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?