Thursday, October 4, 2001
Truth is not the only early casualty of war. So is rational thought. War breeds hysteria and a rush to conformity. The herd, under attack, instinctively groups together and seeks assurance that everyone is loyal, everyone is primed for defense.
That''s what we''re experiencing in our country in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terror attacks--assaults that shook the nation''s confidence to its core. Within hours after the terror offensive, the country''s political leaders and media elite rushed to assure us that the country was united and resolute.
This was certainly true when it came to giving aid and comfort to the victims of the attacks. These were days of unprecedented heroism and generosity. But as the weeks go by, it becomes increasingly clear that when it comes to the more vexing questions of why we were attacked and how we should respond, there is no national consensus.
The country is undergoing a cram course in geopolitics, comparative religion and military strategy that is long overdue--as well as a deeper soul-searching that is inevitable after this type of trauma. All of this brings with it a certain amount of intellectual and political friction, which is necessary and good for the country. What we need more than anything right now is careful deliberation and spirited debate. We need, in short, for our democracy to come fully alive.
Unfortunately, the calls for herd-like conformity are on the rise. In the last week, self-appointed sheep dogs from across the political spectrum have begun yapping at our heels, pushing us to all think alike and move in the same direction. When "Politically Correct" host Bill Maher dared suggest that the American habit of shooting cruise missiles at enemies from safe distances was "cowardly," he was quickly alerted that he had gone beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse--even though that''s his job. Several local TV stations promptly dropped his show, FedEx and other sponsors cancelled their contracts, and even after Maher issued an apology, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer felt compelled to pile on--despite the fact that his own boss had also snorted at the cruise missile strategy. Fleischer used the Maher controversy to issue this creepy Orwellian pronouncement: "Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is." Susan Sontag was similarly singled out for censure in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and other thought-police strongholds. Her crime? She ventured to say that the American people are not being served by a political and media caste that seeks only to reassure us, instead of enlightening us:
"Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is OK ... We have a robotic president who assures us that America still stands tall ... But everything is not OK ... The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a ''cowardly'' attack on ''civilization'' or ''liberty'' or ''humanity'' or ''the free world'' but an attack on the world''s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?"
One might not agree with Sontag''s characterization of the terror attack, but it certainly should be allowed for consideration amid all the mandatory media flag-waving. Even those who are bent on a massive military response would do well to know more about our enemy before we attack. One can agree, as I do, with iconoclastic writer Christopher Hitchens'' definition of our enemy as "Islamic fascists" bent on imposing the same "bleak and sterile theocracy" on our society as they have on theirs--and still call for prudence as we contemplate the enormous challenge of counterattacking a rising ideology, not simply an army.
Certainly there are voices on the left--Noam Chomsky''s among the most prominent--for whom no U.S. military action would ever be justified, even when the nation is directly attacked. But these reflexively anti-American or doctrinaire pacifist voices are a small minority within the vast population to the left of George W. Bush. And yet to conservatives like David Horowitz and Andrew Sullivan they are representative of a sprawling fifth column of "appeasers." This attack, of course, serves these conservative pundits'' agenda. They claim they are motivated by a more profound sense of patriotism than their opponents'' when they demand that Bush critics fall in line behind the president. But their true aim is political. They want to use the current crisis to settle old political scores, rally support for our less-than-commanding commander in chief, and stifle legitimate dissent. This is not patriotic, it''s antidemocratic. What''s more, it''s against the national interest.
What we need now, more than ever, is a wide and energetic debate as the country makes sense of what has happened and how to respond. We don''t need blind conformity. We need fearless self-scrutiny. What should the U.S. role be in the Middle East? How should we strike back against our foes without spreading the fires of Islamic fanaticism? Why do the impoverished populations of the region find radical fundamentalism more enthralling than the benefits of Western culture?
But the sheep dogs are quick to snarl that this kind of talk is left-wing equivocation. Bellicosity now rules, from the New Republic, which denounces the "fatalism" of America''s cautious "elites," to the Weekly Standard, which accuses the New York Times of "moral idiocy" for running occasional pieces critical of Bush.
So far, the Bush administration has displayed admirable patience despite the pressure for immediate vengeance. After his swaggering cowboy talk of "smoking them out" and "hunting them down," Bush has tempered his language. Under the leadership of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the administration is now working hard to assemble an international coalition to isolate and defeat the terrorist movement. This difficult task is made even tougher because of the arrogant unilateralism of the Bush administration''s first seven months, a go-it-alone strategy that alienated even our European allies and got the U.S. thrown off the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
Before Sept. 11, Powell himself seemed sidelined, pushed aside by administration hard-liners. Fortunately, in the past two weeks, the White House seems to have recognized that it urgently needs Powell''s experience and diplomatic craft. This global acuity certainly can''t come from the president himself.
It''s not only conservative pundits calling for democracy to be put on hold for the duration. More distressingly, the silence-is-patriotic mentality has also gained momentum in the Democratic Party, the press and even liberal activist circles. On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders suddenly sound accommodating about Bush''s dubious missile defense plan. Many Democratic challengers in next year''s elections are also throwing in the towel, declining to run after somehow concluding that democracy is unpatriotic in days like these.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club has taken down its "W Watch" from its Web site, for fear of not seeming sufficiently respectful toward the president. Of course, Big Oil''s friends in the Bush administration and GOP felt no need to make peace with the Sierra Club, taking the opportunity to renew their assault on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
There were no cries about press freedom when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made it clear that much of the U.S. war on terrorism would be conducted in secret. One military official went even further, informing the Washington Post, "We''re going to lie about things."
America suffered grievous, unprovoked injuries on Sept. 11 that no nation should passively endure. A vast majority of the American people ardently supports President Bush''s vow to bring the organizers of this terror "to justice, or justice to them." But maintaining this consensus will not be easy. To do this the administration must convey a clarity of purpose and an honesty which have thus far been in short supply.
Our "war" on terrorism will be vastly difficult, because the enemy is a belief system, not a nation state. In light of the complexity and likely duration of this conflict, it is essential for the Bush administration to build a deeply entrenched public consensus--and this can''t be done by lying, hiding information, short-circuiting civil liberties or any of the other old "national security" techniques of suspending democracy. Consensus, instead, must come over time from thorough and open debates.
In the end, it won''t be military superiority that determines the outcome of this war. As our fundamentalist foes have told the world, this is a war of values. We cannot win by sacrificing ours. If democracy and freedom are to defeat the forces of terror and theocracy, they first must flourish at home.
David Talbot is the founder and editor of the online magazine Salon. An expanded version of this essay can be found at Salon.com.