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Before 9/11: Europe in Denial
ON THE MORNING OF November 2, 2004, I sat at my mother's kitchen table in Queens, New York, drinking instant coffee and thinking about George W. Bush and John Kerry. It was Election Day, and I was irked that since I was flying back home to Oslo that evening, I'd miss the vote count on TV.
The phone rang. "Hello? Oh, yes. Just a moment." My mother held out the phone. "It's Mark." I took it.
"Hi, Bruce. Have you heard about Theo van Gogh?"
"He was murdered this morning."
Mark, like me, is an American with a Norwegian partner. But though he moved back to New York years ago, he still starts the day by checking the news at the Web site of NRK, Norway's national radio and TV network. Switching into Norwegian, he read me the story. Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker and newspaper columnist, had been shot and killed in Amsterdam. Shortly afterward, police had arrested a twenty-six-year-old Dutch-Moroccan man.
Later, I'd learn more. Van Gogh had been bicycling to work along a street called Linnaeusstraat when Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch-born son of Moroccan parents and a member of a radical Muslim network, had shot him, knocking him off his bicycle. Bouyeri, wearing a long jellaba, pumped up to twenty additional bullets into van Gogh's body, stabbed him several times, and slit his throat. He then pinned to van Gogh's chest with a knife a five-page letter addressed to the filmmaker's collaborator, Parliament member Ayaan Hirsi Ali, quoting the Koran and promising her and several other Dutch leaders (whom he named) a similar end:
I know definitely that you, O America, will go down. I know definitely that you, O Europe, will go down. I know definitely that you, O Netherlands, will go down. I know definitely that you, O Hirsi Ali, will go down.
According to witnesses, van Gogh had said to his murderer (who at the time was living on welfare payments from the Dutch government): "Don't do it! Don't do it! Mercy! Mercy!" And: "Surely we can talk about this." The blunt, outspoken van Gogh had been an unsparing critic of European passivity in the face of fundamentalist Islam; unlike most Europeans, he'd understood the connection between the war on terror and the European integration crisis, and had called America "the last beacon of hope in a steadily darkening world." Together he and Hirsi Ali had made a short film, Submission--he'd directed, she'd written the script--about the mistreatment of women in Islamic cultures. Yet at the end, it seemed, even he had grasped at the Western European elite's most unshakable article of faith--the belief in peace and reconciliation through dialogue.
At first glance, Hirsi Ali might have seemed an unlikely ally for van Gogh: a vivacious Somali-born beauty who'd forsworn her native Islam, she was devoted to the preservation of Dutch democracy and the rescue of her country's Muslims--especially women--from the tyranny of their subculture. I'd read a good deal about her in the Dutch press and hoped to write about her myself; in fact, a friend of mine who worked for an Oslo think tank had arranged to meet her in The Hague the following Monday and had invited me to go along. I'd already booked the flight.
Van Gogh's murder came as a shock, even though I'd seen something like it coming for years. In 1998, I'd lived in a largely Muslim neighborhood of Amsterdam, only a block away from the radical mosque attended by Bouyeri. There I'd seen firsthand the division between the native Dutch and their country's rapidly growing Muslim minority. That division was stark: the Dutch had the world's most tolerant, open-minded society, with full sexual equality, same-sex marriage, and libertarian policies on soft drugs and prostitution. Yet many Dutch Muslims kept that society at arm's length, despising its freedoms and clinging to a range of undemocratic traditions and prejudices.
Did Dutch officials address this problem? No. Like their politically correct counterparts across Western Europe, they responded to it mostly by churning out empty rhetoric about multicultural diversity and mutual respect--and then changing the subject. I knew that by tolerating intolerance in this way, the country was setting itself on a path to cataclysmic social confrontation; yet whenever I tried--delicately--to broach the topic, Dutch acquaintances made clear that it was off limits. They seemed not to grasp that their society, and Western Europe generally, was a house divided against itself, and that eventually things would reach the breaking point.
Then came 9/11. Most Americans were quick to understand that they were at war and recognized the need for a firm response (though there was, and continues to be, much disagreement as to whether the response decided upon was the right one). Yet while most Western European countries participated in the invasion of Afghanistan and several helped topple Saddam, America's forceful approach alienated opinion makers across the continent and opened up a philosophical gulf that sometimes seemed as wide as the Atlantic itself.
