EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Michael Ledeen’s newly released Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West.
Radical Islam inspires mass murder and individual martyrdom for its cause, just as fascism and Communism did in the last century. Osama bin Laden and his ilk rage against the democracies, just as Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. Iranian leaders promise to wipe Israel off the map with nuclear weapons, and to dominate or destroy the Western world, just like their totalitarian predecessors in Russia, Italy, and Germany. Muslim politicians and holy men alike blame the free peoples for the failed societies that define the Middle East. The fanatics who rule in Tehran routinely call the citizens of free countries decadent, corrupt, self-indulgent infidels, worthy of destruction. Just as Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini planned wars of expansion and gradually built their military power, so the mullahs have become so powerful and so aggressive that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak told his political followers in mid-December, 2008, the Persians are trying to devour the Arab states. This came less than a week after demonstrations in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Tehran, where the chanting mob added “Death to Mubarak” to the usual cries of “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.”
As in the last century, the evil is obvious. Left to their own devices, the mullahs will kill as many of us as they can. As in the last century, we flinch from the necessity of confronting evil, until it becomes so powerful it threatens our very survival. Mubarak has neither our power nor our margin of safety; all he can do is warn his friends, and hope they do something about it.
Time will tell, probably quite soon, whether we are going to do something, or wait for our Iranian enemies to strike at us yet again at a time and place of their choosing, as they did in August 2008, against our embassy in Yemen. Evidence of their role in the attack emerged later in the year, in the form of a letter from al-Qaeda’s number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the leaders of the Revolutionary Guards, thanking the Iranians for their invaluable help.
Thus far, having forgotten how close we came to losing the Second World War, we are repeating our past errors. We could lose this war against the Iranian terror masters; our traditional strategic buffer — the oceans — is no longer effective, and our land borders are porous. Moreover, we cannot always identify our enemies by looking at their passports or birth certificates. Some of them are Americans. We should have learned last century that evil people and evil movements can develop inside highly cultured and religious societies, including our own.
That the killers who attacked London on July 7, 2005, were native Brits surprised a lot of people, which is testimony to our capacity to forget our own history. The 7/7 terrorists were not the first British terrorists (take Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, for example, or Omar Sheikh, the executioner of Daniel Pearl), nor the first citizens of a Western democracy to embrace the cause of jihad. It is quite easy to compile a long list of native American, British, French, German, Spanish, and Italian terrorists, suicide and otherwise. Mohammed Bouyari, the assassin of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh, was born and bred in the Netherlands. Our own Johnny Jihad (John Walker Lindh) was the product of wealthy families in a stylish neighborhood in San Francisco; he went to Afghanistan to kill fellow Americans.
These facts were relegated to that part of the spirit that shelters active thought from unpleasant truths. The knowledge that our societies contain people ready to kill us has still not penetrated the awareness of the British people, and, with them, countless Europeans and Americans.
Freedom and democracy do not protect us against such people; indeed, in the past century, free nations elevated them to power, and kept them there until we shattered them on the battlefield. The evil can’t be explained by economic misery, or social alienation, or even by the doctrines adopted by the terrorists. The problem lies within us.
Nasra Hassan, who interviewed more than 200 would-be suicide terrorists and their families, noted in the London Times that
none of the suicide bombers — they ranged in age from 18 to 38 — conformed to the typical profile of the suicidal personality. None of them was uneducated, desperately poor, simple-minded, or depressed. Many were middle-class and held paying jobs. Two were the sons of millionaires. They all seemed entirely normal members of their families. They were polite and serious, and in their communities were considered to be model youths. Most were bearded. All were deeply religious.
To be sure, the terrorists Nasra Hassan is talking about came out of Palestinian camps and cities — not from London or San Francisco or Amsterdam — but their profiles are not dramatically different from the terrorists within our own societies. Most of them are not misfits or sociopaths. They are people who find it fulfilling to kill us and destroy our society. This sort of evil cannot be fixed by some social program or suitably energetic public affairs strategy, or by reaching out to them.
