When the Cold War fizzled out, Americans rejoiced. Our long standoff with the Soviet Union, shadowed by the specter of nuclear war, was over, and the West had prevailed. What wasn't clear then was that many Americans would miss something about that era: the sense of being part of a historic, existential struggle between global forces of good and evil, in which we were on the right side.
The collapse of the Soviet empire deprived us of what had been a central part of our political identity. Since the end of World War II, America had stood in the forefront of opposition to communism. That opposition helped define us, and its disappearance left a void.
Most of us soon got over the feelings of drift. But some people have dealt with the loss in another way - by casting themselves in a grand revival of Armageddon. In this case, it's a titanic war against radical Islam, which, as the alarmists tell it, often sounds like a war between Islam and the West.
This enemy, we are told, is the heir of communism and Nazism, which President Bush often invokes to justify staying in Iraq.
In this year's State of the Union address, he said that our foes "want to force our country to retreat from the world and abandon the cause of liberty. They would then be free to impose their will and spread their totalitarian ideology."
But to equate our current challenges with the Nazis and Soviets is to grossly misunderstand our enemies. Start with Saddam Hussein, who was often compared to Hitler - though his army, quite unlike the Wehrmacht, dissolved on contact with the U.S. military. His Iraq was secular, not Islamist, and if he posed a danger, it was to his neighbors, not Western civilization.
Osama bin Laden must rejoice to be depicted as endangering our entire culture and way of life.
In fact, his movement has failed to gain power in a single country even in the Islamic world, and he hasn't been able to carry out an attack on American soil in more than six years. His movement exists today as a fragmented network of terrorist cells, with only a modest capacity to harm us.
Iran, with its fire-breathing president and nuclear ambitions, is supposed to be a looming threat to our existence. But as the world's only superpower, we can easily contain and deter even enemies with nukes - which is why no one talks about fighting World War IV against North Korea.
The vision of a monolithic Islamic movement hostile to everything we value is equally warped. We usually associate the religion with Arab militants, but the world's biggest Muslim populations are in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nigeria, not the Middle East.
Some Muslim countries, such as Turkey, Indonesia and Senegal, are free and democratic. The others vary greatly in political openness and personal liberty - sort of like non-Muslim countries.
Most Muslims are not terrorist sympathizers. A recent Gallup poll found that only 7 percent of the world's Muslims regard "the 9/11 attacks as completely justifiable and have an unfavorable view of the United States."
Nor do many of them yearn to stamp out our freedoms. "When asked what they admire most about the West," reports Gallup, "Muslims frequently mention political freedom, liberty, fair judicial systems and freedom of speech." The striking thing about American Muslims is not how poorly they fit into a tolerant society, but how well.
Radical Islamic elements pose a danger to our security that will demand vigilance, resources and, in some instances, military action. But let's not make it more than it is.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.