The United States is not fighting a war against terror. Terror is an emotional response. Fighting a war against terror makes no more sense than fighting a war against greed or envy.
Are we, however, fighting a war against terrorism? Some analysts make the cogent argument that terrorism is a weapon. Therefore, they say, to declare a “War Against Terrorism” is akin to proclaiming a “War Against Submarines.”
But terrorism – the intentional targeting of civilians for political purposes – is a heinous tactic that can be fought just as people have battled germ warfare, genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery and piracy. These are all practices which civilized people should not condone.
To argue that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter – as, for example the Reuters news agency does -- is mushy-headed relativism, akin to asserting that there is no difference between killing soldiers on a battlefield and slaughtering men, women and children in gas chambers.
Besides, it should be obvious that people who value freedom and human rights do not intentionally murder other people's children. Even at the lowest points in the American Revolution, George Washington did not consider slitting the throats of the Tories' toddlers.
But it is not terrorism alone that America and its allies are fighting. On a deeper level we are fighting the ideologies that drive and justify terrorism. Among them is nihilism, the doctrine that existing institutions must be razed to the ground so that, afterwards, something new and better can be built atop the rubble. Nihilism is now on exhibit in Iraq, where so-called insurgents are using mass murder and sabotage in an attempt to prevent a decent society from emerging.
We're also fighting totalitarianism, the belief that one group should have the power of absolute rule over all others. Totalitarianism is generally combined with supremacism, the doctrine that some groups are inherently superior to others.
Supremacist totalitarianism comes in a variety of forms. White supremacists believe people with pale skin are better than those with darker complexions. Nazis believe Aryans are entitled to rule the “mongrel” and “inferior” races. Communists would establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that grants no rights to “bourgeois exploiters.”
Ba'athism, the ideology adopted by Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Assad family in Syria, was consciously modeled on both Nazism and Communism. The twist is that Ba'athists award to Arabs the role Nazis reserve for Aryans and Communists reserve for the working class.
Wahhabism, bin Ladenism and other forms of radical Islamism are based on the conviction that Muslims who adhere to a strict, highly politicized and intolerant interpretation of Islam have – literally -- a God-given right to rule the world.
In recent days, a top deputy to Osama bin Laden has been captured, as has a lieutenant to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda's Iraq operation. A major American offensive appears to have eliminated an important sanctuary of the suicide bombers in western Iraq. Increasingly, such military actions disable dangerous terrorist groups.
But an ideological conflict also must be fought – a war against nihilism, supremacism, totalitarianism, Ba'athism and radical Islamism. Those who subscribe to such belief systems have no compunction about employing terrorism, genocide and other forms of barbarism to wipe out those who, they are convinced, block their path to glory and power.
“Nothing from the 20th Century has come to an end, nothing at all, except the numerals at the top of the calendar and the script in which the revolutionary manifestos are published,” wrote social critic Paul Berman. “This script, which used to be the Gothic letters of German, and later was Cyrillic, and lately has been Farsi and Arabic, and which, in any alphabet, spells out the same apocalyptic explanation for why, in this hour of Armageddon, masses of people should be killed.”
In other words, World War II, the Cold War and what may become known as the Long War of the 21st Century are really the same struggle against the same enemy. He changes his name but his fundamental character remains the same.