We all know, and have known since 9/11, that our country faces a threat. What kind of threat is it, though, that has brought us this war on terror? I doubt there are many of us who think that it is the kind of threat that Britain faced from Hitler, or the Roman Republic from Hannibal–the threat of conquest and subjugation by an enemy power. On the other hand, the threat is plainly not trivial. I remarked soon after 9/11 that the behavior of the administration was that of people who had asked their highest-level security people, at some sober meeting, across some polished table set out with notepads and water glasses, what was the worst that might happen, and been told in reply: “We could lose a city.” George W. Bush is the kind of man who, after being told that, would immediately say, or think: “Not if there’s anything I can do to stop it.” But is this right–could we really lose a city? What are the stakes in the war on terror? What is the nature, what is the scale, of the threat we face?
Folk like me, who pass comment on public affairs for a living, think about this constantly. (Not that many other citizens don’t likewise. I am only saying that when opinions are your business, this is one point on which you must have an opinion.) We read anything we can find that will help clarify the issue in our minds. We don’t, of course, all come to the same conclusion, even after reading the same material–human nature precludes that kind of unanimity. We come to some kind of conclusion, though. Here is mine.
Sometimes I find myself reading something idly, something I did not particularly seek out for purposes of enlightenment, something I read just to while away some time in a doctor’s waiting room or suchlike, yet which turns my mind to the main issue. This happened the other day. The item I was reading was Lawrence Wright’s fine long New Yorker piece about his experiences in Saudi Arabia.
Wright had been hired by the English-language Saudi Gazette to train young Saudi reporters. He spent several weeks in Saudi Arabia early in 2003, a period which overlapped with the start of the Iraq war. In this New Yorker piece (it is in the January 5 issue) he tells of his experiences inside the Saudi press, and passes comments on the talk, attitudes, and beliefs of urban Saudis.
Some of what he says is familiar to us by now. The Saudis are resentful of America. Many of them hate us, and those who do not hate us do not love us. They are addicted to wildly improbable conspiracy theories, mainly involving Jews. None of them is capable of imagining much in the way of human motivation, certainly not at the national level, beyond money and blood-lust. Wright: “One of the relentless themes of the Saudi media was that the twin objects of American power were oil and murder.” They are spoiled rotten by their oil wealth, and incapable of doing any kind of real work, all of which is done by foreigners. (Recall P. J. O’Rourke’s report from the 1991 Gulf War about Western journalists in Saudi Arabia running a book on who could be the first to spot a Saudi lifting anything heavier than his billfold.)
Perhaps the most horrible aspect of Saudi society is its exclusion of women from just about everything. “Almost all public space … belonged to men. The restaurants had separate entrances for ‘families’ and ‘bachelors,’ and I could hear women scurrying past, hidden by screens, as they went upstairs or to a rear room.” Wright has a number of things to say about this at different points in his story, and with each remark he makes, the impression mounts that there is some deep societal sickness, something pathological going on here. Speaking of the 9/11 hijackers’ fantasies of being rewarded with virgins in the afterlife, Wright says: “Such abstractions don’t seem quite so strange in a country where images of women piped through a satellite dish seem more vivid than actual Saudi women–whom the male reporters at the Gazette liked to call B.M.O.s, or ‘black moving objects.’” He goes on to comment on the wretched state of marriage in Saudi Arabia–a revelation which, at this point in the narrative, one does not find the least bit surprising.
Another thing Wright brings out is the ugly generation gap. Middle-class Saudi men are often quite worldly. Frequently they have been educated in the West, and can at least see a Western point of view. Their sons, whom they find it difficult to communicate with, are more worrying, to them as well as to us. Having nothing much to hope for in the way of a career or a satisfying married life, these young people huddle in their rooms with computers and Koranic tracts, fixing their hopes on the next world, or on the ersatz immortality offered by a Cause. In a subsequent interview about the New Yorker piece, Wright says that he found “a great mood of hopelessness and despair and sadness, especially among the young reporters that I was working with.”
I don’t think it is unfair to take the situation in Saudi Arabia as representative of that in the Arab world at large, and to some lesser extent the Muslim world at large. To the degree that we have a problem with Arabs, and with Muslims in general, Saudi Arabia shows the concentrated essence of it. So…what is it? And what is the threat?
In the first place, it is certainly not a Hitler-sized or Hannibal-sized threat. These societies are such abject failures that there is no prospect of them being able to overthrow us by force. When you read about the Arabs–I have been reading a great deal this past couple of years, though I continue to think that David Pryce-Jones The Closed Circle is the best general introduction to the topic–you build up a picture of how comprehensive is the failure of their societies in the modern age. They are not merely political failures: they are military, economic, cultural, and social failures, too. In these respects, they are no threat to us.
Their very failure, though, and the massive inferiority complex it leaves them with, gives rise to a threat of sorts, as of course we found out on 9/11. To get a good analogy for the scale of that threat, carry out the following thought experiment.
Imagine you are a citizen of a single nation with some decent cultural achievements to its credit in the past–at very least, in the decorative arts, in poetry and literature, and in the transmission of knowledge from the ancient world to the late-medieval. Imagine now that your nation finds itself living in the shadow of a much richer, more powerful, more aggressive nation–a nation that is aggressive not only in arms, but also in culture, spreading its language and art, even its social customs and political institutions. Suppose, further, that this bigger, richer, more aggressive nation has seized a part of your territory, planted its own people there, and denied your claim to sovereignty over it. As a young person of spirit, how would you feel about this?