So long as those people remain isolated individuals, awash in modern society, searching for the meaning of life, they will not threaten our society or our way of life. But once they become part of the jihadi movement, they become part of an enemy army. And it’s not hard for them to join; most of the mosques in America and Europe are under the sway of radical Islamists, who are funded and instructed by radical Imams in Saudi Arabia. Anyone wandering into a mosque anywhere in the Western world is a heavy favorite to hear violent denunciations of the West, and he will have every chance to join the jihad. It should surprise no one to learn that several terrorist cells have been broken up within the United States over the past few years. Not all of these events have made their way into the press, including one in the District of Columbia, which had an unmistakable Iranian component.
The Iranians excel at identifying potential recruits for terrorist attacks, and then recruiting and training them. A considerable number of the “foreign fighters” that our soldiers encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan were products of Iranian training and indoctrination, and we can be sure that the mullahs have similar people throughout Europe and the United States, waiting for the chance to attack us. From time to time, Iranian “diplomats” at their U.N. Mission in New York City are thrown out of the country after being found photographing subway stations or railroad overpasses.
It is therefore only a matter of time before Iranian-sponsored terrorists strike within the United States, and although the mullahs will do their utmost to cover their tracks, we will eventually have the evidence. That will add to the enormous body of knowledge of their terrorist actions we have built up over the years, most recently on the battlefields of the Middle East. In the course of the Iraq war, we learned a lot about them, both from watching their methods and from interrogating the considerable number of Iranian Quds Force officers we captured. In most cases, they were very cooperative.
While Iran is a terrible threat to us, it is also a very fragile regime. Like all bullies, the mullahs do a lot of threatening and chest-pounding that belies their enormous weakness. Much of what they claim about their own strength is deceptive. Several cases of official announcements of new weapons systems turned out to be hoaxes, including a series of alleged photographs that were photoshopped.
When we have faced them directly, they have done badly. We defeated their proxy armies in Iraq — a major setback for them — and our Israeli allies delivered another blow by defeating their Hamas proxies in Gaza in early 2009. We have made considerable progress in identifying, blocking, and seizing the regime’s money intended for terrorist organizations. If we were serious about bringing down the regime, we would almost certainly succeed.
But we have repeatedly walked away from opportunities to support peaceful regime change in Iran, another bit of eloquent testimony to our amazing ability to blind ourselves to evil, and thereby become an accomplice to it. Many thoughtful people have wrestled with this phenomenon, looking for an answer. Laurel Leff tried to understand why the New York Times had not devoted more prime space to the Holocaust, and she concluded that the Sultzbergers’ reason was the same as Roosevelt’s: They didn’t think they could do anything about it, and so “it was probably easier for bystanders to continue to disbelieve information or reject its salience than to accept their own powerlessness.”
That is surely wrong, for there was a great deal that could have been done, if only such people had been willing to do it. Even if Roosevelt was not willing to divert military resources to destroy the death camps, or the railroad lines and highways that led there, he could have mobilized American public opinion in radio addresses, public speeches, and rallies, he could have insisted on saving the victims, and he could have put enormous public pressure on other countries to do the same. At the end of the day, he didn’t do it because he didn’t want to do it, not because he was powerless.
The same holds for the Times and its publisher, Arthur Sultzberger. Had the Times conducted an energetic campaign to save the European Jews, it would have had a considerable effect, for many other editors and publishers were inclined to follow the Times’s lead, as would many top officials in the American government. A widespread public campaign would have increased the odds of Roosevelt taking action. But Sultzberger did not want to act. He was a fierce anti-Zionist, felt very little kinship with European Jews, did not want a dramatic increase in Jewish immigration quotas, nor a Jewish exodus from Europe to Palestine. Like Roosevelt, he was not powerless. He chose his course of inaction.
At the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, the story was told of a German soldier named Anton Schmidt. He was executed because he was caught helping Jewish partisans, and Hannah Arendt commented that
the lesson of such stories is simple, and within everybody’s grasp . . . under conditions of terror, most people will comply, but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries in which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen in most places, but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can be asked, for this planet to remain a fit place for human habitation.”
Arendt knew a lot about evil, but she also knew that human beings and human societies were capable of resisting it, and even defeating it, at least for a time. Which is what we must now do.
— NRO contributing editor Michael Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West.