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Who We Fight
A year after the September attacks, it has become clear that ours is a very old enemy.
August/September 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 4
“His temperament lacked joy and good will toward men . . . and his soul gorged on two dishes, his ego and his god. Egotism and religion formed the content and the contours of his life, and he felt no sympathy with other human beings, since his eyes looked only upward, never down. His faith was gruesome and dark, for his god was a terrifying being, and the only lesson he drew from religion was fear. His respect for his god was all the deeper and more profound since he lacked respect for every other creature. The common goal of despotism and religion for religion’s sake is conformity, and conformity was ever the crutch of his impoverished spirit. [He] could imagine no higher achievement than regimented faith. . . .”
Each word above applies perfectly to Osama bin Laden, but those lines were written 200 years ago by Friedrich von Schiller, the German man of letters, about Philip II of Spain, who had died two centuries earlier still, after a literal reign of terror. As we approach the first anniversary of the worst terrorist incident in American history—though far from the worst in the history of the world—a great deal has been said about historical precedents. But we are most apt to page through our books in search of parallels of plot and similarities of event, though parallels of character and recurring, inextinguishable forms of personality may prove at least as illuminating.
The only salient difference between Philip II and Osama bin Laden is that the former enjoyed—if he may be said to have enjoyed anything—official power and formal authority, while Osama bin Laden had to construct his power and convince men of his authority. But their bitter souls are twins.
Such men are an enduring human type, the fanatical, aggressive believer, driven by devils of his own devising. The study of their limited hearts and fear-gripped souls must be instructive to even the best among us, for in their deficiencies and deformities we see not only the enduring foes of liberty, of conscience and warm faith, but a reflection of the enemy who lurks within us all, of Cain.
Philip II and Osama bin Laden share an apocalyptic vision of man’s fate with many another figure cast upon the shores of history by the seas of change, men like Thomas M’fcntzer, the Utopian avenger of the Reformation who baptized Germany in blood, and John Brown of Bleeding Kansas and Harpers Ferry. Such men require a vengeful God and the belief that few are chosen for salvation, the conviction that this world is hopelessly sin-wracked and that the lives of others may be sacrificed in atonement. Each figure is ultimately a blasphemer against his own religion, having appointed himself God’s instrument upon earth, assuming the license to kill by the tens or the tens of thousands those who do not share his vision, to purge, to punish, and to sanctify.
Much has been said—naively, if with good intent—to assure us that Islam is not the problem behind the tragedies of September 11, 2001. On the contrary, Islam is very much the problem, but the problem is not unique to Islam. Extreme and violent fundamentalism is the dark familiar of each of the great monotheist religions, as well as of Hinduism, whose origins we cannot trace, but which may well have been, in lost millennia, a monotheist religion too (our monotheist religions may simply be too young and insufficiently decayed to have spawned the myriad fractured gods of older religions). The comfort of faith is always a tenuous thing, in every civilization, and in times of tumult and upheaval, when systems of belief and social organization collapse and mutate, the fearful among us crave certainty.
The rise of intolerance during periods of accelerated change is as predictable as heightened selfishness in times of famine. When the familiar walls fall down, the weak fortify themselves with a faith of stone, impenetrable to reason, evidence, or mercy. Fanatics reap their most abundant harvest of followers in the deserts of fear. When their faith is under assault and the social order cracks apart, human beings do not want explanations; they want reassurance and someone to blame. The hour of change is the hour not only of the pioneer but of the demagogue as well. Human history is a series of struggles between those who believe in the future and those who believe in the past. Philip II insisted upon the imposition of past virtues—much exaggerated—on a struggling present, as Osama bin Laden does today. This is a mark of deeply frightened men.
One of the most enduring arguments to accompany humankind down the centuries is over whether the divine force is essentially benevolent or disciplinarian. In their craving for certainty, the weak want rules. But those rules reassure the terrified believer only if they are universal—not just applicable to all but enforced upon all. The possibility of doubt, of alternative paths, is anathema to those who see only the abyss beyond the reassuring bonds of ritual and regulation.