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Jewish World Review Nov. 6, 2001 / 20 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Barbara Amiel

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We must rediscover a war mentality that persists through vicissitudes -- THESE days, getting information from our press about the War On Terrorism is like facing a dense cloud of midges. They obscure vision. Given that many people get their geo-politics from television or newspapers, it is easy to understand why they hold views based on little knowledge or falsehoods. Disagreement about the best way to conduct the war is legitimate. Horror at the destruction any war brings and fear of the outcome, both of which I share, are perfectly rational. What, however, are we to make of the cast of mind that simply sidesteps facts in discussing this issue?

Opponents of the war always begin with a solemn condemnation of the slaughter in Manhattan. Having done that, they offer no means of preventing more terrorism except through resort to diplomacy, intelligence gathering and pressure on the Israelis to make peace with the Palestinians. Since America has tried diplomatic and legal channels to extradite bin Laden for several years without success, that route is a dead end. A solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be highly desirable in itself, but given bin Laden's lack of interest in that question, it has little bearing on defeating his terrorism.

The war's opponents characterize it as America's war alone. The most cynical statement was made by Matthew Parris in the current London Spectator, where he says that unlike President Bush, Tony Blair had a choice. "Britain was under no pressure at all to stick her neck out as far as she has in this matter," he writes. "Blair has no imminent election to win, and is way ahead in the polls . . . he has freely chosen the crusader's armor and from this flows an enhanced personal moral responsibility."

This shows a total incomprehension that Britain was attacked as well as America. Bin Laden's own declaration of war was against Christians, Jews, infidels and Crusaders --- our entire modern civilization. For anyone not to understand this is, to put it mildly, a failure in thinking. Moreover, it is a failure of moral response and the response of a small politician to say, as Parris does, that if you are up for election and have a difficult choice to make, you bear less responsibility for choosing the easy way out. People expect their representatives to exercise their best judgment, whether or not they have to face an election.

Parris describes responses to the war in terms of "hawks" and "doves". He will award the laurels to whichever of these two sides, as he puts it, turns out to be successful. This seems nonsensical. Many disputes including sharp conflicts can be put in terms of hawks and doves. But can you really be hawkish or dovish about a group of people calling the West "the great Satan", who start by murdering thousands of Americans and scores of Britons? How can both sides of this battle have the same moral and intellectual weight?

This airy moral equivalence -- or even worse -- affects much of the debate on the war. Britain's Channel 4 ran a mock trial last week titled War On Trial moderated by Jon Snow. "Our charge is that the war is misguided, with no clear strategy or end," he intoned. "It exacerbates tensions between the West and the Muslim world, compounds the humanitarian crisis and plays into the hands of the terrorists." Agreeing with this proposition was The Spectator's political editor, Peter Oborne, and Germaine Greer. By fighting bin Laden militarily, Oborne told us, we sink to bin Laden's level and "he wins." In the Observer, Oborne advised Blair and Bush to contemplate Gandhi or Christ. On television, Oborne concluded by citing experience with the IRA. "We British," he said, "should know from our experience with the IRA that reprisals only make things worse." This seemed particularly ironic given that one of the main reasons why the IRA is finally doing some decommissioning is its fear of being put on American's terrorist list.

What are we to make of people who call for further diplomatic dialogue with the Taliban or tell us to think about Gandhi? This is a joke. Much as I dislike looking at people's reasoning in psychological terms, one is forced to do it in the same way you might if someone argued that the Moon is made of green cheese. I think it fair to assume that some of these people question the West's values --- whether consciously or not. They believe that the terrorists - whatever they think of their methods -- are fundamentally right about the West's moral decay. Some have bought into Frantz Fanon's notions about white colonialism and generalized Western guilt.

Then there are those who seem to be using the terrorists as an alibi for their own grievances and to further their own political goals --- which generally mean undoing the 1948 creation of a Jewish state. "The thought of the West," wrote Oborne in the Observer, "taking reprisals against bin Laden without demanding major concessions from Israel makes the blood run cold."

But as the Israeli Leftist Shlomo Avineri wrote in Ha'aretz, the "root cause" of Islamic terrorism is the democratic deficit in Arab nations. Given that the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat virtually everything he wanted, other than disbanding settlements that would remain in Palestinian areas, the only "concession" left would be the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees --- that is, the demographic destruction of the Jewish state.

Finally, there is a group of thinkers to which Parris and similar minds may belong. This group operates in the tradition of Western rationalism. Our scientific achievements have created the mistaken feeling that if only we apply our intelligence and rationality to a given problem -- rather than our barbaric or atavistic impulses -- we can solve any conflict. This school simply cannot understand fundamentalist Islam. They cannot fathom what William Blake, being a visionary, understood when he wrote: "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction."

Militant Islam in its expansionary form is an acute threat. "No Muslim country can publicly side with the West," said Prof Haleh Afshar on Channel 4. Islamic regimes understand Blake all too well. But we in the West have become used to thinking of Islam as like the 19th- century Turkish Porte: the sick man of Europe. The West forgets that at its height in the Ottoman Empire, Islam went to the gates of Vienna. This memory fuels the fury of a bin Laden. Now we need to rediscover a war mentality that persists through vicissitudes. We might begin by overcoming the misinformation and disinformation in our back garden.

JWR contributor Barbara Amiel is a columnist with London's Daily Telegraph, where this column originated. Comment by clicking here.

10/31/01: The West is fighting to rescue Islam, not destroy it

© 2001, Barbara Amiel