Return to the essay table of contents
Return to the Home Page
2. HOW AL-QAEDA CAN WIN (Sept. 2002)
Allow me a detour. In the debate over whether intelligent life exists in this galaxy, one common argument against is this: After all these billions of years, all this time to evolve, the galaxy should be filled, busy, clotted with intelligent beings. So where are they? Why haven't we been visited, or at least signaled (easy, once a modern technology is achieved)? And so the againsters draw this profoundly pessimistic conclusion: We are alone. And there has never been another. The sole champion of intelligence in the Milky Way. One spear, and but one carrier.
Let me counter this deep pessimism with an alternative: a further dark vision, in some ways even more depressing: Life has always been common in our vast shiny Milky Way, even intelligent life. Life, in fact (in my vision) exists around 1 star in 10, a reasonable conclusion, microlife. Around 1 in 100 it evolves higher, to the level, say, of sponges or jellyfish. Around 1 in 1,000 higher yet, to the level of fish. 1 in 10,000: highly intelligent mammal-equivalents, like apes or dolphins. 1 in
100,000: intelligent beings with some tool use, and a sense of things beyond mere eat-grunt-and-die. Like the Neanderthals. 1 in 1,000,000: true intelligent civilizations of varying depth: the rough equivalents of ancient Rome, or Sumeria, or the Mayans, or Renaissance Italy. Still, far from being able to space-travel, or signal. And then the star that is the 1 in 10,000,000: proud parent to a civilization like ours, with nuclear power, bio-engineering, spaceships, and the rest. There are about 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, so 10,000 High Civilizations. Say the first appeared 10 billion years ago, the prodigy. So a new one has appeared every million years.
Alas, none has lasted more than a few centuries, and then the Milky Way waits nearly a million years for the next to appear, and it too blinks out instantly. (On a cosmic scale a few centuries is an instant.) One never has contact with another, and probably thinks it is all that has ever been. When the last one existed, on Earth homo sapiens hadn't even been born.
Now it is our turn. Is it?
On the morning of September 11, after seeing off my then-wife on her United Airlines flight to Los Angeles, I returned to our apartment in New York City, sat down to the salad and dressing she had prepared for me, and turned on the Washington Post's website, to see what was going on in the world.
A plane had crashed into a World Trade Center tower.
A terrible accident.
I ran to the bedroom window, and my god there was the tower with its flaming head, and vast streaming smoke.
I went back-and-forth, from the computer to the window to the computer, with the radio too, occasionally to the phone (to the extent it worked that day) (as a matter of principle, I generally refuse to watch TV, even on a September 11) and saw the towers flame and fall.
My then-wife's flight was safe, taking off from JFK, though no doubt it was one Al-Qaeda had scouted out.
Here is the sad news I bring: We too have now reached the moment when our technology makes our divisions fatal.
What killed the previous 10,000 civilizations? It must be that magic technologies can be achieved by only a few beings, a few geniuses backed by some talents, but that to preserve the civilizations such technologies create requires an all-united-together resolve.
Because if you are divided someone in the division will grab the immense new magic and use it.
We are divided. As those 10,000 diversity-filled worlds (the only kind that can achieve modernity) were. Deny it as some may, a Clash Of Civilizatons is at hand, though it is not fundamentally a clash of Islam vs. the West, not really, much as it seems on the surface. A new alternative order exists in both camps.
Called the One World Order, as this unique mix of High Technology, Globalization, Hijinks, Irony, Democratism, Predator Capitalism, Merry Decadence and Attentuated Islamo/Judeo/Christianity has flowed on, it has flowed on (till recently) with apparently little or no idea that there are human beings on this planet who hate it with such fury they would rather die than see it triumph.
I have always wondered where the historically inevitable challenge to the One World Order would come from, and it turns out it has most strongly emerged from the Islamic world, or rather from a committed minority within Islam. But then, history is the work of elites, successfully dragging the masses behind them. And Al-Qaeda is the elite of the elite, the tip of the spear.
