Magazine article The American Prospect

Life and Liberty

Magazine article The American Prospect

Life and Liberty

Article excerpt

JUST HOW GOOD IS AMERICAN Liberalism's inner ear? Defending an open society in the wake of September's attacks demands that we strike the right balance between security and liberty, between the first of the Declaration of Independence's inalienable rights and the second; and that we remind our countrymen that in a battle of ideals with a closed society, liberty and tolerance can be the most potent weapons in our arsenal. Even so, we'll also need some more conventional weapons along the way.

This insistence on openness, on the primacy of liberal ideals, stands in clear contrast to those, within the administration and without, who see the conflict as fundamentally military. And it is largely beside the point to those on both the right and the left who view the attacks as less an external threat to us than a divine or historical judgment upon us. As both Jerry Falwell and various left-wing activists and critics see it, America truly is the Great Satan, and our current course of action must be to abandon our sinful ways. Indeed, some of what I've read over the past three weeks--critiquing the U.S. role in the world and stopping the discussion right there--seems a little like responding to the start of World War II by acknowledging that Britain and France should never have imposed those ruinous reparations on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. To be sure, that draconian policy helped fuel the rise of militant totalitarianism. But the question (then and now) is, how do we oppose it? How do we defend our values and our lives?

THE TERRORISM THAT BURST UPON us this September cannot be understood, solely or even preponderantly, as a reaction to U.S. global or Middle Eastern policy. The theocratic ultranationalism to which the terrorists adhere is an outgrowth of the indigenous politics of the Middle East--in particular, of the political underdevelopment of the region. Much of the problem is the regimes themselves, almost all of which prohibit the normal practice of politics--the formation of parties, unions, and associations free from state sponsorship; in short, civil society and parliamentary democracy. These regimes range from repressive monarchies in the Persian Gulf to the secular totalitarian states of Syria and Iraq to the theocratic republics of Iran (where theocrats have been compelled to battle with more pluralistic forces) and Afghanistan (where they haven't).

None of these regimes has an interest in fostering a genuine domestic politics. Instead, they either promote or tolerate a kind of regional/global metapolitics, invariably anti-Israeli and in some cases anti-American. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat wasn't kidding when he said that he had to consult with Arab heads of state about the proposed settlement he was offered at Camp David. Though the completion of the Oslo process would be a big step toward peace, a genuine Israeli-Palestinian accord could also prove destabilizing to various Arab regimes for whom opposition to Israel has been both a safety valve for mass political expression and a bond linking them to their own people.

The suppression of worldly politics (and the absence of a civil society, which gives rise to such politics) in much of the Middle East contributes to the rise of an unworldly politics--one of racial and religious utopianism--bent on creating a world where one faith and one people live according to a clear set of precepts, untainted by outside ideas or infidels. ("We fed the heart on fantasy," Yeats wrote. "The heart grew brutal on the fare.") Such a creed certainly defines the Taliban, who, in the halcyon days before the September attacks, were forcing the Hindus among them to wear identifying insignias reminiscent of yellow stars when they appeared in public. There are more secular variants of this creed, too; and some of September's terrorists may not have been theocrats but certainly believed that ruthlessly eliminating the West from their part of the world was a transcendent cause and panacea. …

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