No, this is not another essay about the abomination of the modern theocratic kamikazes of the Middle East and why we must remember 9/11 because of them. Enough has been written about that. Legitimacy or condemnation, applause or denunciation, they seem to all assume a single phenomenon at issue: killing for a cause, strategic murder. However, they sadly miss the point. These are very different activities indeed. A new manifestation of an old evil was loosed upon the world that day 10 years ago.
Today’s terror of Islamic fundamentalism is not the modernist version of the mid-20th century politics of assassination. This is not about the killing of particular people thought to be guilty of particular acts. This terror is random murder and thuggery. It is meant to impose tyranny on the minds of all people and exact submission through fear. It is not ended because Bin Laden was killed nor because of the high hopes arriving out of the “Arab Spring.” Too many of the latter’s leaders have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist organizations. And that is true in Egypt, and Tunisia and even in Libya where the current operational chief of the TNC was thrown out of the United States for being a high level operative of a deadly Islamist group.
9/11 was a radical transformation of the practice of political violence characterized by the targeting of unknown victims innocent of any act that we saw too often over the decades aimed at Israel. Nine-eleven signaled that that small frontline nation in the family of the free would not be the lone target. Indeed, Canada is the only western country on Bin Laden’s original hit list that has not yet been attacked. Yet as Robert Frank points out in his excellent article in this issue, 24 Canadians were killed in the Towers, including eight Quebecers. The deep moral and political significance of 9/11 will continue to affect all aspects of the lives of our current generation. This is not an overstatement.
Albert Camus wrote in The Just Assassins, “Even in destruction, there is a right way and a wrong way -- and there are limits.” The Islamists know no limits.
9/11 obliterated forever the tenuous line, more honoured in the breach than in reality, between people who could and people who could not be attacked. It had been the political equivalent of the line between combatants and non-combatants. The very word terrorist may be inapplicable for the perpetrators and their fellow travellers that followed. As we devised a new vocabulary for horror after the Holocaust so perhaps we may need to devise a new vocabulary to reflect the brutal elimination of even notional post-war values of civilization that we witnessed on that day.
From New York to New Delhi the obliteration of this line is the critical feature of contemporary terrorism and a chief characteristic in our very real “clash of civilizations.” The heirs of the 9/11 killers have emptied the category of the innocent. They claim butchery as their right, slaughter as their legacy.
Assassination is often futile as a means and vile as an end. But we do judge assassins, to some degree, by their victims. When the targets are Hitler-like agents of oppression and cruelty we may even praise the assassin’s work. It is at least possible to be a “just assassin”. The assassin fights a limited war; he aims at known individuals and seeks specific political and social changes. “Just terrorism”, in today’s post 9/11 world, is an oxymoron.
Today’s Islamist terror has only one unmistakable message regardless of its public claims. Random murder to indulge an uncontrollable bloodlust. And Western leaders need to better understand this. There is no official program to deal with, as even President Obama found out after his spurned overtures to Iran at the beginning of his administration. The line that marks off agents of the state from civilians, officials from ordinary citizens, is critically important. Once it has been crossed, there is no further line to draw, no stopping place beyond which people can feel safe. Today we are witnessing the ultimate lawlessness with no compromise possible. That very message of no compromise is a key component in the psychological armament of terror that accompanies the physical destructive act itself. It is a paralysis of the rational. Kill the spirit, then kill the body.
Yet the Islamists operate today in a permissive atmosphere. Despite the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, we still see statesmen rush about to make bargains. Journalists and academics construct elaborative apologias on their behalf. The undeniable is denied and the indefensible is defended.
It is said in some quarters that today’s butchery is nothing new. They are acting as revolutionaries and as nationalists have always acted. This is demonstrably false. It is said that these terrorists are the inevitable product of hardship and oppression, which is also false since so many come from backgrounds of privilege, as many of the 9/11 killers did and indeed of extreme wealth as in Bin Laden’s case.
We are losing our sense of the historical past. We are falling into an age of ignorance that erases all institutional memory and moral distinctions. Many say that random murder is an effective political strategy — the terrorist will win the day. This is most frightening of all for it is less a recognition of reality (witness Churchill and Britain in WWII) than an indictment of the cowardice and complacency of current culture.
Trotsky once said that “The revolution must have its code of honour.” Maybe it once had. Previous revolutionaries were not necessarily good or gentle people but they realized there were limits on political action. Everything was not permissible for a very practical reason. To quote Trotsky again, the revolution should not be “ …loathed by the whole human race.”
In our world today, radical movements have been taken over by autocratic and theocratic thugs and fanatics. To deal with them, all the aspects of an advanced security apparatus are necessary, obviously balanced against the need to protect individual liberties. We cannot mirror that which we seek to destroy. That would give our enemies the victory.
But none of this will be enough unless we can also restore a collective sense of outrage at the vileness of the perpetrators. Just as they utterly disregard the sanctity of the lives of children and innocents, so we must refuse to afford them the normal considerations granted to card-carrying members of the human race when we pursue them in battle.
We must stop being confused, frightened, defensive, and merely weakly indignant. It is these new barbarians who have completely and consciously rejected the old codes. To be sure, those codes were nothing more than the most meager and minimal standards of political decency.
But reasserting minimal standards would, at this time in history, already be a great advance for civilization. The least we must do is to marshal our resolve to revive the courage to loathe. It is only the first step to victory, but victory there will be.