Meanwhile, the water‐torture horrors of the Washington‐area sniper attacks — even assuming they had no foreign connection — only served to underscore the gravity of the international situation. President Bush, after all, declared recently, “We refuse to live in fear.” Well, the shooting spree gave us a taste — just a taste — of the reign of fear we must steel ourselves to prevent.
In the midst of all these roiling exigencies, it is useful, even necessary, to pause and take a longer view — to reflect deliberately, but with imaginations enlivened by the present crisis, on the true stakes of the larger war. For it is not too grandiose to suggest that, last September 11, history took a momentous and dreadful turn. Did everything change that blue‐sky morning, as so many are so fond of saying? Yes, it did — but plus ça change …
Here is the gist of it: We find ourselves, once more, in that paradoxical vulnerability that our forebears suffered for more than 20 centuries. The old menace, long vanquished, has returned in new guise. We are threatened again by an enemy whose weaknesses in peace become strengths in war. Our civilization is exposed to ruin by the very sources of its greatness. After a long respite, the barbarians are at the gate again.
• In the seventh century B.C., horse peoples from the Central Asian steppe began to impinge upon the Assyrian Empire. First came the Cimmerians, who in 690 B.C. led cavalry raids that terrorized much of Asia Minor. Next followed the Scythians, who joined the military coalition of Medes and Babylonians that was challenging Assyrian power. The addition of the savage Scythian horsemen turned the tide, and in 612 B.C. Nineveh was sacked. The greatest empire the world had ever known was gone.
As military historian John Keegan notes, these events marked an inflection point in world history. A new and awful force had awakened, one that was to ravage and cripple civilization repeatedly for the next two millennia: