Commentary Magazine


Why We Fight by William J. Bennett

Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism
by William J. Bennett
Doubleday. 175 pp. $19.95

Before September 11, it is safe to say, very few people in the Western world had grasped the fact that there were Muslims with a rage in them so overwhelming that they were prepared to kill several thousand Americans just because they were American. Although Americans may have been aware that Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters in Iran considered their country “the Great Satan,” surely that phrase was a metaphor, if not whimsy. It was therefore as unexpected as it was shocking when Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire and mastermind of the September 11 attack, glorified mass murder as God’s work.

The rage and the hate did not arise out of nowhere, however. Rather, they were and are components of the encounter between Islam and the West. That encounter has been most unequal. The choice facing Muslims, as it appeared to anyone who thought about the matter in the last hundred years, has been either to remodel their societies on Western lines or to risk dropping out of history altogether. Secular Muslim leaders and rebels made their choice; calling themselves nationalists, they duly set about modernizing. With the notable exception of Ataturk in Turkey, these experiments were social and political failures. Muslim countries became despotisms rather than democracies, independent but not free. Militarizing their people, nationalist leaders brutalized and robbed those they claimed to represent, leaving the encounter between Islam and the West as unequal as ever, and generating among Muslims a widespread and unbearable sense of humiliation.

There were always Muslim leaders or rebels who tried to mobilize against the West in the name of Islam itself, and all the more intensely in the light of the social and political catastrophes wrought by nationalist rulers. Revolutionary movements and groups have sprung up in Muslim countries, some overt and popular, others clandestine, all generically known as Islamist. Their logic is simple: Westerners and their society are not to be imitated but to be rejected wholesale.

Islamists treat their religion as the effective means for bringing the long and unequal encounter with the West to its rightful conclusion—in Muslim supremacy. Notwithstanding doctrinal and other differences among themselves, Islamists have managed to capture the general Muslim imagination quite widely. September 11 was greeted with dancing in the streets in many Arab cities. Some of these crowds were secular and nationalist in outlook, others were Islamist. One and all shared the joy of striking back at last at what was perceived to be an overbearing enemy.

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What is the proper response to all this? To William J. Bennett, September 11 was an outrage with which there can be no compromise, and those who declared war upon us have to be answered with war. In this short but extremely valuable book, the distinguished former Secretary of Education, who has recently founded a new organization called Americans for Victory over Terrorism, brings his customary lucidity and polemical firepower to bear both on the attack itself and on what he sees as the feeble and compromised response to that attack by American elites.

Bennett takes bin Laden and the Islamists at face value. To them, clearly, the destruction of America is no metaphor, and thus there is little point in asking whether they form the majority of Muslims or a minority with a triumphalist claim. It is enough to know that they believe terror to be God’s work, and are promising to continue it by any means available. As for the relationship between the murderous fanaticism of Islamists and the core doctrines of Islam proper, Bennett points out that Islamic religious authorities up to the highest levels have justified terror, and, with few exceptions, spokesmen of official Muslim organizations have apologized for it. In the United States itself, strenuous efforts to accommodate Muslims as citizens have had only mixed effects: many young Muslim-Americans are being taught to remain culturally alienated from if not plainly antagonistic toward their new home; with some horror Bennett quotes one who says, “Being an American means nothing to me.”

The United States is not alone among nations in being the object of Islamist and/or Arab hatred. In a separate and especially eloquent and timely chapter, Bennett extends his analysis to Israel and its parallel fight against Palestinian terror. On the issue of Israel, nationalist and Islamist ideology fuse. Murderous anti-Semitism, Bennett writes accurately, is now “constant and central” in the Arab world. It is also spreading far and wide, as most blatantly shown last August at the United Nations Conference Against Racism in Durban, “an orchestrated carnival of anti-Israel and anti-American hatred.”

Nor is the linkage between Israel and the United States an accident. Just as the two countries’ common enemies feed each other’s contempt for democracy and taste for absolutism and violence, so, on the other side, Israel and the United States share what Bennett calls “linked destinies.” Until such time as the Arabs cease their terror and make peace, Israel is under a moral duty to defend itself that is every bit as stringent as America’s. What is at stake, Bennett holds, is nothing less than the survival of liberty.

