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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stabilizing America

WASHINGTON -- One Sunday morning a generation ago, the CIA chief William Casey dropped in at my house for a cup of coffee and gruffed, "You got a map of Afghanistan?"

Not your usual request, but I found a world atlas. Casey's fingers stabbed at the map to show the strategic purpose of the Soviet Army's thrust southward into that nation. First, conquer Afghanistan; then take over neighboring Pakistan, thereby achieving the tsarist dream of an opening to the Indian Ocean, leading to communist victory in the Cold War.

To counter Moscow's daring plan, we covertly supported the Afghans with guerrilla training and anti-aircraft weapons. Sure enough, with our secret aid and with the help of adventurous Moslem volunteers from all over -- including one rich young Saudi named Osama bin Laden -- the Afghans stunned the world by breaking the will of the Red Army. Our spymaster was prescient: That demoralizing, decade-long military defeat did begin the end of communism's evil empire.

But the soldiers of misfortune triumphant in that war found further sponsorship from ayatollahs who took over Iran as well as dictators of Iraq, Libya and Syria. That gave impetus to a loosely linked, resentment-motivated terrorist empire usually lumped together as "radical Islam."

After the murder of thousands of American civilians by 19 suicide bombers, almost every Arab or Persian man in the United States has been receiving looks of fear or suspicion. Our leaders, recalling the unjust roundup of patriotic Japanese-Americans in World War II, rightly condemned such knee-jerk bigotry.

It was fitting that a Moslem cleric was among those chosen to offer their condolence at the National Cathedral memorial service. Many Moslem clergy have dissociated their religion from radical violence. But Moslems are uniquely equipped to undertake more specific action.

What are the two most powerful weapons the terrorists possess? First, the element of surprise, which we will try to reduce with closer surveillance, air marshals, biological and missile defenses, etc. A more powerful weapon of radical Islam is its ability to erase from the brains of recruits the basic will to live. The normal survival instinct is replaced with a pseudo-religious fantasy of a killer's self-martyrdom leading to eternity in paradise surrounded by adoring virgins. This perversion of one of the world's great faiths produces suicide bombers.

How to build a defense against the theological brainwashing that creates these human missiles? That is the challenge to Moslem clerics everywhere, not to mention Arab governments fearful of radical takeover. In recent months, official Palestinian stations have been broadcasting sly evocations of suicidal martyrdom. Over the weekend, in a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan, a radical cleric hailed America's black September as a victory for Islam.

Mainstream Moslem clergy need to step up in their mosques and in public -- as many surely are now doing -- to give the lie to the fanatics' perversion of their faith. It is for them, far more effectively than for members of other religions, to cite teachings from the Koran that forbid the murder of innocents and to warn that such murderers will suffer for their sins.

Political leaders are weighing the wisdom of invading Afghanistan or plastering other havens of terrorist cells. It may be that a not-so-holy alliance of democracies determined to end this scourge and autocracies afraid of internal terrorist takeover will unite in uncomfortable military collaboration and rampant realpolitik.

But if, at the same time, the great majority of peaceful Moslems can be helped to win their internal theological war, today's military solutions need not beget tomorrow's tragedies.

William Safire is an editorial writer for The New York Times, to which he contributed this comment.