On September 11th, America suffered the greatest military blow to its homeland since a British army burned our national capital almost two hundred years ago.
Our people and our leaders have properly treated this attack and the threat of future attacks as an extraordinarily great national crisis, during which the normal rules of politics must be suspended. Vast additional sums of money have been allocated to our military and for defensive efforts, and we have willingly accepted security measures that would have seemed intolerable on September 10th. We have opened our wallets and our luggage to protect our country.
Petty political infighting also dramatically subsided in the months following the attack. But just as it is now our patriotic duty to spend additional dollars on defense and additional hours in waiting lines, we should also realize that it is even more our duty to honestly speak our minds on crucial political issues; this may be more difficult, but it is also more important.
Any objective observer must readily acknowledge that America’s mainstream national media tilts significantly to the left, especially on most social issues. Recent best-sellers have emphasized this point, albeit sometimes in somewhat cartoonish fashion.
But while our news media tilts leftward, it is equally obvious that most of our opinion journalism—from Rush Limbaugh to popular columnists—tilts rightward, perhaps as a direct reactive consequence. This powerful commentariat constitutes the heart and soul of America’s conservative movement, and plays an important role in determining national policy.
Unfortunately, although I am generally regarded as a member of this conservative movement, it has long been apparent to me that the quality of the ideas that it propagates is often abysmally low, frequently representing crude or dishonest propaganda rather than thoughtful and sincere intellectual discourse. Some of the leading organs of this conservative media, notably National Review and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, have frequently published my writings in the past, and may—or may not—choose to continue to do so in the future, so I do regret my words. Airing dirty linen in public is never easy, but at a time of national crisis, I believe it has become necessary.
Consider the horrifying events in the Middle East, which have dominated nearly every day’s headlines over the past couple of weeks. Although the long confrontation between the Israelis and the Palestinians was certainly not the direct cause of bin Laden’s attack on America, it was just as surely a strong contributing factor. Furthermore, the many hundreds of people recently killed in Israel and the West Back have enormously enflamed passions in the entire region. The one point agreed upon by all sides in the debate is that the outcome of the current fighting bears a direct relationship to the likelihood of future attacks on America, though there is enormous disagreement about the nature of that relationship or the outcome that would minimize those risks.
Unfortunately, rather than seriously attempting to analyze and debate the facts and dangers involved, our conservative commentariat has instead produced endless quantities of what I would regard as the crudest and most ignorant one-sided propaganda, laughable if it were not so potentially dangerous. With a near-unanimity that virtually evokes images of that much-ridiculed phrase “a vast right-wing conspiracy,” America’s conservative opinion pages and pundits mostly seem absolutely convinced that they suddenly possess the one perfect solution to this extremely complex and difficult international crisis, wisdom that none of our genuinely knowledgeable experts themselves claim to possess. Clearly absolute truth is most easily found by those whose mental facilities are too puny to evaluate it, or those whose opinions are shaped by diktat or echo rather than thought.
There are certainly notable exceptions to this depressing pattern. For example, a few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published a sadly analytical piece by Walter Ze’ev Laqueur, the eminently distinguished historian and scholar, who has probably written or edited more books on Zionism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and terrorism in general than most of our conservative pundits have ever even read. Laqueur himself fled Nazi Germany as a teenager, then lived for a number of years in Israel before pursuing his academic career in the United States. Despite or perhaps because of this personal background, his analysis was absolutely dispassionate and even-handed, and although I disagree with some of his points, I would treat them with the greatest of respect.
Consider that although Commentary’s editors now sharply oppose Laqueur’s Middle Eastern views, a few years earlier those very editors had published an article on Laqueur’s long career that opened with the truly remarkable paragraph:
To commemorate his sixty-fifth birthday, there has just appeared a bibliography of the writings of Walter Laqueur, the prolific, erudite, polyglot, polydisciplinary historian and journalist who is known not least for his long-standing association with Commentary. The bibliography is limited for the most part to English-language publications, and it omits a full decade’s worth of daily journalism; even so, it runs to an astonishing sixty-six pages, and conveys well the range and depth which Laqueur commands in his work on 20th-century European history, the Jewish national movement, contemporary Middle-Eastern politics, Soviet and East European affairs, United States foreign policy, and the Holocaust.
As this indicates, Laqueur probably stands as one of the few individuals able to write forcefully in this controversial area without much fear of public vilification, since I suspect that his reputation for intellectual integrity and considered historical judgment is sufficiently great that any harsh attack on him merely damages the reputation of the attacker. I attach his piece below.
