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August 1, 2002

Al Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology

War without Clausewitz


Know your enemy” is a well-known maxim, but one that is difficult to observe in practice. Nor is the reason for this 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 is true even in those cases where the conflict is between groups that share a common culture, how much more true will it be 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 such 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 — 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. And this meant that Montezuma, who, after all, had to do something, was forced to deploy categories drawn from the fund of experience that was ready-to-hand in 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. And, indeed, the parallels were uncanny. But, of course, as Montezuma eventually learned, Cortés was not Quetzalcoatl, and he had not appeared on the coast of Mexico in order to bring blessings.

We should not be too harsh 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. But 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 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? 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. But eventually the collective and unconscious wisdom that governs such matters prevailed. Words failed, then fell away completely, and all that was left behind was the bleak but monumentally poignant set of numbers, 9-11.

But this did not answer 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. A few held that we had got what we had coming: It was just desserts for Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto treaty or the predictable product of the U.S. decision to snub the Durban conference on racism. Others held, with perhaps a greater semblance of plausibility, 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 global warming, 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. And 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, 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 one hand and Hanson and 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; but 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 is the attempt 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, this does not mean that wars may not backfire on those who undertake them, or that a particular application of military force may not prove to be counterproductive to one’s particular political purpose. But this does 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?

But 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? Yet, if 9-11 was not an act of war, then what was it? In what follows, I would like to pursue a line suggested by a remark by the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen in reference to 9-11: his much-quoted comment that it was “the greatest work of art of all time.”

Despite the repellent nihilism that is at the base of Stockhausen’s ghoulish aesthetic judgment, it contains an important insight and comes closer to a genuine assessment of 9-11 than the competing interpretation of it in terms of Clausewitzian war. 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 of mine and I got into a heated argument. Although we were both opposed to the Vietnam War, we discovered that we differed considerably on what counted as permissible forms of anti-war 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.

My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. 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 anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view — for that would still have been a political objective. Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability. 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 psychodrama. The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy.

It was not your garden-variety fantasy of life as a sexual athlete or a racecar driver, but in it, he nonetheless made himself out as a hero — a hero of the revolutionary struggle. The components of his fantasy — and that of many young intellectuals at that time — were compounded purely of ideological ingredients, smatterings of Marx and Mao, a little Fanon and perhaps a dash of Herbert Marcuse.

For want of a better term, call the phenomenon in question a fantasy ideology — by which I mean, political and ideological symbols and tropes used not for political purposes, but entirely for the benefit of furthering a specific personal or collective fantasy. It is, to be frank, something like “Dungeons and Dragons” carried out not with the trappings of medieval romances — old castles and maidens in distress — but entirely in terms of ideological symbols and emblems. The difference between them is that one is an innocent pastime while the other has proven to be one of the most terrible scourges to afflict the human race.

But before tackling this subject outright, let us approach it through a few observations about the normal role of fantasy in human conduct.

The nature of fantasy ideology

It is a common human weakness to wish to make more of our contribution to the world than the world is prepared to acknowledge, and it is our fantasy world that allows us to fill this gap. But normally, for most of us at least, this fantasy world stays relatively hidden. Indeed, a common criterion of our mental health is the extent to which we are able to keep our fantasies firmly under our watchful control.

Yet clearly there are individuals for whom this control is, at best, intermittent, resulting in behavior that ranges from the merely obnoxious to the clinically psychotic. The man who insists on being taken more seriously than his advantages warrant falls into the former category; the maniac who murders an utter stranger because God — or his neighbor’s dog — commanded him to do so belongs to the latter.

