The conviction in Pakistan of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the mastermind in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, is likely to trigger waves of violent protests from Islamists throughout the nation. “We’ll see who will die first, me or the authorities who have arranged the death sentence for me,” Sheikh Omar said through his lawyer. The threat is real enough that the American Embassy in Islamabad is now operating on a “heightened state of security readiness.”
In anticipation of the verdict, and after weeks of literal and figurative queasiness, I recently downloaded the video clip of Pearl’s execution that’s been floating around the Web for months. It opens with Pearl, unshaven and haggard, identifying himself as an American and a Jew; he talks about his family’s Jewish heritage and then segues into transparently coerced denunciations of American foreign policy. Interspersed throughout Pearl’s monologue are fleeting images of dead and wounded Muslims. The tape then jump cuts, for perhaps three seconds, to the decapitation of Pearl’s corpse; his face is clean shaven at the end; he has been meticulously prepared for slaughter. This is followed by a lingering shot of Pearl’s head held aloft, a warning to the rest of us of what happens to infidels, but also a prize — the spoils of jihad. The video is credited to something called the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistan Sovereignty.
It’s a sign of the relative civility of the Judeo-Christian West, and the relative barbarity of the Islamic East, that our leaders have sought to suppress the footage for fear that it might inflame passions against ordinary Muslims . . . whereas it’s being utilized by the Islamists themselves to recruit ordinary Muslims as future terrorists.
Still, the tape should be broadcast here for two reasons. First, it serves as a quick and eloquent rejoinder to the Edward Saids of the world who inform us that we must look to the root causes of terrorism; Said, for his part, prefers to set the term within ironic quotation marks, as in “terrorism,” referring to it recently as “a panacea of a word that takes no account of history, context, society or anything else.” But what “history,” “context” or “society” accounts for the celebratory beheading a journalist? What is the sequence of causes that produces not just a cold-blooded execution, and not just the cold-blooded execution of a non-combatant, but the torture and decapitation of a non-combatant, followed by the ritualized trophy-taking of his head? How far backwards in time must we travel to make sense of it, to find an equivalent commingling of formality and bloodlust? The Mongols under Genghis Khan? The Huns under Attila? Rome under Caligula?
Not only should the Pearl video be broadcast, it should be rerun again and again, spliced together with like material into a kind of luna-CSPAN of radical Islam’s greatest hits: First the Pearl decapitation, followed by the clip of Palestinian thugs bathing their hands in a dead Israeli’s blood and waving them to a cheering mob, then footage of Muslim women passing out candies to celebrate the September 11th attacks on American civilians, next a dozen or so interviews with fathers and mothers of suicide bombers who declare their satisfaction and pride in their children’s massacre of Israeli children, and then, for a finale, the money-shot of Muslim toddlers dolled up by their doting parents in mock-explosive vests and trotted out for anti-West rallies. Afterwards, perhaps, at the end of the loop, there would be time for a brief lecture by Edward Said . . . just to provide “context.”
The second reason the Pearl video should be broadcast is that it might begin the process of steeling ourselves for what’s to come. There is a natural queasiness about the reality of the war in which we’re now engaged. We continue to pray, as we should, for an outbreak of mass sanity in the Islamic world. Right now, however, Muslim kingdoms are basket cases — maniacal legions of Jeffrey Dahmers, Lizzie Bordens and Colin Fergusons circulating unhindered among vast multitudes of cynical enablers and fellow travelers, presided over, in the most benign cases, by an Al Capone, in the most malignant cases, by a Charles Manson. If only the lot of them would come to their senses, we tell ourselves, they’d realize that we mean them no harm. They’d realize that if we meant them harm, we’d already have unleashed violence of biblical proportions. They’d realize that the low-tech incinerations of Berlin and Tokyo, circa 1945, would have translated into high-tech incinerations of Baghdad and Tehran, circa 2001. If we meant them harm, they’d be too busy sifting rubble, burying dead and drinking urine to burn American flags.
