Awakening on the morning of September 11, 2001, we Americans were proud, happy, and confident.
We knew ourselves to be the only Superpower—the world's economic colossus, the global center of culture, the planet's most potent military force.
We thought these things made us invulnerable.
We know differently now.
We suddenly realize that we are vulnerable, terribly vulnerable. So vulnerable that we failed to protect ourselves, even our most vital institutions, from a mere handful of barbarians armed with knives.
Without challenge, they were allowed to breach the security of our airports, seize our airliners, and transform these, the pride of our skies, into butchers' blades. Without resistance, they were permitted to invade the airspace above the nation's capitol, and hang like Damocles' sword above our President's house before plunging to stab the nerve center of our military might. Without confrontation, they were able to fly from Boston to New York City, to the symbol of capitalism, the World Trade Center, and to slash off its towering twin legs.
It appears that only over Pennsylvania did the barbarians encounter resistance—not from those supposed to defend us, but from unarmed citizens who fought back bravely, in the process sparing their paralyzed protectors from further annihilation. These heroes' bodies lie in the scarred soil of Pennsylvania.
Flowing forth from these gaping wounds was the innocent blood of thousands of our fellow citizens. And a message.
As I write, it is one week after the Atrocity. And while we prepare for war, we ask ourselves, again and again, two questions:
Why? Why would anyone be motivated to commit such a horror?
How? How could the most powerful nation on earth let it happen?
The answer in both cases is philosophical.
In the wake of the September 11th Atrocity, many are blaming U. S. foreign policy—specifically our support of Israel—for inspiring Islamic hatred of America. But in fact, that hatred has roots that are centuries deep.
Islam, which arose in the seventh century, was the once-dominant religious force in the world, having conquered not only much of the Middle East and North Africa, but even much of Europe. Its bloody struggle with Christianity for supremacy lasted centuries, and for much of that time, the Muslim world saw itself as—and in some respects became—a center of truth, civilization, and enlightenment.
But for the past three centuries, the Islamic world has been in retreat, first expelled from Europe, then humiliated by the encroachment of European colonialism in Asia and Africa. Muslims found themselves under the domination—politically, militarily, and culturally—of Europeans particularly, and more generally, of Western values.
The ideas and values of the Enlightenment posed a special challenge to Christians and Muslims alike, and among adherents of both religions, responses varied. The majority of Christian and Muslim believers have tried to come to terms with modernism, and have embraced—to varying degrees—the Enlightenment culture of individual emancipation, material progress, personal success, and general tolerance. For example, though Islam is a theocratic creed that does not recognize any separation of church and state, most Islamic nations have tolerated the presence and practice of non-Islamic religions. And just as there is a broad diversity among Christian religions, so too are there many divisions within Islam.
Yet among both Christians and Muslims are those overwhelmed and intimidated by the freedoms, complexity, opportunities, and demands of the modern world. They resent the disruption of the old ways, when their personal identities and social status were inherited rather than earned—when their choices were few, simple, and undemanding—when their wives and children knew their places and obeyed without question—when their self-esteem came automatically from their religious and tribal affiliations rather than from their personal achievements—when their blind faith in hand-me-down doctrines could substitute for the need to think for themselves.
These are the fundamentalists: those who hate modernity and yearn nostalgically for the good old days. They can be found among Christians, Jews, Muslims—all religions, in fact. Their core premises are to be found among secularists, too: among post-modern scholars and professional politicians, among bureaucrats and intellectuals, among anti-globalization and environmental activists—all united in fear and resentment against the modern, competitive, capitalist marketplace, which rewards productive achievements and is indifferent to mere good intentions.
In the Islamic world, the rise of fundamentalism was fueled further by its status as a once-dominant religion, now in retreat—by a general feeling of emasculation and cultural inferiority. For the Muslim fundamentalist, the West had not only defeated him militarily: Western values had undermined his creed and seduced his culture, even within the structure of his own family.
"It was too much to endure," writes noted Islamic expert Bernard Lewis, "and the outbreak of rage against these alien, infidel, and incomprehensible forces that had subverted [the Muslim's] dominance, disrupted his society, and finally violated the sanctuary of his home was inevitable."
Until World War II, European colonialism and Christianity had been the traditional targets of fundamentalist Muslim resentment. The Islamic world paid America little heed until the post-war era. But the collapse of European colonial influence, the rise of the oil industry in the Middle East, the vast increase in travel to and from the United States, and the exportation of American culture through movies, television, and consumer goods, confronted practitioners of Islam with a new challenge to their cultural identity.
Many Muslims came to see America as a beacon of freedom, wealth, and opportunity. Many emigrated to the United States for those very reasons, and have assimilated into our culture. By contrast, Islamic fundamentalists seethed with resentment and envy against this new secular infidel, this emerging cultural colonialist whose seductive values threatened their identity, sovereignty, and power.