What is common in such interactions is that the fantasist inevitably treats other people merely as props — there is no interest in, or even awareness of, others as having wills or minds of their own. The man who bores us with stories designed to impress us with his importance, or his intellect, or his bank account, cares nothing for us as individuals — for he has already cast us in the role that he wishes us to play: We are there to be impressed by him. Indeed, it is an error even to suggest that he is trying to impress us, for this would assume that he is willing to learn enough about us to discover how best we might be impressed. But nothing of the kind occurs. And why should it? After all, the fantasist has already projected onto us the role that we are to play in his fantasy; no matter what we may be thinking of his recital, it never crosses his mind that we may be utterly failing to play the part expected of us — indeed, it is sometimes astonishing to see how much exertion is required of us in order to bring our profound lack of interest to the fantasist’s attention.

To an outside observer, the fantasist is clearly attempting to compensate by means of his fantasy for the shortcomings of his own present reality — and thus it is tempting to think of the fantasist as a kind of Don Quixote impotently tilting at windmills. But this is an illusion. Make no mistake about it: The fantasist often exercises great and terrible power precisely by virtue of his fantasy. The father who demands his son grow up and become a professional football player will clearly exercise much more control over his son’s life than a father who is content to permit his child to pursue his own goals in life.

This power of the fantasist is entirely traceable to the fact that, for him, the other is always an object and never a subject. A subject, after all, has a will of his own, his own desires and his own agenda; he might rather play the flute instead of football. And anyone who is aware of this fact is automatically put at a disadvantage in comparison with the fantasist — the disadvantage of knowing that other people have minds of their own and are not merely props to be pushed around.

For the moment I stop thinking about you as a prop in my fantasy, you become problematic. If you aren’t what I have cast you to be, then who are you, and what do you want? And, in order to answer these questions, I find that I must step out of the fantasy realm and enter the real world. If I am your father, I may still wish you to play football, but I can no longer blithely assume that this is obviously what you have always wanted; hence, I will need to start paying attention to you as a genuine other, and no longer merely as a ready-made prop. Your role will change from “born football player” to — x, the unknown. The very immensity of the required mental adjustment goes a long way toward explaining why it is so seldom made and why it is so often tragically impossible to wean a fantasist even from the most destructive fantasy.

Fortunately, the fantasizing individual is normally surrounded by other individuals who are not fantasizing or, at the very least, who are not fantasizing in the same way, and this fact puts some limit on how far most of us allow our fantasy world to intrude on the precinct of reality.

But what happens when it is not an individual who is caught up in his fantasy world, but an entire group — a sect, or a people, or even a nation? That such a thing can happen is obvious from a glance at history. The various chiliastic movements, such as those studied in Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (Harper & Row, 1961), are splendid examples of collective fantasy; and there is no doubt that for most of history such large-scale collective fantasies appear on the world stage under the guise of religion.

But this changed with the French Revolution. From this event onward, there would be eruptions of a new kind of collective fantasy, one in which political ideology replaced religious mythology as the source of fantasy’s symbols and rituals. In this way it provided a new, and quite dangerous, outlet for the fantasy needs of large groups of men and women — a full-fledged fantasy ideology. For such a fantasy makes no sense outside of the ideological corpus in terms of which the fantasy has been constructed. It is from the ideology that the roles, the setting, the props are drawn, just as for the earlier pursuers of millennium, the relevant roles, setting, and props arose out of the biblical corpus of symbolism.

But the symbols by themselves do not create the fantasy. There must first be a preexisting collective need for this fantasy; this need comes from a conflict between a set of collective aspirations and desires, on one hand, and the stern dictates of brutal reality, on the other — a conflict in which a lack of realism is gradually transformed into a penchant for fantasy. History is replete with groups that seem to lack the capability of seeing themselves as others see them, differing in this respect much as individuals do.

A fantasy ideology is one that seizes the opportunity offered by such a lack of realism in a political group and makes the most of it. This it is able to do through symbols and rituals, all of which are designed to permit the members of the political group to indulge in a kind of fantasy role-playing. Classic examples of this are easy to find: the Jacobin fantasy of reviving the Roman Republic, Mussolini’s fantasy of reviving the Roman Empire, Hitler’s fantasy of reviving German paganism in the thousand-year Reich.

