Fighting at a Disadvantage

Bad cultural habits plague the West in the War on Terror

by Bruce S. Thornton

City Journal

Six years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we continue to hunt for those whose blunders let them happen. The latest addition to earlier investigations such as The 9/11 Commission Report and television’s Path to 9/11 is the recently released CIA report detailing the agency’s mistakes before the attacks. As with the earlier reports, this latest exposé of error and incompetence has prompted demands for scapegoats. Blaming some government employees might make us feel better, and of course we should identify blunders to avoid in the future. But punishing a few bureaucrats won’t do anything to correct the two larger, cultural dysfunctions — multiculturalism and the therapeutic sensibility — that leave us vulnerable to Islamic terror.

Let’s start with the ideology of multiculturalism, which has become pervasive, from university and grade-school curricula to Disney cartoons and the mainstream media. Don’t believe the spin that multiculturalism just recognizes the contributions of other cultures and ethnic minorities; the West has been doing that since Herodotus wrote admiringly about Egypt in 450 B.C. In fact, multiculturalism attacks the West as uniquely oppressive and destructive, all the while idealizing the non-Western “Other” as more authentically human and humane, more in tune with nature, more communal, and less materialistic than all those repressed Westerners enslaved to technology and the “cash nexus.”

Even a cursory survey of world history explodes these romantic clichés and noble-savage fantasies. The West’s sins have been the sins of humanity everywhere. But the goods of the West — political freedom, consensual government, human rights, rationalism, and respect for the individual, to name a few — are unique to the West and account for its success. Just ask the millions of non-Western Others who every year risk their lives to migrate to Europe and America, even as virtually nobody goes in the other direction.

Indeed, the ignorance of history makes multiculturalism possible. People who have never learned about the uniqueness of ancient Greece will make a bestseller out of a book like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which argues that the West’s ascendancy is an accident of geography and the distribution of plant and animal species. Such people won’t think to ask why the Greeks flourished, inventing consensual government and political freedom, when they shared the same climate, plants, and animals as the Egyptians and Persians.

In the post-9/11 context, and before it, multiculturalism predisposed many in the West to look on Muslims primarily as fascinating Others, victimized by Western racism, imperialism, and colonialism. We rationalize Islamic terror and place the blame for it elsewhere — on ourselves. We saw such self-flagellation in the days after 9/11, when numerous Western intellectuals, most notoriously ex–University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, blamed the terrorist attacks on American crimes and rationalized 9/11 as the “justice of roosting chickens,” as Churchill’s speech was titled.

The therapeutic sensibility that now dominates our public thinking reinforces this tendency to excuse Islamic terror. Unlike the old tragic vision of the classical West, which saw human suffering as the consequence of an imperfect human nature and our own bad choices, the therapeutic sensibility sees suffering as a temporary glitch caused by unjust social and economic structures. Evil is just a superstition, for people’s environments, not their own choices, cause destructive actions. The terrorists whom the unenlightened call “evil,” then, are themselves victims; we should assist them in reforming their unjust environments. Meanwhile, we ignore the numerous Islamists, from Sayyid Qutb to Osama bin Laden, who tell us very plainly why they want to destroy us: because we are infidels who must convert to Islam, live in submission to it, or die.

Such hypersensitivity compromises our fight against Islamic radicalism in a thousand ways, ranging from self-censorship — for example, the Washington Post’s recent refusal to run an innocuous installment of Berke Breathed’s comic strip Opus for fear of offending Muslims — to politically correct warfare that refuses to accept the brutality, destruction, and death that have always been the cargo of war. We have seen such self-defeating behavior repeatedly in Iraq, where the Army’s rules of engagement have made U.S. forces hesitant to fire on mosques even though terrorists frequently use minarets as firing platforms. To the extent that we remain unable to recognize both the precious goods of our own culture and the destructive dysfunctions of the enemy’s, we will continue to fight at a disadvantage. And 9/11 will be not just a bad memory of our past, but also the harbinger of our future.

©2007 Bruce S. Thornton

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