They danced in the streets of the West Bank towns and in Gaza when they heard the news. They danced in parts of Lebanon. In Baghdad, state television played a song called “Down with America” as the World Trade Center towers collapsed. To these and their kind, the fact that many innocent people far away were killed is cause for rejoicing. They are possessed by hate, a simple thing that reduces everything and everybody to a simple perspective. Our tribe good, destined for victory — their tribe bad, destined for destruction. Us or Them.
There are of course many millions of Arabs and Muslims, including Iraqis and Palestinians, who do not rejoice, who repudiate this horror committed in their name, and who hope against hope that it is not as it seems, that Arabs and Muslims are not responsible. These are educated people, often secular in outlook, at home in Western culture as well as their own. They are as threatened as the rest of the civilized world by Islamic fanaticism. Only the bravest of them, though, will dare to say what they think, for fear of persecution and assassination. Now and again, the fanatics threaten to overthrow the local rulers. There follow such ghastly tests of strength as the flattening of the town of Hama by the late Syrian dictator Hafiz Assad, and the ongoing civil wars in Algeria and Sudan. Here too are cases of Us or Them, though both sides are Muslim.
Democracy is essentially a process of compromise between conflicting interests according to mutually agreed rules. This arises from an understanding that the alternative is a test of strength in which the strong will send the weak to the wall with no justice. Democracy means Us and Them. Yet nothing in the history or the culture of Arabs and Muslims allows them to put this into any form of political practice. From long ago they have inherited a cast-iron absolute system, in which the ruler does as he pleases, and the rest have no redress, indeed going to the wall. In the absence of inherent processes of compromise at any level of society, it is not a coincidence that absolute Muslim rulers are engaged in tests of strength everywhere with people of other religious persuasions: Hindus in Kashmir, Christians and animists in Africa, Bud dhists in China and Indonesia, Jews in Israel.
Hate begins here, in the flagrant injustice and violence of daily life, in the corruption of the rich and the mindless poverty of the poor, in the absence of proper social mechanisms to do anything about it. And who is responsible for this? It requires a rather special character to be able to lay the blame for social failure where it properly belongs, on the people who comprise one’s own society. Much easier, more satisfying, to blame everybody except oneself. And haven’t Westerners themselves been putting their shoulders to that wheel by reiterating for many years that the plight of Arabs and Muslims has nothing to do with their own conduct or culture, but only with colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, Zionism, globalization? And that we are, therefore, guilty for whatever they may do?
It is of course impossible to fight so many powerful and conspiratorial isms all at once. A sense grows in the man on the street of his utter hopelessness and weakness in the face of this hydra of Them. He feels ashamed of his impotence, deprived of his manhood and dignity, unable to treat with others on the equal footing to which all mankind has a right. There is no point telling a man that his shame is unwarranted and likely to injure him first and foremost: He feels how it burns. Shame is the explosive fuel of his hate.
The terrorists took care in the selection of their targets. The World Trade Center stood as a symbol of American success, just as the Pentagon symbolizes American military might. These buildings serve as a projection of the U.S. presence. The terrorists cannot make aircraft, but in their attack on these buildings they also took care to convert American technology into an instrument against America. You boast that you are rich and successful, their actions declare, but we are able to turn your vaunted superiority against you. Now it is time for Americans to suffer in the eyes of all the shame and humiliation oppressing Us.
They are dancing in the West Bank towns and elsewhere because at last they feel that America too knows the inferiority that comes from not being master of one’s own destiny. They are dancing because at last they perceive themselves on an equal footing with the tribal Them.
Compromise is inconceivable, even if there were some mechanism for it, which there isn’t. The usual range of liberal Westerners are already urging caution and restraint, arguing that retaliation Israeli-style only engenders more attacks. But that is to concede that we and the terrorists are on an unequal footing, and that they really are inferiors, children who must be humored and allowed their ways, however harmful. The truth is that they are, and always have been, on an equal footing. Now that they have committed an act of war, they need to be met accordingly. A test of strength is what they demand, and a test of strength is therefore what they must have. Anything less will encourage them to believe that they are destined be be victorious and to destroy the democratic tribe.
Anything less will also condemn to civil war and worse the many Arabs and Muslims who are certain to be victims, if ever Islamic terrorists were to become absolute rulers in yet more countries than Iran and Afghanistan. Democracy alone is able to supplant that sort of sterile hate and transform Us or Them into the Us and Them that we all deserve.