This theme of reviving ancient glory is an important key to understanding fantasy ideologies, for it suggests that fantasy ideologies tend to be the domain of those groups that history has passed by or rejected — groups that feel that they are under attack from forces which, while more powerful perhaps than they are, are nonetheless inferior in terms of true virtue. Such a fantasy ideology was current in the South before the Civil War and explained much of the conduct of the Confederacy. Instead of seeing themselves as an anachronism attempting to prolong the existence of a doomed institution, Southerners chose to see themselves as the bearer of true civilization. Imperial Germany had similar fantasies before and during the Great War. They are well expressed in Thomas Mann’s Notes of an Unpolitical Man: Germans possess true inwardness and culture, unlike the French and English — let alone those barbarous Americans. Indeed, Hitler’s even more extravagant fantasy ideology is incomprehensible unless one puts it in the context of this preexisting fantasy ideology.

In reviewing these fantasy ideologies, especially those associated with Nazism and Italian fascism, there is always the temptation for an outside observer to regard their promulgation as the cynical manipulation by a power-hungry leader of his gullible followers. This is a serious error, for the leader himself must be as much steeped in the fantasy as his followers: He can only make others believe because he believes so intensely himself.

But the concept of belief, as it is used in this context, must be carefully understood in order to avoid ambiguity. For us, belief is a purely passive response to evidence presented to us — I form my beliefs about the world for the purpose of understanding the world as it is. But this is radically different from what might be called transformative belief — the secret of fantasy ideology. For here the belief is not passive, but intensely active, and its purpose is not to describe the world, but to change it. It is, in a sense, a deliberate form of make-believe, but one in which the make-believe is not an end in itself, but rather the means of making the make-believe become real. In this sense it is akin to such innocently jejune phenomena as “The Power of Positive Thinking,” or even the little engine that thought it could. To say that Mussolini, for example, believed that fascist Italy would revive the Roman Empire does not mean that he made a careful examination of the evidence and then arrived at this conclusion. Rather, what is meant by this is that Mussolini had the will to believe that fascist Italy would revive the Roman Empire.

The allusion to William James’s famous essay “The Will to Believe” is not an accident, for James exercised a profound influence on the two thinkers essential to understanding both Italian fascism in particular and fantasy ideology in general — Vilfredo Pareto and Georges Sorel. All three men begin with the same assumption: If human beings are limited to acting only on those beliefs that can be logically and scientifically demonstrated, they could not survive, simply because this degree of certainty is restricted only to mathematics and the hard sciences — which, by themselves, are not remotely sufficient to guide us through the world as it exists. Hence, human beings must have a large set of beliefs that cannot be demonstrated logically and scientifically — beliefs that are therefore irrational as judged by the hard sciences.

Yet the fact that such beliefs cannot be justified by science does not mean that they may not be useful or beneficial to the individual or to the society that holds them. For James, this meant primarily the religious beliefs of individuals: Did a man’s religious beliefs improve the quality of his personal life? For Pareto, however, the same argument was extended to all beliefs: religious, cultural, and political.

Both James and Pareto viewed non-rational belief from the perspective of an outside observer: They took up the beliefs that they found already circulating in the societies in which they lived and examined them in light of whether they were beneficial or detrimental to the individuals and the societies that entertained them. As a botanist examines the flora of a particular region — he is not interested in creating new flowers, but simply in cataloguing those that already exist — so, too, James and Pareto were exclusively interested in already existing beliefs, and certainly not in producing new ones.

But this was not enough for Sorel. Combining Nietzsche with William James, Sorel discovered the secret of Nietzsche’s will to power in James’s will to believe. James, like Pareto, had shown that certain spontaneously occurring beliefs enabled those who held these beliefs to thrive and to prosper, both as individuals and societies. But if this were true of spontaneously occurring beliefs, could it not also be true of beliefs that were deliberately and consciously manufactured?

