Thomas Fleming on the 9/11 attack
As further indication of the current intellectual state of the paleolibertarian and paleocon right, namely an alienation that, since the September 11th attack, seems to have blossomed into a full-fledged anti-American mania, our readers may be interested in this article by Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming. When I first saw the article in the fall of 2001, I was too shocked to dwell on it and laid it aside. A few months later, in early 2002, I overcame my distaste and went back and carefully read the whole thing, interspersing Fleming’s text with my own comments and sharing the resulting composite document with a few friends. Here, without further editing, is that same document, with my comments bolded and bracketed.
On a personal note, I should point out that I learned and profited much from Chronicles from October 1987, when with a sense of having found an intellectual home I read my first issue (the theme of which was Imperialism, including an article on Polybius which inspired me to read that great historian), to about 1990. Thereafter, to my regret, I found it an increasingly cranky and less useful magazine. For example, during the national debate over President Clinton’s health care insurance proposals in 1993, Chronicles came out with a special issue on the subject. I eagerly opened it hoping to see a social-conservative alternative to Clinton’s socialistic plan, but found instead a collection of odd-ball articles offering no constructive ideas. Then there was Fleming’s weird Serbo-centric view of the world, and the increasingly malevolent tone of the magazine as a whole. The final straw came in 1994. Chronicles had sent a questionnaire to its subscribers asking their suggestions on possible improvements in the magazine, which were certainly needed. I filled out the questionnaire and sent it back. Then, in evident response to the subscribers’ comments which the magazine itself had solicited, Fleming in the October 1994 issue wrote a column telling his readers that he didn’t give a damn what they thought. This was a perversity too far for me, and I subsequently ended my subscription. Thereafter I hardly looked at the magazine, until in the fall of 2001 someone sent me this article.
THE PORNOGRAPHY OF COMPASSION AND THE COST OF EMPIRE
It has been a few days since our morning coffees were interrupted by news of an airliner crashing into the World Trade Center, several hours of non-stop replays of planes crashing, skyscrapers collapsing, trapped office workers jumping out of windows to their death, countless hours of cell phone calls from doomed stewardesses and passengers, of human-interest interviews with hysterical survivors and sobbing relatives, two full days of Peter and Tom and Dan and Barbara and Shep talking constantly without saying anything more significant than “How did it feel,” or “Senseless and tragic.”
[Coffees interrupted? He’s trivializing the event, suggesting that its only significance to people is that it disturbs their usual mundane routine. This whole paragraph is crazy; the media was in fact much better than its usual self in the days following the attack. More importantly, he is mocking this mass catastrophe and the news coverage of it as though it were just some stupid and annoying show arranged to manipulate people’s feelings. One wonders how Fleming would have covered it if he were running a news network. Maybe devote all the coverage to the Serb angle?]
If we did not already know that there was something wrong in our national character, our response to the events of September 11 would be enough to convince any sane person: melodramatic commiseration, bewilderment, panic. [What is he talking about? This was the biggest, most shocking and destructive act of violence in American history and the greatest terrorist act in all of history. You get the feeling that he simply hates everyone.] Many pundits and politicians are already talking about nuclear strikes against Afghanistan (though the Israelis prefer Iraq), but this boldness is hardly matched by the federal agencies that have kept most flights on the ground for fear of a second round.
What are the stark facts? That probably Islamic terrorists, belonging to organizations that routinely kill innocent people and have sworn an oath against the “Christian” United States, succeeded in taking over several airplanes and crashed three of them into three buildings, causing the death of some thousands of people. It is a terrible thing to happen, for the victims and their families, for the people living in New York and Washington, and it raises serious questions, both about the competence of U.S. intelligence and the wisdom of our foreign policy—questions that no one either in the media or in government is likely to address. But, and I do not mean this cynically at all, 5 to 10,000 dead people is not the end of the world for the global economic community that is absorbing the sovereignty of national states. The very least that we can say is that death is the price of empire.
[Ok, everyone has his own special take on the attack. Whatever your gripe with America is, you’re going to see the attack as just deserts for it. So Fleming’s gripe is empire, and he says this mass murder is the “price” that must be paid for it. It took him less than three paragraphs to join the ranks of the “root causes” theorists.]
