Paul Berman: Relentlessness, Bin Laden, and the Verdict of History
Paul Berman is a contributing editor for The New Republic and the author of, among other works, Power and the Idealists, about the origins of liberal and humanitarian interventionism.
Relentlessness is good. Relentlessness has a philosophical resonance, which everyone intuitively understands. The war between Al Qaeda and the United States has always rested on a dispute over the meaning of history. Al Qaeda has always believed that God wishes the resurrection of the ancient Islamic caliphate. And Al Qaeda has always regarded America, as the product of Christian civilization, as the ultimate obstacle to the resurrection of the caliphate. Al Qaeda’s militants have always believed that, as the representative of God’s will, they will ultimately win. Al Qaeda has therefore been engaged in a long-term and even eternal struggle—the kind of struggle that might lead earnest and idealistic people to agree to commit suicide on Al Qaeda’s behalf.
Ten years, compared to eternity, is nothing. Still, relative to the actual lifetime of an ordinary human being, ten years is not, in fact, nothing. It is good that, over a span of ten years, the United States has never relented, and good that, after ten years of effort, the United States can boast of its achievement.
The United States adheres to its own theory of history, even if most of us do not like to acknowledge anything of the sort. In our own liberal and democratic theory of history, doctrines like Al Qaeda’s are doomed to defeat. This is because, in our estimation, the mad and fantastical doctrine about resurrecting an ancient caliphate is comparable to other such doctrines that we have encountered during the last century—e.g., the doctrine about resurrecting the Roman Reich in an Aryan version, or the doctrine about resurrecting the ancient Russian peasant communes in the form of a proletarian Soviet civilization. We, the liberals and democrats, believe that doctrines of that sort are merely reactionary protests against the authentic march of progress—reactionary protests that, if we struggle sufficiently against them, can never succeed.
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