Unfortunately, the voice of a Laqueur is very much the exception rather than the rule in our conservative media. Although my own training is primarily in theoretical physics, I also studied for years under Harvard’s Ernst Badian, among the world’s most eminent ancient historians, and an individual with a personal biography remarkably similar to that of Laqueur. Badian was notorious for the dispassionate harshness with which he critiqued views he regarded as intellectually shoddy, and as his student I was imbued with some of that same sense of discipline. If he were willing to mince few words on obscure historical matters from thousands of years ago, I feel compelled to be equally plain-spoken regarding writings that might cost the lives of millions of Americans.
Let us analyze one particularly egregious example, which initially prompted me to consider this discussion. On Tuesday, National Review Online carried a long piece suggesting that there exists a great threat of future suicide-bombings in America, and naturally the author and his alarmist notions immediately found their way onto Fox News, presumably frightening millions around the country. Perhaps further distribution of these ideas will result, and Congress will demand action. I attach the piece below.
Now the single most important fact to realize about suicide-bombing is that the technique was developed as a cost-effective means of attacking and destroying hardened targets, whether military installations or high-security civilian targets.
Within the Middle East, the practice seems to have originated among the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, secular leftists who challenged the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini following the 1979 revolution. During the early 1980s, large numbers of high-ranking and heavily-guarded Islamic clerics were regularly assassinated in these desperate attacks. In fact, today’s hard-line supreme Iranian leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khameini, still bears horrible injuries from one such near-fatal explosion. (Interestingly enough, although our State Department has long classified the Mujahedeen as a terrorist organization, in recent years a majority of the members of our Congress have attempted to have that organization declared the legitimate opposition to the Iranian regime, and made eligible for American financial support.) Suicide-bombings subsequently spread to the different factions in Lebanon, and eventually throughout the Middle East, including to Israel.
For decades, Israeli society has faced the threat of intermittent Arab terrorism, and hence maintains a level of vigilance and security able to sharply reduce the effectiveness of traditional terroristic techniques. Israeli cities contain substantial numbers of security personnel, ordinary streets are filled with large numbers of armed and trained civilians, and the public maintains an extremely watchful eye. Arabs attempting to leave large, suspicious-looking packages filled with timed- explosives in crowded buses or restaurants would have little chance of accomplishing their missions. Most of Israeli society constitutes a very hard target by the standards of American civilian life, and until the introduction of suicide-bombing techniques, Arab terrorism had largely failed to have much of an impact in recent years.
Suicide-bombers constitute disposable, human-guided warheads, the poor man’s cruise-missile, and, like cruise-missiles, are able to penetrate regular defenses. Little military training is required for the bomber, and while each cruise-missile costs millions, the equipment component of the human missile is just $150 according to documents recently released by Israeli forces. The only crucial ingredient is a sufficient supply of zealous individuals, of which the West Bank has an obvious abundance.
But our situation in America is altogether different. Unlike Israel or even Europe, America has had virtually no experience with domestic terrorism, and hence our civilian targets are among the softest in the world. To be sure, a particularly stupid or irrational terrorist could choose to blow himself up together with his target of an restaurant or office building, but unlike in Israel, there would be absolutely no need to do so. Casually depositing packages of timed-explosives in restaurants or parking explosive-filled vans in the garages of office buildings would easily wreck havoc and allow one terrorist to launch numerous attacks with little risk to himself.
The disturbing truth is that American society is so soft a target that no terrorist would even consider a suicide-bombing under normal circumstances. Furthermore, while Israel is a compact and highly mobilized and militarized society, America is so large and diverse and decentralized that civilian security measures along Israeli lines would be extraordinarily difficult to adopt here.
But perhaps we might draw a heartening conclusion from these apparently disheartening facts. Consider that in the months after 9/11, any one moderately-trained terrorist, operating without even the benefit of a support network, could have easily sowed mass panic and brought New York City’s entire economy to a standstill at virtually no personal risk by the simple means of leaving timed explosive devices on crowded subway cars. Yet during this entire period, there has been not a single random terroristic bombing anywhere in our country. Perhaps contrary to initial fears or speculations, the number of terrorists currently dwelling among our population of almost 300 million is extremely small, even negligible.
Regardless of this question, we would certainly be doing our nation’s security a grave disservice by concerning ourselves with the specialized threat of suicide-bomber terrorists, when we are at enormously greater risk from the mundanely traditional variety. Few grade-school dropouts need concern themselves with rising admissions standards at Harvard.
