"Know your enemy" is an admirable maxim of prudence, but one that is difficult to observe in practice. Nor is the reason hard to fathom: if you are my enemy, it is unlikely that I will go very much out of my way to learn to see things from your point of view. And if this ignorance exists even where the conflict is between groups that share a common culture, how much more will it exist when there is a profound cultural and psychological chasm between the antagonists?
Yet, paradoxically, this failure to understand the enemy can arise not only from a lack of sympathy with his position but also from a kind of misplaced sympathy: when confronted by a culturally exotic enemy, our first instinct is to understand his conduct in terms that are familiar to us, terms that make sense to us in light of our own fund of experience. We assume that if our enemy is doing x, it must be for reasons that are comprehensible in terms of our universe.
Just how unfortunate -- and indeed fatal -- this approach can be was demonstrated during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. When Montezuma learned of Cortés's arrival, he was at a loss to know what to make of the event. Who were these white-skinned alien beings? What had they come for? What were their intentions?
These were clearly not questions that Montezuma was in a position to answer. Nothing in his world could possibly provide him with a key to deciphering correctly the motives of a man as cunning, resourceful, and determined as Cortés. Montezuma, who after all had to do something, was therefore forced to deploy categories drawn from the fund of experience that was readily available within the Aztec world.
By a fatal coincidence, this fund of experience chanced to contain a remarkable prefiguring of Cortés -- the myth of the white-skinned god, Quetzalcoatl. Indeed, the parallels were uncanny. Of course, Cortés was not Quetzalcoatl, and he had not appeared on the coast of Mexico in order to bring blessings.
Yet we should not be too hard on Montezuma. He was, after all, acting exactly as we all act under similar circumstances. We all want to make sense of our world, and at no time more urgently than when our world is suddenly behaving strangely. In order to make sense of such strangeness, we must be able to reduce it to something that is not strange -- something that is already known to us, something we know our way around.
Yet this entirely human response, as Montezuma quickly learned to his regret, can sometimes be very dangerous.
An Act of War?
On September 11, 2001, Americans were confronted by an enigma similar to that presented to the Aztecs -- an enigma so baffling that even elementary questions of nomenclature posed a problem: What words or phrase should we use merely to refer to the events of that day? Was it a disaster, like the sinking of the Titanic? Or perhaps a tragedy? Was it a criminal act, or was it an act of war? Indeed, one awkward TV anchorman, in groping for the proper handle, fecklessly called it an "accident." Eventually the collective and unconscious wisdom that governs such matters prevailed. Words failed, then fell away completely, and all that was left were the bleak but monumentally poignant set of numbers, 9/11.
This resolution did not solve the great question, What did it all mean?
In the early days there were many who were convinced that they knew the answer to this question, arguing that the explanation of 9/11 was to be sought in what was called, through an invariable horticultural metaphor, the "root cause" of terrorism. Eliminate poverty or economic imperialism, or pull our troops out of Saudi Arabia, or cease supporting Israel, and such acts of terrorism would cease.
Opposed to this kind of analysis were those who saw 9/11 as an unprovoked act of war, and the standard comparison here was with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. To this school of thought, ably represented by, among others, the distinguished classicist Victor Davis Hanson, it is irrelevant what grievances our enemy may believe it has against us; what matters is that we have been viciously attacked and that, for the sake of our survival, we must fight back.
Those who hold this view are in the overwhelming majority among Americans. Yet there is one point on which this position does not differ from the position adopted by those, such as Noam Chomsky, who place the blame for the attack on American policy: both points of view agree in interpreting 9/11 as an act of war, while disagreeing only on the question of whether or not it was justifiable. This common identification of 9/11 as an act of war arises from a deeper unquestioned assumption -- an assumption made both by Chomsky and his followers on the one hand and by Hanson and The National Review on the other, and indeed by almost everyone in between.
The assumption is this: An act of violence on the magnitude of 9/11 can only have been intended to further some kind of political objective. What this political objective might be, or whether it is worthwhile -- these are all secondary considerations. Surely people do not commit such acts unless they are trying to achieve some kind of recognizably political purpose.
Behind this shared assumption stands the figure of Clausewitz and his famous definition of war as politics carried out by other means. The whole point of war, on this reading, is to get other people to do what we want them to do: it is an effort to make others adopt our policies and/or to further our interests. Clausewitzian war, in short, is rational and instrumental. It attempts to bring about a new state of affairs through the artful combination of violence and the promise to cease violence if certain political objectives are met.
