What Do We Need Really Fear?

Posted By October 23, 2004 No Comments

The Canadian comedy troupe “The Kids in the Hall” has long broken up and gone their separate ways, but they did leave some enduring skits and characters. Among these was a sketch where a fly-weight bar-brawler felt compelled to continually pick fights with the largest and toughest men there. He would poke and pester his chosen opponent to the point where a violent confrontation was inevitable in the alley behind the pub. Invariably, one punch would knock him down, but the berserk bantam would pop up again, refusing to admit defeat even after everyone else (including his unharmed opponent) grew bored or disgusted and left – whereupon the bruised and battered instigator would claim victory.

Another superb set of comedians had their finger on the same phenomenon in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This 1970s cult film had two skits that every student of terrorism should keep in mind. The first concerned an ‘Anarcho-syndicalist’ peasant who continues to insult King Arthur until the outraged monarch reacts; whereupon the medieval collectivist cries out “Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help! Help! I’m being repressed! You saw him repressing me, didn’t you?” Another skit concerned a knight much like the Kids in the Hall’s half-sized belligerent – a challenger who regarded the traumatic amputation of his arm as a “mere flesh wound” and continued to challenge Arthur even after losing all four limbs – finally screaming insults and more threats as the exasperated king rode on.

Terrorism, like other forms of asymmetrical warfare, operates on much the same dynamic. The terrorist is inevitably much weaker and smaller in terms of conventional strength –although, in that target-rich environment where the government is restrained by law and custom and the terrorist remains covert, he has the advantage in applicable strength over the authority he attacks. In short, the bantam bar brawler is attacking a much larger and more powerful man whose hands remain tied behind his back, or is dueling with an opponent whose sword must remain sheathed.

It is an old principle that terrorism is really only possible in a democratic society where the authority is constrained in its ability to respond, or else in a chaotic society (such as Egypt, Indonesia or Russia), where the authority is weak through poverty, neglect or indifference.

It is inevitable, however, that the terrorist seldom truly appreciates what the restraint of a democratic government does for him. Instead, if the terrorist is a revolutionary, this restraint becomes a target itself – understanding that, if it vanishes, the revolutionary has somehow toppled the state itself, and set the precondition for a war which he thinks he shall win because he is mentally prepared for it.

There are a lot of Leftists wearing rusting chains and concrete boots sitting on the bottom of the Atlantic off Argentina and Uruguay who thought this way; and they are surrounded by the skeletons of their families, friends, colleagues, etc. In one way they were right, they could successfully topple a fragile democratic state by goading the authorities into abandoning the restraints of law and legitimacy. They were dead wrong about what the results would be once they accomplished this.

The Jihadists of al Qaeda and related organizations don’t think in terms of class war and revolution in the way that the Marxists of the 1970s did. They are making an even older mistake when it comes to daring Western societies to set aside their restraints: They think we are all weak and corrupt, and thus deserve to go down into defeat at the hands of their glorious selves… There were a set of ideologues back in the 1930s and early 1940s who thought much the same way.

The Jihadist threat today is an ideological one and there are only three ways to successfully deal with an ideologically driven security threat.

The first way is to smash the populations that support the ideology, to fight violence with more violence. This works – we haven’t seen a real threat from Nazism since Soviet tanks rumbled up the Unter der Linden in Berlin; and Japanese Imperialism died when an Anglo-American fleet dropped anchor in Tokyo harbor.

The second way to defeat an ideology is to seal it off from the rest of the World and let its own internal inconsistencies rot it out. By and large, this is what the Western World did to Soviet Marxism-Leninism, and it worked.

The third way to defeat in ideology is broadly similar to the second option – to try to limit its effects on your own population and to limit the potential of the ideologues to damage your society. With the passage of time (two to four decades), the threat will abate as the ideology ceases to maintain its attraction.

By and large, the third way is the one currently being pursued by all Western governments. The second way is not possible – we need Middle Eastern oil, and the vast immigration from the Islamic world into the West means pockets of would-be Jihadists exist almost everywhere.

Our problem is that 20 to 40 years is a long time, and the style of attack that the Jihadists dream of can cause immense harm. We can survive one 9-11 style attack every few years, but one every year (or worse) would be too expensive – psychologically and materially — to tolerate. Moreover, the first option reflects the “clash of civilizations”, which is actually a situation that many Jihadists wish to realize. They want such a war because, like many terrorists before them, they believe it would catapult them to greatness within their own society, and that their fervor and revolutionary purity could win out over Western decadence and laziness, etc.

The first option might be thrust on us before this crisis is over, and this is what we fear. However, what we are really afraid of is not the possibility that we might lose such a war, but what that war would do to us. Here is where the Jihad movement has been making its potentially fatal miscalculation.

In discussing the War on terrorism last year, a prominent Hungarian-Canadian columnist told the author what Europeans really fear… and many others have since confirmed what he said. Europe had an abominable experience in the first half of the 20th Century with violence along ethnic lines, and most of the continent would do almost anything to avoid returning to a similar situation. Today’s Europeans fear the passions that their grandparents knew.

The rest of the Western World fears warfare, primarily because our both World Wars were extraordinarily violent as they were primarily internal to the West. Also, Western democratic societies are – once their willpower has been summoned – extremely good at unleashing destruction. Read history, the fact that Westerners wrote most of it should tell you something…

If successful Jihadist attacks force us to drop the third way and turn to that war of civilizations they desire, the outcome would be an episode of violence that could kill tens or hundreds of millions of people, smash whole cities, and ruthlessly shatter the confidence of an entire society. And afterwards, secure once more, we would be extremely sorry and write histories and stories about how kind and noble the pre-war Muslims were – just like we romanticize about peoples on a long list that stretches from the Aztecs to the Zulus.

Al Qaeda and the Jihadists are a dangerous threat today, and the modern security environment certainly has its critics, not least among whom are the apologists and supporters of the Jihadists. However, it might be in their best interests that we do not relax our defences, and they should be careful about what they wish for.