Bombers and Blamers

A moral muddle on the left


The bomings in London on July 7, which killed 53 people and injured many more, were a powerful reminder that terrorism remains a clear and present threat in our cities. But they were also, to me, a reminder of something else. As annoying as I frequently find the right these days, with its cynical partisanship, its arrogance of power, and its politics of religious zealotry, my discontent with conservatives will never send me into the liberal camp—because the response to terrorism even on the moderate left remains an egregious moral muddle.

Perhaps the starkest illustration of this mindset is the fact that, only a couple of days after the bombings, the British Broadcasting Corporation reverted to its policy of avoiding the use of the word "terrorist." According to BBC guidelines, the T-word "can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding," and "careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgments" ought to be avoided.

Here in the United States, the initial wave of sympathy and outrage was quickly followed by attempts to pin the blame on the West, and on America in particular. In a letter to The New York Times published on July 9, one New Yorker proudly described his comments to a Dutch television news crew that interviewed him on the New York subway immediately after the bombings. When asked if he believed New York would be attacked again, he replied in the affirmative. Why? "Because the US is hated now more than ever. Even some of our allies sort of hate us." And why is that? "We invaded Iraq, which has never attacked us or declared war on us."

In other words: If we're attacked again, it will be our fault (just as, presumably, the London bombings are the fault of British Prime Minister Tony Blair for lending his support to the war in Iraq).

The Times letter-writer is hardly alone in his views. Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and a leading left-of-center commentator on the Middle East, argues on his website and in an article at Salon.com that the London bombings are "blowback" from the US and its allies' misguided policies. Cole pooh-poohs the idea that Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is a product of hatred for the West's democratic values. In his view, it is a response to specific Western policies that are perceived as a war against Muslims, from Israeli oppression of the Palestinians to the military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, took place before the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Cole tries to make the case, citing the 9/11 Commission report, that Sept. 11 was "punishment on the United States for supporting Ariel Sharon's iron fist policies toward the Palestinians." Yet the report makes it clear that planning for the attacks had been underway for about two years before Sharon became prime minister of Israel in March 2001, though Osama bin Laden evidently wanted to move up the operation in response to Sharon's actions. And the radical Islamic terror network first struck New York City in 1993.

Other myopic responses abound. A few commentators insist on a moral equivalence between the deaths of Iraqi civilians in US military operations with the deaths of civilians in the London bombings. Yet the US military and its allies have made every effort to minimize civilian casualties; the deliberate killing of Iraqi civilians is overwhelmingly the work of so-called insurgents who drive explosive-packed cars into crowds of children while American soldiers hand out candy.

Meanwhile, on Fox News's Hannity & Colmes, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is asked whether the evil of terrorism can be fought by other than military means, and gives this reply: "Well, you know, we found an end to slavery, which is evil, without killing the slave masters." We did? Maybe Jackson has forgotten about the Civil War, in which the US military targeted civilians to a degree unimaginable in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

It is certainly true that the war in Iraq has been mishandled; it may have been misguided in the first place. It is, regrettably, true that the cavalier attitude toward prisoner abuse has undermined our moral authority in the war on terror. But acknowledging our mistakes and misdeeds should not undercut moral clarity when it comes to terrorism. The jihadists are driven primarily by hatred of Western civilization and its freedom; their primary targets are innocent civilians; and they cannot be defeated except by force.