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The Assault on Civilization

The Assault on Civilization

4 Mins
September 13, 2001

Most of us still find it impossible to grasp the destruction of the World Trade Center. It was real, we saw it, but it does not belong in any reality we can understand. We saw the airliners, full of people who might have been us, streak incomprehensibly toward the walls of steel and glass. We saw them morph into fireballs that trapped thousands of people, working at their desks on a routine morning, in an inferno that killed most of them. We saw the shimmering towers collapse, and the towers of volcanic smoke that rose to take their place in the New York skyline.

The images have been imprinted on our minds, never to be forgotten, but they will not compute.With rare unity, Americans have grasped that this was an assault on their values.

In that sense, the terrorists succeeded. They have rocked our sense of reality. They have confronted us with a horror we could not have imagined, and may never assimilate. But they have also revealed, for everyone to see, the real nature of their cause. The assault is being described as an act of war against America, and it is. But unlike the Pentagon, the World Trade Center had no military significance. Unlike the White House—which the fourth, unsuccessful plane had apparently targeted—it had no political significance for U.S. policy in the Middle East, or anywhere else. The attack on the twin towers cannot be seen as an effort, even a twisted effort, to redress the grievances of people who feel dispossessed. It was an act of sheer destruction, for the sake of destruction.

Our enemy is not Islam.  Our enemy is the nihilism of this subculture.

These towers became landmarks of the skyline of New York City, which has always been a powerful symbol in its own right, a beacon of freedom and opportunity. From the Statue of Liberty to the Empire State Building, that skyline was forged from the melting pot where the best in man is refined from the accidents of race and nationality. In Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead , the famous novel of a New York architect, one character says that when he sees the city, "I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would like to throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body." Many of us wished we could have done just that when we saw the towers finally crumple and collapse.

Technology, achievement, trade, law, peace, freedom—these were the values under attack. They are not American values but human values, the values of civilized life.

Though it is not yet known for certain which particular terrorist band committed the atrocity, we have every reason to believe they sprang from a fanatical subculture of Islamic fundamentalism. But our enemy is not Islam, which created one of the world's great civilizations, nor is it the Arab or Iranian or Afghani peoples. Our enemy is the nihilism of this subculture.

The terrorist leaders claim to speak for Palestinians. But the grievances of that people, even if legitimate, cannot explain the motivation for this act, much less justify it. The terrorists claim to speak for the victims of Western imperialism. But any literal imperialism is a thing of the past, long since redressed by the wealth that Europe and America have showered on these countries. It is clearly not the military or political power but the cultural power of the West that they resent.

What makes them denounce America as the great Satan is nothing as superficial as Coca-Cola or blue jeans. It is our secular culture of freedom, reason, and the pursuit of happiness. They hate our individualism; what they want is an authoritarian society where thought and behavior are controlled by true believers. They hate capitalism as a system of trade, production, innovation, and progress; what they want is a return to a primitive mode of existence from which these "materialist" aspirations have been banished. They hate the political system of individual rights, the rule of law, and secular government; what they want is a tribal society ruled by command.

The nihilist subculture is a worldwide phenomenon. We see it in the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo sect that released poison gas in the Tokyo subways. We see it in the hate-filled eyes of Christian killers in Northern Ireland. We see it in the eco-terrorists who spike trees and blow up electrical transmission towers. We see it in less murderous forms in the anti-globalization protesters who want to stifle international trade. We see it in the theorists of primitivism from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the Unabomber.

Civilization has always attracted parasites who want to steal wealth from those who produce it. But this phenomenon is different. The nihilists do not seek wealth for themselves. They want to destroy the wealth of others. They do not seek freedom from domination. They want to abolish freedom. They do not seek a place at the table of world commerce. They want to smash the table. They do not seek a better life. They glory in death. They represent the worst form of envy, the most vicious form of human evil. They hate us not for our sins but for our virtues, and they will not be appeased.

The United States and its allies must cease the policy of trying to counter terrorism by negotiation. Negotiation is an exercise of reason that civilized people use to resolve their differences. We are not dealing with civilized people. We must cease the policy of excusing their violence by their poverty and trying to buy them off with subsidies. We are not dealing with people who seek such gain. We must declare war on the terrorists and use whatever force it takes to render them incapable of posing any further threat. In the early 1800s, Thomas Jefferson sent the United States Navy to rid the Barbary Coast of pirates. We urge President Bush and the Congress to undertake a similar campaign not merely against the perpetrators of this outrage but against every nest of terrorists who have declared themselves, by the death and destruction they have wrought, to be enemies of mankind.

In doing so, we will be acting in our own self-defense, with the moral authority of those who have been attacked. But we should understand and declare to the world that we are acting to preserve a world order on which civilized values depend, and civilized peoples everywhere must join in this cause.

David Kelley


David Kelley

David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.

David Kelley Ph.D
About the author:
David Kelley Ph.D

David Kelley founded The Atlas Society (TAS) in 1990 and served as Executive Director through 2016. In addition, as Chief Intellectual Officer, he was responsible for overseeing the content produced by the organization: articles, videos, talks at conferences, etc.. Retired from TAS in 2018, he remains active in TAS projects and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.

Kelley is a professional philosopher, teacher, and writer. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, he joined the philosophy department of Vassar College, where he taught a wide variety of courses at all levels. He has also taught philosophy at Brandeis University and lectured frequently on other campuses.

Kelley's philosophical writings include original works in ethics, epistemology, and politics, many of them developing Objectivist ideas in new depth and new directions. He is the author of The Evidence of the Senses, a treatise in epistemology; Truth and Toleration in Objectivism, on issues in the Objectivist movement; Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; and The Art of Reasoning, a widely used textbook for introductory logic, now in its 5th edition.

Kelley has lectured and published on a wide range of political and cultural topics. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, On Principle, and elsewhere. During the 1980s, he wrote frequently for Barrons Financial and Business Magazine on such issues as egalitarianism, immigration, minimum wage laws, and Social Security.

His book A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State is a critique of the moral premises of the welfare state and defense of private alternatives that preserve individual autonomy, responsibility, and dignity. His appearance on John Stossel’s ABC/TV special "Greed" in 1998 stirred a national debate on the ethics of capitalism.

An internationally-recognized expert on Objectivism, he has lectured widely on Ayn Rand, her ideas, and her works. He was a consultant to the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, and editor of Atlas Shrugged: The Novel, the Films, the Philosophy.


Major Work (selected):

Concepts and Natures: A Commentary on The Realist Turn (by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl),” Reason Papers 42, no. 1, (Summer 2021); This review of a recent book includes a deep dive into the ontology and epistemology of concepts.

The Foundations of Knowledge. Six lectures on the Objectivist epistemology.

The Primacy of Existence” and “The Epistemology of Perception,” The Jefferson School, San Diego, July 1985

Universals and Induction,” two lectures at GKRH conferences, Dallas and Ann Arbor, March 1989

Skepticism,” York University, Toronto, 1987

The Nature of Free Will,” two lectures at The Portland Institute, October 1986

The Party of Modernity,” Cato Policy Report, May/June 2003;and Navigator, Nov 2003; A widely cited article on the cultural divisions among pre-modern, modern (Enlightenment) and postmodern views.

"I Don't Have To" (IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, April 1996) and “I Can and I Will” (The New Individualist, Fall/Winter 2011); Companion pieces on making real the control we have over our lives as individuals.

Ideas and Ideologies