In an absolutely appalling op-ed, Molly Ivins (whom once upon a time I enjoyed reading) tells us that we need to "understand" the motives of terrorists. Meant as a rebuke to a previous editorial by David Brooks, it displays such an ignorance of the motives and mindset of militant Islamists that I don't even know where to begin:
Brooks blames the terrorism on the "death cult thriving at the fringes of the Muslim world." At least in the case of the Chechens, that's akin to blaming Catholicism for the IRA. On a larger plane, Brooks thinks we refuse to recognize the absolute evil of the Beslan terrorists because it "undermines our faith in the essential goodness of human beings." Speak for yourself, Brooks.
Seems to me the one thing that does not change through history is human nature. Theologians and philosophers will continue to debate human nature. I've always liked an observation about politics made by an old West Texas rancher: "I feel like I'm about equal parts good and bad. There's just not many people appealin' to the good in me."
I think we're all capable of evil under extreme circumstances. I do know that most humans are kinder and better people when they are healthy, well-fed, raised by loving people in a secure environment and taught it is wrong to kill. But that doesn't change human nature.
One trouble with defining terrorism as absolute evil is, as the saying goes, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Second, we appear to be stuck – permanently stuck – with war of unequal forces, since no country is dumb enough to declare war on the United States. So we need to learn every thing we can about how to fight these people effectively. Third, defining "terrorist" or any "other" as an absolute, irrational evil gives us a spurious and intoxicating sense of self-righteousness. We become the simon-pure contrast, thus missing any chance to consider if correcting or just changing our own conduct would be effective.
One of the things I know about human nature is that in order to kill strangers face to face – or, God forbid, their children – you have to either be very afraid or convince yourself that your enemy is completely evil, other, non-human. People seem far more capable of killing other people if they can't see them, which is probably why war has gotten nastier as the technology has gotten better.
We have killed an estimated 12,000-14,000 Iraqis since "mission accomplished" and are bombing Fallujah today. For all I know, in some future I cannot envision, this will turn out to be the right thing to have done. Peace and democracy will flourish in Iraq, and we will all bow down to the great wisdom of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. But so far, no good.
According to both opinion polls in Iraq and in the larger Arab world, our invasion of Iraq has increased hatred of the United States and fanned terrorism. Ignorance and condemnation are not a strategy for dealing with that.
So let's make sure we understand the world according to Molly Ivins:
- Terrorists are like the rest of us, a mix of both good and bad impulses.
- Most people do better when raised in a secure, loving environment. But we're subject to human nature.
- Calling people who bayonet children "evil" is shortsighted, since they may have really legitimate reasons for doing so.
- Terrorists kill innocent people in pursuit of their goals. We kill innocent people in pursuit of our goals. Therefore we're just as bad as terrorists and shouldn't be so all high and mighty.
- The Arab world hates us and saying bad things about terrorist groups and their state sponsors just makes them hate us more.
In Ivins' world, anyone with a good reason for wanting to strike back at an oppressive regime (and the Chechans certainly have one) is justified in committing acts of terrorism - or if not justified, at least we should understand that they have their reasons.
One has to ask why then the Jews did not commit terrorist acts in Nazi Germany? Or the Tibetans against the Chinese? Cambodians against Pol Pot? Where are the terrorists in Darfur, in response to the genocide being committed by the Arab janjaweed militias, with the compliance of the Sudanese government? And don't we all remember how the Indians rose up and committed barbarous acts against the British Raj, under the leadership of that infamous terrorist leader Mohandis Gandhi? Even the IRA did not hold schools hostage, murder children and rape teenage girls.
No, there's something else going on here and Ivins doesn't get it. So let's be clear.
All of the nations of the world are involved in a life-and-death struggle with a radical ideology whose clearly stated aim is to bring the world under the rule of an extremist Islamist theocracy. To achieve that end, they have declared war on civilization and they have shown repeatedly that they do not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, even their own co-religionists - recall that Muslims were also targets in Iraq, Turkey, Israel, Indonesia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and of course on 9/11. The followers and ideological allies of Osama Bin Laden purposefully attack civilians, including women and children, kidnap and behead innocents, burn churches, temples, synagogues, and actively plan and commit mass murder in countries all over the world. Were they to acquire and learn to use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, we would see death on a scale formerly unimaginable. And they would show no more remorse than they did in Beslan.
Is this ideology evil? Yes, of course it is. So were the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Stalinist Russia, Cambodia under Pol Pot. In all these places, people were tortured and murdered wholesale, often in the millions, in the name of idelogical, racial or religious purity. We know enough to recognize evil in retrospect; we should be consistent when we see its hallmarks in the ideologies of today.
Does this mean that there is no justification for Chechen nationalism? Of course not. The Chechens have a long and brutal history at the hands of the Russians. But when that nationalism allows itself to be overtaken by a radical death-cult that revels in beheading hostages and killing children, it loses its legitimacy. Brooks recognizes this and makes the point in his own essay:
This is the cult of people who are proud to declare, "You love life, but we love death."
This is the cult that sent waves of defenseless children to be mowed down on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War, which trains kindergartners to become bombs, which fetishizes death, which sends people off joyfully to commit mass murder.
This cult attaches itself to a political cause but parasitically strangles it. The death cult has strangled the dream of a Palestinian state. The suicide bombers have not brought peace to Palestine; they've brought reprisals.
The car bombers are not pushing the United States out of Iraq; they're forcing us to stay longer. The death cult is now strangling the Chechen cause and will bring not independence but blood.
Nor is it a war between Islam and the West, though that is how the Islamists are eager to portray it. It is a war between those who believe that we are put on this earth to live as free people, to seek God in our own way or even to ignore religious impulses altogether, and to learn to live together and build a better world; and those who believe that they are establishing the rule of God on earth, and therefore all who stand in their way are enemies of God and their death is not only justified, it is a sacred duty. On the side of freedom are Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, secularists and many others who pursue their spirituality without the need to deny the faith of others. On the other side are those who see Islam as the only true faith, and have chosen to spread it by means of war and terrorist acts on the unbelievers. These radicals have the tacit support of many governments and religious authorities in the Muslim world, and from apologists in the Western world who are eager to show their empathy for non-Western cultures and self-proclaimed liberation movements.
If you are having a hard time taking this in, consider this scenario:
"Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan gets total control of the state of Texas. And the Ku Klux Klan has at its disposal all the oil rigs in Texas. And they use this money to set up a well-endowed network of colleges and schools throughout Christendom, peddling their peculiar brand of Christianity."
Those of you looking for a glib riposte might opine that this sounds like Texas under George W. Bush. But it's a description of Saudi Arabia and its relationship to the Muslim world, by way of an analogy made by the historian Bernard Lewis.
Following 9/11 Bush famously said, "You are either with us or with the terrorists." This is usually misquoted as, "You are either with us or against us". But the president was making a stark point that is as true today as it was then: in a war against an absolutist idelogy, there is no middle ground. If you understand the goals of radical Islam, you understand that the endpoint is world domination by a single religion, interpreted in the same way the Spanish Inquisition interpreted Christianity and with as little tolerance of dissent. Countries who thought that they could take a neutral stance in the war against radical Islam - France, Turkey and Russia come to mind - are finding that they are just as much the enemy as America and Israel, and just as much targets for brutal attacks.
And even in the Islamic world, people are being forced to choose sides. Around the world, Beslan has opened the eyes of Muslims to the threat to civilization that has grown in their midst. Now some are standing up and speaking out. They get it. They understand the stakes. Perhaps one day, Molly Ivins will too.