Of course, wars may still backfire on those who undertake them, or a particular application of military force may prove to be counterproductive to one's particular political purpose. But such pitfalls do not change the fact that the final criterion of military success is always pragmatic: Does it work? Does it in fact bring us closer to realizing our political objectives?
Is this the right model for understanding 9/11? Or have we, like Montezuma, imposed our own inadequate categories on an event that simply does not fit them? If 9/11 was not an act of war, then what was it?
Oddly enough, the post 9/11 "celebrity comment" that came closest to capturing the true significance of the event was the much-quoted remark by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, that 9/11 was "the greatest work of art of all time." Despite its repellent nihilism, Stockhausen's aesthetic judgment comes closer to a genuine assessment of 9/11 than the competing Clausewitzian interpretation. For Stockhausen did grasp one big truth: 9/11 was the enactment of a fantasy -- not an artistic fantasy, to be sure, but a fantasy nonetheless.
A Personal Recollection
My first encounter with this particular kind of fantasy occurred when I was in college in the late sixties. A friend and I got into a rather odd argument. Although we were both opposed to the Vietnam War, we discovered that we differed considerably on what counted as permissible forms of antiwar protest. To me the point of such protest was simple -- to turn people against the war. Hence anything that was counterproductive to this purpose was politically irresponsible and should be severely censured. My friend thought otherwise; in fact, he was planning to join what by all accounts was to be a massively disruptive demonstration in Washington, and which in fact became one.
His attitude greatly puzzled me. For my friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this result simply did not matter. What then was the point of the demonstration, if not to achieve our political objective, namely, an early conclusion of the Vietnam War?
His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason -- because it was, in his words, "good for his soul." What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.
And what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy -- a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent antiwar demonstration he was in no sense aiming at coercing others to conform with his view, for that would still have been a political objective. Instead he took part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of being among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical materialism. Thus, when he lay down in front of hapless commuters on the bridges over the Potomac, he had no interest in changing the minds of these commuters, no concern over whether they became angry at the protesters or not. They were there merely as props, as so many supernumeraries in his private political psychodrama. The protest for him was not politics, but theater; the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. His was not your garden-variety fantasy: it did not, after all, make him into a sexual athlete, or a record-breaking race car driver, or a Nobel prize-winning chemist. And yet, in terms of the fantasy, he was nonetheless a hero; but a hero of the revolutionary struggle, for his fantasy -- and that of many young intellectuals at that time -- was compounded purely of ideological ingredients, smatterings of Marx and Mao, a little Fanon, and perhaps a dash of Jean-Paul Sartre. I have therefore elected to call the phenomenon in question, if only for lack of a better term, fantasy ideology -- political and ideological symbols and tropes used not for political purposes but entirely for the benefit of furthering a specific personal fantasy. It is, to be frank, something like Dungeons and Dragons carried out not with the trappings of medieval romances -- old castles and maidens in distress -- but entirely in terms of ideological symbols and emblems. The only important difference between them is that one is an innocent pastime while the other has proven to be one of the most terrible scourges to afflict the human race.
But before tackling this subject outright, let us approach it through a few observations about the normal role of fantasy in human conduct.
The Nature of Fantasy Ideology
It is a common human weakness to wish to make more of our contribution to the world than the world is prepared to acknowledge; it is our fantasy world that allows us to fill this gap. Normally, for most of us at least, this fantasy world of ours stays relatively hidden, and indeed a common criterion of our mental health is the extent to which we are able to keep our fantasies firmly under our watchful control.
Yet clearly there are individuals for whom this control is, at best, intermittent; its failure results in behavior that ranges from the merely obnoxious to the clinically psychotic. The man who insists on being taken more seriously than his advantages warrant falls into the former category; the maniac who murders an utter stranger because God -- or his neighbor's dog -- commanded him to do so belongs to the latter.
