Skip to Content

Features Features Australia

We still don’t get it

Mark Steyn says that three years after 9/11 the West remains in denial over Islamic terrorism

11 September 2004

12:00 AM

11 September 2004

12:00 AM

‘He is sedated,’ said Bill Clinton’s heart surgeon on Tuesday. ‘But he is arousable.’ I’ve never doubted it.

That seems as appropriate a thought as any with which to consider the state of the new war three years on. Like former President Clinton, much of the West is sedated. But is it arousable? On the eve of this week’s anniversary, hundreds of children were murdered in their schoolhouse by terrorists. Terrible. But even more terrible was the reaction of what passes for the civilised world, the reluctance to confront the truth of what had occurred. The perpetrators were ‘separatists’, according to the Christian Science Monitor — what, you mean like my fellow Quebeckers? They were ‘commandoes’, according to Agence France-Presse — you mean like the SAS?

‘We have been confronted with a deep human tragedy,’ said the Dutch foreign minister Ben Bot, speaking for the European Union. ‘I am appalled that a school and its pupils are being used for political ends,’ said Unesco’s director-general Koichiro Matsuura. A ‘tragedy’? ‘Political ends’?

Five days after the slaughter, the New York Times finally got around to using the I-word, and then only in paragraph 24: ‘While the extent of international support may be debated, the attacks bear some trappings of Islamic militancy. Officials here in Beslan said they had found notebooks with Arabic writing, and witnesses reported hearing Arabic exhortations, though the attackers mostly spoke Russian.’

Any Arabic exhortation in particular? Only the slogan of the age, ‘Allahu Akbar’. Nothing to worry about, folks. They may kill kids, but they’re just ‘separatists’, ‘radicals’, ‘activists’. No connection with any events you may have heard about in Madrid, Istanbul, Bali, Tel Aviv or New York. The approved tone in polite society is that of my Telegraph colleague Adam Nicolson: keep it tasteful, keep it elegant, lots of exquisitely honed overwritten allusions — each dead child was ‘a Pietà, the archetype of pity. Each is a Cordelia carried on at the end of Act V…’. Lovely stuff, may even be an award in it. But not a word about the killers or a hint of their identity. Only a limpid, passive sadness. Nicolson is sedated but, unlike Clinton, not arousable.

Three years after September 11, the Islamist death cult is the love whose name no one dare speak. And, if you can’t even bring yourself to identify your enemy, are you likely to defeat him? Can you even know him? He seems to know us pretty well. He understands the pressures he can bring to bear on Spain, and the Philippines, and France, too. He’s come to appreciate the self-imposed constraints under which his enemy fights — the legalisms, the political correctness, the deference to ineffectual multilateralism. He’s revolted by the infidels’ decadence but he has to admit it’s enormously helpful: the useful idiots of the pro-gay, pro-feminist Left are far more idiotic and far more useful to him than they ever were to Stalin. He’s figured out that while pluralistic open democracy might be a debased system of government next to Sharia, it has its moments: he had no idea that quite so many Westerners so loathed their own governments and, if not their own, then certainly America’s. And he never thought that, even in America, while one party is at war, the other party is at war with the very idea that there is a war. And even the party committed to war presides over a lethargic unreformed bureaucracy, large chunks of which are determined to obstruct it.

So, despite the loss of the Afghan training camps and Saddam and the Taleban and three quarters of al-Qa’eda’s leadership, it hasn’t been a bad three years: the enemy has learnt the limits of the West’s resolve, and all he has to do is put a bit of thought into exploiting it in the years ahead. A nuclear Iran will certainly help.


By contrast, what have we learned? According to the Associated Press, last Sunday, at the Bercy stadium in Paris, Madonna dedicated her performance of ‘Imagine’ to what the AP reporter was still calling ‘the Russian hostage crisis’, even though by then the ‘crisis’ was over, as were the lives of the hostages. Madonna ‘urged fans to think about what happened in Russia and Lennon’s lyrics’. Okay:

‘Imagine there’s no heaven It’s easy if you try …’

Not what I would want to hear if my kid had just been shot dead by a terrorist. More importantly, if Madonna is advocating global secularism as the answer to terrorism, she’s backing a loser. For the fellows pulling the martyrdom routines, heaven is a brothel. In Madonna terms, it’s ‘Like A Virgin’ times 72. It’s the jackpot, it’s winning the lottery. Telling the guy it’s a fraud and your crappy life in Egypt or Saudi Arabia is all there is doesn’t seem likely to work. Doesn’t it make more sense to try to move him into buying the idea of heaven as a lot of fluffy clouds where we sit around twanging harps all day rather than attempting to shunt him all the way over into instant radical post-Christian atheism?

This isn’t a theoretical proposition. Last year a senior Dutch cabinet minister talked me through some very interesting findings apropos his own country’s Islamic population. The grandchildren of Muslims who arrived in Holland in the Seventies are often more militantly Islamist and unassimilated than their grandparents. Raised in a society as close as one can find to the sappy nihilism of Lennon’s lyric, they decided it had no appeal for them. I mocked the singing of ‘Imagine’ on some 9/11 all-star memorial gala in the fall of 2001, yet here it is again, irrelevant, dated, but indestructible as ever. Singing ‘Imagine’ is a sure sign of a failure to imagine.

