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Zarqawi And the Meaning of Moral Victory

By Daniel Henninger

"The death of our leaders is life for us. It will only increase our persistence in continuing holy war so that the word of God will be supreme."

--Al Qaeda in Iraq yesterday

The life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi did not represent the word of God. This is false, a simple, dull lie. Whatever claims have been made through history in God's name, there is no imaginable sense in which the nations that emerged from World War II would grant legitimacy to al Qaeda's claims for God's blessing.

But it is a powerful lie. It appears to be the simple lie, we learned this week, that turned 17 Canadian Muslims from normalcy to planning the mass murder of fellow Canadians. It was the lie beneath the bombings of civilians in Madrid, London, Bali and the U.N.'s Baghdad headquarters. It was the lie beneath September 11.

It is doublethink: the contradictory belief, and it is a belief, that the murder of civilian innocents is a moral act, a "holy war." This is the powerful amoral lie that has allowed Zarqawi and al Qaeda to recruit men and women from a world-wide pool of 1.3 billion Muslims to wrap themselves in dynamite and set off bombs in the cafes and markets of Iraq and Israel. Or Ottawa. They then call it martyrdom. It is not martyrdom. It is mass murder.

If nothing else, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi understood that the effect on people of unrelenting mass murder in the global village would be corrosive. As with September 11's second falling tower, Zarqawi knew that he could force everyone in the dazed world community to participate via information electronics in every beheading, in every bombing of Iraqi police stations or open-air markets, and in every homicidal IED (improvised explosive device) detonated beneath American troops.

Zarqawi understood that promising to make constant murder a phenomenon of the world's life, and proving he could deliver on that promise, would corrode the possibility of normal human relationships everywhere--among Iraqis, between Iraqis and coalition forces, and in the U.S. between supporters of the Iraq war and those opponents of the war who abhor terrorism but have simply gone numb before Zarqawi's limitless capacity to kill. Western Europe has been made supine.

Now he has been killed, and this should rightly be called a moral victory.

In normal political terms, calling something a "moral victory" is often considered grasping at straws, putting a good face on a loss. In November 2000, for instance, the Green Party called Ralph Nader's quixotic presidential quest a moral victory that exposed two corrupt parties. Today some will diminish claims of a moral victory in the killing of Zarqawi; for them it is a Pyrrhic victory, not much more than an uptick in George Bush's "failed war." But I think the high stakes here make it a very powerful moral victory and that the better analogy would be to the anti-Soviet dissidents, such as Andrei Sakharov or Natan Sharansky.

Like Stalin, Zarqawi has used barbaric levels of personal violence to drive all of us--resident inside the Iraqi hell or in the watching world--toward a psychological gulag, a place of submission. Faced with news earlier in the week of 17 heads in two fruit crates, we are expected to give up, to throw in the towel against the day when "the word of God will be supreme." Each Soviet dissident was a singular event that stopped the world from internalizing the moral and psychological free fall of Soviet totalitarianism. Killing Zarqawi, who personally beheaded Americans Nicholas Berg and Eugene Armstrong, is a similar abrupt brake.

It stopped Zarqawi himself. His moral abyss is not inevitable. Those among us who insist on belittling yesterday's achievement in Baqubah are simply lost to reflexive opposition to the U.S. side. But for many others, up against the insurgency, the possibility of reversing the recent drop in political support for this necessary effort seems possible again.

Start with the Iraqi police. On the news of Zarqawi's death, they were seen rejoicing in Sadr City, one of Baghdad's poorest districts. No order can be sustained in Iraq's cities unless men have the courage to serve as police. Thus the insurgency makes them a top target.

Iraq's new, aggressive Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said yesterday that Baqubah-area residents offered tips for the air strike. This is a potentially important turn. The respected Iraqi bloggers at Iraq the Model wrote this week from Baghdad, "Severed heads of civilian Iraqis were found twice in fruit boxes in and around Hibhib [near Baqubah]; a terrible crime that shocked Iraqis." So there are limits.

It will take courage for normal Iraqis to blow the whistle on the insurgents among them. Take Haditha, site of the alleged Marine massacre that global publicity has made a household name for moral collapse. But how about this for moral collapse: Haditha is mined with IEDs, the remote bombs that kill U.S. soldiers. A source with contacts among the Marines there called this week to explain how this works: Insurgents offer Haditha residents $100 to plant an IED; if they decline, the insurgents promise to murder them and their families, and they do murder non-collaborators. These are villages where everyone knows everyone, not Paris in 1942. As a result of the insurgents' Satanic kill-or-die policy, my source said, any conceivable bond between U.S. troops there and the local population has been broken.

Getting Zarqawi doesn't solve this. But it helps. It shows average Iraqis that someone--their new government, the U.S., the Jordanian intelligence service and people like themselves--are capable of organizing to resist the insurgency's stone killers.

It is ironic that Hamas's statement yesterday described Zarqawi as "martyred at the hands of the savage crusade." "Crusade" was one of the favorite words used by the "slaughtering sheik." While the West gave up holy wars centuries ago, Zarqawi and al Qaeda have made it explicit that moral claims justified their murders, and many Muslims believe this. We understand that. We should then understand that the defeat of al-Zarqawi is a moral victory, and an important one.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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