The Big-Tent Theory of Terror: From Bin Laden to Kissinger

Here’s one story you’ve been hearing a lot lately: 9/11 represents the clash of two incompatible global evangelisms, multinational consumer capitalism and Islamic fundamentalism. The United States–secular, commercial, democratic and tolerant–finds itself at war with a strain of Islam that is fundamentalist, autocratic, intolerant and retrograde. “Difference of opinion is advantageous,” Jefferson wrote, summing up the American disposition. “What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.” By the 1840’s, John Tyler had added the explicit promise: “The Mahommedan, if he will to come among us, would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the Constitution to worship according to the Koran.” No parallel freedom is afforded Christian or Jew under the Taliban, nor would it be in any state governed by Osama bin Laden. We persist in finding innovative ways to deny it, but as Americans we are children of the Enlightenment, a legacy that has largely evaded the Muslim world. Our reward is a sense of moral achievement, one we carry with us in our new war on terrorism.

Caleb Carr has written a small, cogent and vitally cool assessment that renders the preceding story irrelevant. The Lessons of Terror is modest in appearance and tone, and could easily be misread as a topical pamphlet on 9/11 and the grim history of terrorism. In fact, Mr. Carr’s slender volume explodes every received idea about who owns the high ground by placing both Islamic medievalism and liberal democracy within a single narrative: military history (before he wrote the Alienist , this was Mr. Carr’s specialty). Looked at from this angle, terrorism encompasses Al Qaeda, suicide bombers, the Real I.R.A. But it also includes General William Tecumseh Sherman, Menachem Begin, the British government in 1812, the United States government in August 1945, Henry Kissinger–and many, many more.

To understand the logic behind this expanded roster, we should consult one of the few heroes in Mr. Carr’s narrative, the Swiss military theorist Emmerich de Vattel, whose The Law of Nations appeared in 1758. “Vattel advanced the shocking idea that it is pointless to talk about which cause in a given war is just,” Mr. Carr explains, as “every party believes its own to be and can almost never be shaken from that conviction.” Vattel argued that we should instead judge “the behavior of belligerents during actual hostilities.” If, in the prosecution of any conflict, a party practices warfare against civilians with the intent of breaking their will and forcing them to withdraw support from their leaders, that party is terrorist in nature, argues Mr. Carr.

Torching Atlanta, carpet-bombing Cambodia, razing Dresden, nuking Hiroshima–according to Mr. Carr’s definition, all qualify as terrorism. To the bomb-tossing fringe elements–the hashshashin cult (a splinter group from the medieval Shi’ites that gives us the modern word “assassin”), the Barbary pirates, the anarchists of 19th-century Europe–add anyone who ever organized violence against civilian noncombatants. The new definition brings virtually everyone to the table: the Romans, the Holy Romans, early Protestant Europe, the French, the English, the Americans.

Like garden-variety neurotics, combatants repeat elaborate alibis–about how they are uniquely aggrieved, about how they are uniquely virtuous. Ignore them, Mr. Carr counsels; pay attention instead to what they actually do. If he’s right–if how we wage war, not why we wage war marks us as either civilized or barbaric–then our sense of our own superior moral advancement looks dubious at best. We have to account for a glaring double standard: “Among themselves,” Mr. Carr writes, “Westerners were capable of formulating and expressing tremendously admirable principles concerning individualism, liberty, and participatory government; but when it came to the treatment of Indian tribes and other dangerous elements … these principles were considered void and non-binding.”

And just like neurotics, combatants repeat the same actions, each time anticipating a different outcome. Out of the history of terror–which amounts virtually to a thumbnail history of war itself–Mr. Carr formulates another law: Terrorism never works. Tactics designed to break a people, he claims, always harden or even galvanize them instead. (Here Mr. Carr’s expansive definition of terrorism and his axiom that it never works collide: The Japanese did capitulate after Nagasaki. Mr. Carr would argue that the inhumanity of our nuclear assault was mitigated by our postwar Pacific largesse, which, combined with the Marshall Plan, he calls “the greatest acts of not only civilian but military generosity in the history of the world.”)

Humanists have never succeeded in humanizing war, though they’ve made admirable attempts. Mr. Carr argues that war is best improved, made more limited and thus more humane–by the warriors themselves. The condottieri , a kind of medieval Italian samurai, first professionalized war; they moved beyond the brutal equation of victory with the utter destruction of the enemy. As the condottieri themselves put it, the better victory comes by “industry and cunning [rather] than by the actual clash of arms.” Only when Oliver Cromwell forced military discipline on his ranks, distinguishing the soldier from the ordinary civilian with drilling and uniforms, did a new principle governing armed conflict begin to take hold: Civilians might not be fair game.

A principle violated, as Mr. Carr recounts, ever since and in every imaginable way. So what is to be done? Mr. Carr’s politics are refreshingly difficult to pin down. He calls for the abolition of the C.I.A., which, he believes, with its foolhardy mischief in Central America and Afghanistan and its serial failure to predict much of anything–the fall of the Shah, the Soviet Union or the World Trade Center–has evolved into little more than an organ of state terror itself. But he also sees warfare as the only solution to terrorism: progressive warfare, precise limited-aim warfare, warfare followed by generosity on the model of the Marshall Plan–but warfare nonetheless.

It’s hard, after Mr. Carr’s recitation, to conclude that the default mode of humanity is peaceable farming. Belligerence is the norm, and the savage irony is that we’re perpetually in search of the universally inclusive humane category–Christian, Muslim, capitalist, citizen–that we hope will tame our aggression, if only the rest of the world would see the light. The universally inclusive category always turns out, of course, to be merely factional, though in its name we still manage to commit unspeakable acts. Given the several-millennia-old failure to forge some final ecumenical alias, maybe we should settle for a more realistic, distinctly unexalted self-image. Human beings, history tells us, have always been terrible beauties–greedy, lustful, fallen, prone to territorial and doctrinal jealousy, and very often violent. Instead of aspiring to an abstract virtue, maybe we should classify individual acts along the broadest possible lines: civilized or barbaric. The goal then will no longer be global conversion, but self-control. And the first step in fighting terrorism will be to confess: “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.”

Stephen Metcalf writes for Slate , The Nation and The New Republic. The Big-Tent Theory of Terror: From Bin Laden to Kissinger