A Disaster by Any Measure

On and after September 11, 2001, I wrote a series of columns examining who these people were who had attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and why they were determined to battle the power and influence of the United States in the Mideast—particularly in Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden’s home, and location of the Islamic holy places.

They were religious radicals and also utopians, having no chance of success in recreating in our day their (largely imaginary) vision of the Arab world during the years when the followers of the Prophet Muhammad came out of Arabia into present-day Iraq, seized Syria and Jerusalem from the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire, then conquered Egypt and Persia, and created a Mediterranean empire eventually reaching the Pyrenees and Vienna.

Men with box cutters and bombs were not going to rebuild this empire, nor were Osama bin Laden’s militants in their Afghan caves (although to judge from President George W. Bush’s “Islamo-fascist” speeches of recent days, he thinks they can do it, unless the Republican Congress is reelected this November).

These new Islamists were not focused on Israel, but on Islam: its integrity, its purity, its future—and its enemies. Their beliefs came from the Wahhabi Muslim reform movement of the eighteenth century, which held that all changes or accretions to Islam since the third Islamic century (the ninth century AD) are illegitimate and must be eliminated.

One of my readers (in The Chicago Tribune) angrily e-mailed me in September 2001 to demand why I was going on about the historical and cultural background. “Are you trying to rationalize the murder of 6,000 innocent civilians?” he asked (the actual number of casualties was still unclear). He said he didn’t care who the terrorists were or why they did what they did. He just wanted revenge. If I tried to explain who they were, I must be on their side.

This was a comprehensible, but destructive, reaction, because it was the White House reaction as well, sending the government off on the course that five years later has produced wars the United States is losing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and soon, it may be, in Iran and even Syria.

My correspondent in Chicago did not want to know who these people were, and to judge from their actions, neither did the Bush White House. Yet the United States government knew a great deal about al-Qaeda—which, after all, was the offshoot of a CIA initiative in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

The CIA and the Department of State knew all about the rise and influence of Islamic fundamentalist currents in the Middle East and elsewhere, as did the police and security services of several European countries, as well as academic specialists in the United States and Europe.

This knowledge was apparently of no interest to the White House. Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, for their part, already knew that they wanted to seize Iraq, for reasons yet to be …

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