The early statements by the Bush administration reflected this unified belligerence. The terrorists are stateless outlaws. They are not Muslims. They are apostates to Islam. True Muslims must denounce them. They are fanatics. They are lunatics. They are suicidal maniacs who don?t care about their lives. These themes were echoed across the political spectrum. Now, with reflection and more information, we can see that these statements are false. Specifically, the terrorists were not stateless outlaws. The Al Qaeda training camps were supported by the Taliban government in Afghanistan. As their diaries showed, the terrorists were deeply pious Muslims. Traditional Muslims were reluctant to denounce them as apostates to Islam because they were not apostates to Islam. Nor were they lunatics or even suicidal in the conventional sense. By definition a suicide is someone who doesn?t want to live. The terrorists wanted to live, but they were willing to die for a cause that they deemed higher. Not that they loved their life less, but they hated America more.
Once the initial shock subsided, so did the national unity it had produced. Soon a heated debate broke out in America about the meaning of 9/11 and the ongoing ?war against terrorism,? a debate that quickly broke down into partisan camps: the left versus the right, the liberals versus the conservatives, Blue America versus Red America. In a moment of genuine indignation, left-wing activist Michael Moore conveyed how large a chasm separates the two Americas. Reacting to 9/11, Moore posted the following message on his website. ?Many families have been devastated tonight. This is just not right. They did not deserve to die. If someone did this to get back to Bush then they did so by killing thousands of people who DID NOT VOTE for him! Boston, New York, D.C., and the planes? destination of California?these were places that voted AGAINST Bush!?[i] Moore?s eruption, read with hindsight, seems slightly comic. It?s hard to imagine Bin Laden and his associates distinguishing between Bush supporters and Bush opponents for the purpose of launching attacks. The most striking aspect of Moore?s statement, however, is its implication that Al Qaeda hit the wrong target. According to Moore, they should have hit Red America, not Blue America! However objectionable this may seem to many Americans, Moore?s statement is important because of the connection it instinctively makes between two apparently disparate events: a) the 9/11 attacks, and b) the internal divide between Red America and Blue America. I believe that the significance of this divide for understanding 9/11 and the ?war against terrorism? has not been adequately appreciated.
On the other side of the spectrum, the fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell confirmed in equally strong terms his perception of the political divide, even while invoking God?s wrath on the sinners in Blue America. ?The Lord has protected us so wonderfully these past 225 years,? Falwell said. He worried that something ?has caused God to lift the veil of protection which has allowed no one to attack America on our soil.? Falwell did not shrink from specifying, ?The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. I really believe that 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 ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say: You helped this happen.?[ii] Unlike Moore, Falwell was fiercely denounced for his comments, and he promptly apologized for them.
These words are not insightful in the theological sense that Falwell intended. I cannot make sense of Falwell?s suggestion that God used 9/11 to punish America for its sins. If God was aiming for the abortionists and the feminists and the homosexuals, it seems He mostly killed stockbrokers and soldiers and janitors (some of whom may have been homosexual, but few of whom probably had second jobs as abortionists.) The real issue raised by Falwell?s comments is entirely secular. What impact did the abortionists, the feminists, the homosexual activists and the secularists have on the Islamic radicals who conspired to blow up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? Unfortunately this crucial question got buried, and virtually no one has raised it publicly.
Why is it so maddeningly difficult, even years after the fact, to make sense of 9/11? One reason is that the very terms used by both sides in the debate are misleading. Consider the very name of the war America is fighting: a War Against Terrorism. But America is no more fighting a ?war against terrorism? than during World War II it was fighting a ?war against kamikazism.? No, during World War II the United States was fighting the armies of Imperial Japan. Kamikazism was simply the tactic or strategy used by the enemy. In the same vein, America today is not fighting against ?terrorism.? There are terrorist groups all over the world: the IRA in Northern Ireland, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Maoist rebels in Nepal, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the Shining Path guerillas in Peru. Is America at war with all these groups? Of course not. The war is against a virulent species of Islamic radicalism. Terrorism is merely the weapon of choice used by the enemy to intimidate and kill us. In this sense Bin Laden is not so much a terrorist as he is anreligious ideologue who has chosen terrorism as the most effective way to achieve his goals.
