What do we make of the willingness of 19 young Muslim men to sacrifice their lives to kill 7,000 Americans they didn't know?
Is it a tragic fluke, a final shudder of an old enmity at "the end of history"? Or is it the first major battle in a titanic "clash of civilizations"?
Those questions arise when the hijackers' attacks are viewed through the very different lenses of seminal essays written by two political scholars as the Cold War sputtered to a close a decade ago.
The articles, by Francis Fukuyama, then a U.S. State Department policy planner, and
, a Harvard University political scientist, were written in provocative style and made a splash in foreign policy circles. Both were subsequently expanded into books and added to reading lists at scores of universities. Their authors were widely lionized, occasionally ridiculed.
Now, in the wake of the September terror, Fukuyama's 1989 article The End of History? and Huntington's 1993 article The Clash of Civilizations? put the news into larger patterns.
Fukuyama did not claim that historical events had screeched to a halt - but that the epic contest of political systems had been fought and won.
"What we are witnessing," he wrote, "is not just the end of the Cold War, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
In fact, Fukuyama went so far as to anticipate a certain "boredom" that might set in, as "the worldwide ideological struggle" is replaced by "the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands."
Fukuyama did allow in his essay in The National Interest that the Third World would remain "mired in history" and "terrain of conflict" for many years. But even if "a new Ayatollah proclaimed the millennium from a desolate Middle Eastern capital," he wrote, the underlying world order would still be "an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism."
Huntington's far darker essay in Foreign Affairs proposed that, far from ending, history was entering a new and tumultuous period of cultural conflict among the "seven or eight major civilizations," which he listed as "Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilizations."
Explicitly rejecting the end-of-history theory, among others, Huntington stated his thesis in words as categorical and evocative as Fukuyama's: "The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. ... The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future."
And one of the chief fault lines, Huntington wrote in the year of the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, was the line separating the Western and Islamic civilizations.
"Conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations has been going on for 1,300 years," he wrote, tracing the Crusades and the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire. "This centuries-old military interaction between the West and Islam is unlikely to decline. It could become more virulent."
If Fukuyama was right, the terror is an echo of the past more than a wave of the future, a fringe phenomenon rather than one expressing a "civilization." The attacks may be merely a tragic, criminal detour in the global progress toward liberal democracy.
But if Huntington was right, the terror could be only a grim prelude, the beginning of one more war in centuries of conflict between Muslims and Westerners. "Some Westerners ... have argued that the West does not have problems with Islam but only with violent Islamist extremists. Fourteen hundred years of history demonstrate otherwise," he wrote in the 1996 book based on his essay.
Huntington, of Harvard, isn't commenting, and Fukuyama, now at the
's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, is away because of a family illness. But after the carnage in
and Washington, the essays' contrasting paradigms are everywhere reflected in government statements and expert analysis.
Steven R. David, a professor of international relations at the John Hopkins'
campus, says he believes both essays captured important truths about the contemporary world. Fukuyama is right, he says, that "the big disputes that people fought and died for are over. Germany's not going to invade France. You don't have many people arguing that communism is superior to capitalism." But Fukuyama, he says, "greatly underestimated" the trouble that could be caused by those still "mired in history."
"Unfortunately," David says, "I think Huntington's view is closer to the mark."
The televised shots of crowds of Muslims in several countries celebrating the attacks, burning American flags and praising terrorist plotter and financier
also suggest a cultural conflict. Interviews with a wide range of Muslims around the world often elicit regret at the loss of lives in New York and Washington, but it is usually coupled with a "but": But, the speakers say, American arrogance and actions, from support of Israel to sanctions against Iraq, provoked the attacks by reflecting hostility to Islam.
Yet just as striking was the initial rush of Islamic leaders and officials of Muslim nations to denounce the terror and reject any Islamic justification. From Palestinian leader
to Libyan dictator Muammar Kadafi, they condemned the attacks.
"It is deplorable that in this year of dialogue between civilizations," said Iranian President
, a reformist Muslim cleric, echoing Huntington's terminology, "the most violent and savage of attacks should have taken place."
Other Muslim commentators, some specifically referring to Huntington, warned the United States against unwittingly turning a horrendous crime into a conflict of civilization against civilization. "We should all do our best so that a war against terrorism does not turn into a 'clash of civilizations,'" wrote Azzam Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London, in a Times of London column.
David, at Hopkins, says the United States and its Western allies must be extremely careful to avoid words that imply civilizations are at war. "If we in the West say we're at war with Islam, then we're at war with Islam," he says. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."
In a notable stumble early on,
labeled the campaign against terror with bin Laden's favorite word, "crusade." "That reminds Muslims of an ugly history," says Abdulaziz Sachedina, a professor of religious studies at the
Since then, the Bush administration has taken pains to avoid suggesting their war is against Islam. But many Muslims are still made nervous by American officials' frequent references to "the civilized world" or "the free world" in an apocalyptic showdown with "barbarism" or "evil," Sachedina says. Americans' claim to be defending freedom rings especially hollow with Muslims in such countries as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, where the United States backs authoritarian regimes, he says.
In fact, Sachedina says, if the United States is to avoid Huntington's clash of civilizations, officials might be well-advised to back away altogether from the use of the word "war."