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Jewish World Review Feb. 24, 2004 / 2 Adar, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Our new epoch in history ... 10 minutes with philosopher/political thinker/novelist Lee Harris | Lee Harris is the author of "Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History," a book that argues that the war on terror is not a clash of religions but a renewal of the nasty, aeons-old struggle between the forces of civilization and "anti-civilization." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

A philosopher/political thinker/novelist who defines himself as "an enlightened populist," Harris has done a lot of deep thinking and writing on the implications of 9/11 and the rise of ruthless new enemies who will never play by our rules, accept our values or be persuaded by our logic.

His book is drawn from three widely read and highly praised articles Harris originally wrote for Policy Review, the public policy quarterly now affiliated with the Hoover Institution. I talked to him Thursday by telephone from his home in Stone Mountain, Ga.:

Q: Why do you say 9/11 is such an important historic event, like World War I or the French Revolution?

A: The importance is the fact that it was something that came completely out of the blue, and for which no existing categories of analysis were adequate. It was something that most intellectuals in America rushed immediately to classify. Most of them said, "Listen, I know exactly what took place. It is the beginning of a war," or, like (Noam) Chomsky, "It's the beginning of the counter-revolution of the oppressed."

So you had all these people coming in with their own particular theories explaining it, as if it fit into things we knew and could compare with before. But the more I thought about that, it didn't make any sense. From the word go, there was something mysterious about 9/11.

One of the factors being that there was no preparation for it, there was no diplomatic exchange. There were no demands. It simply just erupted one day.

The second thing is that by that time it became obvious there was no systematic strategic follow up, it began to occur to me that what we were dealing with here was not, in fact, the beginning of some kind of well-orchestrated military operation. But, in fact, it was a violent eruption of what I called "a fantasy ideology."

That is, a group of people got together and decided they wanted to change the course of history. They wanted to do something dramatic. They wanted to do something that symbolized the purity of Islam against the corrupt satanic America. They chose this act as a symbolic representation of their superior ethos. They showed that they could put themselves above material things, above fear of death, and they could make this enormous sacrifice to show us how hollow we were. It was really an act more for their sake than our sake.

Q: Who is the enemy — and where do we find him?

A: Well, to me, the use of the word "enemy" is a problem that I had actually thought about before 9/11. For a long time, I've been very interested in the problem of liberalism — that is, how a liberal society can come into existence and how it can keep in existence. We in America tend to take it for granted that when people get together, the first thing they're going to do is construct a nice little society. Well, that simply isn't the case.

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Q: What do you mean when you say "civilization"?

A: In "civilization" I tried to pick a word that is value-free. That is, "civilization" does not mean us versus them, first of all. "Civilization" I define as basically being a state of social organization that is exemplified by tolerance, by cooperation, by — and this is extremely important — a lessening reliance on violence as a way of getting things done. And, of course, perhaps most importantly, stability.

It also must be a transgenerational project, so the values of your grandchildren will more or less reflect your values. You hope that they won't be setting up concentration camps or things like that. You hope that they will not fall below the ethical baseline you have set for them. When Samuel Huntingdon uses "civilization," he means civilization as a particular entity, like American civilization or Chinese civilization. I don't mean it that way. I mean, for example, that America has reached a certain point of civilization and so has France.

Q: When you say "enemies," is this specifically al-Qaida? Muslims?

A: No. The concept of the enemy is the critical problem for liberalism because liberalism is good-natured. It presumes that anybody it meets it can persuade or buy off or somehow get them to work with us and not use violence against us.

The problem is, what happens when you encounter a genuine enemy who does not care anything for any compromise with you, but who literally wants what you have and ruthlessly acts to take it from you?

Q: So what do we — the civilized, not necessarily we the West — do to win the war?

A: That's the problem. Once again we fall back into the war metaphor. Is it a war we are trying to win? Basically what we want is for them to leave us alone. But at this point, we also want certainty and we can not obtain certainty that they will leave us alone. Nothing we can do can do that. I think any administration that holds out the idea that there is some trick, some solution, where we will be able to stand up and say, "OK, no more 9/11s," is simply folly.

One of the things I have said from the very beginning is I have had problems with the whole argument that what is needed is democracy. Once again, I have to go back to the whole idea of forgetfulness.

What we forget is that democracy just doesn't come naturally. It is not something that we can just go and start up like a lawn mower. When I heard some of the leading intellectuals in our country begin talking about how all individuals want the same thing, well, that is just simply not the case. A knowledge of different historical periods, different cultures, different religions, makes that extremely clear.

Q: At the end of the book you say we have entered "an entirely new epoch in human history" in which the United States is essentially the world's enforcer of civilized, nonviolent behavior?

A: I don't like the enforcer image at all. To me, it's like we're the court of last appeal. Like the Supreme Court of the United States. If nothing else can fix the problem, then we are the court of last appeal — and everyone recognizes that when they need us. One of the most difficult problems people need to understand is that the United States did not want to end up in this position.

We ended up one day in the 1990s looking around and there was no one else there. Once again, the collapse of the Soviet Union was treated very much like 9/11. You had all these intellectuals rushing forward, saying, "Oh yes, I understood exactly what happened."

Once again, I think the point was entirely missed, which was that the Soviet Union had lost the ability to control its people. And we forget that a society has to have an ability to control its people in order to survive. The only reason to obey the orders in the Soviet Union was fear of terror, and when they stopped being willing to apply terror, there was nothing there to hold them together.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald