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It's a good time for war

Proving Osama bin Laden wrong is the right thing to do. And when we remember that victory is certain, we can stop scaring ourselves to death.

By Christopher Hitchens, 9/8/2002

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The World Trade Center, where nearly 3,000 died. (AFP Photo)

President Bush after announcing the freeze of a Texas-based relief fund that channeled money raised in the United States to the terrorist group Hamas. (AFP Photo)

n several of his demented sermons, in the days before he achieved global notoriety, Osama bin Laden made his followers a sort of promise. Defeating the Red Army in Afghanistan and bringing down the Soviet Union, he said, had been the hard part. The easy part - the destruction of the United States of America - was still to come. That task would be easy because America was corrupt and cowardly and rotten. It would not fight (as the debacle in Somalia had shown); it was a slave of the Jewish conspiracy; it cared only for comfort and materialism.

It involves no exaggeration to say that everything depends, and has depended, on proving bin Laden wrong. And not merely in proving him wrong, but in demonstrating exactly how wrong he is. (Or how wrong he was: I am one of those who do not expect to hear from him in person again.)

Of course, this weekend is partly, and rightly, being given over to remembrance. Everyone has his own indelible image of September 11. Mine is in part imaginary: It involves picturing the wolfish smiles on the faces of the second crew of hijackers as United Airlines Flight 175 screamed toward Manhattan and saw the flames and smoke already billowing from the first World Trade Center tower. With what delight they must have ramped up the speed of their plane, crammed with human cargo, and smashed into the second civilian target. But I also like to visualize the panic and dismay on the faces of those who stole United Airlines Flight 93 as they saw a posse of determined passengers ready to do or die over Pennsylvania rather than have the White House or the Capitol immolated by the scum of the earth. (I live in Washington, D.C., and can never pass either building without picturing how the scene might have looked if it were not for those exemplary volunteers. I also try hard to stay aware of my indebtedness to them.)

In order to get my own emotions out of the way, I should say briefly that on that day I shared the general register of feeling, from disgust to rage, but was also aware of something that would not quite disclose itself. It only became fully evident quite late that evening. And to my surprise (and pleasure), it was exhilaration. I am not particularly a war lover, and on the occasions when I have seen warfare as a traveling writer, I have tended to shudder. But here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan. (Those are the ones I love, by the way.) On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting.

I had felt this way once before, on Valentine's Day 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini offered a bounty in his own name for the murder of a fiction writer then living in Western Europe. On that occasion, the response had not been so unanimous. The first President George Bush, when asked for a comment on the Khomeini fatwah against Salman Rushdie, had replied that as far as he could see, no American interests were involved.

In September 2001, there wasn't much evasive babble of that kind. It had become plain to any thinking person that Islamic absolutism was a deadly and immediate menace. Look at what it had done to its own societies: the Stone Age misery imposed upon Afghanistan or the traumas visited by fundamentalist gangs on Algeria or the state-enforced stultification in Saudi Arabia. If they would treat their "own" people like that, what might they have in store for us?

There's no time to waste on the stupid argument that such a deadly movement represents a sort of "cry for help" or is a thwarted expression of poverty and powerlessness. Osama bin Laden and his fellow dogmatists say openly that they want to restore the lost caliphate; in other words, the Muslim empire once centered at Constantinople. They are not anti-imperialists so much as nostalgists for imperialism. The gang that kidnapped and murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl - and proudly made a video showing the ritual slaughter of a Jew - issued a list of demands on that same obscene video. One of those demands was for the resumption of US sales of advanced F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. Only a complete moral idiot can believe for an instant that we are fighting against the wretched of the earth. We are fighting, as I said before, against the scum of the earth.

t is important to realize at the outset that a victory for those forces, of which bin Ladenism is only the most extreme, is in two senses of the word impossible. Impossible, obviously, from a moral point of view and from the viewpoint of survival. It has taken us a long time to evolve a society that, however imperfectly, respects political pluralism and religious diversity and the emancipation of the sexual life. A society that attempts to employ the objective standards of scientific inquiry and that has brought us the Hubble telescope and the unraveling of the chain of DNA. Clearly, there can be no compromise between this and the ravings of those who study dreams and are deluded by wild prophecies and who regard women as chattel and unbelievers as sacrificial animals. For them, the achievements of science are nothing, while the theft of weapons of mass destruction counts as a holy task. Their degradation is bottomless.

This also entails the second sense in which their triumph is impossible. Even if it wished to go there, the Muslim world cannot be returned to the desert and to the precepts of the seventh century. Every such attempt has been a terrifying failure, just as every jihad has ended either in ignominious defeat or in fratricide among its partisans. In a broadcast just after September 11, bin Laden deputy Suleiman Abu Gheith warned Muslims living in the West not to reside in tall buildings or fly on airplanes, because the rain of death was not going to stop. There are many, many Muslims, and not just in the West, who do not care to be spoken to in that tone of voice.

I think that that broadcast should have been mandatory viewing and should have been followed by a robust reply delivered by a serious scholar or a duly elected politician. Instead, the Bush administration asked the American networks not to carry it, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice even hinted suggestively that such transmissions might contain hidden codes. Well, I think we can take it as certain that Al Qaeda does not rely for its communications on the broadcast schedules of our treasured TV system. (It seems to have been able to arrange everything from flight training to bank accounts without even bothering to conceal its identity.)

But more to the point, why are we so timorous in the face of such a contemptible foe? Why did our vice president go into hiding? Why are we so bent on the useless collective punishment of law-abiding air travelers, none of whom are any better protected from a determined suicide-murderer than they were this time last year? What is the point of all these ominous "warnings" issued by the authorities, which resemble airport or subway announcements in being very loud but highly incomprehensible? Where is the spirit of Flight 93?

Of the gamut of emotions that made the scoreboard a year ago, many people reported a sense of powerlessness or helplessness. This is defeat in the mind. It is certainly true that the national security elite underestimated Al Qaeda before September 11, to an extent that verges upon criminal negligence. But that would be the worst justification for overestimating it now.

And people do not make the best decisions when they are afraid. It was a mistake to pass any law in the immediate aftermath of the assault. Congress should have insisted on a full accounting of the failures of the executive branch before submitting to that same branch's panicky demand for measures that infringe on the letter as well as the spirit of our Constitution. Imagine the grin on the faces of the enemy when they read that Canadians can no longer, with mere student visas, cross the border to take classes at US colleges. That should settle the terrorists' hash. No: When we remember that victory is certain we can at the same time stop scaring ourselves to death.

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