowed their censored presses to vent popular anger only against America and Israel (Egypt and Palestine). Here our policy of not intervening to insist on gradual democratization has been understandable, because of our worry over world oil supplies, but it is nevertheless objectionable, most notably when we reinstalled the monarchy in a liberated Kuwait rather than insist on free elections. In an irony of history, the promotion of democratic movements in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq may be our best way to oppose Islamic fundamentalism, even while showing our anger at the often duplicitous policies of our so-called allies and friends like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
We are told we have entered a “new” age of terror.
Much has been made of America’s support for Israel, especially in bin Laden’s own pronouncements and in the scenes of Palestinian crowds cheering news of the World Trade Center slaughter. Yet, like Saddam Hussein, bin Laden embraced the Palestinian cause only when his own future turned bleak. Despite his accusations, our sympathies are not attributable to some mythical Jewish lobby, CIA plot to put down Islam, or worldwide conspiracy of Zionist Mossad agents. Most Americans support Israel because it is the single Middle Eastern state most like us in its commitment to a free society based on the rule of law and the consent of the governed.
The ultimate solution to that quagmire will be the creation of a Palestinian state, with the security of Israel guaranteed by a formal American treaty along with some concessions from both sides. But we should remember that earlier wars waged against Israel had as their goal nothing less than the destruction of the Jewish state, and that if both Israel and the United States were to disappear tomorrow, bin Laden or his successors would nevertheless continue to be agents of terror.
We are repeatedly told that we have entered a “new” age of terror, in which a handful of willing fanatics with a few thousand dollars can negate sophisticated power and the investment of billions of dollars. Yet neither bin Laden nor terrorism is new, and so the solutions to their threats are not only known but time-honored. Our steep initial losses—$100 billion in property, a trillion in capital stock, and of course the dead—resulted far less from any intrinsic weaknesses than from the laxity and naiveté that characterize free democratic societies during times of peace. And we should remember that aroused consensual societies usually find ways to thwart unconventional challenges of terror, be they from Stuka dive-bombers, kamikazes, V-2 rockets, or the burning of oil wells, and that those societies annihilate rather than merely defeat their enemies.
Bin Laden is not a figure of national liberation such as Vercingetorix, Crazy Horse, or Mao. Rather, he is more one of the marginal fanatics of history, the B-team, who, long after their countries were exposed to Western culture, their heritage and future forever altered, have sought to employ terror and mysticism to rally the disaffected around a messianic figure. His ancestors are the Zealots, or Sicarii (“cutters” or “assassins”), who, after the Roman occupation of Judea, tried to murder legionaries before flocking behind Eleazar ben Yair to commit mass suicide on Masada. Similarly, Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi, the “Expected Guide,” wreaked havoc in Egypt and the Sudan between 1881 and 1885, after it was too late. For a brief moment, his followers enjoyed loose hegemony over a million square miles, and they killed or scattered more than 40,000 troops. Like bin Laden, Muhammad Ahmad had traveled widely, knew something of Westerners, and devised a clever propaganda campaign of fundamentalist jihad based on opposition to Westernized Arabs who worked under the British. He met his end in 1885, and his followers were wiped out some years later at the Battle of Omdurman, where there were 27,000 Mahdist casualties and 48 British dead.
In the same manner, the Ghost Dancers of 1890, who were Native American mystics, promised their followers divine invulnerability from enemy bullets and even immortality in a final attempt to expel settlers from the Great Plains and reclaim ancestral lands. They were crushed. Likewise, in the early 19305, Gen. Isamu Cho led a group of fanatical Japanese officers who aimed to assassinate elected Japanese politicians, start a war against Russia in Manchuria, and spread Bushido, the code of the samurai, through the imperial army. He gleaned his rantings from samurai tradition and promised success against Western devils through mystical Japanese courage. The careers of all these insurrectionists, whatever the legitimacy of their grievances, are instructive about bin Laden’s fate. All were both attracted and repelled by Western cultural largess, all sought reactionary remedies for their own fears of shrinking power, all concocted strange brews of religious fanaticism and myth, and all perished before the power of the West, whether that be Roman siegecraft, the U.S. cavalry, Victorian Maxim guns, or the M-1’s of the Marines on Okinawa.