Foreign Policy

Know Your Evildoers

The search for clarity in a more complex world

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An anniversary such as Sept. 11 seems almost designed to bring forth platitudes: stock phrases about the day the world changed forever, about how none of us will ever forget where we were and what we were doing when we heard about the attack on the World Trade Center.

For a brief time after Sept. 11, two things stood out as perhaps the most immediate consequences of the tragedy. One, it seemed that partisan, ideological, and identity-based divisions in American society would decline steeply. The attacks on New York and Washington were attacks on all of us; as Americans, we were all in the same boat. Two, it seemed that the war on terror was going to usher in an era of moral clarity. There was no ambiguity about the fact that hijacking airplanes and flying them into buildings full of innocent human beings was evil. There were no gray areas of right and wrong (except among a handful of people on the far left who were quick to see the attacks as an understandable and perhaps justified response to American imperialism).

Neither the unity nor the clarity lasted long.

Today, rancorous partisanship is one of the defining features of American political life, and the debate about the practical and moral aspects of the West's response to terrorism abounds with questions to which there are no clear answers.

Take, for instance, the comparisons of the radical Islamic terror network to the threat once posed to democracies by Nazism and by communism. Some say that the analogy is ridiculous, and that a network of a few thousand people with guns and homemade bombs can hardly be equated with Hitler's war machine or the nuclear missile-armed Soviet empire. Others argue that the Nazi and Soviet parallels may underrate the terrorist threat, since today's enemy is far more amorphous, dispersed in our very midst, and likely, like the hydra in Greek myth, to sprout new heads to replace severed ones. Each side in this debate has strong and convincing arguments.

Or take national security versus civil liberties and the rules of civilized warfare. Many conservatives argue that the magnitude of the threat necessitates an indefinite state of emergency in which our survival may require expanding the government's power of surveillance, limiting the rights of suspects, and curbing the disclosure of sensitive information in the media. Liberals and libertarians argue just as passionately that if we compromise our freedoms and our ethics, we will lose the very things that make our civilization worth fighting for.

While I support the libertarian argument and agree that the terrorist threat has been used for demagogic purposes, I don't think conservative warnings can be dismissed out of hand. But can we dismiss a scenario in which only wiretapping could prevent another Sept. 11?

Or take the relationship between Islamic radicalism (including terrorism) and Islam itself. There is much evidence that extremist attitudes in Islam today are not limited to a fringe but represent a powerful strain in many Muslim societies. But when does recognition of the deep-rooted problems in contemporary Muslim culture turn into a bigotry as vile as the anti-Semitism spouted by much of the press in the Muslim world?

In recent years, I have encountered criticism for being wishy-washy, with some bloggers parodying my columns as perpetual on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand vacillation. I can take the heat, but we've come to a sad pass when an attempt to see several sides of an immensely complicated issue is seen as unprincipled or weak-minded. In today's political climate, both commentators and audiences are all too likely to tune out not only arguments but facts that challenge their perceptions.

Perhaps this polarization is itself a legacy of Sept. 11. Perhaps, after the horror and destruction of that day, we are still looking for black-and-white moral clarity, only different people see black and white on different sides. For some, "evildoers" include not only foreign enemies but liberals and leftists at home; for others, absolute evil resides in the White House itself. Ironically, today's more diverse—and more fractured—media contribute to the polarized discourse, allowing people to stay in comfortable ideological niches.

Some of the tensions and dichotomies we confront today may be tragic paradoxes with no good answers. Yet in many cases, solutions that transcend the either/or and address both sides of the issue are possible—as long as one is willing to look at both sides.