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Nothing New

June 2024
3min read

The attack on New York and Washington was shocking, but in one respect it was nothing new. The Western countries in the nineteenth century exuded a serene self-confidence in a certain kind of culture—the culture of rationality, diversity, open discussion, and change. That was the culture of liberalism. But World War I had a bad effect on the old self-confidence. With the nineteenth-century serenity in tatters, a vast fear arose in Europe. It was a fear that liberal culture was a monstrous lie and a crime, a fear that liberal culture would destroy the world unless new movements stepped forward up to oppose it. And new movements did step forward.

Lenin’s Bolshevism was the first of those new, antiliberal movements. It was followed by Italian Fascism, then by German Nazism, then by the Spanish movement to restore the Reign of Christ the King and by several other movements. And each of those movements went to war against the culture of liberalism, each in the belief that morality required nothing less.

The antiliberal movements got their start in Europe, but they spread around the world, acquiring new traits in every new region. That is what we see in the radical Arab nationalism and the revolutionary Islamist movements of today: variations on the old theme of a desperate and violent antiliberalism. So we find ourselves once again under siege, just as in the days of the Fascists, Nazis, and Stalinists- under siege not because of any specific thing that we have done but simply because liberal values and practices arouse a wild fear in some people, and fear pushes them into violent acts.

The present siege did not begin just yesterday. The war of Arab nationalism against Israel, an old war now, has always been, in one of its aspects, a struggle against the principles of diversity, change, and openness. (Otherwise, the Arab world might have found a way to see in a Jewish state a marvelous opportunity for the rest of the Middle East, an opportunity for everyone in the region to become more creative, more diverse, and more modern.) The war against the United States has taken the war against Zionism and extended it into something much larger. And the war against the United States has likewise been going for a long time—at least since the attack on the U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983 and passing through the Persian Gulf War and the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, in Yemen, and in East Africa. Such a war is obviously going to continue.

Our struggles with Fascism, Nazism, and Communism in the past should tell us that if we truly want to achieve safety for ourselves, we will have to persuade masses of people in the radical Arab nationalist and Islamist movements to abandon their old ideas, just as happened with the Fascists, Nazis, and Communists. And so this war, too, will have to be a war of ideas, and not just of guns—a war rather like the Cold War, I suspect (remembering, of course, that the Cold War was sometimes hot).

We have suffered hideously just now, and there may be worse to come. But perhaps we will enjoy one advantage henceforth. Until now, we have found ways to avoid noticing that the radical Arab nationalists and Islamists were dead set against us. Today, it’s hard to mistake that we are, in fact, at war. We are not facing a series of little annoyances and minor pirate problems around the world, as we have wanted to believe in the 25 past. Our problem is bigger than that. We should therefore mobilize ourselves, and if we do mobilize, we will succeed. That, too, is a lesson of the past.

It is true that some Americans think we have brought this war upon ourselves, through our numerous sins. These sins are described in different ways by people on the right and on the left. Jerry Falwell points to gay rights and the ACLU. Some people on the left point to America’s history of animosity to the Islamic world. The people on the left are deluded on this point, generally speaking. The United States has fought a number of wars in defense of Muslims, not against them, most recently in Kosovo, where we came to the rescue of the entire Muslim population. But Falwell, in complaining about homosexuals and civil libertarians, may be on to something. Our enemies fear and detest us precisely because we are an open society with individual rights, a society that allows people to live in many different ways. It is precisely because of our respect for diversity and for the rights of small groups (a value that we have not always upheld, needless to say) that America has helped Israel survive too.

So we find ourselves in a war that has many new elements but is based on a clash of ideas and values that goes back to World War I. And, yes, it is going to be a difficult war; it always has been.

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