Human life cannot be reduced to a set of statistics, but it is important to keep things in proportion. Something like 8 to 10,000 people die every day in America, and that figure does not include the approximately 4,000 babies killed by abortion. Roughly 150,000 people die every day around the world. Perhaps 40 to 50,000 die every year in the United States in traffic accidents, but we do not go into national shock for them. Of course, traffic fatalities are accidental, and the terrorist strike in New York and Washington, D.C., was cold-blooded murder. The President says this is a war. If that is true, the first obvious fact to note is that men die in a war—5,000 Americans soldiers died at Antietam. But soldiers are not the only ones who die during war: How many civilians died when the allies unleashed firebombs on Dresden or when the United States dropped nuclear missiles on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
[These are the words of a nihilist. The same kind of things could be said about any crime, that it’s no big deal because lots of crimes have occurred. Fleming here is in the same moral swamp (but worse, because this involves mass murder) as the Clinton defenders who kept saying “everyone does it,” a phrase that means the end of all moral judgment. And remember that Fleming is a self-described Christian.]
[In fact the same could be said about any mass murder. After all, Fleming would say, 54 million people die every year, so why make such a big deal about 65 million political murders committed by the Chinese Communists, or the 20 million committed by the USSR, or the 5 million committed by Vietnam, North Korea and Cambodia, or the six million Jews murdered by Hitler?]
We speak so glibly of “terrorism” without reflecting on the obvious fact that throughout history, most terrorism has been carried out by governments and not by private conspiracies. Terrorism is the attack on the lives of non-combatants in order to demoralize a people and its leaders and change their policies. What was the Dresden firebombing, which killed 40,000 civilians, but an attempt to persuade the German people to repudiate their government? [This is not correct. The bombing of Dresden may have been a war crime, but it was not terrorism. Terrorism is an attack on a civil order not coming from enemy armies in time of war, but coming in the midst of a civilian population from invisible sources, so that the civil order itself is threatened and people become demoralized.] The object of the attacks on New York and Washington was not to kill people but to demoralize our people and our government, and although American businessmen are responding to the challenge with their customary zest and courage, the American government is proving itself both morally and intellectually incapable of understanding, much less dealing with the crisis.
[Many thoughtful people, not just anti-Americans, agree that the Dresden firebombing was a terrible thing, even a war crime. Paul Johnson, an admirer of Churchill, believes it was a war crime. But it is sick to bring up any past crimes that occurred in the midst of a terrible war against Nazi Germany as some kind of relativization of a present crime against us. That means the end of morality, the end of society, the law of the jungle. He’s saying that as long as America is a superpower in the world, we must expect such attacks. That implies that until we dismantle our whole current order, we “deserve” such attacks. But how are we to dismantle it? I agree in opposing the universalist order that America is constructing, and I want to see us disengage as far as possible from the world while we get our own house in order. But complete disengagement is not possible; America happens to be the strongest power in the world at the moment and that entails certain responsibilities that we cannot abandon. But Fleming implies that until we withdraw completely within ourselves, as though this were pre-1898 America, that we are “asking for it.”]
[The bottom line is, Fleming hates empire. For Fleming empire is the most evil thing. Therefore anyone engaging in empire has placed himself outside the moral law and deserves whatever happens to him. It is the same kind of ideological murder committed by those who believe that white racists deserve whatever comes to them, or that property owners deserve whatever happens to them, or that Jews deserve whatever happens to them. For the ideologist, anyone on the “wrong” side of his ideology is simply the enemy.]
The politicians and the commentators say they are shocked and outraged by this callous disregard of human life. But these same people, not long ago, were justifying the U.S. bombing of civilians in Iraq [no, we weren’t justifying the bombing of civilians in Iraq; we were attacking Iraqi military and government power in order to remove their threat to the Saudi oil fields, to get the Iraqis to withdraw from Kuwait, and to eliminate their ability to create weapons of mass destruction with which they threatnened the world] and Yugoslavia and the U.S. embargo of Iraq that has killed over 1.5 million non-combatants and to make matters worse, prominent politicians are calling for a no-holds barred attack on nations—including their women and children—that harbor terrorists. The cost in human life of Serbs killed in the NATO attack was a mere 1,500, but 1,500 out of the Serb population of 8 million represents roughly 20 to 40 times the maximum death rate projected for the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. You can’t have it both ways. If generic human life is precious, that means the lives of Iraqis and Serbs and Afghans are precious, not just the lives of Americans.
[First an overall point. If you’re just adding up numbers of deaths to arrive at equivalances of moral wrong, then you are divorcing those deaths from any moral equation. This is the kind of thing that hitherto only liberals and pacifists engaged in. But now Fleming is suggesting that, for example, the deaths of civilians during the Normandy invasion is as great a moral wrong as the deaths in the World Trade Center. After all, the nihilists say, aren’t all deaths wrong?]
