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Pursuit of the Millennium


Tonight, the opening segment of ABC's Nightline featured a comparison of the TOPOFF II WMD "consequence management" exercises that started today in Seattle with the all too real assaults on Western residential compounds tonight in Riyadh, which occurred on the eve of a visit by Secretary of State Colin Powell. The contrast is striking: the exercises in Seattle and elsewhere in the United States focus on largely unrealistic scenarios involving single uses of advanced weapons that terrorists rarely if ever have been able to employ, whereas the Riyadh attacks depended on the tried-and-true methods used earlier in Riyadh, Dhahran, and lately Djerba, Bali, and Mombasa: guns and bombs, often car or truck bombs, and often in multiple and simultaneous instances. (Today's exercise, featuring a simulated radiological device, actually involves far and away the most realistic scenario in the TOPOFF II series, except that it probably wouldn't happen in Seattle.)

America's WMD fixation amounts to a variation on Pascal's wager, the famous notion of the 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal, who chose to cleave to the Church, reasoning that its teachings were just as likely to be true or false, so he had a 50% chance of sparing himself from Hell by accepting them. In fact, Pascal, operating out of the purest ignorance, had no idea what the actual chances were. In his situation, which church should a man join? Which faith ought he accept? Seized with fear of Hell and hope of Heaven, Pascal disregarded his inability to distinguish truth from the theological imaginings he found most impressive. Most likely whichever holy man could summon up the most terrifying vision of the afterlife was bound to win him over.

Like Hell, WMD attacks have terrifying consequences, and their chances of coming to pass are quite difficult to pin down. This is the emotional component of national security policy. On such fears are consequence management exercises based, and preventative wars against lightweights like Iraq justified. What frightens us most tends to call forth the worst-of-the-worst-case thinking that otherwise rational minds ordinarily can keep to one side, at least when they are not being stampeded with visions of mushroom clouds -- a recurring and pathological motif in American national security planning since early in the Cold War that persists to this day. Even before 9/11, Americans, particularly conservatives, have had what might be called an apocalyptic imagination. One would almost think that Hiroshima, or perhaps the Holocaust, happened here.

That's the fantasy. Back to the reality. In their outstanding book The Age of Sacred Terror, Clinton Administration officials Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon describe al-Qaida's disrupted millennium plot:

The centerpiece would be in Jordan, which would underscore that bin Laden's fight was not just with the United States but with Christians, Jews, and the moderate regimes on the Muslim world. The four-hundred-room Radisson Hotel in Amman was booked for the holidays. Most of the guests would be Americans... The group laid the groundwork for a series of secondary attacks, and the targets bespeak an effort to wipe out, so far as possible, nonbelievers in the country on the two thousandth anniversary of the Christian era... Taken together, the explosions and gunfire would be worthy of a coup. The impact on Jordan, a country known in the region for its close ties to the United States, would be punishing and, perhaps, destabilizing.

It is not unreasonable to describe tonight's events in Riyadh, whose consequences are still unknown, as a successful reenactment of the "centerpiece" of the millennium plot, designed to slaughter the unbelievers and shake the foundations of a regime closely associated with them. As with the Jordan plot, there was advance warning, but it sadly did not come early enough. It should be recalled that, despite the widespread belief in some American circles that the Saudi royal family is entangled with or supportive of al-Qaida, they represent diametrically opposed tendencies in Arabian society -- pro-American and anti-American -- loathe one another, and are competing directly for power, one side to hold it, the other to seize it. Al-Qaida's planners, if al-Qaida is indeed at work, undoubtedly hope that the mass killing of Westerners on Saudi soil will bring the hearts and minds of the people over to them. In the coming days and weeks, the response of the regime's security apparatus is bound to be fierce, and al-Qaida is likely to be disappointed.

Both the timing of the original plot and the cycle of terror and repression recall another time and place. Norman Cohn's classic 1957 volume, Pursuit of the Millennium, describes a period of drastic, disorienting change, which inspired masses of people to follow charismatic, messianic leaders in seemingly crazed attempts to overthrow the social order. These millenarian movements, not in the modern Middle East but in Medieval Europe, sought salvation through paroxyms of violence against Jews, priests, and nobles that would overthrow the corrupt regnant order, bringing on a promised new age. In Cohn's formulation, these groups envisioned their salvation as

(a) collective, in the sense that it is to be enjoyed by the faithful as a collectivity;
(b) terrestrial, in the sense that it is to be realized on this earth and not in some other-worldly heaven;
(c) imminent, in the sense that is is to come both soon and suddenly;
(d) total, in the sense that it is utterly to transform life on earth, so that the new dispensation will be no mere improvement on the present but perfection itself;
(e) miraculous, in the sense that it is to be accomplished by, or with the help of, supernatural agencies.

Al-Qaida and its most fervent symphatizers lack for none of these qualities. Cohn, who was influenced by Jung's psychology of archetypes, further claimed that "in the world-view of medieval Christianity life tends to be seen as a mortal struggle waged by good fathers and good children against bad fathers and bad children. Certainly this pattern stands out with stark crudity in the phantasies of popular eschatology and the mass movements they inspired."

Transporting this paradigm to the present works as well. Usama bin Ladin is fond of posing both as the good son in rebellion against the bad fathers in Washington and their bad children -- the corrupt princes of the Al-Saud -- and as a shaykh, a good father who will deal justly and kindly with the people. But as his followers really ought to know by know, the bad fathers and sons really are bad, in the sense that they will brutally suppress the radicals and lunatics who threaten them. Some things never change.

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000062.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

by Analyst @ 08:19 AM CST [Link]


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Replies: 1 Comment

Yes, this shows that any religion can be misused in the hands of fanatics and is being right now by Islamic fanatics. But your point about the different elements of Saudi Arabia may be true but you left out an important fact, who has been giving money all over the Middle East to these religious schools that don't teach anything except fanatic Islam - Saudi Arabia. That is what the American people understand and that is what you are leaving out. bin Laden may hate the ruling class of Saudi Arabia but they (the ruling class) hate the West just as much and 9/11 proves it.
As an American, I hold bin-Laden responsible but I also hold the Saudi Arabian govt. responsible.

Posted by Emma @ 05/13/2003 11:53 PM CST

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