It is not that Al-Qaeda offers an alternative civilization that can interest many. The two recent experiments in quasi-medieval Islamic fascism in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, Iran, have proven stomach-turning even to most Muslims (and to an overwhelming majority of Islamic women). No, what Al-Qaeda offers is the sudden, true legitimate possibility of destruction of a civilization hated by millions, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. And after that--- who knows what? First let a League of Fire sweep the world. For many, destruction will work as the immediate goal.
9/11 was a stunning strike, killing 3,000, wounding the economy, perhaps dooming the airline industry as private enterprise, stealing away (permanently?) civil liberties that seemed carved in stone, hurtling America into war, darkening the national mood--- its impact keeps rippling out, not as from a rock hurled into a pond but as an asteroid screaming into an ocean.
And yet the weapons used in this attack--- four planes--- are small stuff compared to what's potential.
A whole mess of humans have been stewing in rage and disgust and impotence at the seemingly inevitable triumph of modernity over all other possibilities. Now, all over the world, a light is going on in their heads. This triumph isn't inevitable at all. In a universe of magic energies humankind has grasped some big enough to explode its whole enterprise. Consider these possibilities: Atomic weapons as common as rifles. Backyard or basement "dirty bombs". (One exploded in downtown Manhattan could render it uninhabitable for years or decades.) Smallpox reborn. Bio-engineering of existing viruses to infinitely greater lethality. Want to destroy the human race? An HIV that's spread through coughing and sneezing is just the tonic. The creation of entirely new viruses. Or even simpler ideas. Here's two. 1,000's of arsonists setting coordinated forest fires across the U.S. during droughts. Inoculating suicidal Don Juans with the strains of HIV that haven't made it to America (including the Cameroon strain and little-known HIV-2) and setting them loose on America's slutty and love-starved female population. The list is endless.
Al-Qaeda has natural allies all across America and the world, as long as it doesn't push its own particular Islamic fundamentalist agenda on them, but simply offers its services as teacher, supplier, financier or occasional brother-in-arms. Conservative Christians who have more in common with Al-Qaeda than with MTV. Radical ecologists who've finally woken up to the fact that Global Capitalism cannot be reasoned with, only defeated. Militia types, of course. (Maybe even McVeigh and Nichols.) Those men who are inevitably losers with women in a world of Darwinian hedonism: "nice" men, shy men, too-good men, reserved men, awkward men, misogynistic men. All the Mohammed Attas and Timothy McVeighs of the world. Romantics who dream of a pre-modern world restored. People with a naturally strong religious bent for whom Islam has deeper attraction than a now-attenutated Christianity. Fathers and mothers embittered that their sons are drug-sodden and obsessed with filth and their daughters dress and act in ways only prostitutes once did, and a society won't support them, instead it encourages the children. People who do not want to live in a
world of clones and half-robots and bio-engineered monstrosities and chimeras and humans with chips implanted in their brains and other onrushing and otherwise inevitable horrors. Drug dealers
and druglords who'll welcome more muscle, the muscle welcoming the death and decadence drugs bring to a hated civilization. And all across the world, the billions in the shantytowns and favelas and slums who know that to the One World Order in its frenzied "race to the bottom" they are little more than raw material, to be burned up, so that 5% or 10% of the human race can live like gods. There is an army of humanity ready to assail the walls of civilization, and it doesn't matter that Al-Qaeda in the end offers no real alternative for them. Its vision of destruction is enough. After all is ash--- we'll see what's up.
Here is Al-Qaeda's army-in-waiting, its multiplier. If it isn't too proud, too ideologically - or religiously - rigid to accept it.
How to defeat Al-Qaeda? Only with a vision inspiring beyond mere materialism. A civilization not just powerful but magnificently good. A civilization that can somehow step backward with respect even as it hurtles forward with energy. Perhaps this is impossible, since the essence of modernity has been "creative destruction" and transcendence through subversion of most of what was, processes often deeply painful and horrible that nonetheless can benefit a minority.
And so we rush with a gasp into the 21st Century, which is going to be halluconogenic beyond imagining, and into the 3rd Millenium, which is not likely to end well. 10,000 times before it did not.
Return to the essay table of contents
Return to the Home Page