What is common in such interactions is that the fantasist inevitably treats other people merely as props: there is absolutely no interest in, or even awareness of, others as having wills or minds of their own. The man who bores us with stories designed to impress us with his importance or his intellect or his bank account cares nothing for us as individuals, for he has already cast us in the role that he wishes us to play: we are there to be impressed by him. Indeed, it is an error even to suggest that he is trying to impress us, for this would assume that he is willing to learn enough about us to discover how best we might be impressed. Nothing of the kind occurs. And why should it? After all, the fantasist has already projected onto us the role which we are to play in his fantasy. And no matter what we may be thinking of his recital, it never crosses his mind that we may be utterly failing to play the part expected of us; indeed, it is sometimes astonishing to see how much exertion is required of us in order to bring our own profound lack of interest to the fantasist's attention.
Tragically, the same problem occurs in the more significant aspects of life, and nowhere more insidiously than in our relationship with those we love. Jane falls in love with Bob, or so Bob thinks. But in point of fact Bob is nothing more than a prop around which Jane weaves her romantic and erotic fantasies. Often what Freud called the idealization of the love object is something far more sinister: it is a systematic canceling out of the real person of the beloved and its replacement by a fictional character devised purely in order to fulfill the lover's fantasy of true love -- a transformation, curiously enough, in which the beloved often takes an active and even aggressive role.
To an outside observer, the fantasist is clearly attempting to compensate by means of his fantasy for the shortcomings of his own present reality, and thus it is tempting to think of the fantasist as a kind of Don Quixote impotently tilting at windmills. But this is an illusion, for make no mistake about it, the fantasist often exercises great and terrible power precisely by virtue of his fantasy: the father who wishes his son to grow up to become a major league football player will clearly exercise much more control over his son's life than a father who is content to permit his child to pursue his own goals in life.
This power of the fantasist is entirely traceable to the fact that for him the other is always an object, never a subject. A subject, after all, has a will of his own, his own desires and its own agenda; he might rather play the flute instead of football. Anyone who is aware of this fact is automatically put at a disadvantage in comparison with the fantasist -- the disadvantage of knowing that other people have minds of their own and are not merely props to be pushed around.
For the moment I stop thinking about you as a prop in my fantasy, you become problematic. If you aren't what I have cast you to be, then who are you, and what do you want? In order to answer these questions, I find that I must step out of the fantasy realm and enter the real world. If I am your father, I may still wish you to play football, but I can no longer blithely assume that this is obviously what you have always wanted; hence I will need to start paying attention to you as a genuine other and no longer merely as a ready-made prop. Your role will change from "born football player" to the mysterious stranger.
The very enormity of the required mental adjustment goes a long way toward explaining why it is so seldom made and why it is so often tragically impossible to wean a fantasist from even the most destructive fantasy. Fortunately, the fantasizing individual is normally surrounded by other individuals who are not fantasizing or, at the very least, who are not fantasizing in the same way, and this fact puts some limit on how far most of us can allow our fantasy world to intrude on the precinct of reality. But what happens when it is not an individual who is caught up in his fantasy world but an entire group -- a sect, or a people, or even a nation?
That such a thing happens is obvious from a glance at history. The various end-time movements, such as those studied in Norman Cohn's Pursuit of the Millennium, are splendid examples of collective fantasy. Periodically, from the early Christian Era to the American "Great Disappointment" of 1843, hundreds or even thousands of people become convinced that the world will end on a certain date and begin to act accordingly.
For most of history, such large-scale collective fantasies appeared on the world stage under the guise of religion. But with the coming of the French Revolution, this changed. From that event onward, there have been eruptions of a new kind of collective fantasy, one in which political ideology has replaced religious mythology as the source of symbolism and in this way has provided a new, and quite dangerous, outlet for the fantasy needs of large groups of men and women. Hence the designation "fantasy ideology" to describe a fantasy that makes no sense outside of the ideological corpus in terms of which the fantasy has been constructed. From the ideology the roles, the setting, and the props are drawn, just as for the earlier adventists the relevant roles, setting, and props arose out of biblical symbolism.
The symbols by themselves, however, do not create the fantasy. There must first be a preexisting collective need for the fantasy.
In even the most casual survey of history, one is repeatedly struck by the fact that certain groups do not seem to have the knack for a realistic appraisal of themselves: they seem simply incapable of seeing themselves as others see them or of understanding why other groups react to them the way they do. A fantasy ideology is one that seizes the opportunity offered by such a lack of realism in a political group and makes the most of it. This it is able to do through symbols and rituals, all of which are designed to permit the members of the political group to indulge in a kind of fantasy role-playing. Classical examples of this are easy to find: the Jacobin fantasy of reviving the Roman Republic; Mussolini's fantasy of reviving the Roman Empire; Hitler's fantasy of reviving German paganism in the thousand-year Reich.
