He is speaking. Alone at the lectern, he faces a full chamber. Neither on the floor nor in the gallery is there an empty seat. All ears are focused on his words, every head is poised in an expectancy of what he has to say. It is September 20, 2001, nine days after the bombing and desolation of the twin towers at the World Trade Center and the breaching of the Pentagon. Day by day a crew of thousands, firemen, police, welders, crane operators, volunteers all have been digging through the wreckage, hopefully, though now increasingly with sinking hearts, for of more than 6,000 souls buried therein almost no-one will be recovered alive. Over and over, endlessly, from this angle and from that, from sea to shining sea, the images are beamed around the country, first one plane then another, a great ball of orange flame, an immensity of collapse, then a second, billowing clouds of smoke and debris pouring through the streets, crowds fleeing before them, leaving behind an unforgiving mountain of brick and mortar, twisted steel, broken shards of jagged glass, plumbing fixtures, torn electric conduits rebuking their makers, computer fragments, a shoe, a wallet, bodies and parts of bodies. Smoking and smoldering, sheets of flame eerily darting up from this vast malevolence of ashes and of flesh, here certainly was the death pit of Dante’s inferno, a message from hell. Onlookers bury their heads in their hands, weeping. Photographs are held up: my husband, my daughter, my brother. The psyche of a nation has been torn apart.
What will he say? What comfort will he offer, what direction staked out, what action taken? A nation sits planted in front of their television sets, hanging on his every word, and there in the great hall of congress he is making the speech of his life. Though in time there may be others, this now is the way history will remember him. He speaks with muted certainty, arranging his words in short bursts and phrases, emphasized with deliberation, punctuated with carefully measured pauses. His voice modulated to convey assurance. Everything will be taken care of. “Make no mistake about it!” Everything will be all right.
Several months previously this man had secured the presidency through the actions of a mob of congressional aides who had routed ballot counters away from their task, his selection thereafter being confirmed in the blatantly partisan rulings of a coterie of politically motivated justices. A former alcoholic and sometime cocaine user, he was said to be a man who cared little for reading reports, mastering details or acquainting himself with the intricacy of issues. When shortly after his inauguration a gunman was apprehended on the White House lawn, a floor plan showed him exercising in the salon, with the vice-president busily at work in his office attending to the affairs of the nation. On the day of the bombings, with the vice-president once again occupied in his office, he was in Florida, preparing to make an appearance. Appearances here and there, before this group and that, on one occasion or another, pretty much summed up his discharge of presidential duties. Ignoring affairs of state and a seriously faltering economy, not long before the bombing he treated himself to a two-week vacation on his ranch in Texas. Golfing, fishing, riding around on horseback. People shrugged. He was a man of little consequence, chosen for the presidency by the political power-brokers who represented the richest of America’s corporations, selected for the role he was to play in emulation of a previous actor who had served their interests so well. With a boyish grin and an amiable personality, he would be their man, a president of public relations.
Now he was being cheered by many of the same people who had earlier rejected him for what they saw him to be. How is one to penetrate the irony of his exaltation and their adulation? In truth, his ceremonial buildup had begun much earlier, almost as soon as he was sworn into office. One had but to listen to national public radio. The morning newscast regularly began with a report of where President Bush was to be that day. Talking at a girl-scout jamboree, addressing a veterans luncheon, visiting a home for the aged, dropping in on the kiddies in a school room, attending church. With little else to recommend him, a place at the top of the news was his. The media were promoting him into a prominence that made eventual adulation all the easier. Now the adulation was his.
Well on his way to being remembered as having contributed little other than down-home redundancy during a rather trying period in American history, his fortunes had turned abruptly around. The country had been smitten as never before with an impelling need to draw together, sharing grief and pooling a resolve to dig out and rebuild. It was the pivotal moment in a gathering of the herd. He would not miss it for anything. Climbing atop a mound of rubble and grabbing a bullhorn, he assures the assembled crowd of fatigued and despairing rescuers that he the president has everything under control. If they can’t hear him, he can hear them. In response to their hopes and fears and anger, he offers the largesse of his office. He will act on their behalf. Make no mistake about it, as he was impelled often to reiterate, the perpetrators of this brutal outrage will get theirs. This great country will not be defeated. He declares War on Terrorism.
