In the post-Cold War era, the United States faces lethal danger from a global jihadist movement. Although this militant Islamic network has historical roots which are centuries old, it has emerged in its most recent form since the fall of the Soviet Union. A long list of Muslim terrorist attacks during the last two or three decades of the twentieth centuries shows both a departure from more sporadic attacks earlier in the century and the increased pace of attacks during the first few years of the twenty-first century.
One central task for historians is to compare and contrast the Cold War to the subsequent wave of Islamic Jihadism. How are they similar? How are they different?
One clear difference between the two is the in tactics of the aggressors: the officers of the Soviet military were professional soldiers, who had been trained for their careers in military academies. A Soviet officer, for example, was neither trained for, nor inclined to, a suicide attack. Soviet pilots, trained to potentially drop atomic bombs on the United States, would execute their missions with care for their own safety. Many were married, had children and homes and were integrated parts of their communities.
By contrast, a Jihadist is not only willing to plan and execute a suicide attack, but also plans non-suicide attacks which are rather cavalier toward the safety of the attacker. Jihadis don’t typically embrace a lifestyle which includes a house in the suburbs, picnics with the family, or baseball games.
As ruthless as the Soviet Union was, and as aggressive as its ideology was, Soviet officers did conform roughly to the pattern of a middle-class professional and paterfamilias, and could be expected to carry out their duties as such.
Although on opposite sides, a Soviet military officer and a United States military officer functioned in similar ways, shared a foundational set of presuppositions, and were able to understand each other as peers.
A Jihadist, on the other hand, does not have a set of commonalities to share with the ‘infidels’ or ‘westerners’ he attacks.
We can also find a similarity between the Soviet threat and the Islamic threat. Both were able to exploit a hesitancy found in western democracies to clearly state identified threats. Just as the State Department was in some ways hesitant to articulate the extent of the Soviet’s ability to compromise U.S. security, so also a segment of leadership has been hesitant to express the extent of Islam’s threat to societies around the globe.
In both the Cold War and in the subsequent era of Islamic Jihad, technology allows one individual, or a small group of individuals, to have a disproportionately large effect. One individual, smuggling information about the atomic bomb to the KGB, could cause a massive shift in the Cold War dynamic. One Jihadist, likewise, can cause the deaths of many civilians, hijack media coverage for days or weeks, and throw the security services of many nation-states into high alert.
This phenomenon, in which technology amplifies the actions of one individual, is sometimes called ‘proliferation.’ It requires a recalibration of how threats are perceived, and how we respond to them. During the Cold War, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote:
It is largely because of this new face of treason that we in the free world are writing, preaching and discussing ways to adapt our traditional concepts into serviceable weapons with which to protect ourselves from hazards the architects of our society never contemplated. The job will be hard. The new consequences of treason will not allow us to settle for a security program based on the idea - in itself venerable - that ten suspected traitors working in the State Department should not be molested lest one of them should prove to be loyal. It is one thing for Lizzie Borden to benefit from the charity of the doubt; it is something else again to protect Klaus Fuchs until after he has committed the “overt” act.
Both the Cold War and the post-1990 wave of Muslim terror took place in the age of electronic media. While the Cold War ended before the 24/7 cable TV news cycle, and before the widespread use of online internet news, it nonetheless was covered differently than, e.g., WWII. Telecommunications allowed for near-instantaneous coverage of events during the Cold War.
Both Islamic terrorism and the Soviet threat were, therefore, well known to the general public. Buckley notes:
By 1950, we were more or less agreed that the overt act a Fuchs might commit was something we dared not risk. The majority of us now knew that, for all the twists and turns of the Party Line, the Communists have never swerved and, barring a philosophical or political revolution, never would swerve from their ambition to occupy the world. And we knew, moreover, that they had hit upon an uncommonly successful formula for achieving their goal. The era was past when Americans needed to be educated about the threat of Communism.
While the general public was well aware of the international communist conspiracy, significant segments of both the government leadership and of the media were hesitant to acknowledge the full danger it posed. Instead, coverage downplayed the Soviet threat, and cast those who were aware of it as paranoid or overly reactive.
Likewise, the threat of global Jihad is well known to the public, but some government leaders - and some media leaders - are loathe to publicly recognize the danger, and those who accurately describe the onslaught of Islamic terrorism are labeled as xenophobic or paranoid. Buckley writes:
But a new era arrived, the dominant characteristic of which was and remains - indecision. Undecided how to cope with the new menace, we lacked even the will to find a solution. Our confusion and our purposelessness were crippling. A symbol of it, perhaps, was our society’s relentless persecution of what John Chamberlain has shrewdly labelled “premature anti-Communists.” The evolution from pro-Communism in the direction of anti-Communism seemed to have ground to a halt in an intermediary stage, aptly described as anti-anti-Communism.
The challenge in both the Cold War era and the Jihadist era lies in persuading segments of the government and segments of the media to acknowledge what is already known: name the enemy and identify the threat the enemy poses. For those seeking to preserve some sense of peace, security, and liberty, the “overriding problem” is, in Buckley’s words, this:
Having acknowledged the nature and the immediacy of our peril, how might we get by our disintegrated ruling elite, which had no stomach for battle, and get down to the business of fighting the enemy in our midst?
Just as there were individuals in the State Department and in the media who failed to recognize the Soviet menace, or failed to act appropriately upon the recognition of such menace - just as there were those in the State Department and in the media who were actively complicit with the Soviet Union and on the KGB payroll to keep Americans complacent and to belittle those who attempted to alert Americans to the danger: so also there are those who do not recognize the threat posed by the efforts of Islam to establish an international caliphate, or who recognize but do not respond proportionately to this Jihadist threat - there are those who are enabling Muslim terror.
It remains for calm and articulate scholars to state the historical reality of such threats.