September 11 has lent me one of the most nettlesome mental challenges I have ever encountered — seeking coherence in the leftist orthodoxy on what has happened since. For me, especially confusing is those who rue our not having met 9/11 with “pacifism.”
To wrap one’s head around others’ views and perceive how those views are compatible with intelligence and morality is an urgent task. But I have been just barely adequate to it when encountering a Berkeley professor who vehemently opposed our attacking Afghanistan, or another who thought that we should turn the other cheek to terrorist attacks.
In my experience, these people would not urge pacifism on, say, Taiwan if attacked by mainland China. Their sense seems to be that America owes the world passivity in the face of attack because of our power, as well as our less honorable moments on the world scene.
The idea that our nation should allow the murder of its citizens is highly sophisticated. It would appear to be the product of broad horizons, a deep concern with the world beyond one’s private sphere.
But I cannot help wondering whether these people would support this philosophy if the enemy killed their families — or them. I imagine some would wangle the mental equipoise to insist that we should engage in no military response against Al Qaeda as they cradled their mother’s corpse in the smoking ruins of an Amtrak bombing. But I find it difficult to avoid the suspicion that many, even most, would not.
There would seem to be a prescription for the public sphere that one exempts one’s actual self from. Or if the motivation is not this selfish, then there is, at least, an interesting dissociation of self from one’s civic position. A professor at a talk I gave in early 2003 condemned the Bush Administration’s “militarism” and the room exploded with applause (and this was before the Iraq war). Somehow people like this, so repulsed by America defending itself, seem unaware of the fact that the America Islamic terrorists despise includes them.
The refraction of reality in such convictions is especially clear in the sentiment that the terrorist threat is “exaggerated.” The thugs who murder people in London, Madrid, and Bali, promise more of same, and repeat explicitly that they want to take over the world — yet this is seen as mere bluster. The one time I have choked on a talk show was when I ended up on “Bill Maher” with George Carlin. Mr. Carlin kept urging us to just ignore the whole issue of terrorism as a fabrication by the evil elites, teetering between funny and furious. I didn’t know what to do with this — I just don’t think any of this stuff is funny.
No, the Bush administration is not exactly the most credible these days on many fronts. For example, I too wish they had dared to give a cogent neocon justification for invading Iraq instead of cobbling together the WMD scenario. And on that subject, it bears saying that one is no zealot to have opposed the Iraq war specifically (I did not).
But as to “pacifism” über alles, the carnage in Al Qaeda attacks abroad is not a lie, nor is what the Mayor New Orleans, Ray Nagin, has so felicitously called a “hole in the ground” in New York.The people doing this don’t want to chat. Surely there is some sense in finding and stopping the ones we can find. I pass aforesaid “hole” riding the PATH train to New Jersey, and when I hear that there was a plot to blow up one of its tunnels and drown thousands of people, I’m uncomfortable.
Now, many tell me that what is supposed to make me uncomfortable is the administration’s purportedly using war as a smokescreen for “invading our civil liberties.” But this is another place where I don’t glean the fit between the rhetoric and the reality. Certainly the point must be raised. Yet when I asked a self-avowed radical friend of mine how her civil liberties had been threatened lately, she had no answer. The issue was solely theoretical for her.
This type of concern is defended as a form of patriotism — we deplore that our country is not living up to its ideals. This explains, I suppose, the rabid animus against Dick Cheney while Osama bin Laden is coolly designated a “madman,” which in a way excuses from censure someone who gives all indication of being perfectly sane.
Perhaps there is a certain sophistication that I lack. But this reflexive contempt for our leaders’ meeting force with force has an element in it, I suspect, of the enjoyment of feeling superior. And as to this exemption of The Other from serious condemnation, rather than resort to the easy score of the R-word I’ll say that it smacks of a certain paternalism.
Yet I cannot stop there, lest I join those who dwell in name-calling over reflection. The War on Terror, after all, is a rich subject and no one can claim to have all the answers. I just wish that after five years I were closer to being in pacifists’ heads than I currently am.
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