Remembering 9/11: The End of Civil Liberties, the Orientalist Critique, & Irony; Plus, How Reason Created the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh


Throughout this week, we'll be posting old and new Reason material related to the 9/11 attacks.

To see a snapshot of what Reason.com (then called Reason Online) looked like in December 2001, go here.

Reason's December 2001 issue, which hit newsstands in late October, was the first edition featuring the current design of the magazine, which was overseen by Wired's co-founder, Louis Rossetto, who had started reading Reason shortly after its start in 1968. Read a Village Voice interview with Rossetto about the redesign.

The issue was devoted to the effects of the 9/11 attacks on domestic and foreign policy and the whole megillah started with this haunting quote from the architect of the razed World Trade Center:

"The World Trade Center should…because of its importance, become a living representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men, and through this cooperation his ability to find greatness."

— World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1987)

The cover story was a series of interviews that asked a "panel of experts" (our regrettable term) on whether civil liberties would be a casuality in the war on terrorism. The consensus? Yup, though not necessarily. In my mind, I remembered the statements being much more fear-filled. In fact, they are mostly refreshingly measured and prescient in describing the continuing and serious low-grade attack on freedom. 


…No liberty is in danger so long as we are willing to preserve it. But I think the biggest danger is to the presumption of innocence. Defensive precautions against terrorism involve, unavoidably, a presumption of guilt. That's tolerable at airport security checks, but the trick will be to keep this approach from infecting all of law enforcement—even in areas that have nothing to do with terrorism.

To judge by the proposed legislation before Congress as I write, that infection is already happening at the Justice Department….

Glenn Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee, and writes for the Web site InstaPundit.com….

In the War on Drugs, many rights-curtailing measures fall disproportionately on members of racial minorities who fit stereotypical "profiles." Likewise, in the stepped-up "War on Terrorism," the most endangered rights will probably be those of ethnic and religious minorities who are targeted not because of individualized suspicion, but only because of stereotypes. The most beleaguered are likely to be Arabic or Islamic individuals who are not American citizens.

Nadine Strossen, a professor at New York Law School, is president of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In this era of political correctness where the ordinary practices of today become the crimes of tomorrow, it is dangerous to have that view. Perhaps you may want to trust the government to have access to your innermost views. But what do you suppose will happen when you determine that the government has become too repressive and it must be replaced? What do you suppose will happen to you when governmental officials find out your views before you have had a chance to act upon them?

Paul M. Weyrich is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Free Congress Research and Education Foundation….

In the same issue, Charles Paul Freund wrote about how the 9/11 attacks mooted the Orientalist critique of Western attitudes toward the Middle East and Asia and ushered in a grim need to understand the "Occidentalist critique" that Islamic radicals had toward the West:

Orientalism, the systematic stereotyping and degradation of Easterners that dehumanized them in the eyes of the West, enabled the colonial powers not only to mistreat whole populations, but also, in some of the West's blackest moments, to slaughter them in horrifying numbers. What makes it possible to commandeer passenger planes filled with innocent travelers, including children, and use them as bombs to murder thousands of people in office buildings? It is a systematic stereotyping and degradation of Westerners that dehumanizes them, and makes their death a pious deed for some and a cause for celebration for others. It is Occidentalism.

The phenomenon of Islamic Occidentalism has received almost no attention from the academe, and less from the Orientalist critique. The term exists in academic discourse, but there is not even a consensus about its meaning. To some, it describes the process by which the West flatters itself in positive terms. For others, it is the process by which people of the East, especially the Far East, idealize the West and overlook its flaws. There are few scholars to whom the term suggests a process by which an Easterner might utterly misconceive the West and its citizens, much less do them an injustice….

Occidentalism…becomes quite useful, because the unavoidable fact is that Islamism has proved a failure. Far from establishing a benign, new relationship between rulers and people along traditional theological lines, political Islamism's most notable characteristic is repression. As the author Olivier Roy argued as long ago as 1992, the two models of Islamism from which to choose are the Saudi model of "revenue plus sharia" (the Islamic code of law) and the Sudanese model of "unemployment plus sharia." But Islamists cannot think that way and continue their struggle. Occidentalism provides part of that struggle's continuing justification.

In fact, the Orientalist critique may have played an indirect role as well. Islamism's failure is only the latest in a string of Eastern political failures that now extend over half a century. The East's own scholars have yet to confront this history in a sustained way. Rather, they have engaged in an Orientalist critique of their own, often drawing on the arguments of Western thinkers and blaming their problems on the West. Western scholars might ask themselves to what degree their work is less a critique of Western power than an enabler for Eastern failure.

Read the whole thing here.

