September 1--the day Nazi stormstroopers overran Poland in 1939, igniting World War II--seems an appropriate day to meditate on fascism, the word President Bush used yesterday in a major speech to explain to Americans whom we are fighting against. The word was given a place of honor in a sentence summoning up the worst hobgoblins of the past century:
"As veterans, you have seen this kind of enemy before. They're successors to fascists, to Nazis, to communists and other totalitarians of the twentieth century, and history shows what the outcome will be."
But are our enemies Fascists, or Nazis, or communists? Do those words have anything in common with each other beyond their ability to frighten people? Is it right to use 1930s language to describe a threat that might have more to do with the 1130s?
There are many definitions of Fascism floating around and easily available on the Internet. One was composed by an impressive authority, Benito Mussolini, who in 1932 defined the term for an Italian encyclopedia. Mussolini wrote "Fascism [is] the complete opposite of ... Marxian Socialism." In a few bombastic paragraphs, he elevated the idea of the omniscient state, the perpetual expansion of the nation, and the glorification of the act that achieved it: war.
Clearly this is not quite right to describe the people we are fighting against--we have so many enemies in the region that it is increasingly difficult to use the word "enemy" as well. They seek no state, and in fact their statelessness partly explains their effectiveness (as it does Hezbollah's). They have no Panzer divisions or tanks or bombers--the key to Hitler's thrust 67 years ago. They are anything but fascist, or "Islamo-fascist," the tortured neologism gaining currency.
"Fascism" has been misused many times before. FDR's critics sometimes invoked the term, along with communism (conveniently, for FDR-haters, the Roman fasces are on the back of the dime). And it is sometimes used on the left, to attack President Bush. That is hardly fair. But some of the thunder of yesterday's speech--particularly its saber-rattling toward Iran--summons disturbing historical ghosts. While most commentators still doubt that an attack on Iran is imminent, it is conceivable that we are heading toward a confrontation, fueled not by President Bush