The 21st century started almost right on time.
Most centuries are a bit tardy. The 20th didn’t really start until after World War I. The 19th didn’t begin until after the Congress of Vienna. But this time the new century was only one year, nine months, and 11 days off from the calendar start date.
Sept. 11, 2001, will surely go down in history as the beginning of the 21st century. The sudden rearranging of world politics - Russia’s new alliance with the West, potential nuclear hostilities between India and Pakistan, America’s newfound resolve to do what it deems necessary on the global arena - make this observation what Casey Stengel liked to call a “true fact.”
And the businesslike punctuality of the 21st century’s arrival is not the only thing that distinguishes it from previous eras. Most begin with a lot of lofty ideas from ambitious politicians, which usually end up crashing on the rocks of history.
For example, the last century began at the end of World War I (perhaps man’s dumbest and most horrible war) with the Treaty of Versailles and Woodrow Wilson’s dream of guaranteeing the “self-determination” of all nations and peoples around the globe. I could spend all day beating up on Woody (my candidate for the worst president of the last century, Bill Clinton included), but suffice it to say the professor-turned-president couldn’t even get his own Senate to ratify his dream, let alone the world.
At the same time, literally, the Soviet Union was born on the even more ambitious promise to eliminate want, inequality, greed, injustice, splinters, stubbed toes and just about everything else you can imagine. Needless to say, the only thing the Soviet Union ever successfully eliminated was itself.
This century begins with more realistic aims and methods. So far, the only clear-cut goal from the West, specifically America and her allies, is to stop something called “terrorism.” I use quotation marks because terrorism isn’t an ism like socialism, communism, fascism or even anarchism. There is virtually no idea behind terrorism. It’s intellectually and ideologically contentless.
Terrorism, as an ism, doesn’t explain how people should make a living, buy bread, settle disputes, form contracts or any of the other things normally associated with a political ideology. In short, terrorism is simply a fancy word for politically motivated murder. To declare war on terrorism is to declare war on something very simple, very old and very identifiable - the organized mass murder of civilians.
This may be a difficult - or even impossible - goal for the United States, but that doesn’t make it an impractical or nave one. The idealistic agendas of the past suffered because partial progress was often worse than no progress at all. Promising people freedom from want or injustice is great if you can deliver, but it’s a recipe for massive social bitterness if you come up short. The Soviet Union promised equality but delivered, at best, equality of misery.
On the other hand, everyone benefits - Arabs, Americans, Europeans, Indians et al - when the cost of using murder as a political tool goes up. The United States is not saying that the world needs to live like we do. It’s not saying nations that choose to live according to the Koran or the Communist Manifesto, for that matter, are our enemies. Rather, America is saying that mass murder is an unacceptable tool in international affairs, no matter what political system you live under.
That is the aim of the war on terrorism.
More important, the United States is not attempting to use only words to raise the cost of terrorism - it is using actions. We are not offering any Kellogg-Briand Pacts (the agreement, authored by the United States and France and signed by 65 nations in 1928, which “outlawed” war but provided for no means of enforcing the prohibition). The United States is bringing the hammer down on terrorists, and we are twisting the arms of others to do the same. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is the voice of this administration’s realism. He says our goal is to “kill terrorists.”
This businesslike frankness is only appropriate for our businesslike new century.
You can write to Jonah Goldberg in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com.