The Western nations, since the age of exploration and imperialism, have accustomed themselves to mastery over emergent, backward or broken nations, or primitive or failed empires.

They exercised over them a rule that ranged from the ruthless and exploitative to the paternalism of the latter-day colonialism of the 1920s to 1950s. They nominated their monarchs, offered them Western education and religion, and held out to them unconsidered and unfulfilled promises that someday they would be like their western masters, possessing an imitation of western ways of life and the prospect of distant graduation into their own version of the civilization practiced by the West.

Today the tables have been turned in the relations of imperialist victims and imperial rulers, but the nature of the relationship is changing into a new one of terrorization or victimization of the latter by the former.

This is true even for the United States, which traditionally has proudly held itself a liberator of nations, but held a real Empire from 1898/1901 until 1945, including the Philippines, with Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and scattered Pacific territories its ambiguous present-day reminder and remnant. In present-day America the liberation flag can no longer in conscience be flown.

The threat of terror produced by past victims of American Middle Eastern imperialism comes from the new imperialism of the United States that appeared after it had survived its Russian and Vietnamese phases, and moved into the Arab world.

Now the Islamic Middle East is striking back in a sudden and ruthless way that has alarmed and even panicked Europeans and Americans, even those people and politicians in the Western homelands themselves.

The jihadists, once refugees in the West, now are returning to the Arab scene as candidate-terrorists, ambitious afterwards to return to the countries that had once taken them in as refugees — and pretty much abandoned them to ghetto life, the governments that had taken them in not knowing what to do with them that might turn this mass of persecuted peoples into integrated Westerners.

The jihadists have appeared in the big cities of Western Europe and North America — only a few as yet, but more of them feared by western populations as determined to take revenge on their well-intentioned former benefactors — while finding Paradise for themselves.

They are mostly westernized Muslims but include European and North American converts to Islam. This is an export-import affair, small in scale, well within the resources of Western police and security forces. But it has set nerves on edge in Canada and in the United States, as well as in Western Europe.

There is something important to say about all this.

In 1957 a book of profound significance was published by a former wartime British Army intelligence officer named Norman Cohn, who in the course of his military career had dealt with Nazi war criminals and later — when he was stationed in Vienna — with postwar refugees from Stalinism. In civil life he was a scholar at Sussex University. His book was called The Pursuit of the Millennium. It was to prove one of the most influential and important historical and political books of the twentieth century.

Its argument, as Cohn summarized in the foreword to his second edition, was that in the past “traditional beliefs about a future golden age or messianic kingdom became, in certain situations of mass disorientation and anxiety, the ideologies of popular movements of a peculiarly anarchic kind.” He said that these movements in the Middle Ages possessed a hidden continuity and integral resemblance to modern totalitarianism in all of the latters’ excesses and terror.

Now we witness the arrival of ISIS. There is nothing new in it (unless this is its predilection for decapitations). Norman Cohn will tell you all about it.

He will also tell you that it is a phenomenon that will pass. It is in no way integral to the Islamic religion, any more than Nazism was to German nationalism, or Stalinism to Marxism. For modern Muslims of the Eastern Mediterranean it is surely a terrifying phenomenon, because this movement comes from within their own society itself.

Europeans have seen Nazi terror and mass murder grow within their own peoples. So have Russians. Colonial America had a large experience of it — as Cohn points out — in the witch-hunts of Puritan New England. One might venture to say (as some have) that in today’s American security state, with its all-encompassing surveillance, use of courts of exception and Star Chambers, perpetual imprisonment, and secret torture, one detects a shadow of it. Thanks to Professor Cohn, we can know it when we see it — and will understand that it, too, passes.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2014 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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