We live in truly loony times when the medieval rantings of a fugitive madman can sow fear across the world in minutes. The nature of the «asymmetrical threat,» as we refer to non-orthodox forms of warfare, is so asymmetrical and so threatening that the world since September 11 is well and truly unhinged. And, more than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than the angry divisions among nations (and within nations), more than the recent terrorist attacks and more than Osama bin Laden’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of exhortations to the faithful to destroy his perceived enemies, it took an apparent slip of the tongue – or just a plain mistake – by bin Laden’s deputy to suggest the power of the evil we face. «Don’t allow Americans, Britons, Australians, Norwegians or any other crusaders, who are the killers of your brothers in Iraq, to live in your countries, enjoy your resources and corrupt the earth,» Ayman al-Zawahri declared in a taped message played on Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV station, on Wednesday. Now, the Americans, the British and the Australians are the leading members of the coalition that invaded Iraq and has since occupied it. Having already been hit hard by Islamic terrorism, they expect to be targeted and they have begun to adapt themselves – to the extent that anyone can – to the threat. One would have expected, at most, that Zawahri would also mention Spain and Italy, or Poland, who did so much to get themselves into the Axis of Nice. But the Norwegians? Why on earth, in a list of four nations, should bin Laden’s sidekick single out Norway for attack? Norway prides itself on its efforts as a peacemaker – in fact, the only Nobel prize not awarded by the Swedes, the Peace Prize, is awarded by the Norwegians. Oslo is the place where Israelis and Palestinians made their first small steps toward conciliation. Norway did not support the United States in its haste to go to war in Iraq without the backing of the UN. Denmark, one of Norway’s neighbors, on the other hand, was vociferous in its support of the US position and sent a small force to help out. So maybe Zawahri meant Denmark. Just in case, both countries have to take precautions. The United States even closed its embassy in Oslo as a precaution, though its embassy in Denmark remained open. The Danes stepped up security around the Norwegian embassy in Copenhagen. This is what we have come to: Not only do we pay heed to a Zawahri, but also a nation that has done nothing to draw the attention of the world’s fanatics suddenly has to guard against a very real and very elusive threat both on its own territory and against its citizens anywhere in the world. For did not Zawahri say do not «allow» them «to live in your countries, enjoy your resources and corrupt the earth?» And this threat is seen as so credible that the United States, the world’s greatest power, feels the need to close its embassy in Oslo. America, which has been at war since September 11, 2001, knows that it can expect no quarter, nor does it hold out any mercy for those who threaten it. And part of America’s war is to ascertain the level of the threat against it and act accordingly – either in defense (as in raising the terror alert level) or in offense (as in waging pre-emptive war). Even if this all stems from the statements of one person on a television station. But what are the Norways among us to do? Can every nation live in a way dictated by the rantings of bin Laden, Zawahri and perhaps the local offshoots of their terror franchise? The answer is a very simple «yes.» For a number of reasons. Obviously, whether it wanted to be or not, Norway is suddenly right in the thick of the battle between Islamic terror and the rest of the world. No fancy footwork or public relations can get Norway back to where it thought it was before Zawahri’s message on Wednesday afternoon. (What can Oslo do? Put ads in the Arab press saying it is «innocent»?). So Zawahri may have done Norway a favor, putting it on notice that it is now living in a new reality created in a lunatic’s imagination. Other countries have had less warning. Morocco, Kenya and Indonesia learned they were succulent hosts for the parasite of terror in sudden blinding flashes of bombs and flesh. Even Saudi Arabia’s theocratic totalitarianism, and the fact that it hosts Islam’s holiest shrines, turned out to be no protection. (One wonders whether the attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca show how powerful Al Qaeda is – capable of hitting anywhere with speed and surprise – or whether it is now limited to lurking among sympathetic populations and, in the end, causing greater damage to its cause than to its perceived enemies? We would, of course, not like to see how much damage Al Qaeda could do elsewhere.) So Norway is on international terror’s hit list because Zawahri thinks all Scandinavians are the same, perhaps in the way someone else might think all Arabs or all Muslims are the same. The message is clear: No country and no person is safe. You might think you’re on the sidelines but someone has put you on one side or the other. If we consider Greece, it strongly opposed war against Iraq without UN arms inspections being given time to turn up the so-elusive weapons of mass destruction. Like Norway, it styles itself a peacemaker and does its best to mediate in any conflict, especially in the Middle East. Its population strongly opposes war and there are often enough people in the streets shouting anti-American slogans to make Athens appear the metropolis of «anti-imperialism.» But Greece also honors its obligations to NATO and the EU and, despite the cries from the small leftist parties, Greece is more firmly in the Western camp than it ever was. And Greece is a tried and tested ally. Therefore, if it ever crosses bin Laden’s or Zawahri’s minds to carry out a terrorist attack in Greece, the shouting in the streets against the war in Iraq will provide no protection. And so, less than two years since September 11, it is still not clear how much of a danger Islamic terrorism poses to the world. We have not seen uncontrollable masses arising to support bin Laden and to attack the United States or governments that supported it (or tolerated its policy) on Iraq. But we have seen how brutal and arbitrary the terrorists are – the Bali bombing last year, for example, was aimed at Americans but killed mostly Australians, and more Moroccans than foreigners died in Casablanca. And who can say Norwegians, or any other people, are safe? And we have seen how the fabric of the idea of America is stretched by the need to defend the country and its people, prompting and tolerating actions that have shaken the balance of the world we knew. So, even though it is not clear how much damage international terrorism may still do, the battle lines are more distinct today. We might argue as to the causes of terror, we might argue over the merits of trying to impose democracy by decree on Iraq and the Middle East, we might disagree passionately over the Palestinian issue, but one thing is clear: There is a small band of fanatics whose message is very clear, no matter how wrong it may be, and they are out for blood. They are not debating the way the rest of us are. The longer they sow the seeds of bigotry, the larger the harvest of pain and destruction will be. In the end, this could lead to the dreaded all-out war between «us» and «them.» There is no grey area in how we deal with this enemy. The only way to win is to kill the hydra-headed monster by cutting off all of its heads as quickly and as cleanly as possible. That monster, as elusive as it is, is known to us. We do not need to make it up. Targets chosen in error serve only to strengthen the enemy. We can afford wasting neither words nor wars.