- Historic Sites
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
Our problems with religious tyrants and god-haunted terrorists are never with strong men but with weak men desperate to prove their strength to their God. The man who, with alacrity and even delight, sacrifices other human beings for his own salvation is the most enduring enemy of all that we term “humane.” The Aztec priest and the punitive Catholic king, the Protestant madman, the fanatical Muslim and the Hindu assassin are all disciples of the same godhead. Faulty, bloody isms come and go, as empires rise and fall, and each renaissance of the spirit or the arts leads to an eventual twilight. All things created by man acquire a lifespan, be it short or long. But there is no sign, on earth or in the heavens, that the character of man has evolved in the least down the millennia.
Cain is the enduring human archetype, the man who lights the fire beneath the martyr and who sends passenger jets crashing into office towers. On that hot day when Cain first raised his hand against his brother, surely Abel’s fate was sealed, above all, by his desire to talk things over, to explain and compromise. Fanatics hate the sound of reasoned words.
Philip II inherited an empire near its apogee, a world within a world, so powerful and vast that its greatest threats came not from without but within. Although the Turks chewed upon Europe’s extremities and English privateers nibbled at Spain’s treasure fleets, the body of Philip’s empire should have grown stronger during his reign, nourished by the vigorous capitalism of his majesty’s Netherlands and the silver wealth of Spain’s New World possessions. But Philip sacrificed the brightest of his territories and condemned the greatest power of the age to decline and ultimate failure to placate his cruel vision of his God.
The strength of Philip II and bin Laden lies in the rigor of their intolerance, but that strength contains the seeds of their destruction.
Much has been made over the past half-century, by the Annales school of historians and others, of the irrelevance of individuals and the irresistible power of the mass to determine history’s direction; to a degree, this was a needed corrective to the “great man” theory of history, but the critique was carried to insupportable extremes. Perhaps now, in a new century, we may find our way to a balanced view of history, recognizing that it is sometimes the mass and sometimes the man—and often both—that wrenches the future from the past. Osama bin Laden may be a man of great evil, but he is a great man, nonetheless, in his effect upon his times (like Philip, he will have brought calamity down upon his own kind, not upon his enemies). Certainly, Philip II was the great man of his age, although his achievements consistently benefited those whom he opposed. His intolerance drove the pacific Netherlands to learn the arts of war and fight a 40-year struggle for independence; the pious rigor he imposed on Spain discouraged commerce, creativity, and merit, relying on military power as unsustainable in the long term as it was ineffective in the shorter term; the wealth Spain’s colonies poured into his treasury destroyed the ethics and initiative of his state, its population, and even its priests (as oil wealth has ravaged Arab civilization); and his uncompromising commitment to his faith, carried to extremes no other mass murderer acting in the name of ideology achieved until the twentieth century, finally ensured the survival of the Protestant faith he sought so long to exterminate. His only enthusiasm was for heaven, and he dutifully created hell on earth.
Were Osama bin Laden to realize the power for which he longs, his reign would be no less savage. Killing heretics and unbelievers—even brothers of less rigorous faith—is a form of prayer for fanatics in every religion. There is no more dangerous man on earth than the one who views killing as cleansing.
It has become fashionable among academic historians—those profound enemies of history—to discount the “black legend” of Spanish misbehavior. But Spain under Philip II was as grim as the vivid Protestant writers—not least Schiller—of the High Romantic era portrayed it. The most creative elements of Spain’s population lived in terror, and subject peoples, in Europe and the Americas, suffered incalculably. Philip built nothing but the Escorial, the living tomb in which he buried himself, an edifice that does not even rise to the taste of a Hitler but languishes as the monument of that Ceaucescu among believers. Philip drained his empire and destroyed his own family. He crippled his religion and made it hated. And he died, as Osama bin Laden will (or, perhaps, already has), convinced that he had been God’s humble tool.