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Know your enemy

Paul Greenberg (archive)

August 15, 2003 | Print | Send

A couple of phrases in a wire story last week stuck in the memory, and craw. They leapt out of a dispatch about the attack on the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, and both reflect a common misunderstanding about the nature of terrorism in today's world -- the assumption that at it can be sliced and diced, and one kind of terror distinguished from another. As though they weren't just different faces of the same enemy.

The attack on the Jordanian embassy, said the story, "raised concerns that Iraq's violence could be broadening from resistance to the U.S. occupation toward a terrorist insurgency."

But what's the difference between the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athists and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida? Disparate as they may seem at times, both are part of the same worldwide movement that declared war on the West years ago. Both are part of a common threat that wasn't taken seriously until Sept. 11, 2001.

Americans were at war for years before this generation experienced its own Pearl Harbor; we just didn't know it. One attack after another was made on American military and civilian targets; all were considered basically a problem for law enforcement, not acts of aggression that required a decisive military response.

The earlier bombing of the World Trade Center, the murderous explosions at American embassies in Africa, the attack on the USS Cole . . . a pattern was forming, but our intelligence agencies failed to see it. Just as there were many indications before Dec. 7, 1941, that Pearl Harbor was coming, but the pieces of the puzzle weren't put together till afterward.

There were lengthy postmortems back then, too, and charges that the administration had seen the attack coming but had done nothing to prevent it. It's as if we never learn. The treacherous nature of the world out there always seems to surprise us Americans.

Some pundits and politicians warned that the war in Iraq would distract from the war against terror -- as if they weren't part of the same conflict against a common enemy. That enemy is motivated by a common ideology, whatever its variations from locale to locale.

There were those in the century just passed who also tried to make distinctions among the forces that threatened Western civilization -- between Mussolini's fascism and Hitler's national socialism, between Franco's Falange and Tojo's militarism. But a difference in style and national adaptation is not to be confused with a difference in essence.

Today, too, Western civilization faces a common enemy. That danger, too, goes by different names -- a sign that we have yet to get a handle on the ideological threat out there. But whether it's called Islamism, radical Islam, or Islamofascism, it is all much the same.

These haters may have their factional rivalries, but one driving force unites all of them: a fierce resentment of the West, of modernity, of tolerance, of any society that lets people be themselves. Their ideology is transnational.

A long-simmering frustration with the Rise of the West and its dominance has bred a taste for violence, and the violence has become an end in itself. The monstrous war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, which killed millions, was deemed a great victory by the True Believers on both sides. For they weren't really concerned about anything so base as whether some real estate changed hands. Martyrdom itself had become the object.

Today's network of terrorists and their host regimes is but the visible manifestation of a shared rage. We have seen this kind of fanaticism before -- in the Death's Head on Nazi uniforms, in the kamikaze attacks on the American fleet in the closing days of the Second World War. Today's terrorism is but one more form of death worship in the modern world.

Today's oh-so-sophisticated taxonomy of terror is largely irrelevant, with its distinctions between military and nonmilitary attacks, between terrorists and those regimes that sponsor them. Call it the PowerPoint Fallacy. It breaks down a complex subject into clear, simple, even simplistic details, and winds up ignoring the essence of the subject. Which is what happens when we set out to distinguish suicide bombings from skyjackings, secular nationalists from Islamist fundamentalists, "resistance to American occupation" from "terrorist insurgency" . as if they weren't all part of the same threat.

But they are.

This conflict is not unlike the struggle against the fascists and Communists for the soul of Western civilization. The outcome will determine whether Islamic civilization, which was once the most advanced, hospitable and creative in the world, will recede further into resentment and violence. And drag the rest of the world down with it. This is not a war against Islam. It is a war for Islam.

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