Pride and Prejudice

The false choice between patriotism and skepticism


Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism, by William J. Bennett, New York: Doubleday, 170 pages, $19.95

9-11, by Noam Chomsky, New York: Seven Stories Press, 125 pages, $8.95

Like many Americans, my wife and I put out a flag after 9/11. It was not a fleeting impulse; in fact, it took me a while to find a flag holder, since all the local stores had been cleaned out of patriotic paraphernalia. But neither was it something we thought about deeply; it seemed a natural expression of solidarity. So I was surprised by the mixture of bewilderment and scorn I sensed from out-of-town visitors that November. "What's with the flag?" said one.

At the same time, I had a similar reaction to people who seemed to be going overboard in expressing their love of country, trying to outdo each other with electrical displays, multiple bumper stickers, or little flapping flags that made their cars look like they'd gotten separated from the rest of the presidential motorcade. And as the weeks went by, I started to wonder how long our flag should stay up. Some of our neighbors seemed determined to leave theirs out until the war on terrorism was over, and it wasn't clear to me that it ever would be. Then there was the question of what to do on Independence Day. Take the flag down?

But my discomfort with excessive flag waving was a mere quibble compared to the position taken by The Nation's Katha Pollitt. "My daughter, who goes to Stuyvesant High School only blocks from the World Trade Center, thinks we should fly an American flag out our window," she wrote shortly after the twin towers fell. "Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war."

In Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism, William Bennett cites Pollitt's response to her daughter's suggestion as an example of leftish contempt for patriotism, a knee-jerk reaction so strong that it could overwhelm the feelings of shock, sadness, sympathy, anger, and defiance aroused by 9/11. He has a point. It's obtuse to insist that flying the flag means endorsing everything the U.S. government has ever done. If a Catholic can wear a crucifix without supporting the Inquisition and the Crusades, an American can put up a flag without justifying "jingoism and vengeance and war." In both cases, the person displaying the symbol has in mind particular values, at least some of which Katha Pollitt surely shares. To many of us, the flag represents liberty, tolerance, and the rule of law, the principles on which the nation was founded but which its government has not always honored.

Still, it's no use pretending that flag waving has never been associated with the kind of unreflective patriotism that assumes nothing done in America's name could be wrong. Because of this connection, I must admit that at a certain point I started to worry that continuing to display our flag might be interpreted as support for whatever the Bush administration decided to do in the name of fighting terrorism. Bennett himself reinforces that equation in his book, which blurs the distinction between suspicion of government and hatred of America. He is impatient with critics and skeptics generally, not just the ones who cringe at the idea of flying the flag, and he cannot bring himself to acknowledge that the United States has ever been anything but a force for good.

The opposite sort of blindness afflicts Noam Chomsky, the self-proclaimed dissident intellectual (and best-selling author) who rehearses his litany of America's sins in 9-11, which endeavors to show that what Al Qaeda did to us was nothing compared to the suffering we have inflicted on oppressed people around the world. Bennett and Chomsky summed up each other's shortcomings during a clash on CNN last spring. "I think you should acknowledge [America's] virtues a little more often, Mr. Chomsky," said the former drug czar and perpetual scold. "And you should acknowledge its crimes," Chomsky responded. Americans who are prepared to do both will be comfortable neither with Bennett's uncomplicated love-it-or-leave-it attitude nor with Chomsky's reflexive condemnations of the U.S.

As Bennett reminds us repeatedly in Why We Fight, he has made a career out of "worrying about the moral disposition of the American people": their drug use, their insufficient familiarity with the classical virtues, their taste in music, TV, and film. But 9/11 was a test of our character, and Bennett has graded our response. To his surprise, we passed with flying colors. Literally. "For the first time in a long while there was a palpable, shared sense that this was indeed our country, and that it was a country worth fighting for," he writes. "The problem is not that Americans are unpatriotic. That is hardly the case. The problem…is that those who are unpatriotic are, culturally, the most influential among us."

If you can get past Bennett's condescension in judging the moral fiber of his fellow citizens, you probably will find much to agree with. He rightly takes issue, for instance, with Reuters' agnosticism regarding the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist: "The last time I looked, there was a crystal-clear distinction between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, and it had to do with the morality of means: A freedom fighter does not massacre innocent civilians in pursuit of his ends."

In a similar vein, Bennett offers a sampling of foolish post-9/11 comments from people with an ideological ax to grind (almost all of them leftists, although I can recall some jaw-droppers from right-wingers as well). "A professor at Brown University," he reports, "instructed his audience that if 'what happened on September 11 was terrorism,' what America had done 'during the gulf war was also terrorism.'" He also quotes the eminent leftist historian Eric Foner: "I'm not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House."

