We’ve all heard people debate the question of whether Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” applies to the current “war on terror.” As in most dialogues de sourds there is a better answer than either yes or no. This is a conflict between one side that believes there is a “clash of civilizations” and one that does not. To wit, the Islamists believe that modern civilization is evil and that its members should be either annihilated or converted. “We,” to the contrary, don’t believe there is any fundamental reason why even the most extreme forms of Islam are incompatible with the West’s multicultural tolerance. In a word, we want to include them, and they want to kill us. This is not the kind of dispute that can be resolved through academic discussion.
There is a great deal of poverty in the world, and nature inflicts on humanity much disease and other suffering. But humanity has survived poverty and disease and natural disasters with little difficulty. It has survived “acid rain” and can probably even survive “global warming.” The real danger to our species is the same danger that it came into being to defer: intraspecific violence and the form it assumes in deferral, resentment.
No religion is entitled to toleration as a vehicle of resentment. The desire, nay, the intention to destroy Western civilization does not become more legitimate when it is expressed in “religious” terms. The Christian dialectic of love has no effect against those whose very culture is a counter-attack on Christian hegemony. Resentment can be recuperated within the social order only if its energy can be harnessed to productive activity. Once the resentful subject devotes himself to destruction, his resentment will end only with his life. That is why wars are sometimes necessary.
The growth of Iranian power, whose noxious influence in the Middle East is only beginning to bear fruit, is a clear enough indication that Islamic resentment has passed the point where it can be contained by “inclusion.” Kim Jong-il wants to survive; Ahmadinejad wants to kill. It is easy in hindsight to castigate the “cowards” who gathered at Munich in 1938; why should things be different this time? In the contest between those who believe in a clash of civilizations and those who do not, it is the first group that decides for what stakes the game is to be played.
The West has little stomach for destruction. Even 9/11 has failed to remind it that the refinement of individual justice cannot replace in every circumstance the crude efficacy of collective retribution. Thus we agonize over lapses in fairness to people whose sole aim is to kill as many of us as possible. That World War II was the last “conceivable” total war affords no protection against those whose highest dream is self-annihilation.
The market and its political support system is humanity’s best hope for survival. But it has no magic formula for the indefinite deferral of violence. It is increasingly hard to see how the non-metaphorical “clash of civilizations” that is war can be avoided. In its absence, one side grows ever more confident in its hatred and the other, ever more craven in its tolerance of this hatred. A Jewish columnist in the Washington Post the other day echoed Ahmadinejad in calling Israel a “mistake”–ah, but an “honest mistake.” Perhaps the lesson of the 21st century will be that the human species too was an “honest mistake.”