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The gravity of the stakes is precisely why Bennett so admires the grief and anger that were immediately and spontaneously expressed throughout the United States after September 11—signs, in his judgment, of everything that is “instinctually grand about the American national character,” and embodied perfectly by President Bush in his promise to root out terror and its sponsors everywhere. For here was one of those rare moments of moral clarity that unify a nation and determine its course of action.

As far as Bennett is concerned, the positive qualities of America speak for themselves. Yes, the historical record is “spotted”—most egregiously by slavery—but the means of self-correction have rarely failed. In broad terms, moreover, the United States has provided an unprecedented degree of freedom and equality and justice for its own people, and has been instrumental in spreading those blessings widely to others. “Our open, tolerant, prosperous, peaceable society,” Bennett writes, “is the marvel and envy of the ages.” In the aftermath of September 11, the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi caused a scandal when he asserted that the democratic West was superior to an Islamic absolutism that shows no respect for religious, political, or any other freedom. Bennett agrees, and does not hesitate to add that, in the face of Islamism and the war it is pursuing, American patriotism is a human duty, and righteous anger entirely moral.

But there is a catch. For, just at the testing moment, when America has to muster its inner resources in self-defense, a “peace party” has been forming that threatens to sap the country’s resolve. The people involved are the usual culprits of the Left, and much of this book’s real energy goes toward identifying and tackling a ragbag of disaffected activists and intellectuals: exhibitionistic professors, feminists, moral relativists and nonjudgmentalists, aging 60’s radicals, those who follow chic French philosophers in maintaining that objective truth is a chimera, historical revisionists, professional victimologists, and third-world liberationists. Bennett has high fun with some of the more outre sayings of Professors Eric Foner, Stanley Fish, Fredric Jameson, and Michael Rogin, the posturings of a Katha Pollitt who refused to allow her daughter to fly the flag, the maunderings of a Barbara Kingsolver who finds the American language of patriotism “ ‘inseparable from a battle cry,’ ” and many others.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the “peace party” is to raise a serious moral objection to the use of force in pursuit of the national interest. To illustrate how far this attitude has penetrated, Bennett quotes an eleven-year-old schoolboy: “We learned that you should always find a peaceful way to solve your problems because you should never be violent.” (In much the same spirit, Madeleine Albright comically redefined rogue states as “states of concern.”) But what looks to its proponents like moral delicacy is, in Bennett’s eyes, only moral idiocy. Not merely an expression of philosophical pacifism, the refusal to feel righteous anger in response to September 11 stems, he argues, from a standing hostility to America and all its works.

So extreme is this hostility that most of those in the “peace party” accept unconditionally the proposition that America is a racist, warmongering, imperialist, or even fascist state, by definition so criminal that it has brought a deserved attack upon its own head. Their credo, in sum, is that the United States and its foreign and domestic policies are to blame for what Islamists do. Here is a masochistic internalization of the very worst accusations leveled by foreign enemies—and, ironically, a supreme act of condescension, in which Islamists themselves are relegated to a passive role, like children without full responsibility for their actions.

As individuals, those who comprise the “peace party” may be of less than shattering importance, and hence unworthy of Bennett’s or anyone else’s indignation. But on account of their high visibility, they attract a great deal of attention; many of them occupy positions of cultural influence or, as professors and teachers, are able to falsify the lessons of history for today’s and tomorrow’s students. The present, moreover, is what Marx called “a plastic hour.” Things can turn out in several different ways. President Bush’s mood of resolution may not be what it was after September 11. American policy toward Iraq and Iran has sometimes seemed to dissolve in consultation with allies anxious to do nothing more than wring their hands. Israel’s war on terror has elicited contradictory responses in Washington.

Have circumstances changed, and will the “axis of evil” become merely a phrase remembered from a war that should have been fought but never was? The brightness of a brief moment of moral clarity would then fade into confusion, and the “peace party” would claim a victory. William Bennett has done his very best to warn that such an eventuality would mark, instead, a terrible and lasting defeat.

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About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).




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