the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2001 September 30


At last writing, I spoke of my concern that the United States would react to the bombings by constructing the foundation of a police state. That was not prophetic, merely obvious, and it has indeed come to pass. Our Attorney General, another person so many of us opposed before the bombings, visited our legislature to explain why it was necessary to sanction indefinite detention without judicial review, surveillance of non-citizens, virtually-unlimited wiretap ability, and seizure of voice mail and e-mail. At a time when states such as Syria and Eritrea are retreating from their own recent trends of liberalization, a state like the U.S., with an extended tradition of protecting civil liberties, should be demonstrating that such liberties are not expendable, not negotiable, not even in time of crisis. But the U.S. administration would never have taken the time to rebuke Syria and Eritrea under ordinary circumstances, and now stands in need of rebuke itself, if only by its own citizens.

Thankfully there seem to be some, even in Congress, who will defend our civil liberties. Strangely, it is in Congress that the greatest political courage is being shown, with serious persons willing to ask challenging questions. Who could have dreamed it?

Meanwhile, the leaders of the progressive movement are holding their tongues and speaking patriotically and flatteringly about the president and even his proxies. They have accepted the conventional wisdom that it is politically foolish to criticize a leader in war (a wisdom I dispute), and implicitly conceded the rhetoric that we are in fact at war (a fact that most would dispute). And that is disturbing not only for the disappointing lack of courage, but for the possible implications.

We will retreat to our bunkers and cower in fear as the bombs fall around us. When they are silent, we will emerge to a world that we can only hope to be safe; but we will not recognize it. The landscape will have changed.

While we were sitting out the political fight, our opponents ― the dominion, no less ― were taking advantage of the open field to accomplish their agenda. We will realize this soon enough, but it will be too late. All of the work of the last fifty years will be erased, and it will be years before we can begin it again. I am not speaking only of civil liberties. I am speaking of conservation, social tolerance, education, welfare, and any other matter where our world has improved due to the efforts of our kind.

The conservation movement, for instance, with which I am closely connected, has been treading so lightly that it is impossible to detect its passing. Perfectly-legitimate criticism of the federal administration has been softened to the point of ineffectuality, and still new areas are found in which it is deemed politically inappropriate to take a forceful stand. And while our environmental leaders are absent, the proponents of exploitation and destruction are active, making disingenuous arguments to justify their despoliation of the land.

The strange thing that our leaders fail to recognize is that the rank-and-file members of the progressive movement have no difficulty whatsoever with criticism of George Bush and his policies. As someone who engages in outreach to the public on a constant basis, I can say with confidence that the members of the public are no more or less supportive of Bush and his policies than they were before. They are no more or less likely to complain or disparage, nor to offer a candid appraisal.

How we deal with the coming war, if there is in fact a real war, will have much to do with our memories of past wars. I was not alive during most of the Vietnam war, and I certainly do not remember it. I know only what I have read and heard. But I was alive, and a politically-aware adult, during the Persian Gulf war, and it was quite an experience. It was a distressing time to be a dissident, to be a liberal opponent of U.S. geopolitical policy and a cosmopolitan opponent of U.S. chauvinism. The drive towards uniformity of belief and custom ― this cultural conformity being the best operable definition of fascism ― was in full power, with the apparent (but deceptively apparent) support of the public. Patriotism was the unquestioned order of the day, Old Glory and the Yellow Ribbon were ubiquitous, and By God no one was going to say anything to undermine the morale of our troops. This, as many have remarked, was a national catharsis for the unfortunate emotions of the Vietnam era, when confused young men, who were indoctrinated like the rest of us to believe that all doings of the state were just, lost their lives in a dubious conflict whose methods often verged into the monstrous even in the eyes of their perpetrators, or returned home to a country divided and ashamed and not prepared to honor them as heroes of war, totally contrary to all implied promises.

Obviously there are many, if not a majority, who would pursue the Persian Gulf model, sending our troops off with fanfare and anticipating their return to a heroic welcome. Many of those will believe that deference to the war chief is morally imperative, even on unrelated issues, and will attempt to silence dissent. Hopefully that prospect will not be tolerated by those who have an understanding of true liberalism. As for the war hysteria that existed ten years ago, it will return, but whether it will last through a long and loss-filled conflict is far less certain.

So much for domestic policy. When considering how we should behave abroad, I should start first with a few thoughts on the background of this problem. The Taliban government in Afghanistan has long been recognized by many of us as among the most illiberal in the world, perhaps the single most. They do and have done horrendous things, primarily to the residents of Afghanistan itself, and particularly, as many know, to the females of the country, adult and child alike. We shouldn’t hesitate to call the Taliban an enemy ― they are enemies of liberty, equality, and decency.

There would be plenty of justification to invade and overthrow the Taliban, if it were to free the people of Afghanistan. Is this a practical goal, though? If our motives were pure, and we were engaged in humanitarian intervention, could we succeed? All evidence so far says not. Afghanistan will be controlled by those who have lived there, and know the place, and above all who have the emotional attachment to it. It is not a place that has been or can be controlled by outsiders. And rather like Vietnam, there are many, many people among them who will fight to the death, far beyond our endurance, if recent history is considered.

But were the country ours to give, would we give it to the Northern Alliance? Or to former king Mohammed Zahir? These are not the sweethearts of political liberalism and democracy that we will surely be told they are. And yet there is precedent ― the Gulf War, in fact. After reconquering Kuwait, we simply turned it over to the same feudal princelings who had controlled it before. We seized a territory and installed a monarchy. Is that any way for a democracy to behave? Are we the British Empire?

Consider, also, the geopolitical compromises that the United States will make to build its coalition and take license to attack the terrorists. We are going to sanction military dictatorship in Pakistan, and possibly dictatorship in several central Asian states. We are going to move yet closer to the oil theocracies of Arabia. We are going to excuse, more so than even to this point, the oppression of Chechnya by Russia, which is nothing more than Russian imperialism but has most recently been justified by casting all Chechens as terrorists, with dubious evidence.

And we cannot defeat terrorism as an idea with the current campaign. An idea cannot be defeated with war. We may ― doubtful, but we may ― defeat certain individuals who engage in terrorism, and the networks and infrastructure they use. But the true victory against terrorism will come as the victories against hatred, prejudice, ignorance, and other ideological enemies, from a campaign of thought, ideas, communication, and the example of decency. And, like the warriors of earlier times, we must begin by purifying ourselves. We must, in this case, purge hatred and prejudice from our hearts; we must look to our own behavior, and ensure that it is, as we believe, righteous. Only then can we go out into the world to conquer the misdeeds of others. And then we must prepare ourselves for a war of centuries.


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