World War III poses greatest challenge

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Airline flights into the United States from France, Mexico and London are canceled. Armed guards are put onto other flights coming to America. Westerners are warned to avoid Saudi Arabia, and synagogues are bombed in Turkey and France. A package left on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art forces the evacuation of 5,000 museum-goers. (It turns out to contain a stuffed snowman.) National Guardsmen are posted at key bridges and tunnels.

Happy New Year.


What you are witnessing is why 9/11 amounts to World War III - the third great totalitarian challenge to open societies in the last 100 years. As the longtime Middle East analyst Abdullah Schleiffer once put it to me: World War II was the Nazis using the engine of Germany to try to impose the reign of the perfect race, the Aryan race. The Cold War was the Marxists using the engine of the Soviet Union to try to impose the reign of the perfect class, the working class. And 9/11 was about religious totalitarians, Islamists, using suicide bombings to try to impose the reign of the perfect faith, political Islam.

OK, you say, but how can one possibly compare the Soviet Union, which had thousands of nukes, with al-Qaida? Here's how: As dangerous as the Soviet Union was, it was always deterrable with a wall of containment and with nukes of our own. Because, at the end of the day, the Soviets loved life more than they hated us. Despite our differences, we agreed on certain bedrock rules of civilization.


With the Islamist militant groups, we face people who hate us more than they love life. When you have large numbers of people ready to commit suicide, and ready to do it by making themselves into human bombs, using the most normal instruments of daily life - an airplane, a car, a garage door opener, a cell phone, fertilizer, a tennis shoe - you create a weapon that is undeterrable, undetectable and inexhaustible. This poses a much more serious threat than the Soviet Red Army because these human bombs attack the most essential element of an open society: trust.

Trust is built into every aspect, every building and every interaction in our increasingly hyper-connected world. We trust that when we board a plane, the person next to us isn't going to blow up his shoes. Without trust, there's no open society because there aren't enough police to guard every opening in an open society.

Which is why suicidal Islamist militants have the potential to erode our lifestyle. Because the only way to deter a suicidal enemy ready to use the instruments of daily life to kill us is by taking away trust. We start by stripping airline passengers, then we go to fingerprinting all visitors and we will end up removing cherished civil liberties.

So what to do? There are only three things we can do: (1) Improve our intelligence to deter and capture terrorists before they act. (2) Learn to live with more risk, while maintaining our open society. (3) Most important, find ways to get the societies where these Islamists come from to deter them first. Only they really know their own, and only they can really restrain their extremists.

As my friend Dov Seidman, whose company, LRN, teaches ethics to global corporations, put it: The Cold War ended the way it did because at some bedrock level we and the Soviets "agreed on what is shameful." And shame, more than any laws or police, is how a village, a society or a culture expresses approval and disapproval and applies restraints.

But today, alas, there is no bedrock agreement on what is shameful, what is outside the boundary of a civilized world. Unlike the Soviet Union, the Islamist terrorists are neither a state subject to conventional deterrence or international rules, nor individuals deterred by the fear of death. And their home societies, in too many cases, have not stigmatized their acts as shameful. In too many cases, their spiritual leaders have provided them with religious cover, and their local charities have provided them with money. That is why suicide bombing is spreading.

We cannot change other societies and cultures on our own. But we also can't just do nothing in the face of this mounting threat. What we can do is partner with the forces of moderation within these societies to help them fight the war of ideas. Because ultimately this is a struggle within the Arab-Muslim world, and we have to help our allies there, just as we did in World Wars I and II.

This column is the first in a five-part series on how we can do that.


Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.