Suddenly Washington is awash in nostalgia for the safety and security of the Cold War. Mutual assured destruction, MAD as it was and for all of the terror it inspired in the imagination, was based on reason and logic.
When Jack Kennedy told Nikita Khrushchev he would not allow Russian missiles in Cuba, and made him believe it, the Russians turned their ships around. The gamble paid off because both sides knew the rules of the game. When Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reykjavik summit that he would never give up the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Soviet leader, with a hard-headed understanding of the economics of an arms race he couldn't win, threw in his cards. We didn't know it at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
When the Berlin Wall fell, lifting the Iron Curtain at last, we indulged in a false optimism of clichés. It was the end of history, the end of irony, the end of fear as we had known it. But a new fear has replaced it, an amorphous anxiety and apprehension residing in ordinary life where innocent men, women and children everywhere and anywhere are threatened. Terror stalks us at work and play, on Wall Street, the Pentagon and even in a pleasure palace in Bali.
A sniper in Washington acts as a symbol of this terror, shooting a man pumping gasoline into the tank of his taxi, a woman loading a car with household goods for a new apartment, a man mowing a lawn. The very ordinariness suggests the theater of the absurd. Human activity is deprived of meaning; the irrational dominates, creating chaos in the commonplace.
The motives driving terrorism may be political, but they rationalize irrationality. What, to a rational mind, is the point of killing men and women enjoying themselves at a resort far away from home? American intelligence analysts identify the terrorists as linked to al-Qaida, but what can these evil men gain beyond the spreading of fear?
The rumor on "the street" in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, is that the death and destruction was the work of Americans. "Extraordinary as this seems in the West, many Indonesians are convinced that the United States sponsored the Bali bombing in order to convince reluctant governments to join its war on terror and support an attack on Iraq," writes Sidney Jones, director of the Indonesian project of the International Crisis Group, in the New York Times.
This is absurd to us, but similar to the tale that the destruction of the World Trade Center was the work of Israel and the perfidious Jews, and taken as fact on the Arab Street. (It still is.)
Only benighted religious belief could drive fanatics to this kind of terror, kindling the wrath of Islamists against what they perceive as secular decadence. The West is identified with physical pleasure on this earth; the Islamists are storing up pleasure for the next world. The wine, women and song at the Sari Club is seen as deathly depravity, and murderous acts against such abominations are sacred missions in the purification of this earth. There may not have been many virgins at the Sari Club, but many are waiting to be despoiled by fanatics in Islamic heaven. We can't understand it because it's a chaos of mirrors of the mind.
The regiments of peace at any price - we have seen the price of peace writ large once more - argue that dealing with Saddam Hussein will incite more Muslim fanaticism, giving the terrorists greater incentive to enlist in the cause of al-Qaida. But we have seen that there are enough now to destroy our way of life.
Tony Blair put it right, that dealing with an Iraq with deadly weapons is not a distraction from the fight against terrorism: "Some say that we should fight terrorism alone and that the issues to do with weapons of mass destruction are a distraction. I reject that entirely. Both, though different in means, are the same in nature. Both are the new threats facing the post-Cold War world. Both are threats from people of states who do not care about human life, who have no compunction about killing the innocent. Both represent the extreme replacing the rational, the fanatic driving out moderation."
Fear is useless if it does not lead us to action. We're in a new age of fear - of the sniper's gun, the terrorist's bomb and a madman's weapons of mass destruction. This should galvanize us to act with resolution, armed with reason and logic.