War and Peace is Leo Tolstoy’s marathon epic, a story of the Napoleonic war between France and Russia. The story follows the lives of a number of Russian aristocrats, and is quite an involving story if you can stick out the 1000+ pages. When Tolstoy comes to the end of his novel, in the epilogue he pulls a twist, the author speaks directly to the reader about the history of mankind.
Tolstoy’s view of history is worth repeating. Essentially, he argues that events in history have no cause, per say, because the idea of cause is nothing but the product of prior events. Basically, he’s saying neither the chicken or the egg. History is nothing but an infinite regress of events and accidents.
Tolstoy’s particular historicism applied to current events brings out the necessary question: was 9/11 an act of spontaneity or was it a product of historical events?
Historians, particularly those of the left (Chomsky, et al.), view September eleventh as caused by a history of American interaction with the Middle East. They point to the first Persian Gulf war, support for Israel’s displacement of Palestinians, etc. as prompting events for Al-Qaeda retaliation.
If such was the case, why was the U.S. so taken by surprise in 2001? If we knew that our actions in the Middle East prior to September was triggering a hostile response by Islamic fundamentalists, why was this not acknowledged by the Bush administration? How did Bush get away with making such ahistorical statements like claiming 9/11 was an attack prompted by a spontaneous hatred of American freedom?
Tolstoy makes the case that while all historical events are the product of past historical events, he also calls on the notion that abstract ideas–such as freedom, God, justice–attain possibility upon their articulation. A suggestion that before an event comes a historically conditioned idea. Though Tolstoy makes a point that not every idea that forms in the collective consciousness of a people necessarily transforms into an outward action.
Such historicism places 9/11 not as an inevitable reaction or a necessary conclusion, but imbues it with the aspect of fate. What happened was a cumulative sequence of events, but the event itself happened by pure chance.
A fitting metaphor is that of black swans. There was once an entrenched belief that all swans were white. So much that it became a figure of speech. By accident, in Australia naturalists discovered swans that were actually black. The black swan is any event that appears contrary to common wisdom.
9/11 is a perfect black swan. While some ideologues suspected that Islamic militants *could* launch a terrorist attack on America, no one was ever able to predict the actual destructive terror of 9/11. Reconciling Tolstoy with the World Trade Center attack is easy. History can be both caused and unpredictable. Tolstoy himself admits this, claiming that Napoleon was himself a product of history with so many minute causes as to render the absolute cause intangible.
9/11 remains a fatalistic event. No science predicted it, yet it was predictable. So was history a failure? I think the answer is yes and no. Islamic militarism was, prior to September eleventh, an abstraction. A desire that had articulated itself, but which never found a real voice. The destruction in Manhattan was an articulation. A chance reconciliation of desire and action. The real became real.
The conundrum the U.S. now faces is not whether Al-Qaeda can be subdued, but whether the genie can be put back in the bottle. 9/11 was a radical act of speech. The terrorists declaimed that America was vulnerable for all it’s obsession with self defense, and that voice found a violent articulation. September eleventh remains an abstraction manifested. We can’t stop terrorism because we can’t silence that abstraction.
Anti-terror efforts will fail because the U.S. cannot combat anti-U.S. sentiment with force alone. The terrorists react to and gain strength by our military presence in the gulf. We only strengthen the resolve of those who oppose us. If we follow Tolstoy’s historicism backwards we find the fault lies in our imperialism. We empowered Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to combat the Soviets. We cannot take back their articulations of power, we can only resolve to defeat it through military intervention.
Afghanistan and Iraq will judge us accordingly. We can press for freedom as defined by liberal democracy, but Tolstoy shows us that leaders are not anti-historical. Our resolution is that both countries must adapt to liberalism. But we cannot guarantee anything by historical necessity. Iraq will democratize if it will. Soldiers have never necessitated populist resolve. If Iraq goes for democracy it will have absolutely be a result of radical democracy.
Historicism flies in the face of Bush’s logic that terrorists hate us for our freedoms. It’s an appeal to our nature divorced from our actions. Bush severed history from consequence. They hate our freedoms. Therefore, freedom, not politics, is to blame for September’s destruction. 9/11 was a spontaneous act of irrational hatred.
Only freedom, not reactionary hatred, can save us. The more terrorists push against us, the more we should open our society to Islamicism. If we open the door for anti-American dialogue we channel it’s articulation. If anti-U.S. sentiment is expressed through the media or other channels, we can rely on the natural human desire to speak aloud rather than blow one’s self up in terrorist activity.
All terrorist acts are speech acts. Acts which present us with the ultimate Real, where the symbolic is subsumed. Suicide attacks are the recourse of those who fall into the abstract when the concrete becomes intangible. We need to rethink our Israel policy, we need to rethink our democratic aspirations in Afghanistan and Iraq. We can’t dismiss terrorism as misguided because it is historically conditioned, unlike our “democratic” aspirations. We have to start with the brute fact that Middle Easterners have not been guided by the philosophy of secular, liberal society. Terrorism will remain a black swan for us so long as we affirm the necessity of liberal democracy in the Middle East. As long as there are planes there will be plane bombers.