But when Bennett's quest for easy targets leads him to cite "a mother in Kennebunk, Maine" ("Killing people won't prove anything; it's just more of the same") and "a Columbia University sophomore" ("I don't think the solution to violence is more violence"), you start to wonder if such thinking is really as influential as he fears. While most Americans do not share Eric Foner's perspective, he argues, "the Foners of the United States" sow doubt and sap the national will. "I sensed in my bones," he says, "that if we could not find a way to justify our patriotic instincts, and to answer the arguments of those who did not share them, we would be undone." Maybe, but Bennett presents no real evidence (from polling data, for example) to back up his skeletal intuition. If you look hard enough, you can find someone to parrot just about any kind of doctrinaire drivel, especially if you talk to college sophomores.

Among people who spout off for a living, there was no shortage of the moral clarity Bennett craves in the weeks and months after 9/11. But it troubles him that a few commentators, with various degrees of finesse, brought up the question of what the United States might have done to piss people off so much.

"How was it," he writes, "that in the wake of the bloodiest and most devastating attack on American citizens in our history, sensible and patriotic people could ask, 'Did we bring this on ourselves, by the way we have behaved in the world?'"

Bennett phrases the question tendentiously. Obviously, the people who were murdered on that awful day did nothing to deserve their fate. But inquiring into the motives of terrorists does not excuse their crimes, and it was perfectly natural to wonder whether U.S. foreign policy had something to do with the anger on which organizations like Al Qaeda feed. Was it really just a matter of hatred for our values and way of life, as the politicians insisted?

This is a touchy topic, and not just because people tend to assume that understanding is a precursor to forgiveness. Whatever the grievances behind the attacks, trying to address them now might seem like a capitulation to terrorism, even if doing so would otherwise have been in the national interest. Given the need to avoid making excuses for terrorists or caving in to their demands, the subject requires a careful touch.

That is not Noam Chomsky's forte. In 9-11, a collection of excerpts from interviews he gave last fall, he assails the United States as "a leading terrorist state." His interlocutors are fans, judging from the softball questions ("Do you think we are using the word 'civilization' properly? Would a really civilized world lead us into a global war like this?"). Consequently, even his most eyebrow-raising assertions (that the U.S. is "one of the most extreme fundamentalist cultures in the world," for example) go unchallenged. The book's eye-glazing repetition (left in "for emphasis," according to the editor) suggests the manuscript, too, was treated reverentially.

Still, Chomsky presumably saw the book before it was published and had a chance to eliminate anything that seemed, in retrospect, ill-considered or unsupported. It's hard to imagine what he took out. "The horrifying atrocities of September 11 are something quite new in world affairs, not in their scale and character, but in the target," he says. "For the first time, the guns have been directed the other way." Chomsky's condemnations of the attacks do not quite erase the suspicion that he is in some sense gratified by this turn of events.

"Nothing can justify crimes such as those of September 11," he says, "but we can think of the United States as an 'innocent victim' only if we adopt the convenient path of ignoring the record of its actions and those of its allies."

This formulation enables Chomsky to imply that we had it coming, while denying that he believes any such thing (as he did in his CNN debate with Bennett). The ambiguity arises from thinking of the victim as "the United States," which can refer to the government as well as the people. However iniquitous Chomsky thinks U.S. foreign policy has been, it is clearly beyond the bounds of civilized behavior to hold randomly chosen Americans responsible for it and summarily execute them. Yet Chomsky's rhetoric legitimizes the doctrine of collective guilt that lies at the heart of terrorism.

Unlike Reuters, Chomsky is not reluctant to call people terrorists. He concedes that Osama bin Laden's followers qualify. But so do U.S. officials who supported regimes (such as Turkey's) or armed groups (such as the Contras) accused of human rights abuses. "The U.S. is the only country that was condemned for international terrorism by the World Court," he says. If so, this says more about the World Court than it does about the United States, unless you think the case against the U.S. is stronger than the cases against, say, Iran, Libya, and Syria. But Chomsky is actually referring (once again) to U.S. support for anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua, which he equates with terrorism. Even the World Court did not go that far, instead rebuking the U.S. for "unlawful use of force." If U.S. officials had directed the Contras to kill civilians (as opposed to supporting their fight against the Sandinistas despite such atrocities), Chomsky would have a stronger case.

There is no question that the U.S. has backed many unsavory factions and governments over the years (including the Muslim fanatics it is now fighting). In some cases (for example, Haiti, Panama, Angola, Vietnam, Indonesia), there is a compelling argument to be made that such support was morally wrong, contrary to the national interest, or both. But Chomsky does not stop there; he will not be satisfied until Ronald Reagan is recognized as the moral equivalent of Osama bin Laden. Likewise, so far as Chomsky is concerned, the Clinton administration's bombing of a Sudanese "chemical weapons plant" that turned out to be a pharmaceutical factory was not just criminally negligent; it was an act of terrorism worse than the September 11 attacks. Citing estimates he admits are "largely speculation," Chomsky claims the loss of drug production capacity has killed "tens of thousands."

