No Time for Detachment In the War on Terrorism

We know how Tarheels will be commemorating 9/11. The University of North Carolina, like many schools, requires all incoming freshmen to read one book. This year the class of 2006 will be reading a collection of excerpts from the Koran, which they will discuss in groups. A Virginia-based Christian organization, the Family Policy Network, protested the assignment, but The New York Times reports that scholars at Chapel Hill stand squarely behind their institution. “For those who say this offends them,” said Jen Daum, the president of the student body, “I say, ‘Welcome to college.'”

What, one wonders, will the students at Riyadh University of Higher Martyrdom be reading to commemorate 9/11? (Since 15 of the 19 mass murderers were Saudis, it is their event as much as ours.) Will the Saudi intellectuals be welcomed to college, even at the risk of offense, with assignments from the Sermon on the Mount? Rabbi Hillel? John Locke? Certainly not the first two-it is illegal to bring un-Muslim religious literature into the kingdom, just as it is illegal to have a non-Muslim funeral. The cooties of infidelity are that powerful.

Enough dull comedy. What a nation of oil-welfare bums, two generations removed from camel-herding and banditry, thinks is its own business. Our business is what we think, and whether anyone in our universities thinks. The University of North Carolina makes its choice of the freshman text for the upcoming academic year in January. The New York Times reports that there was “immediate consensus” last January “for choosing something related to September 11.” In theory, the North Carolina cosmopolites have involved themselves in a contradiction with their own impulses. Why are readings from the Koran considered related to 9/11? If Islam is a religion of peace, isn’t connecting the faith and the crime a libel?

One knows, however-just as one knew that the student-body president would say something typical of the obnoxious munchkins who always take up that line of work-that the Koran will be sugarcoated into a bland statement of good will, irrelevant to the crooked particulars of life on the ground. Like all major religions, Islam gives solace to millions and pretexts to thousands. Explaining the two is hard work, beyond the Hallmark school of comparative religion. A quick canter through the Koran will leave the freshman at the University of North Carolina understanding little about Islam, either as a faith or an artifact, and nothing about 9/11. Welcome to college.

Moving north, Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker on trial in Alexandria, Va., has/has not pleaded guilty today (choose one). For a moment there, Mr. Moussaoui wanted to admit that he was a member of Al Qaeda and a loyal follower of Osama bin Laden who had knowledge of the 9/11 hijackings, while simultaneously denying that he had been so involved in the plot as to forfeit his life. His motives are not far to seek. If he was sentenced according to his dream plea, he would be locked up for life, housed, fed and allowed freedom of worship by the infidel state, while serving as a glorious beacon of inspiration to potential murderers worldwide. Mr. Moussaoui courted martyrdom, but as he thinks about it in his cell, capital punishment does not seem to be the best way to go about it. For one thing, it deprives him of the chance to take thousands of innocents with him.

Mr. Moussaoui’s fulminations in open court have had the advantage of parading the mind of an Al Qaeda operative for all to see in the daily paper. But his trial, bordering ever more nearly on farce, makes one regret that he was not remanded to a military tribunal. The Justice Department of John Ashcroft, who is sometimes loosely compared by his enemies to the Islamist fundamentalists we are fighting, has in fact behaved with a tenderness and an indecision reminiscent of the University of North Carolina. When pirates were captured on the high seas in the 17th and 18th centuries, they were summarily hanged. They were, by definition, at war with all peaceful men, in a way that even the most abandoned common criminals were not: A highwayman did not rob all people on land, only lonely travelers. Pirates attacked sailors and cities, merchants and men of war. They were outlaws, outside the law, and their rough treatment was reminiscent of military justice on the battlefield. Even so, Al Qaeda is an outlaw organization, with temporary bases in the wild places of the world, but with minions and cells in the settled parts, from Hamburg to your neighborhood flight school. French cops, who have been studying Mr. Moussaoui carefully (he is a French citizen), are saying that he was planning another Al Qaeda operation, the hijacking of an international flight. But what does it matter if he was slated for 9/11 or some other bloodletting of the innocent? The Judge from Whom there is no appeal will sort out his precise intentions; he has said enough to merit the ultimate penalty we can bestow, or a lifetime in solitary at Fort Bragg.

Someone (was it Robert Frost?) said that a liberal is a man who will not take his own side in a fight. There are times when the stance of intellectual aloofness is noble and necessary. If men cannot step back from their fights to judge them, then life is truly a war of all against all, an endless scrum with no timeouts beyond exhaustion and no referee but self-interest. The linguistic root of liberal means “free,” which in this case means free to think about what one is doing and, if necessary, to decide to do something else. But freedom is meaningless unless it also includes the freedom to act on decisions once taken. After 9/11 every sensible man decided, on the clearest evidence possible, that we were under attack by wicked men. With every passing month, the societies from which Al Qaeda draws its votaries show their corruption, whether through gang rapes in Pakistan or double-talk from Saudi Arabia. It is time for us, liberals all, to press on.