This was a radical innovation. For just as naturally existing beliefs could be judged properly only in terms of the benefits such beliefs brought about in the lives of those who believed in them, the same standard could now be applied to beliefs that were deliberately created in order to have a desired effect on those who came to believe in them. What would be important about such “artificially inseminated” beliefs — which Sorel calls myths — was the transformative effect such myths would have on those who placed their faith in them and the extent to which such ideological make-believe altered the character and conduct of those who held them — and certainly not whether they were true.

Sorel’s candidate for such a myth — the general strike — never quite caught on. But his underlying insight was taken up by Mussolini and Italian fascism, and with vastly greater sensitivity to what is involved in creating such galvanizing and transformative myths in the minds of large numbers of men and women. After all, it is obvious that not just any belief will do and that, furthermore, each particular group of people will have a disposition, based on history and character, to entertain one set of beliefs more readily than another. Mussolini assembled his Sorelian myth out of elements clearly designed to catch the imagination of his time and place — a strange blend of Imperial Roman themes and futurist images.

Yet even the most sensitively crafted myth requires something more in order to take root in the imagination of large populations — and this was where Mussolini made his great innovation. For the Sorelian myth to achieve its effect it had to be presented as theater. It had to grab the spectators and make them feel a part of the spectacle. The Sorelian myth, in short, had to be embodied in a fantasy — a fantasy with which the “audience” could easily and instantly identify. The willing suspension of disbelief, which Coleridge had observed in the psychology of the normal theatergoer, would be enlisted in the service of the Sorelian myth; and in the process, it would permit the myth-induced fantasy to override the obvious objections based on mundane considerations of reality. Thus twentieth century Italians became convinced that they were the successors of the Roman Empire in the same way that a member of a theater audience is convinced that Hamlet is really talking to his deceased father’s ghost.

Once again, it is a mistake to see in all of this merely a ploy — a cynical device to delude the masses. In all fantasy ideologies, there is a point at which the make-believe becomes an end in itself. This fact is nowhere more clearly exhibited than in the Italian conquest of Ethiopia.

Any attempt to see this adventure in Clausewitzian terms is doomed to fail: There was no political or economic advantage whatsoever to be gained from the invasion of Ethiopia. Indeed, the diplomatic disadvantages to Italy in consequence of this action were tremendous, and they were in no way to be compensated for by anything that Italy could hope to gain from possessing Ethiopia as a colony.

Why invade, then? The answer is quite simple. Ethiopia was a prop — a prop in the fantasy pageant of the new Italian Empire — that and nothing else. And the war waged in order to win Ethiopia as a colony was not a war in the Clausewitzian sense — that is to say, it was not an instrument of political policy designed to induce concessions from Ethiopia, or to get Ethiopia to alter its policies, or even to get Ethiopia to surrender. Ethiopia had to be conquered not because it was worth conquering, but because the fascist fantasy ideology required Italy to conquer something — and Ethiopia fit the bill. The conquest was not the means to an end, as in Clausewitzian war; it was an end in itself. Or, more correctly, its true purpose was to bolster the fascist collective fantasy that insisted on casting the Italians as a conquering race, the heirs of Imperial Rome.

America as a prop

To be a prop in someone else’s fantasy is not a pleasant experience, especially when this someone else is trying to kill you, but that was the position of Ethiopia in the fantasy ideology of Italian fascism. And it is the position Americans have been placed in by the quite different fantasy ideology of radical Islam.

The terror attack of 9-11 was not designed to make us alter our policy, but was crafted for its effect on the terrorists themselves: It was a spectacular piece of theater. The targets were chosen by al Qaeda not through military calculation — in contrast, for example, to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — but entirely because they stood as symbols of American power universally recognized by the Arab street. They were gigantic props in a grandiose spectacle in which the collective fantasy of radical Islam was brought vividly to life: A mere handful of Muslims, men whose will was absolutely pure, as proven by their martyrdom, brought down the haughty towers erected by the Great Satan. What better proof could there possibly be that God was on the side of radical Islam and that the end of the reign of the Great Satan was at hand?

