Open society is casualty of cultural war

John Leo

9/17/2001 12:00:00 AM - John Leo
Now that everyone seems to agree that we are at war, it's important to make clear what the war is about. It is not primarily about Israel or Palestinian grievances. Some of the most dedicated fanatics -- Osama bin Laden, for instance -- rarely bother to focus on the Palestinian issue.

Despite what our blinkered academic establishment thinks, the war is not about post-colonial resentments either. Colonialism is two or three generations past. The rich nations have spent so heavily on the undeveloped world that who-did-what-to-whom many decades ago cannot explain what is happening. No, this is a global cultural war, pitting a pan-Islamic movement of fundamentalist extremists against the modern world and its primary cultural engine, America, "the Great Satan."

We are not going to war against Islam. The vast majority of Muslims want no part of terror, and many Muslim states are as nervous about terrorism as we are. The problem is a rigid religious subculture that cannot cope with openness, change, rules, democracy, secularism and tolerance, wishing to destroy those who can.

For some in this twisted culture, the Crusades have never ended. For others, like bin Laden, the dream is to restore the caliphate, the glorious age of Muslim domination that flourished after the death of Muhammad. Whether these extremists and their terrorists are living in the 12th century or the sixth, it follows that the traditional soft Western search for the "root causes" or "understanding the pain of poverty that leads to violence" have no role to play here.

The clear rational response to those who blow up 6,000 to 20,000 people in a single attack is the same as the angry emotional response: no negotiation or placation is possible. The mass murderers and their conspiracy must be rooted out and eliminated. Not "brought to justice" (i.e., captured and sent to the Hague for a leisurely series of trials) but killed.

The entire criminal-justice approach to terrorism is irrelevant now. It's a war, not a courtroom procedure, and there is no need to provide courtroom-level evidence against bin Laden or anyone else involved. Terrorists are often recruited in one nation, trained in a second and sent to a third. Proving who gave what order is hardly necessary. Everyone in the transnational conspiracy and its shifting networks will be targeted.

Give the terrorists credit for focusing the minds of Americans sharply in a single day. The nation yawned its way through a decade of attacks on U.S. troops, embassies, the USS Cole and the World Trade Center (in 1993). The assumption seemed to be that whatever happened on American soil would by minor and conducted by incompetents.

The skill and scope of last week's attacks were as shocking as the results. If the fanatics were able to kill so many Americans, and the only weapons they had to bring along to accomplish this were some box cutters and a few plastic knives, what could come when more sophisticated weaponry is used? What if the tools are biochemical or nuclear? "Germs," a new book by Judith Miller, Stephen Engleberg and William Broad, all of The New York Times, reports that astounding advances in biotechnology and germ warfare have left America unprepared for catastrophic attack. Whatever it takes to prepare bio-defenses will have to be spent.

Some restrictions on U.S. counterterrorism operations may be dropped. One is the rule that CIA agents cannot pose as journalists or clergy. There are good reasons for the rule, but the downside is that CIA agents are much less effective when they are clearly identifiable as spies. Another is the rule forbidding CIA agents from employing anyone suspected of human rights violations. Former senator Sam Nunn said last week said that we cannot expect our agents to deal only with Boy Scouts.

As yet we just don't know how much America must be reshaped to cope with a terrorist enemy that will stop at nothing. But surely it will involve massive expenditures, plus a major loss of privacy. We will likely have to accept a degree of intrusion and surveillance long regarded as intolerable. To survive, an open society will have to become less open.

A minor example: David Bonior, the Democratic congressman from Michigan with a heavily Arab-American constituency, has led the fight against "racial profiling" of Arabs and Arab-Americans at airports. The emphasis on fairness is commendable. Those of Middle Eastern ancestry must not be demonized or treated unfairly. But under current conditions, the "racial profiling" argument simply looks quaint. It is one of the little-noticed victims of Tuesday's assault.

Under current conditions, to ask America to refrain from heightened scrutiny of Middle Easterners at airports, aviation schools and immigration checkpoints is unrealistic. The peril to the nation is so great that changes of all kinds will come, many of them painful. What has to be done, will be done.