Reflections on a Day of Infamy by Benjamin Kerstein
Who are we now, two years since our lives were touched by fire? What has America become since she was thrust into a conflict that had been brewing, silently but relentlessly, for over a decade before it tore a hole through New York City and the Pentagon? Are we better or worse? Stronger or weaker? These are the questions that plague me as I write today, in a foreign country, on the edge of the Negev Desert, at the border between two warring civilizations.
I don't care to waste my time recalling moments of horror and rage from the hours in which a lost generation saw its cheerful complacency consumed in shards of flame and glass. Such recollections will be thick on the ground in the coming days, and my meager memories cannot compete with those thousands who witnessed the atrocities themselves, or who suffered unfathomable losses both personal and psychological. I wish only to comment on the state of affairs as I see them now.
Initially, I was heartened and encouraged by the response of both my fellow Americans and the American government. President Bush seemed to instantly grasp the significance of the attacks and the necessity of a total realignment of priorities and interests in order to combat the phenomenon they represented. That phenomenon which has commonly been described as a "clash of civilizations", but is better seen as the rise to dominance within the civilization of Islam of fundamentalist, violent, and expressly imperialist forces. The president understood the fact that the attacks represented an existential challenge to liberal democracy and the umbrella civilization, secular, political and scientific, which is often grouped under the heading, however imperfect, of "the West".
On the part of many others, however, the response was more ambivalent and disturbing. There existed in the moment, and exists today, a not insubstantial percentage of the population (I would say somewhere between 25-35%) which reacted to the president's resolve and to the resolve of the majority of their fellow citizens with a mixture of dismay, perplexity, and, finally, anger. There seems to be a general assumption among this group that the West, such as it is, is simply not worth preserving, and the assault from without is merely symptomatic of the sickness within, as if Osama Bin Laden were a phenomenon of theoretical physics, bouncing back with equal and opposite force to every movement of Western power.
Even more horrifying, however, has been the reaction of America's artistic and intellectual elite, particularly centered in the universities and certain segments of the mass media. In this case, the collective consensus of this class was nothing less than treasonous. They grasped at Bin Laden as the catalytic factor that might at last bring about the revolution so long deferred. The brazenness with which they celebrated the slaughter of their fellow citizens, prayed for their country's defeat, and the ease with which they then slipped back into obscurity with nary a consequence was a sight which disturbed far too few Americans in the days immediately following the atrocity.
Worse still was the scene on the European continent, in which dark forces seemed to be unleashed, the likes of which have not been seen since the days of Weimer Germany. An eruption of anti-Semitism unprecedented since World War II presaged what can only be described as a confused, violent, riotous explosion of outer-directed self-loathing, concentrated most of all on the United States. Watching the Europeans excoriating America for the distinctly European sin of imperialism was like watching a pathetic auto-da-fe, the flagellents hell-bent on exorcising their demons in a petulant, spiteful act of collective suicide, and all accomplished in the name of the highest values of Western civilization.
Their extremist, one might even say fundamentalist, brand of humanism is a recent phenomenon, and it has been challenged as it has never been before by the assault of radical Islam, and, at every turn, it has failed to meet the challenge.
The clearest result of this failure has been the near total collapse of civic courage across the Western world. Belief in the axiomatic rectitude of one's civilization, which is the greatest strength of any civilization, has collapsed in the West, most particularly in elitist circles. One can see the constant, violent backstabbing that has come to be expected from the European nations and from domestic critics. They have made quite explicitly clear, in their violent hostility towards any defensive act on the part of the United States and their violent excoriation of any and all intellectual support for Western civilization against the assault of radical Islam, that they do not object to self-defense in details but in principle. They seem gripped by the belief that the West must consent to its own slaughter, as though it were the verdict of a heavenly tribunal. Their entire worldview, is, quite simply, powerless in the face of violent challenge, as indeed it was powerless 50 years ago against the hydra of Communism and Nazism.
The difference between then and now is that this fundamentalist brand of humanism has become the dominant ideology of the West. Unlike the national, religious, or historical values that once powered Western civilization, this new umbrella ideology lacks any discriminating power between faiths, factions, or ideas. All are considered equally valid and dignified, thus leaving judgment the only sin left on earth. And what the West needs now more than ever before is the capacity for judgment. Without judgment, there is no courage, and without courage there is no victory.
The argument can be made that this phenomenon is merely one of the elite, that the broad population of America (not to mention its president) have risen fully to the challenge despite the nagging of fringe groups and alienated elitists. I am not comforted by this assertion. Those advising surrender may be small in numbers, but they are firmly established in the universities and in many positions of power in government and media. They have great influence on the framing of debate and defining of terms that are so essential to political victory. The rise to political prominence of Howard Dean, a man who seems to lack any capacity for understanding, let alone facing, the threat of radical Islam or asserting the values of the West, speaks to the extraordinary coercive power of these small constituencies.
The truth, I fear, is that, at the moment at least, the West lacks something higher to fight for. A unifying force around which to coalesce. Something larger than merely the right to live in a society which considers all ideologies, however murderous, to be equally valid. The West needs a faith for which to do battle. Like Whittaker Chambers, I fear that the challenge of a fanatical, believing enemy may be too much for a civilization which has rejected belief as the domain of fanatics and madmen. I hope and pray that, like him, I am wrong.
September 11, 2003