Early in the last century, the greatest thinkers of the age predicted that three dominant historical ideas would die out by the beginning of this century.

Marx foresaw the end of ethnic nationalism, asserting that people would realize they were linked by economic interests rather than birth or blood. Freud prophesized the end of religious fundamentalism, claiming that belief in a literal God would fall away with the understanding of psychology. And, finally, Einstein’s theory of relativity overthrew the concept that time and space were fixed and unvarying, undermining the idea that there was such a thing as absolute truth and pure objectivity.

None of those gentlemen could foresee the rise of an historical figure like Osama bin Laden, who seems in himself to personify the continued existence — and perversion — of all those ideas. Ethnic nationalism is as passionate a cause today as any time since World War I. Religious fundamentalism is not only on the rise in the Islamic world, but among Christians and Jews as well. And there is no dearth of extremists like bin Laden who believe they are the last word in absolute truth.

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