Forgetfulness occurs when those who have been long inured to civilized order can no longer remember a time in which they had to wonder whether their crops would grow to maturity without being stolen or their children sold into slavery by a victorious foe....They forget that in time of danger, in the face of the enemy, they must trust and confide in each other, or perish....They forget, in short, that there has ever been a category of human experience called the enemy.
"That, before 9/11, was what had happened to us. The very concept of the enemy had been banished from our moral and political vocabulary. An enemy was just a friend we hadn't done enough for yet. Or perhaps there had been a misunderstanding, or an oversight on our part -- something that we could correct....
"Our first task is therefore to try to grasp what the concept of the enemy really means. The enemy is someone who is willing to die in order to kill you. And while it is true that the enemy always hates us for a reason, it is his reason, and not ours."
So begins Civilization and Its Enemies, an extraordinary tour de force by America's "reigning philosopher of 9/11," Lee Harris. What Francis Fukuyama did for the end of the Cold War, Lee Harris has now done for the next great conflict: the war between the civilized world and the international terrorists who wish to destroy it. Each major turning point in our history has produced one great thinker who has been able to step back from petty disagreements and see the bigger picture -- and Lee Harris has emerged as that man for our time. He is the one who has helped make sense of the terrorists' fantasies and who forces us most strongly to confront the fact that our enemy -- for the first time in centuries -- refuses to play by any of our rules, or to think in any of our categories.
We are all naturally reluctant to face a true enemy. Most of us cannot give up the myth that tolerance is the greatest of virtues and that we can somehow convert the enemy to our beliefs. Yet, as Harris's brilliant tour through the stages of civilization demonstrates, from Sparta to the French Revolution to the present, civilization depends upon brute force, properly wielded by a sovereign. Today, only America can play the role of sovereign on the world stage, by the use of force when necessary.
Lee Harris's articles have been hailed by thinkers from across the spectrum. His message is an enduring one that will change the way readers think -- about the war with Iraq, about terrorism, and about our future.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Lee Harris entered Emory University at age fourteen and graduated summa cum laude. After years spent pursuing diverse interests, including a stint at divinity school, several years writing mystery novels, and a career as a glazier, he began writing philosophical articles that captured the imagination of readers all over the world. The author of three of the most controversial and widely shared pieces in the history of Policy Review, Harris has emerged as one of the most talked-about writers of recent times. He lives in Stone Mountain, Georgia.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One:The Riddle of the Enemy
"Know your enemy" is an admirable maxim of prudence, but one that is difficult to observe in practice. Nor is the reason hard to fathom: if you are my enemy, it is unlikely that I will go very much out of my way to learn to see things from your point of view. And if this ignorance exists even where the conflict is between groups that share a common culture, how much more will it exist when there is a profound cultural and psychological chasm between the antagonists?
Yet, paradoxically, this failure to understand the enemy can arise not only from a lack of sympathy with his position but also from a kind of misplaced sympathy: when confronted by a culturally exotic enemy, our first instinct is to understand his conduct in terms that are familiar to us, terms that make sense to us in light of our own fund of experience. We assume that if our enemy is doing x, it must be for reasons that are comprehensible in terms of our universe.
Just how unfortunate -- and indeed fatal -- this approach can be was demonstrated during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. When Montezuma learned of Cortés's arrival, he was at a loss to know what to make of the event. Who were these white-skinned alien beings? What had they come for? What were their intentions?
These were clearly not questions that Montezuma was in a position to answer. Nothing in his world could possibly provide him with a key to deciphering correctly the motives of a man as cunning, resourceful, and determined as Cortés. Montezuma, who after all had to do something, was therefore forced to deploy categories drawn from the fund of experience that was readily available within the Aztec world.
By a fatal coincidence, this fund of experience chanced to contain a remarkable prefiguring of Cortés -- the myth of the white-skinned god, Quetzalcoatl. Indeed, the parallels were uncanny. Of course, Cortés was not Quetzalcoatl, and he had not appeared on the coast of Mexico in order to bring blessings.
Yet we should not be too hard on Montezuma. He was, after all, acting exactly as we all act under similar circumstances. We all want to make sense of our world, and at no time more urgently than when our world is suddenly behaving strangely. In order to make sense of such strangeness, we must be able to reduce it to something that is not strange -- something that is already known to us, something we know our way around.
Yet this entirely human response, as Montezuma quickly learned to his regret, can sometimes be very dangerous.
An Act of War?
On September 11, 2001, Americans were confronted by an enigma similar to that presented to the Aztecs -- an enigma so baffling that even elementary questions of nomenclature posed a problem: What words or phrase should we use merely to refer to the events of that day? Was it a disaster, like the sinking of the Titanic? Or perhaps a tragedy? Was it a criminal act, or was it an act of war? Indeed, one awkward TV anchorman, in groping for the proper handle, fecklessly called it an "accident." Eventually the collective and unconscious wisdom that governs such matters prevailed. Words failed, then fell away completely, and all that was left were the bleak but monumentally poignant set of numbers, 9/11.