Why was there such a striking difference in perspectives between the two halves of the democratic West? One reason was that the Western European establishment--the political, media, and academic elite that articulates what we think of as "European opinion"--tended to regard all international disputes as susceptible to peaceful resolution. It was therefore ill equipped to respond usefully to sustained violence by a fierce, uncompromising adversary. Another reason was Western Europe's large immigrant communities, many of them led by fundamentalist Muslims who looked forward to the establishment in Europe of a caliphate governed according to sharia law--the law of the Koran--and who viewed Islamist terrorists as allies in a global jihad, or holy war, dedicated to that goal. A fear of inflaming minorities who took their lead from such extremists was one more reason to tread gently. Few European politicians had challenged this passivity. The Dutchman Pim Fortuyn had done so, and been murdered for it. Not even the March 2004 bombings in Madrid--"Europe's 9/11"--had fully awakened Europe's sleeping elite.
True, not all European Muslims shared the terrorists' goals and loyalties. Many, one gathered, were grateful to be living in democracies. Yet even they seemed hamstrung by the belief that loyalty to the umma (the worldwide Islamic community) overrode any civic obligations to their kaffir (infidel) neighbors. Hence most European Muslims responded passively to van Gogh's murder. Few spoke up against the extremists in their midst. The pressure--from without and within--to stick by their own was, it appeared, simply too overwhelming. And the potential price for betrayal was an end not unlike that dealt out to Theo van Gogh.
That evening I flew back to Oslo. At one point, over the Atlantic, the pilot got on the loudspeaker with an update on the U.S. presidential race, telling us how many electoral votes each candidate had secured so far. Bush was ahead. But not until I was standing at the baggage carousel in Oslo--barely awake after a sleepless night over the Atlantic--did I learn how the vote had turned out. On an electronic news crawl above the carousel I read the words bush gjenvalgt--Bush reelected.
I had mixed feelings about the victory: while the president seemed to have a far greater understanding than his opponent of what we were fighting against in the war on terror, some of his domestic actions made me wonder which of the candidates had a stronger sense of what we were fighting for. But in New York City and the Western European capitals, I knew, there was little ambiguity. Bush's win was bad news--period.
Two days later I was in Amsterdam, where van Gogh's murder was being called the Netherlands' 9/11. Understandably, Hirsi Ali had canceled all appointments; but since I'd already booked a flight and a hotel room--and was curious to see people's reactions firsthand--I went anyway.
It was easy to be lulled by the illusion that things were as they always had been. At the Amstel Taveerne, one of Amsterdam's trademark "brown cafes," there was tub-thumping music, easy laughter, even a rousing chorus of "Lang zal je leven" ("Long may you live") to mark a patron's birthday--in short, that feeling of communal coziness and camaraderie, known as gezelligheid, that the Dutch treasure above all. Yet this impression was misleading. The Netherlands, I knew, was undergoing a sea change. By the time I'd arrived in Amsterdam, there'd been several arrests; legislators had been placed under round-the-clock protection; government buildings in The Hague looked like an armed camp. Vice Premier Gerrit Zalm, who'd called Fortuyn dangerous because of his blunt rhetoric about Islam, now declared war on radical Islamism. Politically correct attitudes about immigration and integration, until a week earlier ubiquitous in the Dutch media, were hardly to be found. "Jihad has reached the Netherlands," one commentator wrote. Another asked: "Has the Netherlands become a country in which you can no longer say what you want, or does the taboo apply only to [comments about] Islam?" (This was a nation, after all, to which philosophers and poets from all corners of Europe had fled centuries ago to be able to speak and write freely.)
I found my way to the scene of the crime. I foolishly assumed I'd have trouble locating the exact spot. In fact, an area of about seventy-five by ten feet along one side of Linnaeusstraat had been cordoned off. It was piled high with floral tributes, and about fifty people crowded around it, most of them deep in thought. I circled the site slowly, reading notes that had been left there. "This far and no further," read one. Another read: "Long live the Netherlands; long live freedom of speech!"