That’s really the heart of it: the failure of what Osama bin Laden saw as a soft pampered West to imagine that it can ever all come to an end. Three years ago, for the cover of our September 11 issue, Heath drew us a defiant Statue of Liberty, her torch held high above the headline ‘The West Must Fight Back.’ Nice idea, but it didn’t quite work out like that. 9/11 was not ‘the day that changed the world’ but instead the day that revealed how much the world had already changed. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, ‘the West’, for example, had lacked sufficient sense of common purpose to ‘fight back’.

It’s fashionable now to employ some false distinction between Afghanistan and Iraq — the good war and the Texas cowboy’s Halliburton land grab. But ‘the West’ was never committed even to Afghanistan. A few months ago, I had the honour of participating in the US Naval Academy’s annual foreign affairs conference in Annapolis. After I’d made a few breezy generalisations about the pitiful performance of America’s so-called allies, an indignant French naval cadet stood up to insist that, au contraire, Paris had made a significant contribution to the war in Afghanistan. Why, it had dispatched the ultimate symbol of Gallic prestige, the nuclear (and, indeed, toxic) aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.

It seemed cruel to point out that Afghanistan is a land-locked country, and that dispatching a stricken carrier with a few reconnaissance aircraft to the general vicinity of the Indian Ocean is not perhaps the most robust commitment to the war effort. It seemed crueller to point out that the Charles de Gaulle was dispatched in late December 2002, a month after the fall of Kabul. In other words, the French had waited till the war was ov
er before making a contribution to it. That’s America’s post-modern ‘alliance’.

In the US, some observers thought it would be different once Europe got hit. On the day of the Madrid bombing, John Ellis, a Bush cousin and a shrewd commentator, declared confidently: ‘Every member state of the EU understands that Madrid is Rome is Berlin is Amsterdam is Paris is London is New York.’ All wrong. Within 72 hours of the atrocity, voters sent a tough message to the Islamists: ‘We apologise for catching your eye.’ Whether or not Madrid is Rome, Berlin, etc., it certainly isn’t New York. At least in the two and a half years between 9/11 and 3/11, there was always the possibility of Europe stiffening itself. Now America lives with the certainty that it won’t, and can’t, until it’s too late.

This war will go on for some decades, and by the end of it Madrid will be Rome will be Berlin will be Amsterdam will be Paris, but none of them will be as we now know them. As I’ve said here before, by 2030 Europe will be Eurabia — at least semi-Islamified, with Muslim lobby groups transformed into Muslim political parties, with their own representatives serving in coalitions with bewildered Continental multiculturalists. (The recent by-elections in the Midlands, with the Friends of al-Aqsa Committee summoning the candidates to a tribunal in order to see who could outpander the others, is only an interim phase.) In the last three decades, Europe has taken in (officially) some 20 million Muslims (officially) — or the equivalent of the populations of three EU countries (Ireland, Belgium, Denmark). Once you look at it like that, why should they have less say in the corridors of Euro-power than Ben Bot or Bertie Ahern? Imagine France with a 20 per cent Muslim bloc and then consider the likelihood of French forces fighting alongside the US ever again.

In her lame apologia for last week’s kiddie-killers, the Guardian’s Isabel Hilton rhapsodised about ‘asymmetrical warfare’ — how else could the poor wee insurgents/ activists/whatever fight back against overwhelmingly superior force? But these days who’s really ‘superior’? An old-fashioned European army — Belgium’s, say — is incapable of projecting itself to Saudi Arabia; but a terrorist group in Saudi Arabia, through routine innovations like email, cell phones and automated bank machines, can easily project itself to Belgium. What did 9/11 cost its perpetrators? Flight lessons would be below $5,000 depending on how impatient the hijackers were (as Zac Moussaoui told his instructors, he didn’t need to learn how to land); boxcutters cost a couple of bucks; add in a few rental cars and motels, and that’s it. For around $150,000, 19 not especially talented terrorists killed more than 3,000 people and caused immediate economic damage of $27 billion, with the final tab yet to be calculated.

That’s what I call asymmetrical. Now imagine nuclear technology, which long ago slipped the bunkers of the great powers. If you’re a quiet-lifer like the Spaniards, who do you talk to to head off catastrophe? There isn’t an ‘al-Qa’eda’ in the sense of an organisation one can enter into formal peace talks with, as Mo Mowlam advises. There are local terror groups sharing the same aims and methods from Algeria to Indonesia and, like crime families, they all know who to go to if they happen to find themselves in Chechnya, or Kosovo, or Sudan, or Colombia. And there are freelance acts of mayhem committed by chaps who wake up one morning and hear the call of the jihad — the British shoebomber and the Washington sniper both fall into this category. Not all Muslims are al-Qa’eda supporters, but they don’t have to be. If just 1 per cent is generally sympathetic, that’s enough for a vast global support network.

More to the point, keep an eye on that big picture. Between 1970 and 2000, the developed world declined from just under 30 per cent of the world’s population to just over 20 per cent, and the population of Muslim nations increased from about 15 per cent to 20 per cent. 1970 isn’t that long ago. It’s when John Lennon wrote ‘Imagine’, which our pop stars seem to think is still pretty cool. But while they’re droning the same old dirge, everything else has moved on.

Two years ago I said that the terrorists blew apart the ‘polite fictions’ of the September 10 world. A lot of people have devoted a lot of energy to trying to reconstruct them. But it can’t be done. The old world has gone, and if Madonna wants to preserve the kind of pluralist society that enables her to be photographed naked with her bottom hanging over a wall and get a bestselling book out of it, she’s going to have to choose sides and fight for it. Imagine that.


Show comments
Close