- 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
These tormented men are always with us, but they come into their own in troubled times. And no age has been as confusing as our own, so full of dislocations and systemic failures. Certainly each succeeding age sees its own days as the most challenging and addled by change. But no preceding generation has faced such swift, complex, layered, liberating, empowering, and threatening changes as our own, and the pace of change will only accelerate from here. We in the United States are at the cutting edge of simultaneous revolutions not only in technologies and communications but in social freedoms, in the participatory roles of the elderly, in racial, religious, and ethnic harmonization, in the re-imagination of the patterns and possibilities of our working lives, in military affairs, and, above all else, in the equalization of relations between men and women. This last transition, which matured only in the past half-century, from woman as property to woman as partner, is not only the most fundamental change in the history of human social organization but also the most threatening to traditional cultures. If there is a single factor that makes our civilization hateful to Osama bin Eaden and his acolytes, it is our acceptance of women as full-fledged human beings, threatening the most important power relationship within the conservative Muslim world. Bin Laden is not only terrified of God, but also scared of the girls.
Our age is the perfect incubator for these terrorists of the spirit and the flesh. We will meet them, over and over again, during our lives.
We in the United States are pioneering the transcendent society , smashing hierarchies and antique bigotries as we go. It makes us ferociously efficient, just as it horrifies those who cling to yesteryear’s verities. Anyone who fears change fears America. Without the least jingoism (since not all change is inherently good), we may fairly claim that the United States has been the most powerful engine of change in human history. But even in our own society many prefer the comfort of clinging to what they know. If change frightens some of our fellow Americans, imagine the terror it arouses abroad, among those who cherish a secure place in a stagnant society at the expense of progress and prosperity.
Yet the rest of the world wants more of what we have—especially the material wealth and power—but traditionalists refuse to pay the cultural price to earn it. If your family’s ultimate wealth is the “virtue” of its women, if a woman is owned by the man placed above her by divine sanction, the casual freedom of American life, where men and women speak calmly to each other in public, inspires tremendous rage. It threatens to rob the male of his most enduring wealth, of his last shreds of power. But without that commitment to the rights of the female half of any population, to maximizing your society’s human potential, you cannot compete with America. The math isn’t hard.
We stand at the beginning of yet another American renaissance, jump-started by the events of September 11, 2001. But our successes will only magnify the failures of those who cannot abide tolerance, freedom, and competition based upon merit. If our country has entered a golden age, then it must also prove a fertile age for fanatics, since the pace and breadth of change will unnerve ever more of the human beings consigned to the realms of failure. Fortunately, we do not face as our enemy a Philip II, armed with the might of empire. The greatest empire of the age is our own, although it is a new, benign—even beneficent—form of empire. Osama bin Laden’s imperium is one of hatred but not of competitive power or abilities. He, and those who follow him, will persist in trying to stop our march into the future, but they must fail, as Philip failed before them.