Years earlier, far to the east, another herd had been gathering. Disdaining the urban niceties of prideful America, they had closeted themselves in a mountain fastness, sucking arid air in caves and camps. They will bring true Islam to the globe. Dead or alive, their souls belong to Allah. Having flocked to the call, they will follow an antlered head of their own. With a vaguely bemused expression that rarely changes, set in a gaunt face, he peers into a visionary future. “Soft, humble, smooth, he speaks little.” He is a self-contained man. Carefully maintaining his own personal security, he is ready to die. He is a living martyr. “Ever since I was a boy,” he tells us in taped interviews and video broadcasts, “I felt hatred towards the
Americans and felt that I was at war against them.” Now, “Every American man is an enemy whether he is among the fighters who fight us directly or among those who pay taxes.” The millionaire son of a billionaire father, he knows the value of money in recruiting followers. And so, in 1998 he declares a Holy War, a Fatwa against both the U.S. military and civilians. Not only Americans. There are other enemies as well. Invoking the glories of Saladin’s conquests on behalf of the faith, the war will be waged between Muslims and “Zionist Crusaders.” “Our goal,” he announces, “is to liberate the land of Islam from the infidels and establish the law of Allah.” He will defeat the “Crusader-Jewish wars” against Islam. “We cannot leave the house of God,” he tells those who have joined with him, “to these malicious Jews and Christians.” Not only Jews and Christians, but the United Nations itself is an “infidel regime.” His jihad will drive Americans and all other infidels out of the “State of Islam,” purify “Islamic lands” everywhere of their presence. He calls upon Muslims to “spend their money on jihad and especially on the movements that have devoted themselves to the killing of Jews and Crusaders.” The devastation of the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya with their heavy African casualties, “was a grace from the Almighty, bringing delight to the Muslim world.” He expresses “joy and delight” over the bombing of the U.S. Cole. “Their limbs were scattered everywhere,” he emphasizes over video shots of the destruction. “The victory of Yemen will continue,” he promises on a videotape circulated on September 9, 2001. Nuclear weapons will be employed: “It is the duty of Muslims to own [them]… Muslims have acquired such a weapon,” Osama bin Laden assures us.
The State of Islam, to which he pledges his energies, has already found a home. “There is now a Muslim state that enforces God’s laws,” he says of Taliban Afghanistan,” which destroys falsehoods, and which does not succumb to the American Infidels – and it is led by a true believer, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the commander of the faithful.” The Taliban version of God’s laws leaves little room to maneuver. Notoriously less so for women. Not permitted to be treated by male doctors, neither can women practice medicine themselves. The efforts of midwives notwithstanding, deaths at birth in Afghanistan are 161 out of 1000, twenty-three times the rate in the U.S., itself not the best in the world. Women, of course, are not the only targets of Fundamentalist severity under the Taliban. On May 23, 2001 over 100 congressmen and women call on President Bush to intervene on behalf of Afghanistan’s Hindu minority. Along with other religious minorities, the Taliban government, so it was said, was forcing them to wear labels on their clothes to differentiate them from Muslim citizens. “The action of the Taliban toward Afghanistan’s Hindu minority,”
congresswoman Jan Schakowsky observed, “is disturbingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews.” Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan surpasses Burma as the world’s largest producer of opium. However this may be, bin Laden asserts, the Taliban have built an ideal, purified Islamic state that provides a perfect base for a world wide holy war against “infidels.” He urges Muslims everywhere to come to Afghanistan to support the Taliban and bin Laden’s own al Qaida as their duty to God. For fighting men he draws extensively on the Wahhabis. Founded around 1744 by Mohammed ibn Abd al Wahhab, as a puritanical, nationalistic, transcendentalist sect, al Wahhab allied himself with Mohammed ibn Saud, providing theological inspiration for the creation of the Saudi Arabian state. Over the years Wahhabism has devolved into a rabidly anti-Western religious movement, given to fanaticism and murder. A decade of wholesale massacres in Algeria, a bloodbath of German sightseers in Egypt, the beheading of captive tourists in the Philippines and Taliban tyranny in Afghanistan are among its works.