[The second point is more particular. I believe what the U.S. did in Serbia was one of the worst things the U.S. ever did. I do not believe the same thing about Iraq—and by the way, Fleming’s statement that the U.S. has “killed” 1.5 million Iraqis is pure propaganda that has acquired the authority of holy scripture in anti-American circles on the right and left. The reality is that Iraq was placed under an economic embargo intended to make it obey the agreements it had signed in 1991 to destroy its WMDs and allow inspections of same. Hussein could have ended the embargo any time he wanted. He also could have spent his funds on social needs and reduced deaths but he spent it on acquiring WMDs. Furthermore, the embargo was mandated by the U.N., the adversary of the “imperial” U.S. So the supposed wrong of the embargo has nothing to do with the attack on America. Anyone who tries to make such connections, once again, would leave us in the jungle, since different people have different grievances, and each of these grievances could be then used to rationalize mass murder.]
It is precisely U.S. policies toward Muslim peoples that has got us to this point: We support their enemy in the Middle East, while pampering Muslims everywhere else in the world where they are practicing genocide against Christians. Osama bin Laden is not the problem. The problem is an international religion that defines itself by its hatred of Christianity and that elevates the terrorist to the pinnacle of sainthood. I do not think we should be demonizing Muslims, but I do think we have to acknowledge that as a group, to the extent that they are sincere in their faith, they are our enemy.
[Well, he finally said something I agree with: if it’s our actions toward Muslims that have brought this on, it is not our anti-Muslim policies, but our pro-Muslim policies. This definitely distinguishes Fleming from the legions of anti-Israelites who have been following the pied pipers Buchanan and Sobran into moral darkness. Islam or radical Islam is the enemy. The Islamists want to destroy us because of what we are and because of what they are; not because of “empire” and not because of U.S. friendship to Israel.]
And what an enemy! While we are hyping ourselves into hormonal hysteria over the death of people we do not know, they are training for the next assault. [Hormonal hysteria? He’s mocking people’s grief over the greatest act of violence and destruction in America’s history?] As Srdja Trifkovic pointed out, imagine what sort of will these terrorists possess, to spend months in the fleshpots of Florida with only one thought: How to die killing the most Americans. No group of communists could possibly have been entrusted with such a mission. For so many intelligent men to will their own deaths is proof, living and dying proof, both of their resolve and of the power of their religion. [He admires their version of Islam which makes mass murder of innocents a virtue? He’s not saying this is a sick and perverted form of religion; he’s calling it, admiringly, the “power of the their religion.”]
I do not envy them their contempt for human life. [“Envy” is a very strange concept to bring in here, which suggests that Fleming “protests too much.” The fact that he has to deny gratuitously that he “envies” these mass murderers suggests that he really does envy them in some way, because they are acting out the same scorching hatred of America that boils in his own breast.] Christianity teaches the contrary message, the value of human life and the preciousness of human souls. [Amazing. He strikes these Christian notes after contemptuously dismissing the importance of the 9/11 murders and mocking as “hormonal hysteria” people’s grief over the spectacle of scores of people being forced to leap to their deaths from a 1,000 foot high office building.] And, although Christianity is a universal faith, it does not (unlike libertarianism) teach us to despise our neighbors and fellow-countrymen as nothing more than buyers and sellers in a planetary economic system. The thousands of Americans who died so terribly in the WTC and the Pentagon are important to us, not merely because they are generically human but because they are American. [These words ring absolutely false coming after his big point at the beginning that the deaths were no big deal.] Unfortunately, they were working in a symbol of a global system that seeks not to transcend but to destroy all petty loyalties to nations and religions.
No, the problem is not Osama bin Laden or even U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. The larger threats are represented by insurgent Islam and by an American leadership that views other nations and traditions as only so much land to be homesteaded. The events of September represent one battle in an ongoing war between two systems that seek to take over the earth: Islam and the post-Christian religion that leftists see as a planetary state and “conservatives” see as benevolent American hegemony.
[I agree with the overall idea that there are two global ideologies in conflict here. The difference is that I nevertheless condemn the 9/11 attack as a horrible crime whose perpetrators must be rooted out and killed, while Fleming, having dismissed and mocked the deaths and shown his hatred for America, is not believable when he tries to do the same.]