It?s time go back to the drawing board, and the logical place to start is the debate over 9/11. On the left, scholars like Edward Said, Richard Falk and Noam Chomsky have argued that 9/11 was the result of Islamic anger over American foreign policy. In this view, echoed by politicians like Ted Kennedy and liberal magazines like The American Prospect, the radical Muslims don?t hate us because of who we are, they hate us because of what we?ve done to them. As leftist commentators never tire of pointing out, the West has a long history of colonialism and imperialism. Even today, they say, America one-sidedly supports Israel and props up dictatorial regimes (notably Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) in the Muslim world. The left-wing view can be summed up this way: they are justifiably furious at us because we are the bad guys.
The word that deserves our most careful attention in the previous sentence is ?we.? When the left says ?we? it doesn?t mean ?we.? The left?s ?we? is not intended as self-incrimination. This is why the conservative complaint about ?liberal guilt? is so beside the point. Liberals do not consider themselves guilty in the slightest. When a leftist politician or blogger bemoans ?how we overthrew Mossadegh in Iran? or expresses outrage at ?what we did at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib,? the speaker does not mean ?what I and other people like me did.? In formulations like this, ?we? really means ?you.? The apparent confession is really a disguised form of accusation. The liberal?s point is that Bush is guilty, conservatives are guilty, America is guilty. Specifically, the liberal is saying to the conservative, ?Your America is responsible for this. Your America is greedy, selfish, imperialist. Your America extols the principles of democracy and human rights, but in practice backs savage dictators for the purpose of maintaining American access to Middle Eastern oil.? Thus without saying so directly, the left holds the right and its conduct of American foreign policy responsible for 9/11.
On the social and cultural front, the American left clearly does not approve of the way of life in Muslim countries, partly those under the sway of Islamic fundamentalism. It is common to see left-wingers walking around with clothes featuring the swashbuckling visage of Che Guevara, but you will never see liberals and leftists wearing T-shirts displaying the raven?s stare of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Indeed, the left detests the social conservatism that is the hallmark of the whole swath of cultures stretching from the Middle East to China. Those cultures are viewed by many Western liberals as backward, hierarchical, patriarchal, and deeply oppressive. And of these cultures none seem to be more reactionary than Islamic culture. Indeed the regimes supported by the Islamic fundamentalists are undoubtedly the most illiberal in the modern world. In Iran, for example, the ruling regime routinely imprisons its critics who are dubbed ?enemies of Islam.? Public floggings have been used to make an example of women found guilty of fornication. Homosexuality is harshly punished in fundamentalist regimes. The Taliban, for instance, had a range of penalties. As one Taliban leader explained, ?One group of scholars believes you should take these people to the top of the highest building in the city, and hurl them to their deaths. The other recommends that you dig a pit near a wall somewhere, put these people into it, and then topple the wall so they are buried alive.
Even so, it is rare to see the illiberal practices of Muslim cultures aggressively denounced by American or European liberals. There are a few notable exceptions, such as Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman. But in general liberals seem to condemn illiberal regimes only when they are allied with the United States. Nor do liberals seem eager to support American efforts to overthrow hostile, illiberal regimes. Berman, who supported Bush?s invasion of Iraq, counts ?maybe fifteen or twenty? liberals who shared his position on this issue.[iv] If the case of Iraq is any indication, most liberals actively oppose American efforts to use military power to install regimes that are more pro-American and pro-Western and embody a more liberal set of values, such as self-government, minority rights, and religious tolerance. Indeed the central thrust of the left?s foreign policy is to prevent America from forcibly replacing illiberal regimes with more liberal ones. This is a genuine mystery.
Liberal resistance to American foreign policy cannot be explained as a consequence of pacifism or even a reluctance to use force. With the exception of a few fringe figures, the cultural left is not pacifist. Its elected representatives?the Clintons, Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer?frequently support the use of American force. For instance, President Clinton ordered systematic bombings in Bosnia and Kosovo during his terms in office. Clinton?s airstrikes were warmly endorsed in speeches by liberal Democrats such as Boxer, Paul Wellstone, David Bonior and Carl Levin. Cultural liberals routinely call for America to intervene, by force if necessary, in places like Haiti and Rwanda. So liberals are not in principle opposed to ?regime change? or to American intervention.
How, then, can we explain the mystery of liberal opposition to American foreign policy acting to secure liberal principles abroad? Superficially, the left?s position can be explained by its attachment to multiculturalism. In other words, liberal antagonism toward the beliefs and mores of traditional cultures is moderated by its conviction, ?Who are we to judge these cultures?? This concept of withholding judgment is a product of multiculturalism and cultural relativism, both of which are based on the theory that there are no universal standards to judge other cultures. Our standards apply only to us.