by Susan Jacoby
I assume that the definition of “religious extremist” is someone willing to kill anyone seen as an opponent of the extremist’s faith or political goals. The idea that there is any point in sending a “message” to fanatics is a fantasy beloved by many good, naive people of all faiths or no faith. What is one to say to Osama bin Laden, whose idea for world peace is that everyone else convert to Islam?
Dear Adolf Hitler:
It has come to our attention that you have some very incorrect and destructive ideas about Jews and that you may even be murdering large numbers of Jewish people.
It is not only morally wrong to single out innocent men, women, and children for destruction but you are actually hurting your own people–good Germans–by doing so. We urge you to reconsider the irrationality and cruelty of your policies. If you don’t, we will just have to hunt you down and kill you.
Very truly yours,
Unlike Bin Laden and his many followers, Hitler was the head of a government and a nation-state, and it was possible to defeat him by defeating his armies. Talking to the Bin Ladens of the world is pointless and military containment, not military defeat, is the only option. The problem is that one cannot contain religious fanatics who are also living ostensibly conventional lives in countries around the world while secretly disdaining the democratic traditions that allow them to flourish.
Lest anyone think I am singling out Islamic extremists (the question was, after all, about 9/11), there is no significant difference–apart from the number of his followers–between a Bin Laden and, say, a Christian anti-abortion extremist who thinks he has the right to kill doctors who perform abortions.
There is no point in trying to talk to any of these people. They are utterly delusional (crazy, in lay terms) as well as evil. Unfortunately, they are not so delusional that they are unable to plan murder on an individual and a mass scale.