Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Feeding the Minotaur

Our strange relationship with the terrorists continues.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

As long as the mythical Athenians were willing to send, every nine years, seven maidens and seven young men down to King Minos’s monster in the labyrinth, Athens was left alone by the Cretan fleet. The king rightly figured that harvesting just enough Athenians would remind them of their subservience without leading to open rebellion — as long as somebody impetuous like a Theseus didn’t show up to wreck the arrangement.

Ever since the storming of the Tehran embassy in November 1979 we Americans have been paying the same sort of human tribute to grotesque Islamofascists. Over the last 25 years a few hundred of our own were cut down in Lebanon, East Africa, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Yemen, and New York on a semi-annual basis, even as the rules of the tribute to be paid — never spoken, but always understood — were rigorously followed.

In exchange for our not retaliating in any meaningful way against the killers — addressing their sanctuaries in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, or Syria, or severing their financial links in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and their various state-sanctioned kindred operatives agreed to keep the number killed to reasonable levels. They were to reap their lethal harvests abroad and confine them mostly to professional diplomats, soldiers, or bumbling tourists, whose disappearance we distracted Americans would predictably chalk up to the perils of foreign service and exotic travel.

Despite the occasional fiery rhetoric, both sides found the informal Minoan arrangement mutually beneficial. The terrorists believed that they were ever so incrementally, ever so insidiously eroding America’s commitment to a pro-Western Middle East. We offered our annual tribute so that over the decades we could go from Dallas to Extreme Makeover and Madonna to Britney without too much distraction or inconvenience.

But then a greedy, over-reaching bin Laden wrecked the agreement on September 11. Or did he?

Murdering 3,000 Americans, destroying a city block in Manhattan, and setting fire to the Pentagon were all pretty tough stuff. And for a while it won fascists and their state sponsors an even tougher response in Afghanistan and Iraq that sent hundreds to caves and thousands more to paradise. And when we have gotten serious in the postbellum reconstruction, thugs like Mr. Sadr have backed down. But before we gloat and think that we’ve overcome our prior laxity and proclivity for appeasement, let us first make sure we are not still captives to the Minotaur’s logic.

True, al Qaeda is now scattered, the Taliban and Saddam gone. But the calculus of a quarter century — threaten, hit, pause, wait; threaten, hit, pause, wait — is now entrenched in the minds of Middle Eastern murderers. Indeed, the modus operandi that cynically plays on Western hopes, liberalism, and fair play is gospel now to all sorts of bin Laden epigones — as we have seen in Madrid, Fallujah, and Najaf.

Much has been written about our problems with this postmodern war and why we find it so difficult to fully mobilize our formidable military and economic clout to crush the terrorists and their patrons. Of course, we have no identifiable conventional enemy such as Hitler’s Panzers; we are not battling a fearsome nation that defiantly declared war on us, such as Tojo’s Japan; and we are no longer a depression-era, disarmed, impoverished United States at risk for our very survival. But then, neither Hitler nor Mussolini nor Tojo nor Stalin ever reached Manhattan and Washington.

So al Qaeda is both worse and not worse than the German Nazis: It is hardly the identifiable threat of Hitler’s Wehrmacht, but in this age of technology and weapons of mass destruction it is more able to kill more Americans inside the United States. Whereas we think our fascist enemies of old were logical and conniving, too many of us deem bin Laden’s new fascists unhinged — their fatwas, their mythology about strong and weak horses, and their babble about the Reconquista and the often evoked “holy shrines” are to us dreamlike.

But I beg to differ somewhat.

I think the Islamists and their supporters do not live in an alternate universe, but instead are no more crazy in their goals than Hitler was in thinking he could hijack the hallowed country of Beethoven and Goethe and turn it over to buffoons like Goering, prancing in a medieval castle in reindeer horns and babbling about mythical Aryans with flunkies like Goebbels and Rosenberg. Nor was Hitler’s fatwa — Mein Kampf — any more irrational than bin Laden’s 1998 screed and his subsequent grainy infomercials. Indeed, I think Islamofascism is brilliant in its reading of the postmodern West and precisely for that reason it is dangerous beyond all description — in the manner that a blood-sucking, stealthy, and nocturnal Dracula was always spookier than a massive, clunky Frankenstein.

Like Hitler’s creed, bin Ladenism trumpets contempt for bourgeois Western society. If once we were a “mongrel” race of “cowboys” who could not take casualties against the supermen of the Third Reich, now we are indolent infidels, channel surfers who eat, screw, and talk too much amid worthless gadgetry, godless skyscrapers, and, of course, once again, the conniving Jews.

Like Hitler, bin Ladenism has an agenda: the end of the liberal West. Its supposedly crackpot vision is actually a petrol-rich Middle East free of Jews, Christians, and Westerners, free to rekindle spiritual purity under Sharia. Bin Laden’s al Reich is a vast pan-Arabic, Taliban-like caliphate run out of Mecca by new prophets like him, metering out oil to a greedy West in order to purchase the weapons of its destruction; there is, after all, an Israel to be nuked, a Europe to be out-peopled and cowered, and an America to be bombed and terrorized into isolation. This time we are to lose not through blood and iron, but through terror and intimidation: televised beheadings, mass murders, occasional bombings, the disruption of commerce, travel, and the oil supply.

