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Civilization and its Enemies: The Next Stage of History
By Lee Harris
Free Press
HC, 232 pg. US$/C$
ISBN: 0-7432-5749-9

The war for our survival

By Steven Martinovich
web posted February 9, 2004

Civilization and its Enemies: The Next Stage of HistoryMan's greatest failing may be that we forget the lessons of the past. Lee Harris argues that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 proved that contention handily. After the attacks liberals rushed to blame the West for its foreign policy sins while conservatives saw it as a war between clashing cultures. The reality, according to Harris, is that the attacks represented an age-old battle between what he terms civilization and its enemies.

Born of a series of controversial essays in Policy Review and TechCentralStation, Civilization and its Enemies: The Next Stage of History explores Harris' thesis. Our enemy isn't Islam, though the foot soldiers in this battle are radical Muslims, but rather a foe that civilization has been grappling with since the days of Sparta. Disturbingly, it is a fight that a majority in the Western world aren't equipped to fight.

Although the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would suggest otherwise, Harris argues that it is we in the West who are often intellectually unable to grasp the concept of "enemy" and why they seek our destruction. Led by our utopian intellectuals, we fail to realize that we have enemies who see the world differently than we do, and in that world we are nothing more than their enemies, "not for our faults any more than for virtues."

"We are caught in the midst of a conflict between those for whom the category of enemy is essential to their way of organizing all human experience and those have banished even the idea of the enemy from both public discourse and even their innermost thoughts."

The reason why we have become their enemies is due to what Harris refers to as "fantasy ideology." Like Benito Mussolini's Italian fascism and Adolph Hitler's National Socialism before it, radical Islam has created an ideology that is disconnected from reality. It is a style of ideology that is deliberate make-believe, one that does not explain the world the way it really is but rather how it wishes the world would be. "[T]he make-believe is not an end in itself but rather the means of making the make-believe become real." In fantasy ideologies, the other players -- unbelievers -- become props in the fantasist's world and attacks like September 11, 2001 are symbolic dramas designed for the fantasists' audience, a ritual demonstration designed to show Allah's power to al-Qaida's believers.

From there Harris explores the nature of civilization and the long, slow process it took to evolve from the early team approach pioneered by the Spartans, the hierarchical system that was added by the Romans to the complex system we enjoy today. Civilization's strength, he points out, is also its weakness. We are a civilization that is the equivalent of a small town so trusting that we leave our doors unlocked because we know we can trust our neighbors. When a thief comes around our trusting nature is turned against us, permanently changing who we are.

What we have forgotten is that the enemy is ruthless and our civil ways are no defense. The only way to defend yourself against a ruthless enemy is to become ruthless yourself. As Harris points out, if someone is willing to die to kill you then you must be willing to die to defend yourself. Failing to do so means that your civilization is vanquished. The trick is to unleash that ruthlessness without becoming permanently ruthless yourself and destroying what makes civilization worth fighting for.

Although it's tempting to dismiss all of this as interesting talk for intellectuals, the issues raised by Civilization and Its Enemies are the very ones that we are facing today. That the fantasy ideology of radical Islam is a clear and present danger to the West is of no question: the war declared by Osama bin Laden in the 1990s is a fight to the death. Since September 11, 2001 we have faced several critical questions: Why are we so vulnerable to an enemy equipped with a ruthless urge to destroy us? How do we defend ourselves? How do we fight without losing the essence of what believe makes us who we are? Why do we keep forgetting the enemies of civilization never permanently go away?

Civilization and Its Enemies is amongst the most important books written since the terrorist attacks. It is a wake up call to an entire civilization, a declaration that our traditional view of the world needs to be updated for a new dangerous age and an old enemy. It's doubtless that some will quibble with several of Harris' conclusions -- notably that the United States is the only force powerful enough to push back the enemy -- but the stunning clarity of his argument is all but beyond debate. This is a book that needs to be read by both sides of the political divide if the West is to understand who is really fighting and why nothing less than total victory can suffice.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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