In their eyes, America became "the Great Satan."
"Fundamentalist leaders are not mistaken in seeing in Western civilization the greatest challenge to [their] way of life," Lewis concludes. "And since the United States is the legitimate heir of European civilization and the recognized and unchallenged leader of the West, the United States has inherited the resulting grievances and become the focus for the pent-up hate and anger."
This anti-Americanism is primarily philosophical. It has flourished not primarily because of American foreign policy, but sometimes even in spite of it. It has persisted even in the face of such actions as U. S. intervention in 1956 to have Israel, Britain and France withdraw from Egypt, and our many subsequent efforts to compel Israel to cede to Palestinian demands at the negotiating table. America is now the fundamentalists' reflexive target of opportunity even when it has nothing to do with a particular grievance. When, for example, a group of Muslim dissidents seized the Great Mosque in Mecca in November 1979, an angry mob in Pakistan targeted and burned the U. S. embassy.
For many years the anti-American rage of Islamic fundamentalists festered impotently. But with their takeover of Iran, then their defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan, they began to feel empowered once again. To many Muslim revivalists, their centuries-old dream of a World of Islam seems at last within their grasp. And with the aid of oil money and supportive regimes, they now have the means to fight the hated infidels—led by the Great Satan.
For a violent subset of Islamic fundamentalists, this hatred has now become a holy war, a jihad against America itself—but more: against the whole of Western civilization to which America is heir. These zealots are pushing Islamic fundamentalism to the point of pure nihilism—to becoming an envy-eaten, hate-driven excuse for the obliteration of all civilized values. They have warped Islam into a theological rationalization to attack and destroy all cultural symbols and manifestations of human reason, achievement, happiness, freedom, trade, individuality, and, in the final analysis, life itself. These were the targets of September 11th , chosen with a nihilist's calculated, cold-blooded sense of symbolism.
A decade before the Atrocity, El Sayyid Nosair, suspected in the murder of Rabbi Mayer Kahane, penned a chilling warning, stunningly explicit in its manifestation of this malignant view:
"We have to thoroughly demoralize the enemies of God...by means of destroying and blowing up the towers that constitute the pillars of their civilization, such as...the high buildings of which they are so proud."
His was only one of many similar warnings before and since. We should have known it was coming. So how did they get away with it?
The answer here, too, is philosophical.
We Americans pride ourselves on our practicality. Concretely focused, we are a nation of engineers rather than theorists—and we engineer skyscrapers, not societies. Contemptuous of ideologies and suspicious of ideologues, we tend to pay either little heed.
But all men are ruled by their beliefs, and Americans have their own. We are sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, and its celebration of human reason, science, freedom, material success, and pursuit of personal happiness on earth. Yet precisely because of our anti-intellectuality, these premises compete in our minds and souls with conflicting notions—elements of a pre-Enlightenment tradition that goes back to the dawn of history.
One of the most important of these alien notions is what might be called "the Eden Premise": the view that man, in a state of nature, is pure and perfect, and that civilization itself is an artificial corruption. This premise manifests itself in Greek myths, where human reason, aspiration, and achievement are viewed as an over-reachinghubris. They are carried over in the cautionary tales of the Old Testament: from Adam and Eve's rebellion in Eden, to the building of the Tower of Babel, Man's rational quest for knowledge became the source of his corruption and downfall.
This premise—which celebrates the state of nature and condemns the artificial—is the logical antithesis of the Enlightenment view; and its long cultural pedigree exerts a powerful emotional and intellectual counterweight to modernity in the Western soul.
Among thinkers, it led Rousseau, and a cadre of postmodern intellectuals, to reject the Enlightenment and its fruits and attack Western culture as corrupt. Among ordinary people, it has led to the growing sympathy for primitivism, hostility to capitalism, and worship of nature that has become the spiritual foundation of environmentalism. And among policy makers, it has led to a reflexive sympathy for backward, pastoral societies. The relativism underlying "multiculturalism" has deep roots in our Western psyche, in the warring premises in our own souls that tug us between our rational, civilized aspirations, and the call of the wild.
Partly as a consequence of the Eden Premise, American foreign policy has sought to honor, placate, and appease primitives. Morally torn, we fall over ourselves to declare—and to prove to ourselves—our respect for atavistic traditions, our tolerance of barbaric practices, our accommodation of tribal demands. Hence our policy in the Middle East, which has sought to somehow split the difference between a modern, civilized Israel and the tribal thugs who wish to destroy her.
Coupled with the Eden Premise, there is the age-old equation of morality with self-sacrifice. This relic from tribal morality is also part and parcel of the Judeo-Christian ethic, and it has undermined our will to defend ourselves effectively against sworn enemies.
