IN OCTOBER 2001, I WROTE A PIECE for the Prospect [see "Excusing Terror] in which I criticized "the politics of ideological apology"--the excuses that some on the left were making for terrorism. No one was justifying terrorism, but we were often asked to "understand" it. I argued that terrorism as a political strategy had to be condemned and opposed without regard to the causes that the terrorists claimed to serve. In fact, terrorism served no decent cause.
Is anybody still excusing terrorism? 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. But the excuses are heard much more in Europe than in the United States. My sense is that the argument here has shifted. It is focused more how to deal with the threat of terrorism, how to make people feel secure. Speaking more politically it is focused on 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.
Some on the left today believe that the best way to do this is to minimize the threat. That threat has been pumped up, they say, by the Bush administration and the right-wing media chorus, so as to promote the Iraq War and defend the expansion of state power authorized by the PATRIOT Act. And this much is true: Politicians of the right know very well how to play on and exploit the fear of violent death at the hands of masked murderers. I suspect that some of the same people who once wanted to "understand" the terrorists now want to deny that they pose much of a threat--which is not to understand them very well. …