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Who We Fight

May 2024
11min read

A year after the September attacks, it has become clear that ours is a very old enemy.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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