A distorted view of the present is the worst way to prepare for the challenges of the future. To describe the struggle against international terrorism as “World War IV,” as the leading American neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz does in his new book, is wrongheaded in any number of ways.
First of all, when and where was World War III? The Cold War, precisely because it never became “hot,” was never the equivalent of World War I or II. Of course, the “World War” reference may be intended to create an “us” versus “them” logic, but this does not correspond to the nature of the challenge posed by radical Islam, given the complexity and the many divisions that exist within the Muslim world. Indeed, by militarizing our thinking, it renders us incapable of finding the right answers, which must be as much political as security-oriented.
As always, words are important, because they can easily be turned into weapons that boomerang on those who use them inappropriately. Wrong analogies have already led America to disaster in Iraq, which had nothing in common with Germany or Japan after World War II – the parallel that some in the Bush administration used in arguing that democracy could be made to sprout in former dictatorships through occupation.
Obviously, the terrorist threat is real and endures, as the recent foiled plot in Germany attests. That plot, which included a young German convert to Islam, showed once again that terrorists can threaten us from both without and within. The nihilistic and destructive instincts that some young Germans of the Baader/Meinhof generation acquired from extreme leftist ideology in the 1970’s, it seems, can be transformed into a “romanticization” of al-Qaeda.