It was in Peshawar, on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, as the Red Army was falling apart and falling back. I badly needed a guide to get me to the Khyber Pass, and I decided that what I required was the most farouche-looking guy with the best command of English and the toughest modern automobile. Such a combination was obtainable, for a price. My new friend rather wolfishly offered me a tour of the nearby British military cemetery (a well-filled site from the Victorian era) before we began. Then he slammed a cassette into the dashboard. I braced myself for the ululations of some mullah but received instead a dose of “So Far Away.” From under the turban and behind the beard came the gruff observation, “I thought you might like Dire Straits.”
This was my induction into the now-familiar symbiosis of tribal piety and high-tech; a symbiosis consummated on September 11 with the conversion of the southern tip of the capital of the modern world into a charred and suppurating mass grave. Not that it necessarily has to be a symbol of modernism and innovation that is targeted for immolation. As recently as this year, the same ideology employed heavy artillery to destroy the Buddha statues at Bamiyan, and the co-thinkers of bin Laden in Egypt have been heard to express the view that the Pyramids and the Sphinx should be turned into shards as punishment for their profanely un-Islamic character.
Since my moment in Peshawar I have met this faction again. In one form or another, the people who leveled the World Trade Center are the same people who threw acid in the faces of unveiled women in Kabul and Karachi, who maimed and eviscerated two of the translators of The Satanic Verses and who machine-gunned architectural tourists at Luxor. Even as we worry what they may intend for our society, we can see very plainly what they have in mind for their own: a bleak and sterile theocracy enforced by advanced techniques. Just a few months ago Bosnia surrendered to the international court at The Hague the only accused war criminals detained on Muslim-Croat federation territory. The butchers had almost all been unwanted “volunteers” from the Chechen, Afghan and Kashmiri fronts; it is as an unapologetic defender of the Muslims of Bosnia (whose cause was generally unstained by the sort of atrocity committed by Catholic and Orthodox Christians) that one can and must say that bin Ladenism poisons everything that it touches.
I was apprehensive from the first moment about the sort of masochistic e-mail traffic that might start circulating from the Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein quarter, and I was not to be disappointed. With all due thanks to these worthy comrades, I know already that the people of Palestine and Iraq are victims of a depraved and callous Western statecraft. And I think I can claim to have been among the first to point out that Clinton’s rocketing of Khartoum–supported by most liberals–was a gross war crime, which would certainly have entitled the Sudanese government to mount reprisals under international law. (Indeed, the sight of Clintonoids on TV, applauding the “bounce in the polls” achieved by their man that day, was even more repulsive than the sight of destitute refugee children making a wretched holiday over the nightmare on Chambers Street.) But there is no sense in which the events of September 11 can be held to constitute such a reprisal, either legally or morally.