As the purpose of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia was to prove to the Italians themselves that they were conquerors, so the purpose of 9-11 was not to create terror in the minds of the American people but to prove to the Arabs that Islamic purity, as interpreted by radical Islam, could triumph. The terror, which to us seems the central fact, is in the eyes of al Qaeda a by-product. Likewise, what al Qaeda and its followers see as central to the holy pageant of 9-11 — namely, the heroic martyrdom of the 19 hijackers — is interpreted by us quite differently. For us the hijackings, like the Palestinian “suicide” bombings, are viewed merely as a modus operandi, a technique that is incidental to a larger strategic purpose, a makeshift device, a low-tech stopgap. In short, Clausewitzian war carried out by other means — in this case by suicide.

But in the fantasy ideology of radical Islam, suicide is not a means to an end but an end in itself. Seen through the distorting prism of radical Islam, the act of suicide is transformed into that of martyrdom — martyrdom in all its transcendent glory and accompanied by the panoply of magical powers that religious tradition has always assigned to martyrdom.

In short, it is a mistake to try to fit such behavior into the mold created by our own categories and expectations. Nowhere is this more tellingly illustrated than on the videotape of Osama bin Laden discussing the attack. The tape makes clear that the final collapse of the World Trade Center was not part of the original terrorist scheme, which apparently assumed that the twin towers would not lose their structural integrity. But this fact gave to the event — in terms of al Qaeda’s fantasy ideology — an even greater poignancy: Precisely because it had not been part of the original calculation, it was therefore to be understood as a manifestation of divine intervention. The 19 hijackers did not bring down the towers — God did.

9-11 as symbolic drama

Most of our misunderstandings of al Qaeda’s goals have come about for one fundamental reason: In the first weeks after 9-11, it was impossible to determine whether or not al Qaeda had embarked on a systematic and calculated Clausewitzian strategy of terror simply because at that date we did not know, and could not know, what was coming next.

In the days and weeks following 9-11 there was a universal sense that it would happen again at any moment — something shocking and terrifying, something that would again rivet us to our tv screen. And, indeed, the anthrax scare seemed, at first, to be designed precisely to fit this bill. It even had something that 9-11 lacked, namely, the ability to frighten people who sat quietly in their living rooms in little towns across America, to make ordinary people feel alarmed undertaking ordinary daily activities, such as opening the mail. But, leaving aside the question of whether al Qaeda was in fact directly or indirectly responsible for the anthrax letters, what was most striking about this episode was the fact that it showed dramatically that if al Qaeda had elected to launch a Clausewitzian war of terror against the United States, even acts of terror on a vastly smaller scale than 9-11 would still be assured of receiving enormous media coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Indeed, even if another agent was behind the scare, it is still hard to understand how al Qaeda could fail to profit by the lesson the scare taught — that the American media, by nature, could be trusted to amplify even the least act of terrorism into a continuing saga of national nightmare.

But, leaving aside the anthrax episode, there was in fact no such act committed by al Qaeda in the months following 9-11. Nor does the possibility that one might still occur change the fact that during this critical initial period, one did not. This in itself is a remarkably telling fact.

Acts of terror, as noted earlier, can be used to pursue genuine Clausewitzian objectives in precisely the same way that normal military operations are used, as was demonstrated during the Algerian war of independence. But this requires that the acts of terror be deployed with the same kind of strategic logic that applies to normal military operations. If you attack your enemy with an act of terror — especially one on the scale of 9-11 — you must be prepared to follow up on it immediately. The analogy here to time-honored military strategy is obvious: If you have vanquished your enemy on the field of battle, you must vigorously pursue him while he is in retreat, i.e., while he is still in a state of panic and confusion. You must not let him regroup psychologically, but must continue to pummel him while he is still reeling from the first blow.

This al Qaeda failed to do. And the question is: Why?

