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War Without Borders 

Wednesday, Aug 26 1998
"Conflict With Terrorism Called War of Future," read the headline in Sunday's New York Times, and that's certainly the message that administration officials, from the president on down, were conveying this week.

But is it really terrorism with which we're in conflict? That's like saying the Cold War was a conflict the West waged against missiles, tanks and the threat of nuclear attack. Terrorism is a means, not an end, much less a full-blown "ism" in the sense that communism and fascism are "isms." The "war of the future" is more accurately a war between the modernity of liberal capitalism and the anti-modern, anti-liberal (but not necessarily anti-capitalist: Osama bin Laden is a businessman, remember) wing of pan-Islamic fundamentalism. It is primarily a cultural, economic and political conflict. At the margins, it is a conflict between terrorism and counter-terrorism.

But conflicts aren't decided at the margins, and terrorism tends to stop or wane only when the larger cultural and political questions have been resolved. The terrorist left in Europe stood down only when it could no longer sustain any left apocalyptic/utopian vision. The PLO renounced terror partly in response to an Israeli peace movement - and then to Labor governments - that slowly came to recognize the Palestinian claims for national self-determination. Just over the past week, in Northern Ireland, two terrorist Republican groups announced they were laying down their bombs in response to the mass condemnation of the Omagh bombing by Catholics as well as Protestants (and, most especially, by Gerry Adams of the nationalist Sinn Fein).

The U.S. is no stranger to cultural civil war, though if you relied on journalism for your knowledge of American history, you'd think domestic cultural conflict began in the '60s. In fact, our real cultural civil war peaked in the '20s, when the nativist, Protestant and rural backlash against immigrants, Catholics and cities was at its apogee, when radio and movies first undermined the authority of church and home, and when the Klan - the terrorist wing of anti-modernity - was so large and powerful that the 1924 Democratic National Convention could not bring itself to pass a motion repudiating it. The backlashers had one signal victory: the effective outlawing of immigration in 1924. Over the next decade, however, Protestants and Catholics were thrown together in the New Deal coalition, cities grew fat as farm families deserted the countryside, and radio and movies continued to erode tradition and promote modernity even in the hinterlands (hence the famous 1934 Variety headline "Sticks Nix Hick Pics"). The Klan, as a mass organization, did not outlive the '20s.

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Does that mean that the only proper response for the West is to wait out the next several decades of terrorism until modernity finally engulfs such bastions of rural idiocy as Taliban Afghanistan? Not unless you think the proper response to the Klan would have been to shun attempts to bust it up in hopes that it would one day pass. The coalition funded by Osama bin Laden, after all, is something like a latter-day, high-tech transnational Klan - committed to restoring the purity of the homeland and driving out the infidels by forms of violence the Klan never had at its disposal. Like the Klan, it's a voluntary organization, not a nation in which the West can hope to woo the dissident moderates. Any group with a name like the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, the coalition that bin Laden's followers proclaimed this May in Pakistan, isn't likely to succumb to an attempt to split off the anti-Semites from the anti-Crusaders. Retaliatory attacks against such murderous kleagles - once we're damn sure the people we've targeted really are such murderous kleagles - and proactive attacks on their weapons are clearly justifiable.

And of no more than secondary importance to the outcome of this "war of the future."

At first glance, the cause for which bin Laden openly proselytizes - the restoration of absolutist, fundamentalist governments and societies to the nations of the Islamic world - would seem one with a limited appeal to its primary audience, the anti-American young people of the Middle East, sickened by the corruption of their governments and the poverty of their countrymen. The nations that come closest to bin Laden's notion of theocratic purity, after all, are the nations that gave him refuge - Afghanistan and the Sudan, the ultimate backwaters of Islam, the poorest nations in the Muslim world, the commanding heights of zilch.

And yet there were demonstrations throughout the cities of the Middle East in protest of the American air strikes, though the farthest thing from most demonstrators' minds was to call down a Taliban theocracy upon their own nation. On the contrary, the issue for many of the demonstrators is that they rightly see the U.S. as blocking the development of the very antithesis of a Taliban society - an Arab secular (and even somewhat pluralistic) democracy. The name of that fledgling and imperfect democracy is Palestine. And by refusing (until, possibly, very recently) to pressure the Netanyahu government to accept its last-ditch compromise to save the Oslo Accords - the hand-over of 13 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, a niggling offer the Palestinians nonetheless accepted - the Clinton administration has greatly diminished the prospects for secular moderation across the Middle East (not least in Israel itself). If there is no peace process, no tangible gain to be realized through negotiation and conciliation, the preachers of apocalyptic fantasy are the ones who gain credence. ("We fed the heart on fantasy," Yeats wrote of Ireland during its civil war. "The heart grew brutal on the fare.")

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