It’s still possible, though extremely unlikely, that sanity will prevail in the Islamic world, and that the war on terror will end with universal assent to the rule of law and a moment of unprecedented cooperation among nations. That’s the hopeful scenario. The alternative scenario, however, the only alternative scenario, and the far likelier scenario, is the one we must begin gearing up for — not just militarily but psychically. If the war on terror does not end with a sudden outbreak of Muslim sanity, then it will surely end over the dead bodies of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of Muslim civilians.
That the only two alternatives are Muslims coming to their senses or Muslims dying in grotesque numbers is horrible to admit, but it is certain — in much the same way it was certain for Germans in the 1930s. Islamism is, to be sure, no less evil than Nazism, though the fact that the Islamic world has spent the last 500 years riding the technological caboose of humanity ensures that the radicals’ genocidal ambitions are being pursued with blundering, ham-fisted gestures rather than the with the ruthless efficiency of the Nazi death camps. Still, the parallel is instructive, for even as ordinary Germans were ultimately culpable for the crimes perpetrated in their midst by the Nazis, so too ordinary Muslims are now ultimately culpable for the crimes of the Islamists. Yet the Islamists are, if anything, even nuttier than their Nazi counterparts because at least the Germans had a fighting chance; by contrast, the Islamists, and their Muslim sympathizers, are staring down an opposing force whose lone military weakness is its moral revulsion at killing promiscuously, even when provoked, to be rid of its enemies. But that revulsion is sure to wane in direct proportion to acts of terror. In other words, the greater the success of the Islamic terrorists, the closer nigh draws their own, and their sympathizers’, doom.
But why would such indiscriminate carnage ever become necessary? First, because sooner or later the terrorists’ efforts will bear fruit; we will eventually take another massive hit on the scale of September 11th, or else dozens of minor hits on the model of the Palestinian intifada, and the inevitable outcry for our own security at whatever cost will become deafening. Second, because a measured response will only guarantee another round of violence. Third, because even our smartest bombs are not smart enough to conduct man-on-the-street interviews before blowing the street to smithereens. And fourth, and perhaps most critically, because wars do not truly end until the defeated people understand that they’ve been defeated. This was the tragic lesson of World War One; the fact that ordinary Germans did not feel like losers precipitated their embrace of Nazism . . . and, in the end, a much deadlier Second World War. Even now, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written, “The notion is taking hold [in the Islamic world] that with a combination of demographics (a baby boom) and terrorism, the Arabs can actually destroy Israel. Some radicals even fantasize that they can undermine America.”
That fantasy must be annihilated.
No, I’m not talking about a nuclear strike. Conventional weapons will suffice. What I am talking about however — and God forgive me for even writing this — is the prospect dropping very dumb bombs from very high altitudes, and lobbing very big missiles from very long distances, into known terrorist locations . . . even if they happen to lie within civilian population centers. What I am talking about is a response that is both disproportionate and unspeakably awful, a response that targets our enemies even at the expense of their sympathizers, a response that sends an unambiguous message: If you allow maniacs to do their maniacal work among you, here is your fate.
Will such a response engender even more hatred for America in the Islamic world? Yes, but in the final analysis it doesn’t matter whether our enemies hate us — as long as they soil themselves at the thought of kindling our wrath. Will such a response serve to gratify the base desire for revenge? Yes, but crushing a lunatic threat to liberty and equality is not a consummation devoutly to be wished; it is, rather, a categorical imperative remorsefully to be discharged. Will such a response reduce us to the level of our enemies? Not quite, but it will be a step backward in the moral evolution of the human race. Evolution proceeds in fits and starts, however, and it seems more likely than ever that an occasional step back is required in order to move forward.
Still, for the time being at least, we can continue to pray. But we’d better pray hard and fast. For the soul of Daniel Pearl. And for the souls of the thousands of victims of Islamic terrorism. And, while we’re at it, for sanity among Muslims. And for their souls, and ours, if it does not come.