The Devil Wears A Black TurbanLionel Tiger, 04.22.09, 12:01 AM ET
The Pakistani government's capitulation to the Taliban becomes more frightening by the minute. Because the government could not contain the insurgency running rings around legitimate government forces, it agreed to permit the Taliban to employ sharia law in the large district of Swat, which is less than 100 miles from the national capital, Islamabad.
Presumably there was some illusion that a major concession of legitimacy would produce a quieter, gentler Taliban, full of the loving, pious grace occasionally proclaimed by political leaders and interfaith bureaucrats unwilling to face the generic militancy of an important part of the Islamic system.
But rather than produce benign hearts and comfortable minds, this disastrous move by the shaky Pakistani government has, of course, emboldened Islamist leaders. They have handed ever-louder megaphones to the theological lyricists who are among the busiest members of the Taliban labor force. One leading cleric announced that "The Koran says that supporting an infidel system is a great sin." Which means what, exactly?--except that it provides comfort to simpletons and stimulates fear in the whole rest-of-the-world hereby called "infidel."
Taliban warriors have already gone beyond the official Swat border. In neighboring areas they have eagerly displayed their favorite recipes for moral example and control, which include cutting off noses and ears of persons they suspect of inadequate enthusiasm for their views; closing schools for girls; selling proud videos of beheadings; ardently whipping those who displease; and providing daily lists over the radio of potential victims of splendid beheadings soon to come.
The newly arresting development is that they live in a nuclear neighborhood in which they now have some formal legal status. The Bush administration, in its first six years, spent almost $100 million--probably many more--on a deeply classified program to help then-President Musharraf secure Pakistan's nuclear weapons. No doubt many millions more have been deployed to deal with a shambolic scientific community, which permitted the nuclear entrepreneur A.Q. Khan to buy and sell nuclear stuff for years to whomever, with impunity and national honor to boot.
Pentagon war games, also deeply secret, have endlessly considered what would happen were Special Forces troops to deploy to Pakistan should there be an Islamic takeover. These days, these gamers must be extra-busy on double overtime, because the spectacle of a raucously confident Taliban constituting a more-or-less legal ruling group in a significant part of a country with perhaps 50 nuclear bombs is a certified nightmare.
The Taliban are activist believers endowed with an Extra Special Ingredient--an unshakable confidence in their religion. They interpret the entire world and its people through its lens. Their behavior turns into sentimental cant any smooth suggestion that religious commitment is all of a piece, and it's solely "the extremists" who defile the theological universe. But in fact, the Taliban are the truest of believers with the most integrity. They are the most consistent and efficient in applying their certainty about the cosmos and the moral universe. They most clearly see the neon incidence of sin. They embrace warmly their responsibility to cleanse us all from our own profound failure. Once the premise of a supervening higher power is accepted, all roads do not lead to Savonarola and the burning-in-oil bit. But at least a few do, and one has just been paved.
This is why the practical political world of terror has changed. No doubt the administration has its reasons, in decency and politics, for a semantic cleansing of the language surrounding the mad people who have stated that they crave destroying the infidel threat. It's clear from its continued bombing of Taliban hideaways and from the electrifying stories of intense combat (especially by C. J. Chivers in The New York Times) with very skillful and experienced Taliban in Afghanistan that the military faces these people with neither ambiguity nor mercy.
Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke has made clear that accommodative social work will not work with the Taliban. Without question, there is a categorically renewed focus on Pakistani nuclear networks in the Pentagon. Indian defense planners are surely at red alert--or, in this case, black-turban alert. President Obama may occasionally sing that nice hymn about Islam being a religion of peace, but his actions with drones and bombers belie his rhetoric. He is now responsible for something theatrically new, which is dealing with a part of the world where the most effective players are those with the fewest rules of civility. They also have the clearest attraction to the kind of destruction nuclear weapons now make possible--weapons which are just down the end of their street.
Pakistan has had for years firm scrutiny of its nuclear personnel, and there has been in the past careful, overt fear of religious zealotry. But changes in the country overall, and in the newly spangled role of the most fevered theorists about what is right and wrong, have sharply changed the rules of the threat game. The convenient excuse is often used that all this is an anti-American response. That's what they like to say, but these people have been active for centuries, before there was Coca Cola and a single American.
The game is now terrifying, whether the players are called terrorists or not. Nothing may actually come to pass and the prudent structures on which the world has relied may well hold. Nevertheless, something immensely important has just happened. Virtually all humans have been appropriately frightened of nuclear weapons ever since they appeared on the earth. It is now a legitimate and practical fear that there is a team in the system that can hardly wait to use them. On you.
Lionel Tiger, a weekly columnist at Forbes, is the Charles Darwin professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. He is the author of The Decline of Males (St. Martins, 2000), Men in Groups (Marion Boyars, 1999) and The Pursuit of Pleasure (Transaction, 2000).