Tim Cavanaugh took aim at the grand pronouncement that beyond the ultimately incalculable loss of life,  the 9/11 attacks had killed irony too:

In a 21st century update of the regrettably mistaken maxim that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, the end-of-irony announcement swept the nation with force and flatulence.

"One good thing could come from this horror: It could spell the end of the age of irony," wrote Roger Rosenblatt, essayist for Time and Jim Lehrer's Newshour. "For some 30 years—roughly as long as the Twin Towers were upright—the good folks in charge of America's intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously." That self-scolding sentiment was echoed around the country, perhaps second only to the canard that we had been punished for our "isolationism."…

But what Rosenblatt—author of a memoir of attending Harvard during the Vietnam War and the new, fret-filled Rules for Aging—has in mind isn't really a rejection of Juvenalian satire but a scolding of a younger crew that never took generational spokesmen like himself seriously. Note that his chosen time frame of "the last 30 years" coincides neatly with the decline of baby boomer impregnability, as a new cohort has been willing to ignore the nuncios and Kodak moments of the '68ers.

And now those same spoiled little pricks even have their own galvanizing national tragedy, one that in less than two hours reduced not only the Kennedy assassination and Kent State but even Pearl Harbor to relative insignificance. What has vanished from the earth isn't irony or skepticism. It's the ability of the generational priesthood to keep claiming that kids today never had it tough.

More here.

By the end of 2001, whatever national unity was forged in the days immediately after the attacks had been dissolved by The Patriot Act, the invasion of Afghanistan, and more. One of the oddest moments came when National Review's Jonah Goldberg fingered me as in some way responsible for the likes of John Walker Lindh, a.k.a. "the American Taliban," a rich kid from Marin County who had somehow become an Islamic fundamentalist and warrior.

In a piece titled "Freedom Kills" (seriously), Goldberg warned of the specifically "libertarian threat" posed by acknowledging that "Chinese-Menu Culture" (i.e., picking and choosing among various traditions) is easier to engage in than ever. Goldberg notes that the American-turned-Islamic-radical Lindh was the poster child for this phenomenon. But no one dast blame Little Johnny Lindy, averred Goldberg: "The real villains…are to be found elsewhere, and John Walker is a logical consequence of their political agenda. You see, the real enemy isn't…cultural liberalism….It's the cultural libertarianism that is rapidly replacing liberalism as the real threat to America, and the true opposition to conservatism."

From a December 14, 2001 response by me:

While it's undeniably true that politics makes strange bedfellows, I had no reason before this past Wednesday to ever think that I'd find myself rolling in the hay with John Walker, a.k.a. John Lindh, a.k.a. the "Taliban's Frisco Kid" (as one West Coast newspaper waggishly dubbed him).

I owe the unexpected coupling to Jonah Goldberg, perhaps the only reason to skim National Review now that the final Fatima secret has been revealed (well, along with Aloise Buckley Heath's Edgar Allan Poe-like Christmas stories and Mal's similarly gothic cartoons)….

Besides me and Walker, Goldberg also had well-known politico-moral degenerates Andrew Sullivan and Virginia Postrel hitting the sheets. Though [we] have our differences, Goldberg says we all promiscuously espouse "a form of arrogant nihilism" that insists "we should all start believing in absolutely nothing."…

What Goldberg can't acknowledge is that human history has always been a search for such "designer cultures"–what is different today is that, certainly in an American context and increasingly in a global one, larger numbers of people are able to do what only kings and priests once could: Live life on something approaching their own terms. For all sorts of reasons–greater wealth, generally higher levels of education, technological innovation–individuals have gained more of what Nobel economist James Buchanan has described as a right of "exit" from systems that serve them poorly (the Afghan people are among the most recent beneficiaries). Such a right inscribes tolerance and respect and is rightly seen as the crowning triumph of the "Western values" Goldberg and other conservatives claim to be worried about. By all accounts, it was exactly this sort of "decadence" that enraged bin Laden's gang about the U.S.

Believing in tolerance–and in allowing people to pursue and discover their own definition of happiness to the greatest extent possible while maintaining peace–is not believing in "absolutely nothing." True, it does rob conservatives of ex cathedra pronouncements–and recourse to force–when attacking those different than them. (By the same token, they're free to make their case.)

Whatever. Go ask the English sectarians of the 17th century who developed the ideas of tolerance in the first place if freedom from forced systems of belief made them less thoughtful or ardent in their faith. Indeed, it had quite the opposite effect, and their libertarian legacy certainly doesn't underwrite John Walker's extremism–even as it continues to fire up righteous contempt from the Taliban and latter-day conservatives of all stripes.

As a side note, Goldberg, who is a very good sport and one of the most consistently productive writers of this or any other era, has become more libertarianish over the past decade, as Reason's Ronald Bailey noted in this post at Hit & Run.

To read previous entries in Remembering 9/11 and related stories, go here.