This theme of reviving ancient glory is an important key to understanding fantasy ideologies. It suggests that fantasy ideologies tend to be the domain of those groups that history has passed by or rejected -- groups that feel that they are under attack from forces that, while more powerful perhaps than they are, are nonetheless inferior to them in terms of true virtue; they themselves stand for what is pure.
Such a fantasy ideology was current in the South before the Civil War and explains much of the conduct of the Confederacy. Instead of seeing themselves as an anachronism, attempting to prolong the existence of a doomed institution, Southerners chose to see themselves as the bearers of true civilization. Imperial Germany had similar fantasies before and during the Great War, fantasies well expressed in Thomas Mann's Notes of an Unpolitical Man: Germans possess true inwardness and culture, unlike the French and English -- let alone those barbarous Americans. Indeed, Hitler's even more extravagant fantasy ideology is incomprehensible unless one puts it in the context of this preexisting fantasy ideology.
In reviewing fantasy ideologies, especially those associated with Nazism and Italian fascism, there is always the temptation for an outside observer to regard the promulgation of such fantasies as the cynical manipulation by a power-hungry leader of his gullible followers, but this would be a serious error, for the leader himself must be as steeped in the fantasy as his followers. He can only make others believe because he believes so intensely himself.
The concept of belief, as it is used in this context, must be carefully understood, in order to avoid ambiguity. For most of us, belief is a purely passive response to evidence presented to us: I form my beliefs about the world for the purpose of understanding the world as it is. This belief is radically different from what might be called transformative belief -- the secret of fantasy ideology. Here the belief is not passive but intensely active, and its purpose is not to describe the world but to change it. It is, in a sense, a deliberate form of make-believe, in which the make-believe is not an end in itself but rather the means of making the make-believe become real. In this sense it is akin to such innocently jejune phenomena as "the power of positive thinking," or even the little train that thought it could. To say that Mussolini, for example, believed that fascist Italy would revive the Roman Empire does not mean that he made a careful examination of the evidence and then arrived at this conclusion. Rather it means that Mussolini had the will to believe that fascist Italy would revive the Roman Empire.
The allusion to William James's famous essay "The Will to Believe" is not an accident. James exercised a profound influence on the two thinkers essential to understanding both Italian fascism in particular and fantasy ideology in general -- Vilfredo Pareto and Georges Sorel. All three men begin with the same assumption: if human beings were limited to acting only on those beliefs that can be logically and scientifically demonstrated, they could not survive, simply because this degree of certainty is restricted only to mathematics and the hard sciences, which, by themselves, are not remotely sufficient to guide us through the world as it exists. Hence human beings must have a large set of beliefs that cannot be demonstrated logically and scientifically -- beliefs that are therefore irrational if judged by the hard sciences.
The fact that such beliefs cannot be justified by science does not mean that they may not be useful or beneficial to the individual or to the society that holds them. James was primarily concerned with the religious beliefs of individuals: did a man's religious beliefs improve the quality of his personal life? For Pareto the same question could be asked about all beliefs, religious, cultural, and political. Both James and Pareto viewed nonrational belief as outside observers: they took up the beliefs that they found already circulating in the societies in which they lived and examined them in light of whether they were beneficial or detrimental to the individuals and the societies that entertained them, exactly as a botanist examines the flora of a particular region; he is interested not in creating new flowers but simply in cataloguing those that already exist. So too James and Pareto were exclusively interested in already existing beliefs and certainly not in creating new ones.
Sorel went one step further. Combining Nietzsche with William James, he discovered the secret of Nietzsche's will to power in James's will to believe. James, like Pareto, had shown that certain spontaneously occurring beliefs enabled those who held these beliefs to thrive and to prosper, both as individuals and societies. But if this were true of spontaneously occurring beliefs, could it not also be true of beliefs that were deliberately and consciously manufactured?
Sorel's was a radical innovation. Just as naturally existing beliefs could be judged properly only in terms of the benefits they brought about in the lives of those who held them, the same standard was now applied to beliefs that were deliberately created in order to have a desired effect on those who came to believe in them. What would be important about such "artificially inseminated" beliefs (which Sorel calls myths) was not their truth value but the transformative effect they would have on those who placed their faith in them and the extent to which such ideological make-believe could alter the character and conduct of those who held these beliefs.
