Beating the Dead Terrorist Horse

September 11 taught us many lessons. To our peril, we have forgotten them.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Most of the current acrimony over counterterrorism is stale. The debate is simply a rehash of issues that were discussed and, in fact, resolved early last decade.

Let us review them one more time.

Most Terrorists Are Not Poor and Downtrodden

September 11 taught us that a Mohammed Atta or a Khalid Sheikh Mohammed does not commit mass murder out of hunger, want, illiteracy, or Western oppression.

No doubt Middle Eastern poverty contributes to religious violence. But the poor in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Yemen are no more impoverished than those in the slums of São Paulo, Mexico City, Ho Chi Minh City, or Johannesburg. And the latter, despite their frequent claims against the West, do not feel a need to murder in mass in the name of their particular religion.

A Major Nidal Hasan or an Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab wishes to kill Westerners not because he is poor or even on behalf of the poor, but rather out of a warped sense of pride, hurt, and anger.

Such passions derive from a radical religious creed that insists that comparative failure in the modern Middle East is not self-induced — much less a product of fundamentalism, anti-Enlightenment thinking, autocracy, gender apartheid, tribalism, corruption, and statism. Instead the fact that there is no longer an intercontinental caliphate of rich and powerful believers is due to some sort of contemporary Jewish or Western oppression.

The wealthier, better educated, and more Westernized the radical Muslim, often the greater the sense of shame, alienation, and anger that he and his religion are not shown proper deference. We knew all that in 2001, but have apparently forgotten it during eight years of relative calm.

Hasan hated American soldiers not because our system had discriminated against him, much less because of “secondary post-traumatic-stress syndrome,” or any of the other wacky excuses that followed his crime. Instead, in part he sensed that the American military had bent over backwards for him and accommodated his extremism — and was therefore, in his own distorted worldview, weak, decadent, and deserving of what he would dish out.

Therapy Is No Answer

Radical Islam’s anger is irrational. It is not predicated on the degree of outreach shown by the United States. A contrite and compliant Jimmy Carter, after all, prompted the creation of the slur “The Great Satan.” The year 2009 saw the greatest number of foiled terrorist plots against America since 9/11. Indeed, one-third of all such attempts in the last eight years happened last year — the time of the Obama Al Arabiya interview, the Cairo speech, the bowing to Saudi royals, the promises to close Guantanamo Bay, and the ritual trashing of the Bush anti-terrorism policies.

We need not be gratuitously rude. There surely is a role for sober diplomacy and soft speech. But the degree to which radical Islam will be aggressive toward the West hinges a lot on what it imagines will be our reaction — in terms both of military responses, and of the sense of confidence we project about our own civilization.

Islamists, after all, ignore past American help to, and support for, Islamic peoples in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Indonesia, Iraq, Kosovo, Kuwait, and Somalia — only to pay far more deference to the Chinese and Russians, who have systematically oppressed and often butchered fellow Muslims. Apparently, Dr. Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden would rather recommend reading by Noam Chomsky and Jimmy Carter than offend Vladimir Putin and earn another Grozny.

The popularity of bin Laden and the tactic of suicide bombing itself plummeted throughout the Middle East between 2001 and 2009. And that was not because of the mellifluousness of George Bush’s Texas twang or a sudden love for our policy in Iraq.

Rather, the change of heart developed because bin Laden and his epigones were considered to be losing in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were endangering those who supported them, and murderously turning on their own — even as the United States was projecting both an image of confidence and readiness to extend support for consensual government and personal freedom.

In contrast, the current policy of apology and kowtow — coupled with a cynical realism (albeit cloaked in nonjudgmental, multicultural relativism) and presented abroad with a sense of hesitation and self-doubt — is, in fact, a prescription for reviving radical Islam.

That lesson likewise was apparent after 9/11.

A Projection of the Weakness Is Dangerous

Much of radical Islam’s posture is predicated on our expected response. When we did nothing during the Iranian hostage crisis, more or less whined after the Marine-barracks bombing, sent a few cruise missiles after the East African embassy attacks, litigated the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and forgot the USS Cole, bin Laden concluded that the West was the “weak horse” and pressed on.

