- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the misfortunes of your enemies, is not nice. It’s not compatible with either Jewish ethics or Christian morality. Principled atheists know better.

But the Saudis, who nurtured 15 of the 19 men who plotted and executed the outrage of September 11 that we can never forget or forgive, can’t expect us not to notice that they’re getting theirs. Just deserts in the desert, an insensitive man might be tempted to say.

Tempting or not, we must stifle the urge to take pleasure in these just deserts. The anger and consternation in the Arab world should be enough to satisfy the appetite for schadenfreude.

But neither ethics nor morality requires anyone to reprise in paraphrase that famous headline in Paris on September 12 to say that “we are all Arabs and Muslims now.” This would no doubt insult the Arabs, anyway, and much of the rest of the Islamic world. The Arab anger and Muslim consternation in the wake of the terrorist rage in Riyadh was expended not as an expression of common humanity, it is important to note, but in narrow ethnic and religious terms: How could Muslim terrorists have slain brother and sister Muslims? This is hardly the stuff of solidarity.

Sherard Cowper-Coles, the wonderfully named British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, misses the point, too, in denouncing the murder of 17 Saudis and the wounding of dozens of others (including Americans and Englishmen) as “senseless.” He couldn’t understand why Islamists targeted a compound of Muslims when there are still plenty of Jews and Christians for them to kill.

It wasn’t “senseless” at all, from the point of view of al Qaeda, which is determined to drive out the West and all the Western influences of tolerance, justice, mercy, kindness, compassion and forbearance — the qualities taught over the centuries by generations of hated Jewish and despised Christian holy men. You let in a little civilization and you never know where it will lead.

But it might be a mistake of tactics. Ordinary Muslims in the streets, that famously seething mosh pit of public opinion so beloved by Western diplomats, politicians and pundits, suggest that the Riyadh bombing was too far over the top even for Islamic taste. “Al-Qaeda is now bombing ordinary Arab people who had been their staunchest supporters,” says Malik al-Suleimany, a prominent pundit in Oman. “This has undoubtedly dented public opinion toward [al-Qaeda].” Newspapers in Beirut splashed photographs of two dead Lebanese children across their front pages, clucking disapproval.

Such compassion, even if compassion driven by the sacrifice of their own, will undoubtedly subside with the next cycle of dead Israelis in Jerusalem or American GIs in Baghdad. What is more encouraging is the early evidence that the deadly assault on a posh residential compound in Riyadh is an answered wake-up call. The Saudi government, which couldn’t be bothered to help so long as the terrorists were killing merely Christian women and Jewish children, are cooperating now. They’re scared. The creeps and jitters that began with the May 11 attack on foreigners working in Saudi Arabia have given way to genuine fright and authentic panic, enough to make the king and all the princes, Wahhabi or not, wet their royal pants.

“It was a staggering experience for them to see that their own capital was vulnerable,” says a senior U.S. official, a close observer of the Saudi royals. “Their own security services had been penetrated.”

The Saudi security forces, though riddled by al Qaeda sympathizers if not actual followers, are sharing intelligence now with the CIA, whose agents have been in the desert kingdom since early summer. This is an improvement, modest as it is, over the silly Saudi public-relations campaign meant to persuade Western opinion that the Saudis are upstanding and law-abiding citizens of the modern world.

Deathbed conversions, even of princes, are better than nothing, of course, but always suspect. If the Saudi royals can get a promise from Osama bin Laden that he will go back to killing only Christians and Jews, the Saudis will spike the new policy of cooperating with Washington in a Manhattan minute. Fear is persuasive, but subsides quickly.

The more encouraging prospect is that George W. Bush may finally be getting over his family’s famous infatuation with the Saudis, recognizing the Saudi “reforms” for what they are. “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe,” he said only last week. “Because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.” Hear, hear. Better late than never.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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