Since the enemy after all is global, the holy war against it must be fought on all fronts. On October 6, 1981, President Anwar el Sadat is assassinated by the Egyptian Jihad Islami. The head of the Egyptian Jihad, Ayman al Zawahri, later becomes bin Laden’s second in command. In Jordan, police foil a bin Laden plot to mount bombing attacks on pilgrims during millennium celebrations. In North Afghanistan, two days before the World Trade Center bombing, a pair of suicide bombers assassinate Ahmed Shah Massoud, head of the anti-Taliban Northern Coalition. In mid-July 2001, a some 200 Taliban fighters, members of bin Laden’s al Qaida, are reported to have arrived in Iraq, to be given terrorist training in the use of chemical and biological weapons. Afterwards, 40 of the trainees transship to Kosovo, 60 to bin Laden’s Central Asian Command in the Ferghana Valley of Uzbekistan. The remainder join bin Laden in Afghanistan, stopping briefly at Abu Khaban, an al Qaida research, development and manufacturing center for explosive material and chemical and biological weapons. The installation was under the direction of Midhat Mursi, Egyptian Islamic Jihad militant expert. The bin Laden-Jihad alliance counts upon as many as 7,500 fighting men in Bosnia, 15,000 in Kosovo, 15,000 in Albania, 5,000 in Macedonia. 3,000 Chechen rebels funded by bin Laden are reported dispersed into Georgia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. In addition to 3,500 in Afghanistan, bin Laden’s al Qaida is thought to retain 6,400 “commanders” in North America, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Albania, Kosovo, Algeria, Chechnya, Tadjikistan and all the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, the Philippines, Egypt, Ethiopia and Somalia. Bin Laden maintains ties with the 20,000 man Moslem Liberation Army that holds a monopoly on the Arabian-East African arms trade.
On September 9, bin Laden’s runners fan out to the Islamic madrasas in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are schools of military training and indoctrination, where fighters are issued personal weapons from the central armories serving each cluster of madrases. Counting an estimated 40,000 militants in Afghanistan, 70,000 fighters in Pakistan and 100,000 elsewhere, bin Laden might be able to muster 200,000 fighting men. This may not seem much against the huge armies of America and Europe with their immensely greater fire power. In a war that is conducted on terrorist terms, however, win, lose or draw, an army of 200,000 suicidal soldiers, even a small fraction of that number, flying planes, driving trucks, equipped with explosive, chemical or biological substances, nuclear suitcase bombs, who knows, perhaps even E-bombs, is capable of shaking loose the entire world economy and social cohesion. Bin Laden’s dream for Islam.
The herds are gathering. Our gang against theirs. With God on our side, with Allah on theirs. Good against Evil. Once again, the holocaust. Sadly to say, a holocaustic predisposition in the human species is an old story, many times told. Armies of Egyptian pharaohs returning triumphantly with bushel baskets of severed Nubian foreskins, miles of crucified captives lining both sides of the Appian Way to decorate the route of homecoming Roman legionnaires, rows of impaled bodies serving Assyrian princes as public notices of valor and conquest, human scalps dangling from the belts of Americans winning the West and Indians defending it, waves of Christian crusaders sweeping mercilessly through friend and foe alike, Mongolian horsemen spearing their human targets on the gallop, bodies broken on the wheel for the Inquisition, burned at the stake in witch hunts, hanging from tree limbs in the light of hooded nightrider bonfires, paramilitary death squads, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Siberian gulag, gas chambers, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We are, or at any rate, have become, a holocaustic species. Perverting the instinct to survive into a license to kill. And always, everywhere that we go, maiming, murdering and destroying, in our minds and in our cries, we imagine ourselves to be carrying out the will of God. Slaying righteously. War and religion seem inevitably to go together. The troops must be blessed. Muslim and Judeo-Christian. On both sides, this will be a faith-based war. As usual. Instincts of the herd appear to demand it.