Sorel's candidate for such a myth -- the general strike -- never quite caught on, but his underlying insight was taken up by Mussolini and Italian fascism with vastly greater sensitivity to what is involved in creating such galvanizing and transformative myths in the minds of large numbers of men and women. After all, it is obvious that not just any belief will do and that, furthermore, each particular group of people will have a disposition, based on their history and their character, to entertain more readily one set of beliefs than another. Mussolini, for example, assembled his Sorelian myth out of elements clearly designed to catch the imagination of his time and place -- a strange blend of imperial Roman themes and futurist images, but one that worked.
Yet even the most sensitively crafted myth requires something more in order to take root in the imagination of large populations, and this was where Mussolini made his great innovation. For the Sorelian myth to achieve its effect it had to be presented as theater. It had to grab the spectators and make them feel a part of the spectacle and not merely outside observers. The Sorelian myth, in short, had to be embodied in a fantasy -- a fantasy with which the "audience" could easily and instantly identify. In addition, the willing suspension of disbelief, which Coleridge had observed in the psychology of the normal theatergoer, would be enlisted in the service of the Sorelian myth; in the process, it would permit the myth-induced fantasy to override the obvious objections based on mundane considerations of realism. Thus it came about that twentieth-century Italians became convinced that they were the successors of the Roman Empire.
Once again, it is a mistake to see the promotion of such fantasies as merely a ploy on the part of fascist leadership -- a cynical device to delude the masses, in order to further the real interests of certain other groups -- for in all fantasy ideologies, there is a point at which the make-believe becomes an end it itself. This fact is nowhere more clearly exhibited than in the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, an event that decisively proved that Mussolini's imperial fantasy was not a smoke screen for other interests but was instead the motivating factor even in such a critical area as the decision to invade a foreign country on a forbidding continent.
Any attempt to see this adventure in Clausewitzian terms is doomed to fail: there was no political or economic advantage whatsoever to be gained from the invasion of Ethiopia. Indeed, the diplomatic disadvantages to Italy in consequence of this action were tremendous, and they were in no way to be compensated for by anything that Italy could hope to gain from possessing Ethiopia as a colony.
Why then did Italy invade Ethiopia?
The answer is quite simple. Ethiopia was a prop -- a prop in the fantasy pageant of the new Italian Empire -- that and nothing else. The war waged in order to win Ethiopia as a colony was not a war in the Clausewitzian sense: that is to say, it was not an instrument of political policy designed to induce concessions from Ethiopia, or to get Ethiopia to alter its policies, or even to get Ethiopia to surrender. Ethiopia had to be conquered not because it was worth conquering, but because the fascist fantasy ideology required Italy to conquer something, and Ethiopia fit the bill. The conquest was not the means to an end, as in Clausewitzian war; it was an end in itself. Or, more correctly, its true purpose was to bolster the collective fantasy that insisted on casting the Italians as a conquering race, the heirs of imperial Rome.
America as a Prop
To be a prop in someone else's fantasy is not a pleasant experience, especially when this someone else is trying to kill you, but that was the position Ethiopia was placed in by the fantasy ideology of Italian fascism. And it is the position Americans have been placed in by the quite different fantasy ideology of radical Islam. The terror attack of 9/11 was not designed to make us alter our policy but was crafted for its effect on the terrorists themselves and on those who share the same fantasy ideology: it was a spectacular piece of theater. The targets were chosen by Al-Qaeda not for their military value -- in contrast, for example, to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- but entirely because they stood as symbols of American power universally recognized by the Arab street. They were gigantic props in a grandiose spectacle in which the collective fantasy of radical Islam was brought vividly to life: a mere handful of Muslims, men whose will was absolutely pure, as was proven by their martyrdom, brought down the haughty towers erected by the Great Satan. What better proof could there possibly be that God was on the side of radical Islam and that the end of the reign of the Great Satan was near at hand?
