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A BookTalk presented to the Union League of Philadelphia on February 4, 2008
by George Weigel
In the late summer of 2001, a stateless man of whom most Americans had never heard sat in a cave in the mountains of Afghanistan, surrounded by a few disciples, a satellite dish receiver, and a TV set. The TV wasn’t working, so one of the disciples sought the BBC’s Arabic service on a radio. There, he learned that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center in New York. He excitedly told the others, who broke into celebration; but their leader said, simply, “Wait, wait.”
News came of the second tower being hit, and the leader wept and prayed; Osama bin Laden also stunned his disciples by holding up three fingers. When news of the strike on the Pentagon came, bin Laden held up four fingers, amazing his disciples even further. In this instance, they would be disappointed; because of the heroic actions of the passengers on United 93, the U.S. Capitol was spared. Yet in two hours, the landscape of twenty-first century public life had been radically changed.
Viewed through a wide-angle lens, the events of 9/11 were a particularly lethal expression of the globalization of religious passion. Yet those events were something else, and something more: for Americans saw that day represented a specific, mortal threat to our civilization. War had been declared upon us by an enemy whose motivations were utterly alien to the 21st century sensibility of the West.
That it has taken us some time to grasp this new and dominant fact of international public life should not have been a surprise. It was difficult to recognize it for what it was before it struck New York and Washington; an acute intelligence operative, studying fragments of information about al-Qaeda and its allies before 9/11, was like a biologist looking at a laboratory slide of some previously unknown virus. But now, six-and-a-half years after 9/11, we cannot not understand. For unless we grasp the character of this new kind of war, its religious and ideological roots, the passions that have grown from those roots, and our current vulnerabilities to those passions, our chances of prevailing against an adversary with a very different view of the human future – and a willingness, even eagerness, to die for the sake of hastening that future – are weakened.
The war is now being fought on multiple, interconnected fronts: there is an Afghan front, an Iraqi front, an Iranian front, a Lebanese/Syrian front, a North African front, a Gaza front, a Somali front, a Sudanese front, a southeast Asian front, an intelligence front, a financial-flows front, an economic front, an energy front, and a homeland security front. These are all fields of fire in the same global war, and they ought to be understood as such. Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States and on American diplomatic and military assets were, for example, planned in the Philippines and other parts of southeast Asia; places unknown to the vast majority of Americans – Waziristan comes to mind – are now among the most evil places on earth; what happens there has direct effects on our armed forces in Iraq and elsewhere, and could have devastating effects on the homeland.
Bernard Lewis, reflecting on all this, noted the difference between our times and the days when he worked for British intelligence during World War II. Then, he said, “we knew who we were, we knew who the enemy was, we knew the dangers and the issues. It is different today. We don’t know who we are. We don’t know the issues, and we still do not understand the nature of the enemy.” Not knowing, however, is lethal. My purpose in this lecture is to identity what we should have learned, these past six-and-a-half years, about the enemy, and about us. Let me cluster the lessons we should have learned under three headings. Understanding the Enemy; Reconceiving Realism; Deserving Victory.