Demons to Madden a Mad World

<i> William Pfaff is an American journalist based in Paris</i>

Col. Moammar Kadafi invited what happened to his country, his people, and his family, last Monday night. And even now he continues to set the terms of the confrontation. Whether he is or is not specifically responsible for the terrorist attacks at the La Belle Club discotheque in West Berlin and the Rome and Vienna airports, he has certainly been responsible for other outrages and has contributed heavily to a moral climate in the Islamic world justifying terrorism.

Bombing Tripoli and other Libyan targets will nonetheless serve only to make Americans feel better--for the moment. It will feed the political hysteria that rules Iran as well as Libya, Lebanon and all too much of the Arab world.

An unbridgeable emotional and intellectual gulf separates most Americans from the consequences of acts such as this one. There has been, in the American public reaction, a certain relish, possible only because of the emotional distance between the United States and Libya. It is a distance a thousand times that which can be measured on the map.

Two weeks ago, in Miami, when two FBI men and two presumed bank robbers were killed in a gun battle that wounded five other federal agents, a witness said he thought he was seeing an episode of “Miami Vice” being filmed. Then he said, in evident anguish, “all of a sudden there was all this blood and men were falling and it was terrible and real.” It was real in Tripoli and Benghazi.


We are isolated from that reality for one more reason: We use an impersonal technology of war. The appeal of aerial bombing is not only that it can be done from a distance at, in a case like this, relatively low risk to those who do it, but also because it conveys an image of judgment. It is retribution, justice being delivered from on high--upon evildoers.

The United States has consistently been drawn to bombing when a commando raid, a landing, seizure of assets, blockade, naval gunfire--even an assassination team--might actually be the more appropriate use of force. We forbid the Central Intelligence Agency to employ assassination but send F-111s perhaps to kill Kadafi, actually to kill one of his children.

The other side of this use of impersonal technology to punish Libyans is that it leaves them in a condition of wounded impotence. It inspires a will to extreme retribution. Terrorism is the one weapon they have. Kadafi’s grandiose threats--to attack the cities of America and Europe, to set the Mediterranean aflame--are the ravings of a largely powerless man, ignorant of the outside world, but one who is truly convinced that it is Ronald Reagan who is mad and evil, that the American people, as well as the Libyan, are his victims.

That the United States should act as Kadafi’s fantasies dictate is thus an example, as if another were needed, of the contagious role delusion and fearful imagination play in international life. One remembers the grotesque vilification of Kaiser William II during World War I, and of the Emperor of Japan in World War II. The grave and gentle marine biologist today universally regarded as the most amiable of monarchs was, 45 years ago, held by Americans, in hate-filled and racist caricature, to be a yellow dwarf, embodiment of evil.


Britain wanted the Kaiser, Queen Victoria’s nephew, hung as a criminal; the Netherlands would not extradite him after he took refuge there in 1918. British propaganda depicted him as a crippled monster who caused Belgian babies to be bayoneted and nuns to be raped. Kadafi is neither innocent, as was Hirohito, nor dim and foolish, as was the Kaiser; but the role he has been assigned in American political demonology is the same as theirs, in their times.

People simply are a little mad. The work of civilization is to try to keep one’s own country a little less mad than the rest. Those who think that violence, and terrorism, can be banned from the world are mad too, but what one can do is try to keep violence limited and intelligently employed.

For Britain to have gone to war to retake the Falkland Islands was an appropriate use of force, restoring to the people of those islands the form of government they wanted and revealing the Argentine military dictatorship as empty and incompetent, living in fantasy. By contrast, this attack on Libya frees no one and only feeds political fantasy.

It confirms the United States on a course of what amounts to war with Islamic radicalism. This is a radicalism which, in various forms, has repeatedly arisen in great religious movements during periods of social and political stress, such as the Middle East experiences today.

The West has itself experienced it, in both Judaism and Christianity. Jewish apocalyptic writings--to quote scholar Norman Cohn--foretold “a Day of Wrath, when sun and moon and stars are darkened, when the heavens are rolled . . . and the earth is shaken.” This was to be followed by a judgment of misbelievers and their devastation, only a “saving remnant” of Israel left to live happily in what will have become a fertile, abundant, peaceful land.

The Christian church again and again has undergone sectarian apocalyptic movements, scorning the present as corrupt, extolling an idealized past, setting a band of the righteous to war on unbelievers, prophesying that after great suffering “all that multitude of the godless shall be annihilated, and torrents of blood shall flow.” Then “this kingdom of the righteous shall last for a thousand years.” Something of this still is to be heard among American fundamentalists, with a strong dose of American nationalism mixed in; the communism and terrorism threatening the United States from abroad is literally perceived as work of the Antichrist.

Islamic fundamentalism, embraced by Kadafi, the terrorist sects of Lebanon and the Iranian revolution, is simply another case of this same social and religious phenomenon. Governments and armies--and air forces--can set themselves against it. Indeed, they sometimes must. It is nonetheless essential to try to understand just what one is dealing with, and to understand that people like Kadafi, like the assassins, bombers and suicide-commandos willing to follow him, are repeatedly the products of societies in crisis.

Outsiders badly need to keep a measure of intellectual detachment about them, no matter how hard this may be and how outrageous the provocations. Otherwise we are drawn by these people into their own apocalyptic vision, and their madness comes to govern us as well.