An accomplished terrorist -- al-Zarqawi is undoubtedly one -- understands us better than we seem to understand him. He knows that the only chance of forcing an American withdrawal lies in swaying the political will of an electorate that, already divided and unwilling, has sent its sons and daughters there. This is where his images become a weapon of war, a way to test and possibly shatter American will. He is counting on our moral disgust and on the sense of futility that follows disgust. Moral disgust is the first crucial step toward cracking the will to continue the fight.
Now let's not be sentimental about American virtue or scruple. Democracies can be just as ruthless as authoritarian societies, and Americans haven't been angels in the war on terror, as the images from Abu Ghraib so plainly show. But the willingness of American democracy to commit atrocity in its defense is limited by moral repugnance, rooted in two centuries of free institutions. This capacity for repugnance sustained the popular protest that eventually took us out of Vietnam. Al-Zarqawi is a cynic about these matters: the truths we hold to be self-evident are the ones he hopes to turn against us. He thinks that we would rather come home than fight evil. Are we truly willing to descend into the vortex to beat him? He has bet that we are not.
But his calculation is that either way, he cannot lose. If we remain, he has also bet -- and Abu Ghraib confirms how perceptive he was -- that we will help him drive us into ignominious defeat by becoming as barbarous as he is. He is trailing the videos as an ultimate kind of moral temptation, an ethical trap into which he is hoping we will fall. Everything is permitted, he is saying. If you wish to beat me, you will have to join me. Every terrorist hopes, ultimately, that his opponent will become his brother in infamy. If we succumb to this temptation, he will have won. He has, however, forgotten that the choice always remains ours, not his.