Of course, given our limited knowledge, it is possible that al Qaeda did plan follow-up acts of terror but was simply unable to carry them out due to our heightened state of awareness as well as our military efforts to cripple al Qaeda in its base of operations in Afghanistan. But it is hard to believe that these factors could have precluded smaller-scale acts of terror — of the kind employed in Algeria and, more recently, by the Palestinian suicide bombers. What was to keep al Qaeda operatives from blowing themselves up at a Wal-Mart in Arkansas or a McDonald’s in New Hampshire? Very little. And while it is true that such acts would lack the grandiose effect of 9-11, they would have brought terrorism home to the average American in a way that even 9-11 had not done and, as evidenced by the anthrax episode, would have multiplied enormously the already enormous impact on the American psyche of al Qaeda’s original act of terror.

This was the reason why I, like millions of other Americans, spent the first few weeks after 9-11 either watching tv constantly or turning it on every 15 minutes: We were prepared to be devastated again. Our nerves were in a state of such anxious expectation that a carefully concerted and orchestrated campaign of smaller-scale, guerrilla-style terror, undertaken in out-of-the-way locales, could well have had a catastrophically destabilizing effect on the American economy and even on our political system.

But such Clausewitzian terror is quite remote from the symbolic drama enacted by al Qaeda on 9-11 — a great ritual demonstrating the power of Allah, a pageant designed to convey a message not to the American people, but to the Arab world. A campaign of smaller-scale acts of terror would have no glamour in it, and it was glamour — and grandiosity — that al Qaeda was seeking in its targets. The pure Islamic David required a Goliath. After all, if David had merely killed someone his own size, where would be the evidence of God’s favor toward him?

Are we at war?

If this interpretation is correct, then it is time that we reconsider some of our basic policy in the war on terror. First of all, it should be obvious that if our enemy is motivated purely by a fantasy ideology, it is absurd for us to look for the so-called “root” causes of terrorism in poverty, lack of education, a lack of democracy, etc. Such factors play absolutely no role in the creation of a fantasy ideology. On the contrary, fantasy ideologies have historically been the product of members of the intelligentsia, middle-class at the very least and vastly better educated than average. Furthermore, to hope that democratic reform would discourage radical Islam ignores the fact that previous fantasy ideologies have historically arisen in a democratic context; as the student of European fascism, Ernst Nolte, has observed, parliamentary democracy was an essential precondition for the rise of both Mussolini and Hitler.

Equally absurd, on this interpretation, is the notion that we must review our own policies toward the Arab world — or the state of Israel — in order to find ways to make our enemies hate us less. If the Ethiopians had tried to make themselves more likable to the Italians in the hope that this would make Mussolini rethink his plans of conquest, it would have had the same effect. There is no political policy we could take that would change the attitude of our enemies — short, perhaps, of a massive nationwide conversion to fundamentalist Islam.

The second consequence to follow from the adoption of this model for understanding our enemy is that we need to reconsider the term “war” as it is currently deployed in this case. When the Japanese started the Pacific war by bombing Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it was not because Pearl Harbor was a symbol of American power: It was because it was a large naval base and the Japanese had the quite rational strategic goal of crippling the American Pacific fleet in the first hours of the war. Furthermore, the act itself would not have taken place if the Japanese had believed themselves otherwise capable of securing their political goals — i.e., American acceptance of Japanese hegemony in Asia and the Pacific. And the war would have immediately ceased if the United States, in the days following the attack, had promptly asked for a negotiated settlement of the conflict on terms acceptable to the Japanese.

In the case of the war begun at Pearl Harbor, all the parties knew exactly what was at issue, and there was no need for media experts to argue over the “real” objective behind the attack. Everyone knew that the Japanese attack was the result of a strategic decision to go to war with America rather than accept the American ultimatum to evacuate Manchuria. In each of these cases, war was entered into by both sides despite the fact that a political solution was available to the various contending parties. The decision to go to war, therefore, was made in a purely Clausewitzian manner: The employment of military force was selected in preference to what all sides saw as an unacceptable political settlement.

