In the media, the month before 9/11 was a weird, accelerating accumulation of trivial preoccupations, culminating in the ludicrous western prostrations before an international racism conference. Indeed, August 2001 seems far more relevant to where we are now than September 11th does. So I thought we'd revisit a few of my pieces from that last summer.
As a scene-setter, let's begin with this piece from my book on the first year of the new war, The Face of the Tiger. I would not use the word "Islamism" now, because it quickly became clear that it was not a useful distinction (the term was popularized by Christopher Hitchens, although in its original 19th century usage an "Islamist" was synonymous with a Muslim), but I leave it here as originally deployed:
The last thing I wrote before September 11th was a column for the preceding weekend's Sunday Telegraph. It was about shark attacks, which had exercised the Eastern Seaboard's fevered imagination all summer, ever since eight-year old Jessie Arbogast had his arm torn off just off the Florida coast. The boy's uncle wrestled the shark back to the beach, killed him, and retrieved Jessie's severed limb from his mouth.
In an eerie pre-echo of the world to come, progressive opinion came down on the side of the shark. The New York Times said that we should bear in mind all the sharks we humans kill, and fretted that the uncle's retaliation might have been disproportionate. The experts agreed we needed to look at the "root causes", to understand "why they hate us": just blundering into their territory in ever larger numbers was only going to provoke them into even bolder assaults on our shores; above all, we should resist any hysterical over-reaction to the many non-violent members of the shark community. Substitute "Islamists" for "sharks" and you'd have a dandy post-September 11th editorial thumbsucker. Go on, try it. Here's the Times back in July:
Knowing something about the biology, behavior and world status of sharks [Islamism] does not mitigate the terror... Even knowledge cannot alter some emotions. But many people now understand that an incident like the Arbogast attack [World Trade Center attack] is not the result of malevolence or a taste for human blood on the shark's part [Islam's part]... Inevitably, an incident like this one reinforces a nearly pleasurable cultural hysteria about sharks [Islam]... when what it should really do is remind us yet again how much we have to learn about them and their waters [them and their extraordinarily rich culture]...
It was that kind of summer. We weren't playing croquet on sun-dappled country-house lawns in August 1914, we were splashing in the shallows, fleeing screaming for the shore at the first sight of a black snorkel. But we were enjoying the same complacent holiday from history. The week before September 11th, the US, Canada, Britain and Europe gathered at Durban under the auspices of the UN to apologise for western civilisation to the massed ranks of gangsters and dictators (supported as always by various NGOS — "non-governmental organisations" — led by the Rev Jesse Jackson, President-for-Life of the Republic of Himself). There was complete unanimity between all parties - from Robert Mugabe to the EU - that the west had a lot to apologise for. The only arguments were over how abject the apology should be and whether there should be a large cheque attached. Durban marked the zenith of the western world's thirty-year campaign of self-denigration. Watching CNN in his cave, Osama bin Laden could reasonably have concluded that he was up against a soft culture ashamed of itself and its history.
For Americans, September 11th brought to a close the post-Cold War era, the period that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall. For a significant proportion of Muslims, September 11th was the culmination of a quite different timeline - an era that was inaugurated on October 23rd 1983, when Hezbollah suicide bombers killed 300 American and French soldiers in Beirut and prompted their governments to pull out of Lebanon. From a Muslim point of view, the suicide bomber is as reliable as the Maxim gun was: sometimes he brings victory, as in Beirut; sometimes he attracts a barely minimal response, as in Bill Clinton's desultory retaliations to bin Laden's ever more brazen provocations during the Nineties; and sometimes he is rewarded by public admonitions to his victims, as when the EU et al urge "restraint" on the part of Israel after Hamas or Islamic Jihad have blown up a few more pregnant women in a shopping mall.
Before September 11th, we saw the events, but not the pattern.
America has been galvanised in the last three months: the Islamofascists loathe the rest of the west almost as much as they hate the US, but the difference is that, for the most part, those countries are content to be, as the Canadian columnist David Warren put it, "mere spectators in our fates". They're still in Durban mode, more inclined to apologise than act. Robert Fisk of The Independent nicely captured the likely fate of the apologists, not in anything he wrote (he's been pretty much wrong on everything since September) but in the simple act of getting beaten up by the people he's championed so long. His column on the lessons to be drawn from his savage assault by disaffected Afghans was a gem of self-parody:
Then young men broke my glasses, began smashing stones into my face and head ... And even then, I understood. I couldn't blame them for what they were doing... If I was an Afghan refugee in Kila Abdullah, I would have done just what they did. I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find.
It's not their fault, their "brutality is entirely the product of others" — i.e., us. Mr Fisk is the quintessential New Racist - he believes that, while he and Bush are sophisticated human beings who should be held accountable for their actions, the noble savage (and no one's done more to ennoble him than Fisk) should be offered moral absolution for assaulting a civilian on no other basis than his ethnic identity. As Salman Rushdie has said, this denies "the basic idea of all morality: that individuals are responsible for their actions." Mr Fisk's exquisite condescension to the people he claims a unique insight into is indestructible. The difference between him and the President is that Bush treats them as he'd treat Texans, who are at least members of the human race (however primitive and barbaric). Fisk regards Muslims as exotic wildlife.
Which is where we came in, in the turbulent waters of last summer. Read that column again, substitute "Jessie Arbogast" for Fisk and "the shark" for the Afghans, and you're back in the world before September 11th:
Then the sharks began chewing off Jessie's arm... And even then, I understood. I couldn't blame them for what they were doing... If I was a shark off the Florida coast, I would have done just what they did. I would have attacked Jessie Arbogast. Or any other human I could find.
September 11th was a call to moral seriousness. You cannot compromise with a shark, you cannot negotiate with a suicide bomber. And, if you can't see that, you must have rocks in your head, and it wasn't the Afghans who put 'em there. The next shark to chew up a Florida moppet will get a tougher press, even from The New York Times.