This resolution did not solve the great question, What did it all mean?
In the early days there were many who were convinced that they knew the answer to this question, arguing that the explanation of 9/11 was to be sought in what was called, through an invariable horticultural metaphor, the "root cause" of terrorism. Eliminate poverty or economic imperialism, or pull our troops out of Saudi Arabia, or cease supporting Israel, and such acts of terrorism would cease.
Opposed to this kind of analysis were those who saw 9/11 as an unprovoked act of war, and the standard comparison here was with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. To this school of thought, ably represented by, among others, the distinguished classicist Victor Davis Hanson, it is irrelevant what grievances our enemy may believe it has against us; what matters is that we have been viciously attacked and that, for the sake of our survival, we must fight back.
Those who hold this view are in the overwhelming majority among Americans. Yet there is one point on which this position does not differ from the position adopted by those, such as Noam Chomsky, who place the blame for the attack on American policy: both points of view agree in interpreting 9/11 as an act of war, while disagreeing only on the question of whether or not it was justifiable. This common identification of 9/11 as an act of war arises from a deeper unquestioned assumption -- an assumption made both by Chomsky and his followers on the one hand and by Hanson and The National Review on the other, and indeed by almost everyone in between.
The assumption is this: An act of violence on the magnitude of 9/11 can only have been intended to further some kind of political objective. What this political objective might be, or whether it is worthwhile -- these are all secondary considerations. Surely people do not commit such acts unless they are trying to achieve some kind of recognizably political purpose.
Behind this shared assumption stands the figure of Clausewitz and his famous definition of war as politics carried out by other means. The whole point of war, on this reading, is to get other people to do what we want them to do: it is an effort to make others adopt our policies and/or to further our interests. Clausewitzian war, in short, is rational and instrumental. It attempts to bring about a new state of affairs through the artful combination of violence and the promise to cease violence if certain political objectives are met.
Of course, wars may still backfire on those who undertake them, or a particular application of military force may prove to be counterproductive to one's particular political purpose. But such pitfalls do not change the fact that the final criterion of military success is always pragmatic: Does it work? Does it in fact bring us closer to realizing our political objectives?
Is this the right model for understanding 9/11? Or have we, like Montezuma, imposed our own inadequate categories on an event that simply does not fit them? If 9/11 was not an act of war, then what was it?
Oddly enough, the post 9/11 "celebrity comment" that came closest to capturing the true significance of the event was the much-quoted remark by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, that 9/11 was "the greatest work of art of all time." Despite its repellent nihilism, Stockhausen's aesthetic judgment comes closer to a genuine assessment of 9/11 than the competing Clausewitzian interpretation. For Stockhausen did grasp one big truth: 9/11 was the enactment of a fantasy -- not an artistic fantasy, to be sure, but a fantasy nonetheless.
A Personal Recollection
My first encounter with this particular kind of fantasy occurred when I was in college in the late sixties. A friend and I got into a rather odd argument. Although we were both opposed to the Vietnam War, we discovered that we differed considerably on what counted as permissible forms of antiwar protest. To me the point of such protest was simple -- to turn people against the war. Hence anything that was counterproductive to this purpose was politically irresponsible and should be severely censured. My friend thought otherwise; in fact, he was planning to join what by all accounts was to be a massively disruptive demonstration in Washington, and which in fact became one.
His attitude greatly puzzled me. For my friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this result simply did not matter. What then was the point of the demonstration, if not to achieve our political objective, namely, an early conclusion of the Vietnam War?
His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason -- because it was, in his words, "good for his soul." What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.
And what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy -- a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent antiwar demonstration he was in no sense aiming at coercing others to conform with his view, for that would still have been a political objective. Instead he took part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of being among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical materialism. Thus, when he lay down in front of hapless commuters on the bridges over the Potomac, he had no interest in changing the minds of these commuters, no concern over whether they became angry at the protesters or not. They were there merely as props, as so many supernumeraries in his private political psychodrama. The protest for him was not politics, but theater; the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. His was not your garden-variety fantasy: it did not, after all, make him into a sexual athlete, or a record-breaking race car driver, or a Nobel prize-winning chemist. And yet, in terms of the fantasy, he was nonetheless a hero; but a hero of the revolutionary struggle, for his fantasy -- and that of many young intellectuals at that time -- was compounded purely of ideological ingredients, smatterings of Marx and Mao, a little Fanon, and perhaps a dash of Jean-Paul Sartre. I have therefore elected to call the phen...
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