This was not remotely the case in the aftermath of 9-11. The issue facing the U.S. was not whether to accept or to reject al Qaeda’s political demands, which were nebulous in the extreme. Indeed, al Qaeda did not even claim to have made the attack in the first place! The U.S. and its allies were placed in the bizarre position of first having to prove who their enemy was — a difficulty that, by definition, does not occur in Clausewitzian war, where it is essential that the identity of the conflicting parties be known to each other, since otherwise the conflict would be pointless.

The fact that we are involved with an enemy who is not engaged in Clausewitzian warfare has serious repercussions on our policy. For we are fighting an enemy who has no strategic purpose in anything he does — whose actions have significance only in terms of his own fantasy ideology. It means, in a strange sense, that while we are at war with them, they are not at war with us — and, indeed, it would be an enormous improvement if they were. If they were at war with us, they would be compelled to start thinking realistically, in terms of objective factors such as overall strategic goals, war aims, and so forth. They would have to make a realistic, and not a fantasy-induced, assessment of the relative strength of us versus them. But because they are operating in terms of their fantasy ideology, such a realistic assessment is impossible for them. It matters not how much stronger or more powerful we are than they — what matters is that God will bring them victory.

This must be emphasized, for if the fantasy ideology of Italian fascism was a form of political make-believe, the fantasy ideology of radical Islam goes even one step further: It is, in a sense, more akin to a form of magical thinking. While the Sorelian myth does aim, finally, at transforming the real world, it is almost as if the “real” world no longer matters in terms of the fantasy ideology of radical Islam. Our “real” world, after all, is utterly secular, a concatenation of an endless series of cause and effect, with all events occurring on a single ontological plane. But the “real” world of radical Islam is different — its fantasy ideology reflects the same philosophical occasionalism that pervades so much of Islamic theology: That is to say, event b does not happen because it is caused by a previous event a. Instead, event a is simply the occasion for God to cause event b, so that the genuine cause of all events occurring on our ontological plane of existence is nothing else but God. But if this is so, then the “real” world that we take for granted simply vanishes, and all becomes determined by the will of God; and in this manner the line between realist and magical thinking dissolves. This is why the mere fact that there is no “realistic” hope of al Qaeda destroying the United States — and indeed the West as a whole — is not of the slightest consequence. After all, if God is willing, the United States and the West could collapse at any moment.

This element of magical thinking does not make al Qaeda any less dangerous, however. For it is likely that in al Qaeda’s collective fantasy there may exist the notion of an ultimate terror act, a magic bullet capable of bringing down the United States at a single stroke — and, paradoxically, nothing comes closer to fulfilling this magical role than the detonation of a very unmagical nuclear device. That this would not destroy our society in one fell swoop is obvious to us; but it is not to our enemies, in whose eyes an act of this nature assumes a fantasy significance in addition to its sufficiently terrifying reality — the fantasy significance of providing al Qaeda with a vision of ultimate and decisive victory over the West.

Fighting an ideological epidemic

In the initial aftermath of 9-11, President Bush continually spoke of al Qaeda not as terrorists, but as “evildoers” — a term for which he was widely derided by those who found it offensively simple-minded and childish. Evildoers, after all, are characters out of fairy tales, not real life. Who really sets out for the deliberate purpose of doing evil, except the wicked dwarves and trolls of our childhood fantasies?

Bush’s critics — who seem unfortunately to have won the semantic battle — were both right and wrong. They were right in observing the fairy-tale provenance of the phrase “evildoer,” but they were wrong in denouncing Bush’s use of it. For, whether by instinct or by cunning, Bush struck exactly the right note. The evildoer of the fairy tale, after all, is not motivated in his conduct by his wish to change the way other people act: His objectives are not to persuade or cajole or threaten others into doing as he wishes them to do. Instead, other people exist in his eyes only as an opportunity to do evil: He doesn’t want to manipulate them for his selfish purpose; rather, his one and only purpose is to inflict evil on them — evil and nothing more.