A foreign policy that grows, in no small part, from a moral tradition that extols mercy, altruism, and turning the other cheek, is hardly the most conducive to a strong and effective national defense. On the contrary, it has drawn us inexorably toward chronic acts of appeasement, under-funding and handcuffing of our military and intelligence organs, and knee-jerk demands for "restraint"—even in the immediate wake of a direct, unspeakable attack on American cities and people. This pacifist impulse is echoed in the private sector as well—for example, in airline policies that advise flight crews not to resist hijackers.
Those who commend to us the morality of self-sacrifice certainly should have had their fill of it on September 11th.
To this toxic philosophical stew let us add the poison of determinism. The excuse-making view that individuals are not responsible for their actions—that they "can't help it"—that they are stimulus-response machines, driven blindly to their deeds in "understandable" reaction to forces beyond their control—has morally empowered and sanctioned the monsters who now threaten Western civilization, within and without.
Note the day-after commentaries that desperately tried to trace "root causes" of these horrors, laying them at the doorstep of U. S. foreign policy, of Third World poverty, of historic Muslim grievances—of anything except the murderous choices of those who committed the acts. From leftist professors to paleo-libertarians, from anti-globalization zealots to environmentalist spokesmen, there was a remarkable unanimity in the finger-pointing: we were responsible, America was at fault—and the barbarians were simply addressing legitimate grievances in the only way they knew how.
In short, the proponents of determinism invert morality, and blame the bleeding victims. As we compile our lists of the perpetrators responsible for these horrors, let us also remember and hold morally culpable these Perpetraitors—this excuse-making industry, so eager to give intellectual aid and comfort to the enemies of civilization.
Finally, let us not forget the devastating impact of America's only home-grown philosophy: pragmatism. Pragmatism is the notion that we must eschew all principles—on principle; that no generalizations should be drawn or universal standards applied; that nothing is completely true or false, and no one completely right or wrong; that each situation must be viewed, and reacted to, concretely and discretely, in isolation of any other; and that the proper response to any crisis ought to be some sort of compromise.
Pragmatism is an intellectual vacuum masquerading as a philosophy. Its policy ramifications are equally vacuous, and devoid of any means of providing coherence or consistency to our words and actions.
First, pragmatism leaves us without a foreign policy. There is no overarching strategy or goal underlying our actions, which instead take the form of reactions to events. This Atrocity gives us a blood-soaked example, where our government—having failed to define or impose any pro-active anti-terrorism policy in the past—now scrambles desperately to reorganize our entire military and intelligence structure, overnight, in order to react effectively to the latest actions of the terrorists.
Second, pragmatism prevents our policymakers from following through on a course of action to its logical conclusion. To date, their only responses to terrorism have been occasional, sporadic, inconclusive military actions—such as their unfinished Gulf War against Iraq, or their lobbing of cruise missiles at a few tents in Afghanistan—and counseling the Israelis to further appease Palestinian terrorists at the bargaining table.
Third, pragmatic vacillation and inconsistency undermine our trustworthiness in the eyes of friends and foes alike. For example, our government first encouraged the Kurds to rise against Saddam Hussein; then—in the tradition of the Bay of Pigs disaster—failed to back them and protect them after they had exposed themselves to his brutal retaliation. To the extent that the irrational incoherence of U. S. foreign policy has fanned the flames of anti-Americanism (which, to repeat, is neither an explanation nor a justification for anti-U. S. terrorism), then the fault can be laid at the doorstep of a long gray line of policy wonks who have failed to wed words with deeds, or even deeds with other deeds.
Finally, pragmatism contributes to our vulnerability by deafening us to the warnings of the terrorists themselves. Because words and actions have such little relationship in the minds of pragmatic policy gurus, they simply could not take seriously the words of the terrorists, and thus prepare our country to defend itself against them.
The Eden Premise—the morality of self-sacrifice—the excuse-making of determinism—pragmatism: these philosophical premises are like the terrorists themselves. They have long lurked in the shadows of Western consciousness, where they conspire to erode our confidence, undermine our certainty, sap our strength, cloud our vision, and empower our once-impotent enemies.
They are largely responsible for our unilateral moral disarmament.
No giants toppled the towers of our greatest city, nor drove a metal stake into the heart of our military's command center. No, these atrocities were performed by virtually unarmed, hate-driven midgets, motivated by a philosophy of destruction.
Their only power was what we willingly granted them, in large measure because of our own mixed philosophical premises. Our feelings of impotence, confusion and vulnerability are testaments not to the terrorists' strength, but to the ideas that have undermined our own determination, power and will to resist them.
So as we launch our war against evil—as we mount our search-and-destroy mission against the destroyers hiding in our nation's midst—let us not forget to look within our own souls…and to be prepared to identify and root out those beliefs that permitted the Atrocity to occur.
This article was originally published in the October 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.