Certainty is dwindling - a surefire disadvantage

Posted: Sep 12, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

Almost every Democratic candidate makes it sound as if we've done everything wrong for the last two years. Dick Gephardt, who voted for the war in Iraq and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush after 9-11, now says virtually everything the president has done since then has been a "miserable failure." Almost moments after Saddam was toppled, Howard Dean said he "guessed" it was a good thing that Iraq had been liberated. Heaven forbid he be certain one way or the other.

To commemorate the second anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, The New York Times declared in an editorial that Americans must come to accept that 9-11 was really just "a local and particular, rather than universal, event." Moreover, the certainty that comes with patriotism is becoming a major problem because it tends to "divide Americans." Therefore, "We need to fear and temper that kind of rigidity."

More significantly, the chattering classes as a whole have gone bonkers about America's domestic efforts to defend itself from terrorism. Self-declared experts on civil liberties explain that the Constitution is being shredded. Librarians are literally burning their records to keep the federal government from getting them, because civil liberties groups on the right and left have concocted a threat to libraries found nowhere in the Patriot Act. Local governments are passing ordinances refusing to cooperate with the FBI out of fear of similarly fictitious threats to our freedoms.

We're also hearing the familiar Vietnam-era mantra that we've got important priorities here at home - and we do. But they don't subtract from the demands of defeating our enemies. Sure, an additional $87 billion is a lot of money to spend on war and peace, but it's a pittance compared to what 9-11 cost us or what another such disaster would set us back.

Given our advantages and blessings, there is only one thing that can assure defeat against any foe: a lack of conviction that our enemies are worth fighting. There's nothing wrong and everything right with asking hard questions about how President Bush is fighting terrorism. But there's a grave problem with acting as if it is a complicated question about whether we should be fighting it at all.

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