Rather than interpreting 9-11 as if it were a Clausewitzian act of war, Bush instinctively saw it for what it was: the acting out of demented fantasy. When confronted with the enigma of 9-11 he was able to avoid the temptation of trying to interpret it in terms of our own familiar categories and traditions. Instead of looking for an utterly mythical root cause for 9-11, or seeing it as a purposeful political act on the Clausewitzian model, he grasped its essential nature in one powerful metaphor, offering, in a sense, a kind of counter-fantasy to the American people, one that allowed them to grasp the horror of 9-11 without being misled by false analogies and misplaced metaphors. How much wiser Montezuma would have been if he had said, “I do not know who these white-skinned strangers may be, or where they come from, or what they want. But that they are here to do evil I have no doubt. So let us act accordingly.”

But, Bush’s critics argued, the term “evildoers” dehumanizes our enemy. And again, the critics are both right and wrong. Yes, the term does dehumanize our enemy. But this is only because our enemy has already dehumanized himself. A characteristic of fantasy ideology is that those in the throes of it begin by dehumanizing their enemies by seeing in them only objects to act upon. It is impossible to treat others in this way without dehumanizing oneself in the process. The demands of the fantasy ideology are such that it transforms all parties into mere symbols. The victims of the fantasy ideology inevitably end by including both those who are enacting the fantasy and those upon whom the fantasy is enacted — both those who perished in the World Trade Center and those who caused them to perish; and, afterwards, both those who wept for the dead and those who rejoiced over the martyrs.

There is one decisive advantage to the “evildoer” metaphor, and it is this: Combat with evildoers is not Clausewitzian war. You do not make treaties with evildoers or try to adjust your conduct to make them like you. You do not try to see the world from the evildoers’ point of view. You do not try to appease them, or persuade them, or reason with them. You try, on the contrary, to outwit them, to vanquish them, to kill them. You behave with them in the same manner that you would deal with a fatal epidemic — you try to wipe it out.

So perhaps it is time to retire the war metaphor and to deploy one that is more fitting: the struggle to eradicate disease. The fantasy ideologies of the twentieth century, after all, spread like a virus in susceptible populations: Their propagation was not that suggested by John Stuart Mill’s marketplace of ideas — fantasy ideologies were not debated and examined, weighed and measured, evaluated and compared. They grew and spread like a cancer in the body politic. For the people who accepted them did not accept them as tentative or provisional. They were unalterable and absolute. And finally, after driving out all other competing ideas and ideologies, they literally turned their host organism into the instrument of their own poisonous and deadly will.

The same thing is happening today — and that is our true enemy. The poison of the radical Islamic fantasy ideology is being spread all over the Muslim world through schools and through the media, through mosques and through the demagoguery of the Arab street. In fact, there is no better way to grasp the full horror of the poison than to listen as a Palestinian mother offers her four-year-old son up to be yet another victim of this ghastly fantasy.

Once we understand this, many of our current perplexities will find themselves resolved. Pseudo-issues such as debates over the legitimacy of “racial profiling” would disappear: Does anyone in his right mind object to screening someone entering his country for signs of plague? Or quarantining those who have contracted it? Or closely monitoring precisely those populations within his country that are most at risk?

Let there be no doubt about it. The fantasy ideologies of the twentieth century were plagues, killing millions and millions of innocent men, women, and children. The only difference was that the victims and targets of such fantasy ideologies so frequently refused to see them for what they were, interpreting them as something quite different — as normal politics, as reasonable aspirations, as merely variations on the well-known theme of realpolitik, behaving — tragically enough — no differently from Montezuma when he attempted to decipher the inexplicable enigma posed by the appearance of the Spanish conquistadors. Nor did the fact that his response was entirely human make his fate any less terrible.