Where can one look in an effort to comprehend the triple alliance of war, religion and herding? At the deer lick, the chicken roost, the chimpanzee troop, in a pride of lions, a pack of wolves, a flock of sheep? In so many species herding is an ordinary affair. And among humans? In clubs, lodges, societies, churches, unions, parties, corporations, theatrical performances, rock concerts and sports events, in ideologies and philosophies, in -isms of every conceivable variety, each with its following of -ists. We scarcely feel human, it appears, without belonging to something. As with deer, and chickens and chimps, no one of the many herds to which we throng thrives without the offices of a leader, king of the hill, head of the roost, alpha male. Be it in the person of a raj, sahib, sultan, sheik, boss, caesar, kaiser, czar, monarch, king, president, chairman, marshal, mogul, nabob, führer, commandant, generalissimo, governor, liege, lord, sovereign, chief, numero uno, top honcho, big cheese, big brother, bishop, pope, guru, by whatever title, we need him. Without him, we fear, there will be anarchy, chaos. So we make an exchange: his leadership for our allegiance. And more: entrusting our spirit to his authority, we discover ourselves dispirited without it. With nothing to hang on to and no one to show us the way, what will we do? Enthusiastically applauding George W. Bush, we gather together for the defense of democracy and freedom. Cheering on Osama bin Laden, we join hands for the liberation of Islam. Followers on both sides ignore the valuable oil partnerships entered into by Bush, senior and junior, with the bin Ladens. Confident of our support, leaders band together in herds of their own.
Fully tracking the origins of our readiness to make war, we might ultimately find ourselves exploring the gut of an ameba. What impulses move that elegantly simple, one-celled creature, mother of us all, to a predatory ingestion of its environment? Ferreting out the sources of our attraction to herding and guidance from leaders, a whole host of species offers clues in addition to our own. In the need for religious experience, however, our species stands alone. For thousands of years, these three, war, herding and religion, have woven their way in mutual support through human affairs. Triplets sprung from a single womb, their presence has animated much that we know about the human psyche.
The stream of human consciousness has run a long course. For a million years or more it has been evolving, punctuated by holocausts, radiant in compassion. Every living human being has poured hopes, fears, delights and struggle into its evolution. From the very first nanosecond of the big bang, evolution may be the only meaning in life we’ll ever find. And goodness of heart, life’s best reward.
The dream is shared by more than a few Muslims. A book of bin Laden’s sayings is a sellout all over the Muslim world. Copies of the 2-hour tape that Bin Laden films after the bombing of the U.S. Cole proliferate on Islamic web sites and in mosques and bazaars across the Muslim world. Upon receiving news of the suicide bombings of the World Trade Center and Pentagon, crowds of Muslims leap up and down in the streets of Palestine, Beirut and Lebanon, clapping and cheering. Auto horns blare. The scenes are eerily reminiscent of Germans cheering on the Storm Troopers during Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, many of them joining in to beat and spit upon Jews in the streets. Over and over again, as in a celebratory mantra, TV footage runs the scenes of the bombed and collapsing trade towers. Palestinian radio calls the bombing part of a “just war of resistance by the peoples against American hegemony.” In Pakistan, in Palestine, elsewhere in Islam, giant portraits of bin Laden are paraded about. He’s the man.
Cheers! Waving of hats and hands and flags. He had become a great leader,with virtually an entire country for a following. Six days later his ascension is ratified by the assembled legates of the land, applauding as strenuously as a gathering of hard-hats or the party faithful. The First Lady gives him a forced smile; clapping mechanically, Hilary Clinton looks about the congressional chambers with a pained expression. No matter. By universal acclaim, he will wear the antlers. He, George W. Bush was now all-American alpha male. It had happened in little more than a historical instant. In the wink of an eye.
Time and again the entire chamber rises to applaud, greeting his words with accolades of approval, enthusiastically rendered, vigorously sustained. Congressmen, senators, generals, admirals, a fireman in uniform, a policemen, supreme court justices in their black, flowing robes, a gallery jam packed with Americans from every walk of life. One and all, they are investing this man’s words with the hopes of their lives, with a promise of deliverance from a reality that has proved to be more devastating by far than their worst nightmares. He is their man. He will lead them in a war of good against evil.
Two-thirds of the way through his address to the nation and to the world, the president stops. Glances up at the balcony, his gaze fixed on the First Lady. A sideways smirk of self-satisfaction, that annoying look of overweening self-assurance, from which his advisers had weaned him in the early days of his candidacy, has returned to twist the contours of his mouth. And he winks. In the midst of this most solemn moment in the history of the nation, an entire people caught up in the enormity of their terror, and looking to him for a way, a clue, a solution, in a gesture of private exultation, the president winks. “I’ve done it, Laura,” he might as well have been saying. “I’ve got them now.”