Dark ages, now play­ing in the Mid­dle East

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - VIC­TOR DAVIS HAN­SON

The most fright­en­ing as­pect of the present war is how eas­ily our pre­mod­ern en­e­mies from the Mid­dle East have brought a stunned post­mod­ern world back into the Dark Ages.

Stu­dents of his­tory are sick­ened when they read of the lon­gago, grue­some prac­tice of be­head­ing. How bru­tal were those so­ci­eties that chopped off the heads of Cicero, Sir Thomas More and Marie An­toinette. And how lucky we thought we were to have evolved from such ele­men­tal bar­bar­ity.

Twenty-four hun­dred years ago, Socrates was ex­e­cuted for un­pop­u­lar speech. The 18th-cen­tury Euro­pean En­light­en­ment gave peo­ple free­dom to ex­press views for­merly cen­sored by cler­ics and the state. Just imag­ine what life was like once upon a time when no one could write mu­sic, com­pose fiction or paint with­out court or church ap­proval?

Over 400 years be­fore the birth of Christ, an­cient Greek lit­er­ary char­ac­ters, from Ly­sis­trata to Antigone, re­flected the strug­gle for sex­ual equal­ity. The sub­se­quent no­tion that women could vote, di­vorce, dress or marry as they pleased was a mil­len­nia-long strug­gle.

It is al­most sur­real now to read about the ele­men­tal ha­tred of Jews in the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion, 19th-cen­tury Rus­sian pogroms or the Holo­caust. Yet here we are re­vis­it­ing the old hor­rors of the sav­age past.

Be­head­ing? As we saw with Nick Berg and Daniel Pearl, our Ne­an­derthal en­e­mies in the Mid­dle East have res­ur­rected that an­cient bar­bar­ity — and mar­ried it with 21st-cen­tury tech­nol­ogy to beam the re­sult­ing gore in­stan­ta­neously onto our com­puter screens. Xerxes and At­tila, who stuck their vic­tims’ heads on poles for pub­lic dis­play, would’ve been thrilled by such a grue­some show.

Who would have thought cen­turies af­ter the En­light­en­ment that so­phis­ti­cated Euro­peans — in fear of rad­i­cal Is­lamists — would be afraid to write a novel, put on an opera, draw a car­toon, film a doc­u­men­tary or have their pope dis­cuss com­par­a­tive the­ol­ogy?

The as­ton­ish­ing fact is not just that mil­lions of women world­wide in 2006 are still veiled from headto-toe, trapped in ar­ranged mar­riages, sub­ject to polygamy, honor killings and forced cir­cum­ci­sion, or lack the right to vote or ap­pear alone in pub­lic. What is more baf­fling is that in the West, lib­eral Euro­peans are of­ten wary of pro­tect­ing fe­male cit­i­zens from the ex­cesses of Shariah law — some­times even fear­ful of ask­ing women to un­veil their faces for pur­poses of sim­ple iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and of­fi­cial con­ver­sa­tion.

Who th­ese days is shocked that Is­rael is hated by Arab na­tions and threat­ened with an­ni­hi­la­tion by rad­i­cal Iran? In­stead, the sur­prise is that even in places like Paris or Seat­tle, Jews are sin­gled out and killed for the ap­par­ent crime of be­ing Jewish.

Since Septem­ber 11, 2001, the West has fought en­e­mies who are de­ter­mined to bring back the night­mar­ish world we thought was long past. And there are lessons Western­ers can learn from rad­i­cal Is­lamists’ ghastly ef­forts.

First, the West­ern lib­eral tra­di­tion is frag­ile and can still dis­ap­pear. Just be­cause we have so­phis­ti­cated cell phones, CAT scan­ners and jets does not en­sure we are per­ma­nently civ­i­lized or safe. Tech­nol­ogy used by the civ­i­lized for pos­i­tive pur­poses can eas­ily be ma­nip­u­lated by bar­bar­ians for de­struc­tion.

Sec­ond, the En­light­en­ment is not al­ways lost on the bat­tle­field. It can be sur­ren­dered through ei­ther fear or in­dif­fer­ence as well. Western­ers fear­ful of ter­ror­ist reprisals them­selves shut down a pro­duc­tion of a Mozart opera in Ber­lin deemed of­fen­sive to Mus­lims. Few came to the aid of a Salman Rushdie or Dutch film­maker Theo van Gogh when their un­pop­u­lar ex­pres­sion earned death threats from Is­lamists. Van Gogh, of course, was ul­ti­mately killed.

The Goths and Van­dals did not sack Rome solely through the power of their hordes; they also re­lied on the paral­y­sis of Ro­man elites who no longer knew what it was to be Ro­man — much less whether it was any bet­ter than the al­ter­na­tive.

Third, civ­i­liza­tion is for­feited with a whim­per, not a bang. In­sid­i­ously, we have al­lowed rad­i­cal Is­lamists to re­de­fine the pri­mor­dial into the not-so-bad. Per­haps women in head-to-toe burkas in Europe pre­fer them? Maybe that crass Ger­man opera was just too over the top af­ter all? Aren’t both par­ties equally to blame in the Pales­tinian, Iraqi and Afghan wars?

To grasp the fla­vor of our own Civil War, im­per­son­ators now don pe­riod dress and re­con­struct the bat­tles of Shiloh or Get­tys­burg. But we need no so such his­tor­i­cal re-en­act­ment of the Dark Ages. You see, they are back with us — live al­most daily from the Mid­dle East.

Vic­tor Davis Han­son is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist, a clas­si­cist and his­to­rian at Stan­ford Univer­sity’s Hoover In­sti­tu­tion and au­thor of “A War Like No Other: How the Athe­ni­ans and Spar­tans Fought the Pelo­pon­nesian War.”

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