In and of itself, our enemies’ ambitions would lead to failure, given the vast economic and military advantages of the West. So to prevent an all out, terrible response to these predictable cycles of killing Westerners, there had to be some finesse to the terrorists’ methods. The trick was in preventing some modern Theseus from going into the heart of the Labyrinth to slay the beast and end the nonsense for good.

It was hard for the Islamic fascists to find ideological support in the West, given their agenda of gender apartheid, homophobia, religious persecution, racial hatred, fundamentalism, polygamy, and primordial barbarism. But they sensed that there has always been a current of self-loathing among the comfortable Western elite, a perennial search for victims of racism, economic oppression, colonialism, and Christianity. Bin Laden’s followers weren’t white; they were sometimes poor; they inhabited of former British and French colonies; and they weren’t exactly followers of the no-nonsense Pope or Jerry Falwell. If anyone doubts the nexus between right-wing Middle Eastern fascism and left-wing academic faddishness, go to booths in the Free Speech area at Berkeley or see what European elites have said and done for Hamas. Middle Eastern fascist killers enshrined as victims alongside our own oppressed? That has been gospel in our universities for the last three decades.

Like Hitler, bin Ladenism grasped the advantages of hating the Jews. It has been 60 years since the Holocaust; memories dim. Israel is not poor and invaded but strong, prosperous, and unapologetic. It is high time, in other words, to unleash the old anti-Semitic infectious bacillus. Thus Zionists caused the latest Saudi bombings, just as they have poisoned Arab-American relations, just as neo-conservatives hijacked American policy, just as Feith, Perle, and Wolfowitz cooked up this war.

Finally, bin Laden understood the importance of splitting the West, just like the sultan of old knew that a Europe trisected into Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism would fight among itself rather than unite against a pan-Islamic foe. Hit the Spanish and bring in an anti-American government. Leave France and Germany alone for a time so they can blame the United States for mobilizing against a “nonexistent” threat, unleashing the age-old envy and jealously of the American upstart.

If after four years of careful planning, al Qaedists hit the Olympics in August, the terrorists know better than we do that most Europeans will do nothing — but quickly point to the U.S. and scream “Iraq!” And they know that the upscale crowds in Athens are far more likely to boo a democratic America than they are a fascist Syria or theocratic Iran. Just watch.

In the European mind, and that of its aping American elite, the terrorists lived, slept, and walked in the upper aether — never the streets of Kabul, the mosques of Damascus, the palaces of Baghdad, the madrassas of Saudi Arabia, or the camps of Iran. To assume that the latter were true would mean a real war, real sacrifice, and a real choice between the liberal bourgeois West and a Dark-Age Islamofascist utopia.

While all Westerners prefer the bounty of capitalism, the delights of personal freedom, and the security of modern technological progress, saying so and not apologizing for it — let alone defending it — is, well, asking a little too much from the hyper sophisticated and cynical. Such retrograde clarity could cost you, after all, a university deanship, a correspondent billet in Paris or London, a good book review, or an invitation to a Georgetown or Malibu A-list party.

Nearly three years after 9/11 we are in the strangest of all paradoxes: a war against fascists that we can easily win but are clearly not ready to fully wage. We have the best 500,000 soldiers in the history of civilization, a resolute president, and an informed citizenry that has already received a terrible preemptive blow that killed thousands.

Yet what a human comedy it has now all become.

The billionaire capitalist George Soros — who grew fabulously wealthy through cold and calculating currency speculation, helping to break many a bank and its poor depositors — now makes the moral equation between 9/11 and Abu Ghraib. For this ethicist and meticulous accountant, 3,000 murdered in a time of peace are the same as some prisoners abused by renegade soldiers in a time of war.

Recently in the New York Times I read two articles about the supposedly new irrational insensitivity toward Muslims and saw an ad for a book detailing how the West “constructed” and exaggerated the Islamic menace — even as the same paper ran a quieter story about a state-sponsored cleric in Saudi Arabia’s carefully expounding on the conditions under which Muslims can desecrate the bodies of murdered infidels.

Aristocratic and very wealthy Democrats — Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean, and John Kerry — employ the language of conspiracy to assure us that we had no reason to fight Saddam Hussein. “Lies,” “worst,” and ” betrayed” are the vocabulary of their daily attacks. A jester in stripes like Michael Moore, who cannot tell the truth, is now an artistic icon — precisely and only because of his own hatred of the president and the inconvenient idea that we are really at war. Our diplomats court the Arab League, which snores when Russians and Sudanese kill hundreds of thousands of Muslims but shrieks when we remove those who kill even more of their own. And a depopulating, entitlement-expanding Europe believes an American president, not bin Laden, is the greatest threat to world peace. Russia, the slayer of tens of thousands of Muslim Chechans and a big-time profiteer from Baathist loot, lectures the United States on its insensitivity to the new democracy in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Iraq, and the rest of the Middle East, we see the same old bloodcurdling threats, the horrific videos, the bombings, the obligatory pause, the faux negotiations, the lies — and then, of course, the bloodcurdling threats, the horrific videos, the bombings…

No, bin Laden is quite sane — but lately I have grown more worried that we are not.

© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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