WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As the grisly attacks of Sept. 11 segue into the wartime tensions accompanying America's war against terrorism, an unconventional thought occurs. Why have not the impoverished and enraged Tuareg tribesmen (and tribeswomen!) of the Sahara declared war against America? They are Muslims to the utmost.
Or why did not West Africa's renowned Bariba tribesmen (and tribeswomen!) train a few pilots and killers to commandeer commercial jets and fly them into crowds of unsuspecting American civilians? They too are Muslims. Presumably they are no less offended by the usurpations of McDonalds or Coca Cola than the Rev. Osama bin Ladin. Yet thus far, all is quiet in the regions of the Tuareg and the Bariba.
A couple of weeks back, when the resolve of America's culturatii was beginning to go wobbly, they began to blubber that the bin Ladins of this world had some grounds for their complaints against this rapacious country of ours. At Georgetown University and more recently at Harvard University, America's moral laureate, former President Bill Clinton, elaborated on this point, asserting that the Islamic terrorists were duly ambushing Americans because of America's enslavement of Africans and expropriation of the red Indians. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before Jesse Jackson highjacks an airplane or the Navajos plant a bomb in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The culturatii were also saying that the Taliban were going to withstand our aerial assault for months. By hiding under rocks, they were going to withstand bombardment that Saddam Hussein's armies had not been able to endure. These were the same armchair generalissimos who when we were bombing the Iraqis insisted that we had again stumbled into a Vietnam "quagmire."
That was the word R. W. Apple used in The New York Times. Amazingly, the opinion was forming among the morally precious that the Taliban were militarily superior to the Iraqis but this time we would be getting what we deserved for, as the Prophet Clinton said, slavery and plunder.
This moral judgment against America strikes me as (dare I say it?) historically illiterate. According to the books I have read about Afghanistan and, for that matter, Central Asia, slavery and cruelty have been endemic to the region from time out of mind. The Muslims of Central Asia practiced slavery and plunder as staples of their economic order -- if I may stretch the meaning of order.
Now the city of Herat is in the headlines. It has become a haven for refugees. Historically, it is an unlikely center for humanitarianism. Throughout the 19th Century the slave trade flourished in the region. It was probably practiced there up to recent decades. Historically it was practiced mainly against Russians, Persians and almost any unarmed people who wandered onto the countryside. The local slave traders had an innovative idea on how to keep their slaves from running away. They would cut off the slaves' ears, so that the wretches could be easily identified as private property -- if I may stretch the meaning of private property. As late as 1810 one European, a British officer named Charles Christie, was only the second of his kind to visit Herat and live to tell of it.
The region has long been ungovernable save by warlords. Brigands roamed the region and obviously still do. Last week, a pack of them fell on four journalists and killed them for the sheer joy of it. The event should not have been reported as unusual.
One of the lessons that ought to be coming out of our war against terrorism is that not all cultures are equally moral. For that matter, some are downright murderous. Tribal communities such as those I began this column adverting to may be poor and may be backward, but not all tribal communities would plan and justify anything like the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Going back centuries, tribal practices in Central Asia have been unspeakably brutal; yet only with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has that brutality been aimed at the outside world. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it involved hijacking airplanes and cruise ships, and murdering private citizens. In the 1990s, it expanded to suicide attacks on foreign diplomatic missions and military targets. Now, it involves suicide attacks into the American homeland.
The Nazis and the communists participated in a little of this, and the civilized world defended itself. Both groups claimed to be harbingers of the future. The backward forces of Islamic fundamentalism claim to represent the future, too. If our forces do not crush them, it will be a grim future.
The fundamentalists now brag of their ability to carry nuclear devices and biological weapons into our cities. The sobering fact is that they might succeed. All we can do to protect ourselves is to go to their points of origin and kill them. That is the course our government must follow even as it endures moral lectures from the culturatii led by the man who heaved a few cruise missiles against them during his time in power. Critics claimed he did this only to distract the public from his misbehavior. That is how Bill Clinton became America's moral laureate.