Historians Who Are Putting 9-11 into Perspective

Roundup: Talking About History

Robert Sibley, in the Ottawa Citizen (March 21, 2004):

If you read only one book on this first anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, it should be be Harris's Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History (Free Press).

Harris has been described as "the philosopher of 9/11," and rightly so. He is one of a few scholars and commentators who recognize that 9/11 was what the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel called a "world-historical moment;" that is to say, an event that forced a fundamental shift in the way we think about the world.

Essentially, he argues that if we want to defeat the Islamists we must understand them on their terms. "Our first task is to try to grasp what the concept of the enemy really means ... Before 9/11, the very concept of the enemy had been banished from our moral and political vocabulary ... (but) the enemy is someone who is willing to die in order to kill you. And while it is true that the enemy always hates us for a reason, it is his reason, and not ours."

In a dozen cogently readable, jargon-free chapters, Harris explores everything from the concept of the enemy and the dangers of false tolerance to the nature of western rationalism and the chances of bringing democracy to the Islamic world. He not only works through why Islam's extremist adherents want to kill westerners, but, more importantly, why westerners are so reluctant to acknowledge this hatred.

Consider 9/11: The attacks on New York and Washington were acts of war. But Harris, unlike many commentators who see in these acts the consequence of the West's failure to address the "root causes" of the Islamic world's victimization, detects the re-emergence of a cultural mindset that dates to the ancient world. Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda are not fighting a war in any modern, Clauswitzian sense of wanting to conquer territory or seize wealth. They are acting out a script rooted in a "fantasy ideology" born of a kind of zealotry the Greeks and Romans encountered in the barbarian tribes that challenged their civilizations.

"The targets were chosen by Al-Qaeda not for their military value -- in contrast, for example, to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor -- but entirely because they stood as symbols of American power universally recognized on the Arab street. They were gigantic props in a grandiose spectacle in which the collective fantasy of radical Islam was brought vividly to life."

Harris suggests this explains why the U.S. was not hit after 9/11 with small-scale attacks -- 9/11 was not a rational act of war as understood in the West. That is, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were a "symbolic fantasy drama," a ritual act intended to convey a message not to Americans or the West but to Muslims.

"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," Harris concludes.

Paradoxically, this lack of a "sense of the realistic," the Islamist's psychological adherence to what the philosopher Eric Voegelin described as a "second-order reality," is what makes Islamic extremists so dangerous -- they are willing to entertain fantastical notions that more rational, strategically oriented minds would find difficult to conjure and, therefore, to prevent. The implications are obvious: The only way to defeat the Islamists is by responding with such ruthless efficiency that their fantasy world is blown away, whether by the reality of U.S Marines taking Baghdad or B-52s laying down a string of BLU-82 "daisy-cutter" bombs that, ultimately, frees Afghanistan's women from the Taliban.

This point comes through as clear as an air raid siren in Victor Davis Hanson's recent essay collection, Between War and Peace: Lessons from Afghanistan to Iraq (Random House). If Harris is the philosopher of 9/11, then Hanson is its military historian.

Hanson, who teaches at California State University, first gained public attention with his 2001 book, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (Doubleday), published only months before 9/11, in which he argued that the success of western civilization is due in part to its willingness to seek decisive battle in confronting its enemies and its extreme ruthlessness in killing its enemies -- "the western way of war," as he put it.

Between War and Peace is a collection of three dozen essays Hanson has published between January 2002 and July 2003. He ranges widely, considering the war on terrorism, the dilemmas of the Middle East, Israel's difficult predicament, European anti-Americanism, "empire" and the sur-real reality of postwar Iraq.

The theme connecting these essays is Hanson's puzzlement at many educated people (I'd include Canadians) embracing such a reductive worldview toward the role and character of the United States. As he writes, it's as if "the more America proved itself powerful and moral in its efforts to eradicate medieval fascists and implant democracies in their places, the more many of our own experts sought to demonstrate that we either could or should not."

Against the blindness of a pampered intelligentsia, Hanson sets his deep respect for the soldiers who, in the course of three weeks and at a cost of a few hundred lives, subdued a country of 26 million, and, even now, in confronting ongoing terrorist attacks, "somehow remain oblivious to unfounded criticism, confident in their own prowess and convinced that their nation and its military are clear forces for good."

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