Just as the purpose of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia was not to conquer Ethiopia but to prove to the Italians themselves that they were conquerors, so the purpose of 9/11 was not to create terror in the minds of the American people but to prove to the Arabs that Islamic purity, as interpreted by radical Islam, could triumph over the West. The terror, which to us seems the central fact, is, in the eyes of Al-Qaeda, merely an incidental by-product, an irrelevancy. In the same way, what Al-Qaeda and its followers see as central to the holy pageant of 9/11, namely the heroic martyrdom of the nineteen hijackers, is interpreted by us quite differently. For us the hijackings, like the Palestinian "suicide" bombings, are viewed merely as a modus operandi, a technique incidental to the larger strategic purpose. Consider the standard Arab apologist's "explanation" of such acts: They don't have jet fighters, so what other means do they have of fighting back? But even those who are most unsympathetic to the Arab fantasy ideology look upon the suicide of the hijackers, like that of the Palestinian terrorists, as merely a makeshift device, a low-tech stopgap, and nothing more. In our eyes, these attacks represent simply Clausewitzian war carried out by other means -- in this case by suicide.
But in the fantasy ideology of radical Islam, suicide plays an absolutely indispensable role. It is not a means to an end but an end in itself. Seen through the distorting prism of radical Islam, the act of suicide is transformed into the act of martyrdom -- martyrdom in all its transcendent glory and accompanied by the panoply of magical powers that religious tradition has always assigned to it.
In short, it is a mistake to try to fit such behavior into the mold created by our own categories and expectations. We must continually remind ourselves that one and the same physical act, such as 9/11, does not have the same significance for us as it does for those who follow radical Islam. And nowhere is this difference more telling than in the interpretation of the final collapse of the World Trade Center. Tapes of bin Laden have made it clear that this catastrophic event was not part of the original terrorist scheme, which apparently assumed that the twin towers would not lose their structural integrity. The unlooked-for collapse gave to the event -- in the terms of Al-Qaeda's fantasy ideology -- an even greater poignancy: precisely because it had not been part of the original calculations, it was immediately interpreted as a manifestation of divine intervention. The nineteen hijackers did not bring down the towers; God did.
9/11 as Symbolic Drama
Most of our misunderstandings of Al-Qaeda's goals have come about for one fundamental reason: in the first weeks after 9/11, no one knew what was going to happen next. That Al-Qaeda had not embarked on a systematic and calculated Clausewitzian strategy of terror simply could not be ascertained in the immediate aftermath because we did not know, and could not know, what was coming next.
In the days and weeks following 9/11 there was a universal sense that it would happen again at any moment -- something shocking and terrifying, something that would again rivet us to our TV screen. But, in fact, it didn't happen. Nor does the possibility that it might still happen in the future change the fact that it didn't happen during this initial period, and this in itself is a remarkably telling fact.
Acts of terror can be used to pursue genuine Clausewitzian objectives in the same way that normal military operations are used, as was demonstrated during the Algerian War of Independence. But this use requires that the acts of terror be planned with the same kind of strategic logic that applies to normal military operations. If you attack your enemy with an act of terror -- especially one on the scale of 9/11 -- you must be prepared to follow up on it immediately. The analogy here to time-honored military strategy is obvious: if you have vanquished your enemy on the field of battle, you must vigorously pursue him while he is in retreat (i.e., while he is still in a state of panic and confusion). You must not let him regroup psychologically but must continue to pummel him while he is still reeling from the first blow.
This Al-Qaeda has utterly failed to do. And the question is, Why?
Of course, given our limited state of knowledge, it is possible that Al-Qaeda did plan immediate followup acts of terror but was simply unable to carry them out, thanks to our own heightened state of awareness, as well as our own military efforts to cripple Al-Qaeda in its base of operations in Afghanistan. But it is hard to believe that these factors could have precluded smaller-scale acts of terror, of the kind employed during the Algerian War of Independence and, presently, by the Palestinian suicide bombers. What was to keep Al-Qaeda operatives from blowing themselves up at a Wal-Mart in Arkansas or a McDonald's in New Hampshire? Very little. And while it is true that such acts would lack the grandiose effect of 9/11, this would not in fact be a disadvantage from a strategic point of view. If the objective of Al-Qaeda were to instill psychological terror and panic among the American people, then such geographically dispersed small-scale attacks could be of great strategic advantage. In the highly charged aftermath of 9/11, the psychological impact of each attack would have been immensely amplified by the media's twenty-four-hour news cycle; most critically, a string of such attacks would have had the effect of making all people in the United States feel themselves under the direct threat of terrorism, not merely those who live and work in national landmarks and in the great symbols of national power. The strategy would have brought terrorism home to the average American in a way that even 9/11 had not done, and it would have multiplied exponentially the already enormous impact on the American psyche of Al-Qaeda's original act of terror.
