Al-Zarqawi is dead. Widely seen as the mastermind of al-Qaeda's terrorist operations in Iraq, his demise has been hailed by President Bush as a ray of hope for that long suffering nation, even a turning point.
We can all agree that al-Zarqawi's death is no great loss to the world. Yet the doubt remains, Will his elimination in fact make any difference to the fate of Iraq? Will fanatics stop bombing innocent people while they are out shopping in their markets, or going to say prayers in their mosques, because al-Zarqawi is now dead? Will militias cease to behead those they regard as their tribal or sectarian enemies, because al-Zarqawi breathes no more? Will al-Qaeda shut down operations, because he is no longer there to inspire and to plot? Or will everything go on pretty much the same?
It would be a relief to think that by killing a single man we could end the reign of terror in Iraq, or, for that matter, in the world. We would love to believe that by finally getting our hands on Osama bin Laden that we could end the nightmare that began on 9/11.
Yet behind this thinking lurks a fantasy -- the same fantasy, it should be noted, that preoccupies the minds of dedicated conspiracy nuts -- the fantasy that somewhere someone is in control of everything. In this case, the fantasy that al-Zarqawi was in control of terror in Iraq gives birth to the hope that with his death, the terror will end, or, at least, begin to diminish.
For many of us, it is at least reassuring that someone is in control, even if we regard the person who exercises this control as a bad guy -- at least that way, if we can just bump off this one bad guy, we'll be home free. The source of evil in the world will, upon his demise, immediately dry up.
What is unbearable to many of us, on the other hand, is that the thought that no one is in control of events -- that events are simply spinning beyond the power of anyone or any agency to handle them, or even to predict them. The idea that mere anarchy has been loosed upon the world is perhaps of all fears the one that civilized people find most intolerable, for it means that there is no one who has the power to stop the forces of chaos and confusion from simply overwhelming us.
No one should mourn al-Zarqawi's passing. But it would be wishful thinking to imagine that by taking out this one man we have gained control of a situation that is no longer under anyone's power to control. For the situation in Iraq today is like that described in the last verse of The Book of Judges: "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes."
Yesterday in Iraq, one day after the death of al-Zarqawi, at least four men did that which was right in their own eyes: they set off bombs, and killed men, women, and children who had done nothing to deserve to die. They did not need al-Zarqawi's permission to blow their fellow Muslims up; they were acting on their own. They were fanatically convinced of the rightness of their acts.
This is the thing we must remember about fanaticism. If you are living under an orderly government, like the United States, there is a single man in charge, and he is the causal force that sets everything else in motion. The President gives an order, and everyone down the hierarchy of command obeys it without thinking whether he should obey it. It's his job to obey. Furthermore, no one at the lower levels feels at liberty to act on his own initiative -- that is not his job.
Fanatics, on the other hand, do not have jobs; they have missions. Fanatics do not sit and quietly wait for orders to come down to them from on high -- being fanatics, they take matters into their own hands, and carry out their own missions, with or without the stamp of approval of higher ups in the bureaucracy, because, among fanatics, there is no bureaucracy, and there are no higher ups. To have the authority to act, it is enough simply to be a fanatic. What more does a fanatic need to prove himself than to display his willingness to kill and to die for the cause? The fanatic does not need to take standardized tests, or to score high on merit exams. He just needs to be a fanatic.
Finally, because there is nothing more contagious than fanaticism, al-Zarqawi may well feel that he had accomplished his mission already. He did his part to sow the suspicion and distrust among neighbors that is an essential element in the spread of fanaticism.
Unless we can come to understand the logic of fanaticism, despite all its alien and repugnant qualities in our eyes, we will continue to see rays of hope in the Middle East where there are none. You can kill the fanatic; but you cannot kill his fanaticism. It has a life of its own, and a will to match. Worse, what is enough to make sober and prudent men change their minds works exactly the opposite on the fanatic -- it gives him renewed conviction. Thus, those who do mourn the death of al-Zarqawi will not see in his loss the end of their struggle, but only an inspiration to struggle all the harder. For them, al-Zarqawi is not dead; he has gone to collect his martyr's crown. He will now watch them safely from Paradise, urging them on, and inspiring them with his memory.
There have been too many false dawns in Iraq already. Let us at least wait a while this time before we start to crow.