From the first moments after the attacks of 9/11, we had indicators that the left would not be able to take terrorism seriously. Instead of resolve, we got concern about emotional closure and “root causes,” warnings about the allegedly great danger of a backlash against Muslim Americans, arguments that violence directed at America is our own fault, and suggestions that we must not use force, because violence never solves anything. “We can’t bomb our way to justice,” said Ralph Nader.
The denial of the peril facing America remains a staple of the left. We still hear that the terrorism is a scattered and minor threat that should be dealt with as a criminal justice matter. In Britain last October, the BBC, a perennial leader in foolish leftism, delivered a three-part tv series arguing that terrorism is vastly exaggerated. Al Qaeda barely exists at all, the series argued, except as an idea that uses religious violence to achieve its ends. Besides, the series said, a dirty bomb would not kill many people and may not even kill anyone. This ho-hum approach isn’t rare. Though evidence shows that the terrorists are interested in acquiring nuclear weapons to use against our cities, a learned writer for the New York Review of Books insists that the real weapons of mass destruction are world poverty and environmental abuse. Of course, world poverty is rarely mentioned by terrorists, and those known to be involved have almost all been well fed and are well to do.
The “our fault” argument seems permanently entrenched. After the London bombings, Norman Geras of the University of Manchester wrote in the Guardian that the root causes and blame-Blair outbursts were “spreading like an infestation across the pages of this newspaper . . . there are, among us, apologists for what the killers do.” That has been the case on both sides of the Atlantic. After 9/11, Michael Walzer, one of the most powerful voices on the left, warned about “the politics of ideological apology” for terrorism.
In the June 2005 issue of the American Prospect, he returned to the theme. “Is anybody still excusing terrorism?” he asked. “The answer is yes: Secret sympathy, even fascination with violence among men and women who think of themselves as ‘militants,’ is a disease, and recovery is slow.” Though the argument has shifted somewhat, he wrote, the problem is “how to make people feel that the liberal left is interested in their security and capable of acting effectively. We won’t win an election until we address this.”
Walzer’s analysis is a strong one. The Bush administration has botched many things, but large numbers of Americans go along with the president because he displays what the left apparently cannot: moral clarity and seriousness about what must be done. When the ideas of the left come into view, the themes often include the closing of Guantánamo, attacks on the Patriot Act, opposition to military recruitment on campuses, casual mockery of patriotism (a whole art exhibit in Baltimore was devoted to the theme), and a failure to admit that defeating terrorism will require some trade-offs between security and civil liberties. Is this a serious program? Real security, Walzer says, will depend on hunting down terrorist cells, cutting off the flow of money, and improving surveillance at key sites. He writes: “The burden is on us—nobody else—to make the case that these things can be done effectively by liberals and leftists who will also, in contrast to today’s Republicans, defend the civil liberties of American citizens.” Good argument. How will the left respond?