This was the reason that I, like millions of Americans, spent the first few weeks after 9/11 either watching TV constantly or turning it on every fifteen minutes: we were prepared to be devastated again. Our nerves were in a state of such anxious expectation that a carefully concerted campaign of smaller-scale, guerrilla-style terror, undertaken in out-of-the-way locales, could have had a catastrophically destabilizing effect on the American economy and even on our political system.
Nothing of the sort happened, and the reason, I believe, is simple: 9/11 was not an act of Clausewitzian terror -- that is to say, terror used as a strategic weapon for the sake of its psychologically debilitating effect on the American people. It was a symbolic drama, a great ritual demonstrating the power of Allah, a pageant designed to convey a message not to the American people but to the Arab world. Smaller-scale followup acts would have had no glamour, and it was glamour -- and grandiosity -- that Al-Qaeda was seeking in its targets. These targets, let it be said one last time, were selected not for any strategic value but simply because they were the most suitable props for the great symbolic fantasy drama that Al-Qaeda had devised -- a drama, once again, designed to be decoded not in American living rooms but in the Arab street. The pure Islamic David required a Goliath. After all, if David had merely killed someone his own size, where would be the evidence of God's favor toward him?
Is War the Right Metaphor?
If our enemy is motivated purely by a fantasy ideology, what sense can it make to look for the so-called "root" causes of terrorism in poverty, lack of education, lack of democracy, and so forth? However bad such conditions may be in themselves, they play absolutely no role in the creation of a fantasy ideology. On the contrary, fantasy ideologies have historically been produced by members of the intelligentsia, middle-class at the very least and vastly better educated than average. Furthermore, fantasy ideologies have historically arisen in a democratic context. As the student of European fascism Ernst Nolte has observed, parliamentary democracy was an essential precondition of the rise of both Mussolini and Hitler.
Equally absurd, in this interpretation, is the notion that we must review our own policies toward the Arab world -- or the state of Israel -- in order to find ways to make our enemies hate us less. That is like the Ethiopians trying to make themselves more likable to the Italians in the vain hope of persuading Mussolini to rethink his plans of conquest. In the eyes of the radical Islamic fantasy ideology, we are simply necessary props in the grandiose psychodrama that Al-Qaeda and its followers have devised for their own consumption. The reaction of the props themselves is unimportant: there is absolutely no political policy that we could adopt that would in any way change the attitude of our enemies.
We need therefore to reconsider the metaphor of war as it is currently used. As I have tried to show, war is a misleading term if by it we mean what I have called Clausewitzian war. In Clausewitzian war, the enemy has a set of political objectives which he tries to achieve through the use of organized force, including acts of terror. For example, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor because it was a large naval base and because the Japanese had the quite rational strategic goal of crippling the American Pacific fleet in the first hours of the war. The attack would not have taken place if the Japanese had believed themselves capable of securing their political goals, namely, American acceptance of Japanese hegemony in Asia and the Pacific. Lastly, the war would have immediately ceased if the United States, in the days following the attack, had promptly asked for a negotiated settlement of the conflict on terms acceptable to the Japanese.
In the case of 9/11, as we have seen, the terror attack was not the outcome of a preexisting conflict over differing political objectives, despite the various attempts to concoct such explanations. In the case of the attack on Pearl Harbor or, going further back, the sinking of the Lusitania, all the parties knew exactly what was at issue and there was no need of media experts to argue over the "real" objectives behind these attacks: they were obvious to everyone. The Lusitania was sunk because German strategy dictated that all vessels bound for England were appropriate military targets, since any one of them could be carrying war materials that could be used by Germany's enemies to attack it. Likewise, everyone knew that Pearl Harbor was the result of a strategic decision to go to war with America rather than accept the American ultimatum to evacuate Manchuria. In both of these cases, war was entered into by both sides, despite the fact that a political solution was available to the various contending parties. The decision to go to war, therefore, was made in a purely Clausewitzian manner: the employment of military force was selected in preference to what all sides saw as an unacceptable political settlement.
