We are just weeks away from the fifth anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and yet we have quickly forgotten the lessons of that terrible day. We understood then that a group of Islamic fanatics had declared war on the United States and that our only option was to defeat them.
Barely five years later, we seem to have lost our resolve. But our enemies haven’t lost theirs, as the interrupted plot to blow up U.S.-bound airplanes in Great Britain demonstrates all too well. So what are the chances we will ultimately prevail?
First, it’s important we understand who the enemy is and why they have targeted us. We are not fighting a war on terror, despite the nearly universal shorthand most of us have adopted. The terrorists who flew airplanes into American buildings, blew up hotels and nightclubs killing Western tourists in Bali and Kenya, bombed trains in Spain and England, and sent missiles and suicide bombers into Israel are fighting a religious war.
In their view, we are infidels who must be converted or killed. There is no room in their ideology for peaceful co-existence or detente. And they are willing to sacrifice their own lives — and, most importantly, the lives of their children — in order to kill as many of us as possible.
We have never faced an enemy like this before. Even the Soviet Union at its most ruthless was not as pernicious a threat. The Soviets wanted territory and power, but they always acted rationally. Mutual Assured Destruction worked as an effective nuclear deterrent because the Soviets would never have sacrificed their own lives just to kill us.
Imagine how differently the Cold War would have turned out if the Soviets were willing to sacrifice Moscow in order to obliterate New York. But we know that the Islamists are perfectly willing to pile up body after body of fellow Muslims so long as they can maximize the body count of dead Christians and Jews. The difference is that the Soviets wanted their reward here on earth, while Islamic extremists don’t expect theirs until they die.
In the face of this deadly purpose, we in the West seem totally ill equipped for battle. Rather than single-mindedly tracking down those who want to kill us, we worry that we might be infringing on their civil liberties. When we do take action, as Israel did in attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon, we become paralyzed with remorse when innocent bystanders die, as they do in every war.
Yet our enemies think nothing of strapping explosives onto the chests of their own women and children in order to kill us. How many times have we heard the mothers of suicide bombers praise their children’s martyrdom and boast of those they sent to the grave, while we shed tears at the loss of innocent life?
This is an asymmetrical war not because we have more sophisticated weapons and they have only crude methods with which to fight, but because the moral constraints are so lopsided. Can you envision Hezbollah expressing regret and sorrow if one of their rockets had hit an Israeli target killing two dozen women and children, as Israel did when its bombs killed 28 (not the 54 originally reported) in Qana, Lebanon? We cannot, and should not, adopt their perverted morality, but we should recognize the imbalance for what it is.
Unless we learn to see our enemies for who they are, we cannot hope to win this war. We’ve got to stop treating our own government as the enemy. We have to quit worrying about whether the rest of the world will love us when we take actions to protect ourselves. We have to give up the illusion that if we just retreat from the world or abandon Israel the Islamist fanatics will leave us alone.
We must recognize that it took most of a century to defeat communism and it may take much longer to vanquish Islamofascism. Our best hope for victory may well be that radical Islam, like the Soviet Union, will begin to collapse from within.