The analogy I am drawing is, of course, with Ireland vis-à-vis Britain. In my analogy, Ireland plays the part of the Arab world, perhaps of the larger Muslim world, while Britain plays the part of the West. The analogy is far from perfect, of course. The West never ruled the Arabs in the way, or for the length of time, that Britain ruled Ireland. I cannot think of any Western leader who dealt with the Arabs as Oliver Cromwell dealt with the Irish. Nor did Ireland ever suffer the extreme misogynist neurosis that Lawrence Wright describes in Saudi Arabia. Nor were her rulers and people ever corrupted by great wealth that required no effort on their part to generate it–Ireland’s economic problem was not wealth, but poverty. One historian of Ireland remarked that she was, from Britain’s point of view, strategically vital but economically worthless, and that this accounted for Britain’s centuries-long policy of “neglect punctuated with repression.” The Arabs are an opposite case: economically vital to us, but not important in any other way.
The analogy does work in one respect, though: in each case there is a Cause, rooted in blood and honor, in history and in the resentment that the weak feel towards the strong, the failed towards the successful–a Cause to which young persons can dedicate their lives. It is a Cause, furthermore, so overwhelming in its demand on the emotions that any kind of action, anything at all, is justified in furtherance of it. Hence terrorism; hence the war on terror.
No Irishman–none since Fergus of Dal Riada, at any rate–thought that his people could conquer Britain. That was not the objective of modern Irish terrorism. The objective was to expel the hated Other from Irish land, and to kill as many of them as possible, for sheer hatred’s sake. Following that, the people of Ireland, though the nation might remain weak and inconsequential in the large affairs of the world, would return to their authentic essence, speaking only their own language, practicing only their own crafts and religion. Hence the dreary long backwardness of the “De Valera dispensation” in Ireland (1932-73)… Though in fairness it should be said that it was, for all its dreariness, nothing like as bad as the mullahs’ Iran, or as the Islamic republic that Saudi radicals dream of will undoubtedly be.
There are other points at which the analogy works, too. In the post-1969 terrorism that has plagued Ireland and Britain, there have never been more than a few hundred active terrorists at any one time. The vast majority of Irish people were indifferent to the terrorists, or hostile to them. A small number of Irish people–perhaps one percent, which would be around 50,000–were willing to give actual aid and comfort to the terrorists. Some larger number probably felt a slight emotional tug towards them, but not enough of a tug to bring them to any action. (Conor Cruise O’Brien remarked somewhere that when an Irishman hears of an IRA terrorist attack, he thinks to himself, “What a terrible thing!” But immediately afterwards, like an echo, there comes a tiny voice far at the back of his mind saying: “Ah, but aren’t they fighting for our lost land?”) Still the main picture is: 99 percent indifferent or hostile to terrorism, one percent–a few tens of thousands–willing to give active shelter or support, one percent of one percent–a few hundreds–carrying out the vile acts themselves. Outside the more fevered regions of the Middle East, places like Palestine, the percentages are probably not very different.
If this analogy is right, the Arabs are, in a sense, the Irish of the world. Their threat to us is the one the Irish terrorists posed to Britain: decades of bombings and shootings, occasional sensational atrocities like the assassination of a national personality or the destruction of a large building. All of this rooted in a nagging sense of inferiority, of social and cultural failure, that failure believed to be the result of historical wrongs committed by malign foreigners, those wrongs constantly magnified by telling and re-telling. (I write with some feeling here, having been buttonholed several times too often by Irish–or, much more commonly, “Irish-American”–bores apparently capable of droning on and on about the Saxon Yoke and the wickedness of Elizabeth the First until the crack of doom. I know Irish history as well as any of these crackpots, in fact considerably better than most of them, and am in fact generally sympathetic, but I know psychopathology when I have it hissed into my ear.)
That, however, is only the physical threat. Along with it come other, secondary threats. There is, for example, the rise of the Security State, with all the annoyance and tedium of baggage searches, metal detectors, security passes, and so on, and the chipping away at civil liberties that inevitably ensues. Closed-circuit police cameras are now a routine feature of British streets, a thing that would never have come to pass without the erosion of ancient liberties called for by the fight against Irish terrorism. Worse yet is the moral threat: the slow sapping of determination to fight, the seductive voices ever whispering that one more concession, one more act of sympathetic understanding, one more appeal to international arbitration, one more small retreat, will cause the terrorists to lay down their arms. Britain was considerably corrupted by this moral threat at last, making concession after concession to the IRA terrorists, even dismantling the Northern Ireland police and security forces and freeing terrorist murderers, while the terrorists kept all their arms, and would probably be using them now but for the collapse in sympathy for terrorists everywhere in the civilized world after 9/11.
Do we have the stomach for a “long, twilight struggle” of this kind, with the stakes not nuclear annihilation, not national conquest and subjugation, but only repetitive, spirit-sapping local atrocities, some of them on our own soil, year after year after year? To judge from Lawrence Wright’s article, the Arab world looks set fair to provide the raw material for such a fight for decades to come. And if Irish history is a guide, this may continue to be the case even after the Arab world acquires rational, constitutional forms of government, if it ever does. It only takes one percent of one percent, encouraged and sheltered by one percent. Plenty of room for that, even in a tidy west-European-style social order.
And how long will this struggle be, anyway? Irish terrorism is not dead yet, but if anything kills it at last, it will be the prosperity and sophistication of the modern Irish republic, her ancient and peculiar sense of nationhood dissolved by globalized economics, her religious intensity vitiated by the easy hedonism of Euro-culture, her aching sense of dwelling in the shadow of a richer, stronger power dispelled by the equalization of wealth and the shrinking of distances. Can equivalent forces act on the Arab and Muslim worlds, to bring them out of darkness into the light? Well, undoubtedly they can, but it is hard to see much sign of such improvements at present. This is going to be a long, wearying fight.