If the New York Times says so, then it must be true: An opinion poll published there last Sunday showed that for the first time since Sept. 11, more Americans now believe that the economy, not terrorism, should be the government’s first priority. Most Americans also believe the war on terrorism is going well and that we will have “won” when Osama Bin Laden is captured or killed.
This poll confirms something I’ve felt happening over the past few weeks. One could call it a return to normality, a return to everyday politics, a return to business as usual. Or one could call it evidence of our famously short national attention span. I was particularly bothered by the sense of “mission almost accomplished” that appeared to be expressed by the New York Times poll. True, the war in Afghanistan is going well—but it is far too early to say whether or not the war on terrorism is going well. The capture of Osama Bin Laden would end a certain phase of the war on terrorism—but it would not signify victory. I don’t even like to use the word “victory” in this context since “victory” conjures up ticker-tape parades, fat ladies singing, and a return to “the economy, stupid.” In that sense, there will be no victory: The war on terrorism will not end in this generation, or even in the lifetime of anyone old enough to read this article.
There are three reasons why this is so, and the first is ideological. Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaida network consists of a relatively small group of fanatics, whom we might well capture or destroy or otherwise eliminate altogether. Nevertheless, al-Qaida is only the latest manifestation of a much larger and more enduring anti-Western, anti-capitalist, and anti-American phenomenon. In a recent, brilliant article in the New York Review of Books, the writers Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit point out that the new generation of Islamic extremists have a great deal in common with a previous generation of Nazi and Japanese extremists: their hatred of the city, of the bourgeoisie, of feminism, of decadence—and their love of heroism and death. They compare the Japanese kamikaze pilots and the German cult of heroes (“Happiness lies only in sacrificial death”) to the recent words of a young Afghan warrior: “The Americans love Pepsi Cola, but we love death.”
Their larger point, and the one that most interests me, is that the peculiar attributes of Western capitalism—its tendency to disrupt traditional ways of life, its materialism, its cosmopolitan nature—have produced enemies in the past and will do so in the future. Over and over again, individuals or groups who have not succeeded in the Western system, or who have felt threatened by the Western system, have tried to destroy it or encroach upon it, sometimes with remarkable success. It is worth noting that the last great wave of capitalist growth and globalization, led by 19th-century Britain, came to an end partly thanks to Marxism, which also got its start as a small, fanatical, anti-capitalist cult.
But cults can grow quickly, particularly when their potential membership is large. And indeed, the second, related reason why the war on terrorism will not end quickly is demographic. To put it bluntly, it is unlikely that the enemies of America, or of global capitalism, will grow any fewer, or any less diverse. Among the al-Qaida prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay are men of more than two dozen nationalities. They come from the Arab world, from Africa, from South Asia.
They also come from Western Europe: There are three Britons and up to seven Frenchmen as well. While we’ve all been riveted by the strange case of John Walker Lindh, these Europeans represent a deeper and more threatening phenomenon. Their very existence disproves the thesis at the center of benign global liberalism: that the more people of different cultures get to know one another—and the more similar they grow to one another—the more they will get to like one other. These 10 European terrorists were not just similar to us: They were us. Just like the al-Qaida activists who planned their attack on the World Trade Center from their base in Hamburg, the 10 Europeans in U.S. captivity chose to fight the West not because they were ignorant of the West, but because they knew it all too well. And they are far from unique. In December, the British government released a report on the riots that took place in the Northern English city of Bradford last summer. Along with racism and poverty, the report blamed the riots on the Bradford Pakistani community’s refusal to integrate with mainstream British life. If Pakistanis in Bradford don’t want any part of British culture, why are we so certain that Pakistanis in Pakistan, or Africans in Africa, or Asians in Asia will necessarily be much more enthusiastic about global capitalist culture either?
The final and most familiar reason why the war on terrorism will go on for many years is technological. But by this I don’t mean that nuclear weapons are getting easier to produce and transport, or that chemical weapons are growing more sophisticated, although all that is perfectly true. I mean, rather, that the technology to shock and traumatize urban populations is already with us, should somebody want badly enough to deploy it. The attacks of Sept. 11 were not the result of recent advances in fiber optics or information technology—it has been possible to use an airplane to hit a large building for the better part of a century. The explosives that suicide bombers are using to terrorize West Jerusalem aren’t exactly of recent invention either. While the latter don’t necessarily kill vast numbers of people, they’ve seriously damaged the Israeli economy, not to mention the Israeli psyche, shaping Israeli politics and security policy for years to come. Any group of ideologically driven people (see above) could, with sufficient numbers (also see above) achieve the same in New York City—starting tomorrow.
This was perfectly true before Sept. 11, of course. But only since Sept. 11 has it mattered, not just to terrorism experts and Middle East specialists and nuclear proliferation junkies, but to most Americans. Only after Sept. 11 did most Americans suddenly decide that the threat of terrorism requires urgent political action. After a mere four months, it’s too soon to unlearn that lesson.