Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Let the Facts Interface with a Good War on Terrorism

Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Let the Facts Interface with a Good War on Terrorism

Article excerpt

Until the collapse of communism, America's experience as a great power had been of a world in which there was always (as she saw it) one great evil in the universe, committed to her total destruction. She stood for more than national self-interest; she stood, she believed (and often rightly believed), for the forces of good. A Manichaean universe in which America captains the Army of Light while in the surrounding dark `the hosts of Gideon/Prowl and prowl around', characterises her whole memory of power.

That is not surprising. The Founding Fathers were (like fundamentalist Muslims today) in flight from what they saw as a fallen world. God, or destiny, had commanded America to start again. Being the New World was more than a matter of dates; it was a matter of innocence too.

It follows that the short period between 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, and 2001 when the World Trade Center followed it, was a novel and perhaps unsettling experience for America. The innocence of the early post-Revolution years may have been sacrificed to almost a century's involvement in world affairs as a boss nation, but if she had bloodied her hands, she had bloodied them wielding the sword of light. Against whom should the armour of righteousness be put on next?

A psycho-political analyst might conclude that here, after 1989, was a great national collective unconscious in urgent search not of a God - He had been located on America's side - but of a Devil in which it was possible for modern Americans to believe.

September 11 was not a post-Freudian allegory, of course. It was a reality whose perpetrators were not only wicked but powerful - or so it looked from the mayhem they created. But beyond being real the event was also perfectly placed as a national myth: an explanation, a clarifier, a catalyst permitting America's perception of the era to re-form around a new version of the dualism she inwardly craves. Of course one voice in America's head said, `This bewilders us'; but another said, `Ah - so that's where the Devil's hiding.'

It follows that as a great national idea the War on Terror is likely to take root and flourish, almost regardless of whether it fits the emerging facts. The viability of this theory will prove remarkably resistant to lack of supporting evidence.

Seeking a template to guide us through the Through the Looking Glass years ahead, we could do worse than reread the history of an era which, though attributed to one opportunist senator, drew its vigour from a comparable national idea: McCarthyism. As England's fear of a Catholic plot spawned Titus Oates, so the fear of un-American activity needed and therefore spawned Senator McCarthy. Ellen Schrecker's The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St Martin's) provides a useful textbook.

The McCarthyite view had (as Schrecker points out) one undeniable advantage over, say, fear of witches in Salem: communists existed. The Soviet Union was dangerous and did hope to infiltrate America. Those who suggested that McCarthyites overstated the fiendish intricacy of the Soviet web were therefore easily dismissed as being at best naive, at worst complicit. I remember my family being called communists in southern Rhodesia because my mother campaigned for African education; we were never communists, but she confided in us that she did have doubts about a couple of fellow-- campaigners; Moscow did give aid and comfort to anti-colonial movements in Africa.

In the same way, none can deny that al-- Qa'eda exist, that their aims are horrible, and that they are probably still plotting. …

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