- 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
Philip II offers a perfect example of what these harshest of believers inflict on humankind when granted power. In the Netherlands—his richest, most peaceable provinces—he led the Counter Reformation effort to suppress all forms of religious dissent, whether Lutheran, Calvinist, or of lesser sects. He imposed the Spanish Inquisition in place of the milder local form, torturing and burning men and women until fear touched every citizen, Catholic or Protestant. In the name of his God, Philip lied, cheated, betrayed, and devoured the flower of the Flemish, Walloon, and Dutch nobilities; his armies burned, raped, and murdered their way across the most prosperous landscape in the sixteenth-century world. Cities were sacked with a viciousness uncommon even in those days of looting military companies, and Philip’s enemies—those hundreds of thousands he made into his enemies—became convinced that he would grant no peace but the peace of death, and so they fought him with animal fury. His ritualized terror in the Netherlands convinced England it must resist him at all costs and made kings and princes wary whenever Philip’s cold eye glanced their way. No monarch can long govern without trust, unless he has the power to enforce an endless reign of terror. Philip could terrorize, but he lacked the strength to triumph and sustain his victories. Moreover, each apparent victory only strengthened the convictions of his enemies that they were, indeed, in an apocalyptic struggle.
Whether we speak of Philip II or of Osama bin Laden, of kings or renegades, their strength lies in the rigor of their intolerance, but that strength contains the seeds of their destruction. They make it clear to their enemies that the struggle inflicted upon them is a battle for survival, and even their allies come to fear their willfulness and inhumanity.
As Ayatollah Khomeini did to his own country four centuries later, Philip II cut his people off from liberal, international culture. On the eve of its twentieth-century civil war, Spain was history’s backwater, scorched by religion, barely literate, and less industrialized than Japan. And that is the essence of Osama bin Laden’s prescription for the Muslim world. He speaks of a new golden age of Islam, but he longs for an iron, joyless conformity.
Bin Laden’s vision of what the Islamic world must become and which values it should cherish are eerily akin to Philip’s yearning for a static, disciplined, somber Spanish empire. Both men readily used the technological innovations of their times to strike their enemies, impressing the world with their ferocity but ultimately failing to achieve their goals (as Osama bin Laden shall fail). Both men disliked the company of women and viewed them as tools at best, unequal to the male before God’s throne. Each affected a personal simplicity but spent fortunes on violent religious crusades. Each insisted that his vision of the faith was the only correct one and that the world must conform to that vision. Each man sought to limit sensual pleasures and restrict the arts to religious themes and orthodox forms (although Philip had a good eye for painting, perhaps his sole human virtue). Each feared—indeed hated—freedom and individuality and saw himself as fitted into a hierarchy with only his God above him and all humankind below. Both shared a preference for male company and a taste for blood sports. Neither could bear contradiction, but both served their fanatical vision with devotion, sacrifice, and absolute commitment. Each man saw and felt his God to be terrible, vengeful, and remorseless.
We shall see these men again, in other robes.
Our age is the perfect incubator for these terrorists of the spirit and the flesh. We will meet them, over and over again, throughout our lifetimes. Cain was, above all, a jealous man. And we shall encounter no end of jealous men. Some of them will call upon their God to justify the fist they raise to strike us. But if their persistence discourages us, we may be encouraged by their consistent record of failure. Even when they briefly manage to create their “kingdom of God on earth,” it fails in the end. But that is, of course, small consolation to those who must endure the experiment.