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'Radicalism and Technology'

By Yuval Levin - October 10, 2002 12:00 AM

The new National Security Strategy document released by the White House last month includes a terse one-sentence summary of the risks we confront: "The gravest danger our Nation faces lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology." This is certainly true, but it is worth noting that at this crossroads also lies the greatest danger facing our opponents.

The risk to us is mostly plain and simple. Modern technology is uniquely suited to empowering madmen and fanatical cults of destruction. In earlier ages, to pose a real threat to the security of a great nation usually required large armies, smart strategy and good tactics, which in turn required numbers, prudence and practical sense usually lacking in bands of barking-mad zealots.

Today, doing certain sorts of real damage can require only technical knowledge and daring-a combination quite common at the edges of sanity. From its beginnings, the modern move in both science and politics has aimed to empower the individual, and it has succeeded in the realm of war as in others. Only in our age of technology could 19 men kill three thousand in an instant. And only in this age could we plausibly fear the loss of many thousands more in a nuclear, chemical or biological attack by a relatively small group of loosely organized madmen.

But the fact that Al-Qaeda can only threaten us with our own high technology reveals not only our vulnerability, but also their weakness. Their own stated purpose in threatening us, and in killing and maiming us, is after all to undermine the very culture and civilization that has made that high technology possible. If they can hurt us only with our weapons, then their mission-the undoing of western modernity-seems fatally weak at its core. That they can only confront us at "the crossroads of radicalism and technology" spells more trouble for them than for us.

It is so troubling for them because our technology always carries with it hints of the larger culture that produces it. In fact, this is why many Western worriers about technology (among whom I now and then count myself) are so concerned about it: because a lot of modern technology relies upon and points toward a culture of its own, a culture of radical individualism, technical utopianism, and total materialism. If this is far from our ideal, it is immeasurably further from the ideal of Muslim radicals.

Those of us who want to defend the classical liberal ideal from being robbed of its soul by certain uses of technology face a daunting but (we think) achievable challenge. We want to keep capitalism rooted in its moral grounds. We want to keep liberal democracy aware of the higher uses of politics. We want to keep societies alert to what holds them together and why, and individuals conscious of the importance of dignity, nobility and virtue. We seek to defend modern society from its own excesses. In doing this, we sometimes run the risk of focusing too much on the excesses, and of sounding like prudes or Cassandras. But at bottom, we are always defending modern, Western, liberal-democratic society, and seeking to make it better.

High technology is one important fruit of that modern society, and the very ideals we seek to defend are those that can show us how to use technology responsibly, and thereby enjoy some of its benefits while averting the gravest of the dangers it might pose for us.

Al Qaeda Handbook
Radical Islamists, however, would use that very technology in their struggle against the civilization that has made it possible. This means that radical Islam has more destructive power than it otherwise could, but it also means that in the realm of ideology-which is after all where they make their claims to legitimacy-radical Islamists are in the grip of utter contradiction. The creed for which they have pledged to kill and die leaves no room for the methods by which they would do so. The Taliban-style reversion to medieval life would make high technology impossible, and a dependence on high-tech makes that reversion impossible. The combination-"the crossroads of radicalism and technology"-is an impossible home for radical Islam.

Of course, it is a far more comfortable home for some others among the threats we confront. Saddam Hussein would face no fatal contradiction by nuking us, and the combination of technology and his lunacy is much more dangerous for us than for him. And, to be sure, the intellectual problem of relying on Western technology to attack the West does not mean that the radical Islamists won't attack us. What it does mean, however, is that the field of battle is better suited to our strengths than theirs.

Most of the truly mortal long-term dangers posed to our society by technology are the risks of success: like the risk of dehumanization at the hands of mishandled biotech. We risk losing sight of the limits to our power. Some modern technologies-and not only weapons technologies-could pose real threats to our way of life, and we should not drown out worries about these in a torrent of careless techie triumphalism. Technology will not solve our society's problems, and we can plausibly imagine a number of ways in which it could make many of them substantially worse, and give rise to brand new ones. Nonetheless, modern technology is a product of the cluster of notions that defines our way of life-individualism, rationalism, science and liberty. Taken too far, all of these are destructive. But properly handled, they are the source of much of our greatness.

For Muslim fundamentalists, they can only be destructive.

For us, the great challenge of the age of technology is to keep sight of prudence, remember our limits, and be willing to defend ourselves when our way of life is at risk, from within or without. In the war against terror, victory would involve being true to our ideals. And the war itself has helped us remember just what these are.

For our enemies, the challenge is to master the techniques and technologies of Western modernity while resisting and rejecting its liberating principles. When they live true to their retrocessive ideals, they are powerless. When they wield power, they are violating the principles for which they claim to be acting. In their war against us, any victory would involve a complete corruption of their so-called cause.

If this is the shape of the battle, our prospects are bright.

Yuval Levin is a member of the staff of the President's Council on Bioethics and the author of Tyranny of Reason: The Origins and Consequences of the Social Scientific Outlook. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the President's Council on Bioethics or its members.

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