From there I took a long tram ride to the Muslim neighborhood called the Oud West, where a policewoman told me flat-out not to venture into such areas. "The mood in all of the Netherlands is very tense right now," she explained in a slow, deliberate, distinctively Dutch way. Earlier that day, a journalist's car had been smashed. Later, I learned that Rotterdam police had destroyed a street mural--featuring the words "Thou shalt not kill," a picture of an angel, and the date of van Gogh's murder--because the head of a nearby mosque had called it racist. Wim Nottroth, a cameraman who tried to protect the mural, had been arrested, and a camerawoman who filmed its destruction had been forced to erase part of her videotape.
I left the Oud West in a cab. Talking with the driver, I mentioned Theo van Gogh. Like many Dutchmen, he seemed reluctant to speak about such things to a foreigner. But then he said simply, "I am leaving the country. And I am not alone."
That Wednesday, police officers and marines carried out a daylong siege on an apartment in an immigrant quarter of The Hague. During the week, there were attacks on mosques and Muslim schools. I'd long been concerned that if liberals didn't address the problem of fundamentalist Muslim intolerance responsibly, it would be answered with the intolerance of the far right. In the 1930s, Europeans had faced a struggle--and, many thought, a need to choose--between two competing totalitarianisms. Was this the Continent's future as well? Was this another Weimar moment?
A great deal of water had flowed over the dike since I'd lived in Amsterdam. There'd been 9/11, then Fortuyn's murder, then Madrid. After each atrocity, I'd expected Western Europe--part of it, anyway--to wake up and smell the coffee. In the Netherlands, to be sure, 9/11 had opened some people's eyes to the truth of Fortuyn's arguments about fundamentalism, and his murder had ushered in a frank public debate about immigration and integration. But in elite circles--in the press clubs, faculty lounges, and offices of government bureaucracies--denial and appeasement had continued to reign supreme, leading to few, if any, meaningful reforms.
That night, walking along the familiar old canals of Amsterdam and watching the warm yellow light from house windows twinkling on the surface of the water, I wondered: would the anger blow over again? Or would the Dutch, this time, act decisively to protect their democracy? Might this, in turn, initiate a wave of reform across Western Europe?
It was impossible to know. For the time being, however, most Dutchmen appeared to agree strongly with Paul Scheffer, who wrote: "We cannot hand over our country. . . . Words such as diversity, respect and dialogue fade against the dark context of this ritual assassination." Diversity, respect, dialogue: this, of course, was the mantra of political correctness, a habit of thought that in America is an annoyance but in Europe is a veritable religion--its tenets instilled by teachers and professors, preached by politicians and journalists, and put into practice by armies of government paper-pushers. It was political correctness that had gotten Europe into its current mess, and only by repudiating political correctness did Europe stand a chance of averting what seemed, increasingly, to be its fate.
I thought back to my first visit to Amsterdam. It seemed a lifetime ago--but it was only 1997.
I'D BEEN A lifelong New Yorker. If you'd asked me in, say, 1996, I'd doubtless have told you that I'd spend the rest of my days there. Then, suddenly, everything changed. A long-term relationship ended, and I found myself wanting to go.
At first I considered only American cities. The idea of living abroad didn't occur to me: I was American, through and through. I loved my country--which, then as now, I regarded as the world's greatest, not because of its wealth or power, but because of its culture and values. Americans' patriotism springs not from a common ethnicity but from a shared belief in individual liberty. The United States is not yet a perfect union (I've made a career largely out of lamenting its imperfections), but over the generations it's gradually become better, fairer, more just--and it's done so by constantly struggling to be truer to its founding principles.
It was precisely this love of America that made my gaze turn toward Europe. Like many American writers, I'd lost track of the number of times I'd made sweeping generalizations about my country. "We Americans are . . ." "Americans believe . . ." "To be an American is to be . . ." But how do you really know what it means to be an American if you've never lived anywhere else? Eventually you want to test your generalizations--to find out if you know what you're talking about.
There were other factors. Like every American who'd ever paid attention in school, I felt a sympathetic connection to Europe. Europe was Mozart and Beethoven, Matisse and Rembrandt, Dante and Cervantes. Europe was the continent from which my ancestors had migrated--Englishmen, Scotsmen, and Welshmen in search of economic opportunity in the new colonies and (later) the fledgling Republic; Anglo-Irish Quakers longing for freedom of worship; French Huguenots escaping brutal persecution by the House of Bourbon; Polish Catholic subjects of Austrian emperor Franz Josef fleeing the ravages of World War I.
From the Hardcover edition.