Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Terror and Liberalism

One of the silver linings of vacationing in a Central American country during the rainy season is that there is ample time to read. Having spent the last ten days in Costa Rica where it rained fairly often I had the good fortune to have along a copy of Paul Berman's best-seller Terror and Liberalism which does an outstanding job of helping the reader understand the nature of the battle with the forces of radical Islamism in which we are currently engaged. Berman's book is interesting, easy to read, and all the more compelling because Berman himself is a man of the left who is dismayed by the reaction of most leftists, both here and in Europe, to the war against terror. He notes in his preface the irony of millions of leftists marching in the largest mass demonstrations in history two years ago in an effort to prevent the overthrow of one of the worst tyrannies of the modern age. Even more incongruous, he adds, is that deterring the U.S. from deposing Saddam Hussein was seen as "the correct stance for every true friend of the downtrodden."

Berman himself is, in his words, one of maybe fifteen or twenty people in the country who are both pro-war and left-wing, and much of his book is given to explaining how the bulk of the ideological left, which began as a champion of the poor and oppressed, came to so passionately defend the most brutal of tyrannies, not just in Iraq, but in earlier times, also in the Soviet Union and even in Nazi Germany.

Berman's argument is complex and I will scarcely be able to do it justice, but it distills to this: There is in the human heart an impulse to rebel, to rebel against God, to rebel against authority. That impulse led millions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries into mass movements of rebellion, such as communism and fascism, which evolved into totalitarian tyrannies and ultimately into cults of death. He argues that this sociopathological pattern is universal and expresses itself in cultures other than the European. What we're seeing in the Muslim world is an Islamic version of the European model.

Berman traces the evolution of the Baathi and the radical Islamists, two separate but parallel expressions of the totalitarian impulse, to the writings of Muslim scholars like Sayyed Qutb in the 1950s. He shows how both of these versions of Muslim totalitarianism have followed the logic of Qutb's thinking to become mindless, irrational mass movements drenched in blood and terror, and implacably hostile to the liberal values of the West. Following the trajectory of the earlier European movements, contemporary Islam, or at least a major portion of it, has become obsessed with killing and death.

In a chapter titled Wishful Thinking Berman explains why liberalism has been so blind to the threat these murderous totalitarianisms have posed in both the past and the present. He suggests several reasons. One is that liberals simply cannot believe that millions of people could possibly choose such an irrational path. Perhaps, they convinced themselves in the 1930s, the media was lying about Hitler, or the Bolsheviks. Perhaps today the media is being duped by corporate interests, and the jihadis are really not the threat that they are being made out to be. Perhaps if we could talk with them, understand their grievances, aid them in overcoming their suffering instead of threatening them, they would gladly lay down their arms. Surely, these people don't really despise the values we cherish: individual freedom, equality under the law, tolerance, separation of church and state. Surely they are not so unreasonable as to wish to kill us just for the pleasure of killing us. And so on.

In other words, although Berman doesn't put it quite this way, the left is convinced of the truth of the secularist assumption that man does indeed live by bread alone and that if only material conditions were optimal people would behave rationally. Put another way, the left has for at least eighty years been in denial about the low appeal for most of the world's peoples of the liberal values of freedom, tolerance, equality, and rationality. They have been in denial about the true nature of the human heart and the power of the non-rational compulsions, convictions, and obsessions which drive men all over the globe to commit genocide. Liberals, having long ago abandoned religion, cannot bring themselves to believe that evil actually exists, except perhaps in the Republican party, and cannot understand the hold that religious beliefs and motivations have on millions of Muslims.

What is worse, in my view, is that liberals tend to see the real enemy as anyone who possesses a realistic understanding of the nature of those who wish to do us harm and who are willing to fight to prevent it. This behavior horrifies the left because they are like the fellow in school who lives in fear of the tougher kids and who resents, even hates, any of his peers whom he thinks might provoke the bullies to start throwing their weight around. Like herd animals resigned to having the wolves now and then take a few of their number from the margins of the flock, they hope that by making themselves inconspicuous the predators will leave them alone.

If that doesn't work perhaps the wolves can be appeased somehow. Maybe if we disarmed and showed them we mean them no harm their hatred for us would be mollified. The left, in its naivet�, is completely oblivious to the utter contempt this response engenders in the mind of the wolf. The wolf simply sees all of it for what it is, an acknowledgement of weakness and a confirmation of the rightness of their cause and their strategy.

Bush and Blair have refused to go along with this politics of fear, instead they have swatted the Islamist hornets' nest with a stick, and the left at home and abroad loathes them for it. "Look what you've done!" they protest, "Now the wolves will really hate us!" In a strange, neurotic twist of an old aphorism, the left declares the enemy of my enemy to be my enemy. Thus it despises anyone who actively opposes the Islamist cult of death. It despises anyone who would seek to liberate millions of people from savage oppression if by doing so we risk offending those whose sole ambition in this life is to destroy America.

The Jews, the Americans, and anyone else they think the Islamists hate, the left also hates in the hope of ingratiating themselves with those who are eager to slaughter them. The left, Berman writes, has undergone a strange transformation. "They had begun [In the 19th century] as defenders of liberal values and human rights and they evolved into defenders of bigotry, tyranny, superstition and mass murder." They started as liberal democrats and themselves became allies and de facto sympathizers with fascists.

Berman gives many examples of this phenomenon, but one in particular stands out. He describes an episode at the 2002 Socialist Scholars Conference in New York where a substantial crowd listened to an Egyptian novelist defend a female Palestinian suicide bomber who had recently committed mass murder by blowing herself up in a crowd. When the novelist was finished praising the young woman the audience burst into applause. Applause for such a horrible crime is a symptom of a deep-seated sickness of the soul, but as Berman, citing Camus, points out, the left has always had a strange fascination with, and attraction for, violence, at least as long as it is not directed at them.

Berman's book is a powerful indictment of the modern left's hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy as well as a lucid presentation of the historical evolution of radical Islam. I urge anyone who is interested in trying to gain a better grasp of either of these to read the book in its entirety. Every page is enlightening, although his gratuitous plinking at George Bush at the end of the book is an unfortunate and transparent attempt to reaffirm his leftist bona fides. Nevertheless, both conservatives and liberals will profit from reading this work. You can obtain a copy of Terror and Liberalism by contacting our good friends at Hearts and Minds Bookstore here.