Attack on America
A Psywar Against Order
We are faced with the nation’s first postmodern war.
It is a war of networks against nations, begun with irrational acts that defy the rational imagination. It is a holy war where one side is secular, and a struggle for democracy involving a deposed king and local warlords.
We seek phantom leaders hiding in caves and defying satellite detection. Our enemy seems to be both everywhere and nowhere. He inflicts tens of billions of dollars of damage with $5 box cutters and stops Congress with an anthrax-laced envelope delivered with a 34-cent stamp.
What kind of war is this? Who is the enemy and why does he hate us? Patriotic Americans mull these questions in their minds. Many, not satisfied with the superficial consensus that our assailants are simply “terrorists,” seek to know the driving forces behind these crimes.
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Some see our assailants as Islamic fundamentalists who hate our immoral lifestyles permeated with abortion and pornography. Others consider them agents of repressive regimes who hate our democratic values. Others paint them as Arab nationalists who hate our support for Israel, and our sanctions against Iraq.
Helpful as these profiles may be, they do not fully explain the horrific attacks.
This is not the work of downtrodden camel drivers or medieval imams nursing centuries-old grudges. These are men savvy in the postmodern world of image and simulacra.
Many of the turbaned Taliban spewing forth Arabic diatribes are the European-educated sons of businessmen who drank heavily of our Coca-Cola and languished in the comfort of our consumer society. Some attended the London School of Economics where they mixed their Mohammed with their Marx.
These are conspirators who understood the American psyche so well that they timed their attacks to be a television spectacular. They understand the media’s ability to turn every anthrax scare, air incident, or stock market jitter into a hype-filled story to wear down American resolve.
This is psywar where image is all important and military power can be reduced to tiny bacteria spores. The main battlefield is the American mind, while distant Afghanistan is but a minor theater.
Our enemy also has a genius for stagecraft and casts himself with utmost care. His flowing robes, turbaned head, and battle-hardened features seem to embody all the rancor of embittered Islam over the centuries. Afghanistan could not be a better backdrop for resurrecting the idea of this age-old struggle.
Indeed, they shoot us with images created for our consumption and broadcast over our networks. Yet, behind the stage of world events, a more menacing drama emerges.
In truth, Western-educated bin Ladens cannot only be seen as the heirs of medieval Islam. They are also postmodern revolutionaries with cell phones and Internet web sites. Their fundamentalism not only harkens to a distant past; it also stems from a reconstructed and remystified Islam tailored to be a powerful rejection of all things Western.
Today’s bin Ladens are the disciples of a new generation of revolutionary ideologues who have reinterpreted Islam’s past. In their passionate cries against Western hegemony they have called upon all oppressed peoples to arise. In their tirades against capitalism, they extol the merits of a more radical socialism. When railing against secular society, they introduce esoteric religious doctrines.
Drawing upon a wealth of purported and real grievances, they have managed to unite an explosive mixture of egalitarian metaphysics, anti-consumer socialism, and Oriental mysticism that could just galvanize not only Moslem fanatic minorities but many Western anti-globalist radicals in a furious struggle against modernity itself.
Their main target would not be modernity’s so censurable moral wasteland but the “oppressive” framework of logic, order, and the rule of law that sustains the West and its economic power.
This is a different jihad, where all malcontents from Seattle to Genoa are incited to revolt. It is a recycled class struggle on a global scale where the contenders spill beyond the limits of the nation-state. It is what Catholic thinker Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, in a 1992 update of his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution, called a “world-wide clash of ideologies” pitting poor nation against rich, anti-consumerism against consumerism, the Third World against the First.
Indeed, the real target threatens to be the very premises of modernity — the unified, rational, and universal order that ensures Western prosperity. And the protagonists, who live off the very system they hate, have the uncanny ability to turn modernity against itself, as was so well demonstrated in the September 11 attack.
These invisible warriors seek more than just military targets. They hide, like computer viruses, amid the great interconnected systems they want to demolish. They see that the financial markets, the postal system, the transportation network, and so many other structures of our life can all be paralyzed by prime-time paranoia. In this war, a grain of sand (or anthrax) grinds the gigantic and vulnerable gears of our modernity to a halt.
They attack us for what we represent: the remnants of order. If America stops, the very backbone of the modern order (with its many shortcomings) is shattered, and the foundation is laid for a fragmented, anarchical, and subconsumerist new world “order,” as envisioned by their ideologues, both Eastern and Western.
Until we understand clearly what drives our assailants, and until we learn how to counter their psywar tactics, we are vulnerable.
This is America’s new challenge. May God help us in this endeavor.
Published in The Washington Times on Wednesday, November 7, 2001.