The point is not that one very foolish article appeared in one prominent conservative publication and was quickly taken up by gullible conservatives on television. The point is that there exists a sectarian and almost paranoid attitude among many conservatives, who seem to believe that there is a single “conservative” answer to most complex questions and that only the biases of the “liberal media” and “liberal academia” prevent everyone from recognizing it. In such a stultifying intellectual climate, judgments often hinge more on whether an idea is “conservative” than on whether it might remotely be correct, and notions of astonishing foolishness often go completely unchallenged. A near-official party line does enormous damage to any ideological movement.
Much of conservative doctrine is absolutely correct, but much is also sheerest lunacy or the cynical product of coalitional politics, and without a vigorous and open debate, these cannot be easily separated out. Furthermore, opinions easily guessed in advance are simply not much worth reading. After reading twenty similar columns on the unalloyed wickedness of Yasser Arafat—or Tom Daschle—only the most mindless true-believer eagerly begins the twenty-first. On a different segment of the ideological spectrum, the neo- liberal and sometimes unpredictable New Republic, especially during its most eclectic and iconoclastic period in the late 1980s, has certainly enjoyed far more influence than the uniformly leftist Nation. The effectiveness of an opinion columnist or publication is often inversely related to predictability.
America’s conservative media must decide which course they should pursue. If editors believe that their ideas are so weak as to have little hope of surviving any challenge, they can continue functioning largely as a cheer-leading vehicle, churning out vast quantities of mediocre and monotonous paid propaganda aimed at filling the maw of talk radio and yelling-head television, but sacrificing any hope of gaining credibility or influence with the thoughtful or the uncommitted. I hope they will not choose this path.
As a contrasting example of potentially important reportage of a more even-handed nature, yesterday’s impeccably conservative National Review Online carried a piece by the impeccably conservative columnist Rod Dreher providing a slight glimpse of the actual views of the Jewish religious lunatics who play their own important role in maintaining the dangerous Middle East conflict.
Apparently the recent birth of a red heifer has now been hailed by these individuals as a divine sign that the time has finally arrived to destroy the Muslim holy sites of Jerusalem and thereby ensure the outbreak of the biblical Battle of Armageddon. Regardless of one’s theological beliefs, such action might certainly provoke this event, at least in the more worldly sense of that word.
If this preliminary report is correct—and I have no special knowledge—it represents disturbing news indeed. In the past, plots by similar Jewish militants to level with explosives several of the Muslim world’s holiest mosques have been narrowly foiled. Several years ago, Jewish militant Baruch Goldstein massacred dozens of praying Muslims in Hebron, and Goldstein’s gravestone is still treated as a pilgrimage site by many Jewish West Bank settlers, probably tens of thousands of whom possess ideological views differing from his merely in degree rather than in kind. That the Israeli government avidly encourages these Jewish militants armed with machine-guns to settle in densely- populated Arab communities outside Israel’s national border is hardly conducive to peaceful relations. And we must remember that the most important recent Middle Eastern assassination by any religious zealot was that of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by one of these Jewish militants for his impious attempt to reach out for a peace with the Arabs. The Holy Land is a particularly difficult place to arrange a workable resolution for a conflict between two peoples, each determined to claim it for themselves.
And even the history of secular rather than merely religious terrorism is hardly an absolutely one- sided one. In their determined efforts to establish their national state, former Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, both icons for America’s conservative movement, engaged in acts that would today surely be labeled sheerest terrorism by that same conservative movement, including the assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations mediator attempting to resolve the conflict.
If America’s conservative media provided its readers with at least a little more of this history—the important back-story of the current bloodshed—perhaps then those readers would be less perplexed that so many of our own national leaders and also so many prominent members of the “liberal media” seem to view the current conflict as complex rather than simple.
Perhaps conservatives prefer to protect themselves with the hermetically-sealed blissful ignorance of one-sided propaganda. But by doing so, they endanger the survival of our entire country.
P.S. A previous column of mine, providing points of correspondence between today’s suicide-bombers and the Jewish defenders of ancient Masada generated a considerable amount of reaction, some of which was quite critical or even hostile. Therefore, I was pleased to subsequently read that many of Israel’s own newspapers, which obviously are closest to these matters, have apparently begun to regularly describe the recent battle over the Jenin refugee camp as the “Masada of the Palestinians.” I suspect that if more American conservatives themselves read Israeli newspapers, they would acquire a more nuanced view of the events unfolding.
- This Isn’t the Time for Peace by Walter Laqueur
Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, March 27, 2002
- Freelancing in the U.S. by Joel Mowbray
National Review Online, Tuesday, April 9, 2002
- Red-Heifer Days by Rod Dreher
National Review Online, Thursday, April 11, 2002