We're winning the battle against terrorism, but I fear we are losing the war with certainty.
Let me explain.
Not long after the 9-11 attacks, Anthony Lewis retired from The New York Times, where he was the paper's "most consistently liberal voice" - that's the Times' description, not mine. While the war in Afghanistan was still raging and the rubble at Ground Zero was still smoldering, Lewis gave a fascinating interview to the Times. Asked if he'd drawn any "big conclusion" over his career, Lewis responded that "certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft."
Simultaneously idiotic and brilliant, this one sentence managed to cram everything morally absurd and intellectual weak - and vice versa - about establishment liberalism prior to September 11 in a seemingly intelligent way. The moral equivalence and typically smug partisanship were impressive, but the hypocrisy of his own certainty was the coup de grace - he's so certain that certainty is bad.
Anyway, at the time, the guys at The Weekly Standard did a great parody, playing off of Lewis' remarks. They ran a fake article about the "war against certainty" and the effort to capture John Ashcroft - a "ringleader of the certainty movement." After days of bombing the nation's capital, one military official reported that we have "seriously degraded the Justice Department's ability to make up its mind about stuff."
It was a very funny bit, but there's more than a joke behind it. Two years out, it seems that there really is a war on certainty.
Early on, President Bush declared that you're either with us or against us in the fight against terror. This sort of thing infuriated the cottage industry that makes a great living sounding intelligent by telling the world everything is so complicated. Columbia University historian Eric Foner declared in the London Review of Books, "I'm not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House."
Such nonsense was generally kept to the periphery. Most Americans didn't want to hear it. But today one gets the sense that certainty is in increasingly short supply.
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