Friendly Questions to America the Powerful

Contrary to what some Americans believe, Europeans have known for a long time about the evils of terrorism and the need to fight it.

Contrary to what some Americans believe, Europeans have known for a long time about the evils of terrorism and the need to fight it. They know, too, that the world has become a very insecure place due to the ability of small groups of fanatics to inflict unprecedented harm upon civilization. Most also recognize that a world ruled by law-from which inequalities of power and the possibility of war have been eliminated-is an impossible dream; and that a stable, multipolar world based on the balanced rivalry and cooperation of several more or less equally powerful states is not remotely at hand. In the real world, Europeans know that the United States is much stronger in the classical sense (i.e., militarily and economically) than any rival state or coalition, and that it is the most effective force for good, today as yesterday, against totalitarian threats.

But Europeans tend to believe that the legitimacy and efficacy of American hegemony and of its war on terror depend on a more differentiated view of the world than that evinced by its current mood, which somehow combines a feeling of victimhood, vulnerability and invincibility all at the same time. A sense of moral and military superiority over the rest of the world seems to be forming as the essential basis of America's war on terror, and if it does, the legitimacy and efficacy of American hegemony will suffer. There is more to hegemony than superiority, more to power than military might, more to terrorism than Al-Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalism, more to the fight against them than "war" in the classical sense-and much more to ruling the world, dealing with its problems and fighting its dangers, than can be found in the philosophy of American unilateralism or benevolent empire.

The best introduction to understanding the difference in the attitudes of Americans and Europeans toward the war on terrorism is perhaps the formulation of the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, who says: "The American feel they are engaged in a war, the Europeans feel they are engaged in preventing one." This is true, but only half so. Both Americans and Europeans are engaged in a war against Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations; the war worth preventing is a wider war of the West against the rest, a real clash of civilizations; or a war between rich and poor, North and South, center and periphery, former colonizers and former colonized; or a war of Christians, Jews (and perhaps Hindus) against Muslims. It is absolutely crucial to maintain the distinction between the organized terrorist movements that hate liberalism and modernity and thrive on ideological fanaticism and, on the other hand, the sources of their recruitment, support and the sympathy they inspire in the greater part of the Islamic and, more generally, of the underdeveloped, world-which are feelings of humiliation, oppression and exclusion. This distinction is all the more important as it is precisely the strategy of the terrorists to blur it by provoking repression on wider circles of the population that they falsely claim to represent.

It follows that any specific strategy in the war against terrorism must get away from moral absolutes and fuzzily defined abstractions. What, for example, is the criterion wherein we define terrorism as "evil"? Is it the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians? But how then were the strategic bombing raids carried out by the Allies in World War II morally distinct from the attack on the World Trade Center? Is the war against terrorism, as some recent presidential pronouncements would seem to suggest, a Holy Alliance of all Great Powers against all insurgent movements, where each ally brings his own definition of terrorism corresponding to its own national or ideological opponents (Chechens, Kashmiris, Albanians, Uighurs)? Is it a war only against global or transnational terrorists, leaving aside local movements? Do we distinguish between states and non-state movements or even individuals? Or is the campaign a defensive operation by the United States (and anyone willing to join it) against those terrorists who specifically threaten to inflict harm on it and its allies while leaving aside all others or even joining forces with them? What, in short, is the evil to be extirpated?

It is clear that American policy and public opinion now tend to neglect these distinctions and to see; the United States and those who wish it well as the incarnation of the good and those who wish them harm as the incarnation of evil. Such simple clarity is perfectly legitimate in some circumstances, just as more complicated formulations-it was legitimate to be allied with Stalin against Hitler-are perfectly legitimate in others. The truth must sometimes bend in the face of strategic necessity, whether toward simplicity or complexity. But no such bending should justify beautifying the man who perfected the destruction of Grozny; or the authors of genocide in Tibet; or the man responsible for the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla and for countless other reprisals against civilian populations.

Similar problems concern the definition of war. It is legitimate to speak metaphorically of a war against terrorism as one speaks of the war against drugs, cancer or poverty, and even to connect it to the eternal war between good and evil. But as religious writers from Reinhold Niebuhr to Michael Novak have warned, seeing ourselves as the Children of Light fighting against the Children of Darkness carries the danger of self-righteousness and hubris, and may lead us ultimately to become fanatics ourselves. One should never lose sight of Arthur Koestler's saying during the fight against communist totalitarianism: "We are defending a half-truth against a total lie."