This was not remotely the case in the aftermath of 9/11. The issue facing the United States was not whether to accept or to reject Al-Qaeda's political demands, because it made none. Indeed, it did not even claim to have made the attack in the first place! And the United States was placed in the bizarre position of first having to prove who the enemy was -- a difficulty which, by definition, does not occur in Clausewitzian war, where it is absolutely essential that the identity and goals of the conflicting parties be known to each other, since otherwise the conflict would be pointless.
The fact that we are involved with an enemy who is not engaged in Clausewitzian warfare has serious repercussions for our policy. We are fighting an enemy who has no strategic purpose in anything he does, whose actions have significance only in terms of his own fantasy ideology. It means, in a strange sense, that while we are at war with them, they are not at war with us; indeed, our position would be enormously improved if they were. If they were at war with us, they would be compelled to start thinking realistically, in terms of objective factors such as their overall strategy as well as their war aims. They would have to make a realistic and not a fantasy-induced assessment of the relative strength of us versus them. But because they are operating in terms of their fantasy ideology, such a realistic assessment is impossible for them. It matters not how much stronger or more powerful we are than they; what matters is that God will bring them victory.
This point must be emphasized, for if the fantasy ideology of Italian fascism was a form of political make-believe, that of radical Islam goes one step further: it is, in a sense, more akin to a form of magical thinking. While the Sorelian myth does aim, finally, at transforming the real world, in the fantasy ideology of radical Islam it is almost as if the "real" world no longer matters. Our "real" world, after all, is utterly secular, a concatenation of an endless series of cause and effect in which all events occur on a single ontological plane. The "real" world of radical Islam is different. Islam itself has traditionally tended to postulate a universe which, to use philosophical language, is thoroughly occasionalist. That is to say, event A does not happen because it is caused by a previous event B, with both events occurring on the same ontological plane. Instead, event B is simply the occasion for God to cause event A, so that the genuine cause of all events occurring on our ontological plane of existence is God -- God and nothing else. If this is so, then the "real" world that we take for granted simply vanishes, and all becomes determined by the will of God. Thus the line between realist and magical thinking dissolves.
How Do We Fight an Ideological Epidemic?
The fantasy ideologies of the twentieth century spread like a virus in susceptible populations. Their propagation was not that suggested by J. S. Mill's marketplace of ideas; fantasy ideologies were not debated and examined, weighed, and measured. The people who accepted them did not accept them as tentative or provisional. They were unalterable and absolute. They drove out all other competing ideas and ideologies. They literally turned their host organism into an instrument of their own poisonous and deadly will.
The same thing is happening today. The poison of the radical Islamic fantasy ideology is being spread through the Muslim world, through schools and through the media, through mosques and through the demagoguery of the Arab street. Does this mean that history is repeating itself? Are we again facing challenges like those we faced in our confrontations with Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia?
The answer is an emphatic no. For while fantasy ideologies may have inspired Mussolini and Hitler, the threats that they posed could always be clearly apprehended in Clausewitzian terms. The threats we faced during World War II were precisely the kind of threat that one classical nation state poses to another, so confrontations between us and them could be expected to follow a certain set of rules. Diplomacy came first, even in Mussolini's attack on Ethiopia, and war followed after an elaborate procedural prelude, in which a medley of various feints and bluffs and threats were employed prior to the formal and official declaration of war. No possible doubt remained about who was fighting whom. Each position became transparent.
Such is no longer the case, as was made clear by 9/11. Against whom do we retaliate for such an act? Do we simply begin to bomb Arab countries at random, taking up the challenge as if it were a blood feud, thereby embracing the struggle in the same apocalyptic terms so beloved of radical Islam? Or do we treat the perpetrators as ordinary criminals, to be hauled before either the criminal courts of the United States or perhaps the World Court at The Hague? In which case, what do we do when the perpetrators are already dead, when indeed they have taken a martyr's delight in death?
How, in short, do we deter those who, driven by a fantasy ideology, are prepared to pointlessly sacrifice themselves to murder us?
This in turn raises the most important question: How do we defeat such ruthlessness? And can we defeat it without becoming ruthless ourselves?
These are the questions that we must keep in mind if we are to comprehend the nature of the world-historical gamble that the United States has embarked on, first with the invasion of Afghanistan, and then with that of Iraq -- a gamble that will be world-historical, no matter what the outcome may be.
Copyright © 2004 by Lee Harris