Ten Years After

'Secular individuals are of course no less moral than their pious counterparts, but secular societies are living on the spiritual capital accumulated by their ancestors'

We all remember where we were on September 11, 2001, when the news broke that airliners were flying into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Even the most experienced newspapermen found it difficult to grasp what was happening at the time. I was then working as an assistant editor at the Daily Telegraph and had the unenviable task of writing the main op-ed article that day. Under the circumstances, and with the facts then still unclear, I am not ashamed of what I wrote.

First, I recounted the history of what we still called Islamic fundamentalism, and its use of suicide terrorism to provoke Armageddon. I located the attacks in the context of the Palestinian intifada, the Durban “anti-racism” conference (from which the US and Israel had just walked), and the return of European anti-Semitism: “Global Islamic terrorism is rooted in global anti-Semitism.” I recalled Pearl Harbor and the American retaliation, culminating in the use of nuclear weapons to forestall Japan’s kamikaze tactics. Osama bin Laden, I argued, hoped “to force the United States to withdraw from the Middle East, to adopt the craven attitude of Europe towards Islamic extremism, and above all to abandon Israel to her fate”. Al-Qaeda is much closer to achieving these aims today. “Americans will not tolerate a second Marcus Aurelius,” I wrote. “In this, the bloodiest massacre on their soil since the Civil War, they need a second Lincoln.” Well, George W. Bush was certainly no Lincoln, but Barack Obama may yet prove to have been a second Carter.

Today, as we commemorate the tenth anniversary of what later became known as 9/11, my confidence that “the United States will survive this test” has surely been justified. “Americans will not forget this cataclysm: it will have seared their collective memory and conscience,” I wrote. “They will emerge stronger, no longer reluctant to make the supreme sacrifice for their country and for civilisation. This new century has begun for Americans under dreadful auspices, but this ordeal may be the making of a generation.” Despite Iraq and Afghanistan, I feel vindicated in my conviction that the younger generation of Americans, if not their leaders, would be made of tougher stuff than the preceding one — as Osama bin Laden himself eventually discovered. But the question I asked a decade ago has still not been definitively answered: “Does Western civilisation still have the moral courage and determination to defend itself against barbarians who have armed themselves with the West’s own weapons?”

In this month’s Standpoint two distinguished writers take up the challenge. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, argues that the medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun put his finger on the problem with his concept of asabiyah which, roughly translated, means “social cohesion”. Its absence signals decline. Lord Sacks suggests that the West must rediscover its Judaeo-Christian morality if it is to reverse this decline. As I suggested at the time, in 2001 Europe had already witnessed the return of anti-Semitism; since then, the disease has spread more widely. In the first of a series, the American writer Christopher Caldwell examines the predicament of French Jews. He finds many who no longer feel at home in France, now that criticism comes mainly from the liberal Left rather than the reactionary Right. Their community is dwarfed and sidelined by their Muslim neighbours. Jews too are divided over Israel. Both these analyses suggest that the West is in temporary, though not terminal, disarray. What is to be done? 

Lord Sacks invokes the example of the “remoralisation” of Britain and the United States that began in the 1820s and resulted in the ascendancy of the Anglosphere over the next two centuries. But Judaeo-Christian morality, and all the social benefits that arise from it, rests on a religious foundation. The abolition of slavery and other such movements were motivated by the Biblical idea of man created in the image of God, a single human family endowed with free will. Secular individuals are of course no less moral than their pious counterparts, but secular societies are living on the spiritual capital accumulated by their ancestors. 

When such societies break down, as happened in the August riots across English cities, people who have lost everything often fall back on their faith. If communities have been ghettoised by decades of multiculturalism, however, then showing solidarity with co-religionists may take the form of hostility towards others. Even to point out the obvious dangers of such segregation is to court calumny. In the case of Norway, the horrific massacre perpetrated by Anders Breivik has been blamed on those who warn against the rise of radical Islam in Europe, particularly if they also defend the Judaeo-Christian basis of our civilisation. Lionel Shriver explains the logical flaw involved in the attempt to discredit an argument on the ground that it has been parroted by a deranged killer. The defence of Western civilisation is the raison d’être of Standpoint. That defence is as necessary today as it was on that dies irae ten long years ago.

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