The calamity that turned the nation toward military
confrontation is also revealing the character of its people, both collectively
and individually. From the overwhelming majority, not only in America’s
greatest city but everywhere, we have seen evidence of altruism, nobility and
tolerance. These qualities encourage hope that we will also summon the patience
and judgment necessary to prevail against an elusive enemy.
From a few notable individuals, however, we have seen
opportunism, incitement and ugliness, sometimes blatant and even violent in
tone, sometimes more subtle. While the examples may seem marginal, they
represent themes that are potentially divisive and damaging.
The most notorious offenders of decency in the aftermath of
the assault on America
were religious-right leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Ordinarily
somewhat hostile and competitive toward each other, this pious pair found quick
agreement about the underlying cause of the attacks on New York and Washington:
God had withdrawn divine protection from the United States in retribution for
the freedom afforded to homosexuals, civil libertarians and feminists, and thus
had permitted “the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.”
Said Mr. Robertson, “Jerry, that’s my
Just so nobody could misunderstand his meaning, Mr. Falwell
berated “the pagans and the abortionists and the
feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an
alternative lifestyle, the [American Civil Liberties Union], People for the American
Way …. I point the finger in their face and say,
‘You helped this happen.'”
Informed that their remarks had repelled even the most
conservative figures in the White House, they reverted to damage control. Mr.
Falwell falsely claimed that he had been quoted “out of context.” Then he
apologized, rather feebly, but did not withdraw those statements, which he
described as too theologically subtle for comprehension by secular Americans.
Mr. Robertson suddenly pretended to be among those who
didn’t comprehend Mr. Falwell’s meaning. He joined in the chorus of
condemnation, saying he had “not fully understood” his guest’s “severe and
It is worth pointing out
here that the Mayor of New York, whose leadership has been so admirable,
currently lives as the roommate of a gay couple-and that one of the heroic
passengers who resisted the hijackers on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was a gay rugby player named Mark Bingham.
Messrs. Falwell and Robertson were not the only
“conservatives” who vented hostile emotion last week. Under the banner of National Review magazine, commentator
Ann Coulter called on Sept. 13 for the U.S.
to “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to
Christianity.” Which countries she did not specify, but her essay reflected the
widespread rightist desire for an instantaneous and indiscriminate response, up
to and including the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Such demented rhetoric
and our allies as they seek diplomatic and military support for a difficult,
delicate and potentially very costly campaign.
While some personalities on the right have indulged in
ideological scapegoating, certain figures on the left have behaved similarly,
if not as grossly. Although they ritualistically denounce the hideous crime
perpetrated on Sept. 11, they simultaneously seize this chance to promote their
own project of undermining U.S.
support for Israel.
Their contribution to the current debate is to suggest, as
professors Noam Chomsky and Edward Said and writer Christopher Hitchens have
done in recent days, that the attacks must be
“understood” as the reaction of the world’s dispossessed to the depredations of
an imperial America
and its Zionist client state. More broadly, these same commentators and others
insist that the savagery of the bin Laden group and its comrades is rooted in
the poverty and misery that arise from globalization.
For thoughtful Americans concerned about the past excesses
of our own government and of Israel,
these are seductive arguments. They are also mistaken, at best, and sinister at
As a general proposition, it is true that terrorist groups
have exploited real grievances over the years, from the Irish Republican Army
and the early Zionist movement to the Palestine Liberation Organization. But in
the conflict that we are about to enter, the enemy is not an oppressed
nationalist group with negotiable goals. It is instead a reactionary
international movement with aspirations to destroy Western democracy. Its
ideology is medieval, opposed to progress in every sense. Its policy is the
brutal repression of women, labor, peasants and any dissenting social force.
Its model is its own version of “the Caliphate,” meaning an imperial perversion
of Islam that puts infidels to the sword. Its bloodlust would not be satisfied
by a just settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.
That barbarism is what needs to be understood-and resisted