As that example reflects, Chomsky's rhetorical overkill is of a piece with his readiness to believe the worst about the impact of U.S. actions, a tendency that undermines his arguments even when they're valid. Endorsing the highest available estimates of the deaths caused by sanctions against Iraq, for example, tends to discredit criticism of the embargo. The argument over numbers distracts attention from the basic point that embargoes are morally suspect because they punish people for the crimes of their leaders—even when the leaders are unelected. (See "The Politics of Dead Children," March.) Yet Chomsky seems irresistibly drawn to wild exaggeration. "An attack against Afghanistan will probably kill a great many innocent civilians, possibly enormous numbers in a country where millions are already on the verge of death from starvation," he predicted in a September 2001 interview. "Wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not a war against terrorism."

Chomsky insists that intent does not matter: If you (or the people you support) end up killing civilians, you are a terrorist. Yet it is the deliberate targeting of civilians that is the sine qua non of terrorism. Killing them unintentionally is not the same thing, although it may be rightly condemned, depending upon the level of negligence involved. To deny this is to assert that a driver who accidentally kills a pedestrian is morally indistinguishable from one who waits for an enemy to step into the street and runs him down on purpose.

Chomsky believes 9/11 did not justify the war in Afghanistan. (He argues that the U.S. should have tried bringing the matter to court—an approach that did not work very well when the Sandinistas tried it.) From his point of view, the acceptable number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan was zero. Supporters of the military campaign knew civilian deaths were inevitable but recognized an obligation to keep the number as low as possible. Bennett is quick to exonerate U.S. forces on this score, referring repeatedly to their "extraordinary" efforts to avoid killing noncombatants. It may well be that the U.S. was unusually careful by historical standards. But that does not mean American forces weren't negligent in some cases. The July 1 bombing of a wedding party in Oruzgan—which killed 50 or so people, mainly women and children—springs to mind. Horrible as that incident was, however, it is not splitting hairs to point out that the gunship's crew, who mistook celebratory gunshots for anti-aircraft fire, thought they were attacking an armed enemy. The assault was nothing like, say, the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo during World War II, operations that arguably could be described as terrorism.

Despite his sweeping definition, Chomsky does not treat all terrorists alike. "Just about every crime—whether a robbery in the streets or colossal atrocities—has reasons, and commonly we find that some of them are serious and should be addressed," he says. But he applies this principle selectively. While he believes it's important to understand bin Laden's motivation, he has no interest in exploring why American and Israeli "terrorists" behave the way they do. Thus he does not address the arguments in favor of aiding the Contras, and he simply asserts that Israel's invasion of Lebanon was "not in self-defense." When it comes to the United States and Israel, it seems, there are never any serious reasons or valid grievances.

Chomsky cannot seem to decide whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had anything to do with 9/11. "The atrocities of September 11 were a devastating blow for the Palestinians," he says, "as they instantly recognized." That explains the dancing in the streets. Later he says "Osama bin Laden shares the anger felt throughout the region at…support for atrocities against Palestinians." But Chomsky also argues that "the perpetrators surely must have known" their attacks would hurt the Palestinian cause, adding: "Their concerns are different, and bin Laden, at least, has been eloquent enough in expressing them in many interviews: to overthrow the corrupt and repressive regimes of the Arab world and replace them with properly 'Islamic' regimes, to support Muslims in their struggles against 'infidels' in Saudi Arabia (which he regards as under U.S. occupation), Chechnya, Bosnia, western China, North Africa, and Southeast Asia."

Here, at last, is a hint of possible common ground between Chomsky and Bennett. Chomsky presumably would like the U.S. to stop propping up "corrupt and repressive regimes in the Arab world." Bennett, who criticizes the Saudi government's corruption and repression (along with its support for terrorism and promotion of "anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, and anti-Western hatred"), ought to agree. Instead, he seems proud of the way the U.S. came to the defense of Saudi despots in the Persian Gulf War, citing it as a reason Muslims should like us.

Bennett and Chomsky do agree on one thing: that the threat to civil liberties posed by the war on terrorism has been exaggerated. That judgment is not surprising coming from Bennett, who has praised Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus rights and suggested that something similar might be needed in the war on drugs. In Why We Fight, he echoes Attorney General John Ashcroft's attack on "those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty." Bennett says critics of President Bush's order authorizing military tribunals for accused terrorists caused "turmoil," contributing to "the erosion of moral clarity" and "the spread of indifference and confusion."

As for the concerns of American Muslims about being lumped in with the terrorists, Bennett says, in essence, that they should consider themselves lucky they haven't been rounded up and put in prison camps. In one of the book's most chilling passages, he conspicuously avoids condemning the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. He says only that "our government has formally apologized" for the mass detentions, which he calls "a source of controversy to this day."

You might think Chomsky wouldn't pass up an opportunity to attack the Bush administration, but his critical eye is focused abroad. In response to a question about how the war on terrorism might "constrict our freedoms," Chomsky embarks on a three-page rant about America's international crimes. In another interview he says, "I do not think [the war on terrorism] will lead to a long-term restriction of rights internally in any serious sense. The cultural and institutional barriers to that are too firmly rooted, I believe." It surely is not enough to satisfy Bennett, but that sounds dangerously close to acknowledging America's virtues.