People who call the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center towers an act of "cowardice" do not understand what happened. The act is far worse than that.

Terrorists willing to die for their political convictions are not cowards. They are fanatical idealists whose ideals are evil. They make no money, gain no great fame for acts of anonymous suicide. They die to express what they believe to be true and moral about the world.

And they can happily murder innocent people in the process because they define "innocence" in a totally different manner than you or me. The WTC towers were destroyed as much by ideology as by exploding airplanes. This is a non-trivial point. Terrorists cannot be countered with accusations of "cowardice." They must be taken seriously as idealists and attacked on ideological as well as practical grounds.

The strategy of punishing collective guilt dates back (at least) to Bolshevik activism in pre-Soviet Russia where communist anarchists threw bombs into crowded restaurants on the assumption that only capitalists could afford to eat in such establishments. Anyone who died was a member of the class that oppressed workers. Women, children, the accidental guest, waiters—whoever was in the restaurant was part of the problem and guilty.

The strategy was called "propaganda by deed."

Similarly, the fanatics who dove into the WTC did not believe they were killing innocent Americans. To them, no such category existed. Average Americans—the woman in a grocery store, the child in grade school, your neighbor mowing his lawn—are collectively responsible for every act of the American government. Each is held personally guilty for the bombing of hospitals in Iraq, the plight of Palestinians ...virtually every global wrong.

All Americans are guilty simply by being an American. To the terrorists, there were no innocent people in the WTC towers.

The burning question this tragedy poses is whether individuals are personally responsible for their own acts or whether they share a class guilt based on being white, male, American, Jewish, gay...whatever.

A man who holds individuals personally responsible for their acts may murder. For example, he may kill his landlord or employer. A man who believes in class guilt will kill any and all landlords and employers, even ones he has never met. And, so, it becomes possible for "idealists" to kill absolutely blameless people who belong to a "guilty" class.

What does "class guilt" mean? A class is nothing more than an arbitrary grouping of people that serves the agenda of the person doing the analysis. For example, if the classifier is a doctor who treats cancer, it would be useful for him to divide his files according to the sex of patients in order to separate ovarian cancer from prostate.

The last few decades have seen a surge in the political division of people according to classes in order to ascribe collective guilt or collective victim-hood. Men subjugate women, whites exploit minorities, Americans oppress the world. It doesn't seem to matter what people do as individuals. The relevant political factor has become: what class do you belong to?

The concept of class guilt annuls the ideal of individualism—the belief that each human being should be judged on his or her own actions and merits.

I’ve spent much of my life fighting for political causes like freedom of speech. I have argued endlessly against the use of violence as a strategy for social change or as a valid political statement. The people arguing against me usually held some view of collective guilt that allowed them to dismiss as irrelevant the possibility of innocent people being harmed.

But terrorists go one step farther. They target innocent people. Or rather, they define innocence in such a manner that the definition includes what a reasonable person would call a civilian. There are no civilians in their war.

The terrorists will never stop. I know this because I know that if I believed in a political cause so deeply that I was willing to die and kill by-standers, I too would never stop.

Happily, I believe in individual rights and personal responsibility above all else. I also believe in the individual goodness of Americans. But it is a goodness that must, for its own safety, understand that terrorists desperately care for "justice." But they define "justice" in a violently different manner that contradicts our cultural understanding. Another definition that includes the deaths of innocent people.

In the justified and healthy rage that will follow the murder of innocent, average Americans, I hope the fury is turned against those who are individually responsible and not against classes of people. Not Arabs in general, nor the innocent, average citizens of other nations. To do so would only perpetuate the vicious cycle from which terrorism was born in the first place.

McElroy is the editor of www.ifeminists.com. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women(McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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