To some degree, Afghanistan and Iraq changed that impression, especially the devastating defeat of al Qaeda in al-Anbar province in 2006–2008. But that costly progress was accompanied by more recrimination against the Bush administration than anger directed at radical Islam.

Equally important, the Western world said very little about the Danish-cartoon threats, the killing of Theo Van Gogh, and various premodern Muslim actions like rioting after the Pope’s Byzantine exegesis and the false stories of Koran burning in Guantanamo. Had Europe and the United States shown a united front on behalf of freedom of expression, rather than a fear of Islamic reaction, such incidents would have been written off as the lunacy they were.

Instead of reacting to perceived Muslim grievances, we should be continually directing questions to Islam: Why are there numerous mosques in the West, but few churches in Islamic countries? Why are Korans freely disseminated in the West, but Bibles not so under Islamic rule? Why do Muslims enjoy more freedom and rights under Western secular law than in their own countries? The aim of such interrogatories is not to score points, but to suggest to radical Muslims that we hold them to the same standards as we hold ourselves.

Israel Is Not the Problem

Just because radical Muslims and the Arab Street claim that a Jewish presence on the West Bank is the catalyst for terrorist outrage does not make it so — any more than Hitler’s insistence that Versailles drove him to the invasion of Poland in 1939, or Argentinians’ claims that their problems in the early 1980s originated with the British “occupation” of the Malvinas.

No Germans today are blowing up Poles for the loss of Danzig and East Prussia. Greek Cypriots are not planting IEDs at Turkish embassies to force the return of ancestral homelands. And the world is not concerned about the divided city of Nicosia or Russian occupation of the Kuriles.

No, what privileges the Palestinian question is largely three factors that have nothing to do with disputed ground: the presence of huge amounts of oil on Arab lands, endemic anti-Semitism in the West and at the U.N., and fear of radical Islamic terrorism.

Take those considerations out of the equation, and the West Bank is about as important to the world as a disputed South Ossetia. We forget that there were three Middle Eastern wars well before the so-called occupation of Palestine. Gaza did not become a calm place once the Israelis left.

Should Palestinians cease the violence, welcome investment from elsewhere in the Arab world, and establish a consensual government, one transparent and free of corruption, the West Bank could become like Dubai — and deal with Israel as a responsible neighbor adjudicating a common border. And yet radical Islamic terrorism in general would nevertheless continue with fresh and always mutating grievances.

All that was clear around 2001 — but apparently now ignored.

The So-Called War on Terror Was Working

We constantly argue and bicker about what we should be doing rather than showing some appreciation for our past successes. Our country has not experienced another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11. For all the tragedy of Iraq, what was unthinkable in 2006 has now become accepted — a continuing constitutional government and a month of “war” without a single American fatality. The U.S. military is not broken; in fact it has fought brilliantly in both Iraq and Afghanistan. General Petraeus’s surge, unfairly caricatured at the time and now largely forgotten, was a remarkable military and political victory.

There are now proven protocols for dealing with terrorism that work and are not at odds with the Constitution. For all the talk of al Qaeda’s resilience, it has lost thousands of its top echelon. The regime in Iran is shaky — and shakier still for the continuance of a constitutional system in neighboring Iraq. Europe is shedding its politically correct appeasement of Islam, and several countries have already enacted statutes about Islamic dress and mosques unthinkable in the United States.

“Bush did it” is becoming ironic, and having the unintended consequence of reminding us how well we once defended ourselves — and how risky it is not to appreciate why and how.

Will We Never Learn?

In short, soon after September 11 the United States correctly sized up radical Islam, its nature, its aims, and its pseudo-grievances. We may have made mistakes in implementation, and at times in tactics and strategy, but in large part we had contained the threat, and radical Islam was losing its currency.

Apparently we’ve forgotten why that was so, and thus continue to beat the old dead horse in our own self-recrimination.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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