POLITICS OCTOBER 1, 2001
The most searing images, of course, are of the aftermath--of the immediate survivors of the dead: parents, siblings, spouses, lovers, friends, hoping against hope that somehow those who live in their hearts might have survived in the flesh. They haunted the grim environs of ground zero with photos and handbills, pressing them onto journalists and cameramen, as if maybe the missing would see themselves on television and remember to call home. And then there were the uncomprehending faces of the children who will never see their moms or their dads again. By Wednesday, as the volunteer doctors and nurses sat around idle for yet another day, it was clear that what was called rescue was not that at all. Rudy Giuliani ordered thousands of body bags, but there were almost no bodies, and for that matter very few body parts, to fill them. So let us no longer dissimulate: The World Trade Center is today a crematorium. This was a mass cremation, a mass cremation of the living.
This cremation of the living was a satanic calculus of a certain brand of Muslim piety. And yes, of course, the overwhelming majority of Muslims neither adhere to it nor admire it. But the so-called moderate majesties of Saudi Arabia, the most privileged of the Wahabis, an austere sect in Sunni Islam, have been giving political support and, until recently, financial succor to the Afghani Taliban, the most wretched of the Wahabis, for years. The Taliban would have collapsed long ago without the aid of Saudi Arabia. And the Taliban, of course, harbor Osama bin Laden. So, in a way, the Saudis have also placed under their protection the World Trade Center cremator, even though he is one of their renegade sons.
Colin Powell probably doesn't mention that when he phones Riyadh, it's because he wants its princes to join the reconstructed Gulf war alliance. But Saudi Arabia was not as valuable an ally in 1991 as some remember. The Saudis had a virtual veto over when the war would end--and fearing that Saddam's ouster would empower Iraq's Shias, who might in turn rouse the Shias in Arabia, they made sure it ended with Saddam still in power. And Saudi Arabia has not been as valuable an ally since, either. Riyadh almost certainly impeded our investigation of the 1996 Dhahran bombing that took the lives of 19 American soldiers--soldiers in the Gulf to protect the oil that keeps the monarchy rich. (This duplicity fits a local pattern: The government of Yemen has obstructed our investigation into the attack on the USS Cole in similar fashion.) And Riyadh may now be doing the same thing again. Saudis were, it seems, well represented among the hijackers. And by yanking home a number of their citizens residing in the United States over the last week, the monarchy may be once again preventing the FBI from meeting with people who have information about the terror network.
But at least the State Department has never classified Saudi Arabia as a terrorist state, something that can't be said of two of the other countries the Bush administration hopes to lure into the anti-terrorist coalition: Iran and Syria. The Bushies know that non-Arab Iran, the world center of Shiites, nurses theological grudges against the Taliban and other Sunni regimes. Tehran has also fought a war against Saddam, who may have had a hand in last week's abomination. So these are its anti-terrorist credentials. Unfortunately, Iran has also terrorized much of its own population; it funds, arms, and outfits a terrorist network of its own--centered around the Lebanese Shia murderers, Hezbollah. Will the United States now condone one strain of Islamic terror in order to combat another?
Powell's other desired partner is Syria. And it is true that the Baathist Syrian dictatorship--which hails from the tiny Alawite minority, which many Muslim fundamentalists don't consider part of the faith--isn't primarily interested in theological extremism. But the Assads have long been happy to stir it up amongst others--as a weapon against Israel or a stunt to divert their people from their miserable lot. And even when Damascus promotes secularism in the Arab world, it is secular terror. In particular, Syria is a primary patron of two Marxist Palestinian terrorist groups that have reemerged in the West Bank and Gaza during the new intifada: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. These groups may not cloak their atrocities in the Koran. But for their victims, it makes little difference.
And secretary powell is eyeing one more ally as well, a man this administration has kept an admirable distance from for the last nine months: Yasir Arafat. But the ironies here are no less rich. It's not just that Arafat is the world's senior terrorist--responsible for murders stretching back to the 1960s; it's that he is not at all emeritus. As recently as last week, Arafat's operatives were doing what terrorists always do: killing civilians at random. And lest the Bushies forget, not all those civilians have been Israeli. Many of the PLO's attacks in Israel over the years have claimed American lives, and Arafat's minions have murdered at least two American diplomats. Not to mention the Achille Lauro, where one of Arafat's loyalists pushed a wheelchair-bound American, Leon Klinghoffer, into the sea.
The danger, of course, is that in appeasing Khamenei, Assad, and Arafat, the United States tells the Arab world that there is evil terrorism (i.e., terrorism against pro-Western Arab governments and against Americans) and there is tolerable terrorism (i.e., terrorism against the Jews). But if our dalliances with Muslim extremism two decades ago in Afghanistan should have taught us anything, it is that evil men cannot be trusted to restrict their evil to convenient targets. There is a fraternity of the bloodthirsty, and it is unquenchable unless it is destroyed. It will never be content just to kill Jews. Indeed, there were early, unconfirmed reports that Hamas--Assad's proteges and Arafat's brethren--may themselves have been implicated in last week's horror.
If, as a result of what happened in New York, the Bush administration forces Israel to stand idly by in the face of terror in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Arab states will be pleased, which is presumably what the Bushies want. But it will subtly buttress the noxious argument--circulating on the European and American left--that the hatred that fueled bin Laden's atrocities has its roots in legitimate grievances against the Jewish State and, by extension, its American patron. And in the long run, legitimizing that canard will make us less safe, no matter how many coalition partners it brings.