Tuesday, 4 March 2003

The palace of the end

The first war of the Age of Proliferation will not be an oil-grab so much as an expression of pure power

by Martin Amis


We accept that there are legitimate casus belli: acts or situations "provoking or justifying war". The present debate feels off-centre, and faintly unreal, because the US and the UK are going to war for a new set of reasons (partly undisclosed) while continuing to adduce the old set of reasons (which in this case do not cohere or even overlap). These new casus belli are a response to the accurate realisation that we have entered a distinct phase of history. The coming assault on Iraq may perhaps be the Last War of the Ottoman Succession; it will certainly be the first War of the Age of Proliferation - the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The new casus belli are also shaped by September 11.

September 11 has given to us a planet we barely recognise. In a sense it revealed what was already there, largely unremarked, since the collapse of the Soviet Union: the unprecedented preponderance of a single power. It also revealed the longstanding but increasingly dynamic loathing of this power in the Islamic world, where anti-Zionism and anti-semitism are exacerbated by America's relationship with Israel - a relationship that many in the west, this writer included, find unnatural. In addition, like all "acts of terrorism" (easily and unsubjectively defined as organised violence against civilians), September 11 was an attack on morality: we felt a general deficit. Who, on September 10, was expecting by Christmastime to be reading unscandalised editorials in the Herald Tribune about the pros and cons of using torture on captured "enemy combatants"? Who expected Britain to renounce the doctrine of nuclear no-first-use? Terrorism undermines morality. Then, too, it undermines reason.

Osama bin Laden is an identifiable human type, but on an unidentifiable scale. He is an enormous stirrer - a titanic mixer. Look how he's shaken us up, both in the heart and in the head. One could say, countervailingly, that on September 11 America was visited by something very alien and unbelievably radical. A completely new kind of enemy for whom death is not death - and for whom life is not life, either, but illusion, a staging-post, merely "the thing which is called World". No, you wouldn't expect such a massive world-historical jolt, which will reverberate for centuries, to be effortlessly absorbed. But the suspicion remains that America is not behaving rationally - that America is behaving like someone still in shock.

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