The temptation is to make scapegoats of all the Muslims and Arabs (including Christian Arabs) or blame the Israelis for getting us into this mess. Mobs have attacked Muslims on the street [What is he referring to? something in America? I haven’t heard of it], and in Australia, the yahoos burned down a Lebanese church. What an irony for the Lebanese, to have escaped Islamic persecution in Lebanon only to be persecuted as Muslims in a Christian country. If Christianity has anything to teach us, it is that people are not “symbols” but human beings, and the fact that a human being may work for George Soros in New York or live in Iraq or Afghanistan does not provide the slightest justification for murdering him. [He says this now, but the whole tone of the article belies it.] If we are to draw any lessons from these past few days, it should begin with a national self-examination of what we think we are doing in the world. As our local talk show host Chris Bowman said amid all the rejoicing the day the Berlin Wall came down, “If America is now the only remaining superpower, it means we are the only remaining target for every terrorist group that is dissatisfied with the way the world is going.”
[This last remark is chillingly correct. I’ve seen Arabs interviewed on television say things like “America is number one, America runs everything, so my grievance (whatever it is) is America’s fault.” This by the way is exactly the thought process of many blacks, who believe whites are all powerful and therefore everything that happens in the world, including everything that happens to blacks, is whites’ responsibility. When a white teacher in Jersey City pointed out to his black pupils how impossible it would be for the police to have engineered the whole frameup of OJ Simpson that his students accused them of, one boy replied, “Mr. Gerson, these are the police. they can do anything.” Muslims view America in the same terms as blacks do. And that in their minds justifies any atrocity committed against America.]
September 11, 2001, is a graver crisis than December 7, 1941. [Again, this comment rings false after his opening in which trivialized the event as “interrupting our morning coffee.”] Of course FDR did his best to get us into the war, but once we are attacked by Japan and war was declared by Germany, the course of action was very plain. Today, however, we do not precisely know who the enemy is, and if we choose to respond in kind, we may be facing more terrible acts of terrorism within the United States. More than rumor suggests that Islamic terrorists have stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Any coherent strategy would include: 1) a courageous PR demonstration by American political leaders going to New York and facing possible assassination, coupled with an immediate return to normalcy; 2) a crackdown on Muslims entering the country and a review of all non-citizens in America whose countries of origin are the source of Islamic terrorism—this includes Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and not just Iraq and Afghanistan; 3) a tough new policy in the Middle East forcing the Sharon administration to withdraw all Israeli settlers from occupied lands and return to Israel’s original borders; [Two points: First, in the last paragraph he said the Israel situation is not the cause of this, now he’s saying it is. Second, excuse me, but (like all other leftist peaceniks and rightist Israel-bashers), Fleming has conveniently forgotten the eight-year “peace process” involving exactly the kind of extreme concessions he’s now urging, as if they hadn’t already been tried with catastrophic results. Israel offered to give the Golan Heights—crucial to its security—back to Syria, and Syria in return demanded rights to the Sea of Galilee as well! Israel offered a pullback from virtually the entire West Bank, and Arafat instead of making a counter-offer or demanding that the West Bank settlers be removed as part of the deal, launched this demonic intifada in which Israeli authorities are forced to shoot at mobs containing children throwing rocks. The demand that Israel simply withdraw now, after Arab intentions have been made so undeniably plain, is nothing less than a demand that Israel commit suicide. So, having forced Israel into that situation, will the U.S. save her once she’s facing a catastrophic attack and extermination? If so, that would require our coming to her defense once again, which would lead back to exactly the kind of “support for Israel” that supposedly has made the Arabs hate us in the first place.] 4) a swift and violent response against the terrorists and their state sponsors—but only once we have actually determined the facts. [I wonder how he can support U.S. military action even in theory, given the fact that he’s already labeled our entire system as the global world order that he says is as bad as radical Islam.]
What we will do, in fact, will be the opposite. We will rush to the support of Israel [In fact Bush took the unprecedented step by a U.S. president of openly calling for a Palestianian state; thus he rewarded the intifada and the terror attack on America] without doing anything about the threat of Muslims resident in the United States; [yes, we’re doing nothing about the Muslims here but instead of making toleration of Muslims the very center of our national project] we will refuse to impose a policy of ethnic profiling, but we will strip ordinary Americans of their civil liberties; [yes, that’s what we’re doing] and we will probably kill thousands of civilians who had nothing to do with the attacks. Welcome to the Bush family’s New World Order.
If we are to be an empire, so be it. That choice is not up to me—and probably not up to any of us. But if the United States continues to walk down this road, we had better throw away the crying towels and tear up all those human-interest stories the networks are so fond of. In the cost-benefit calculation of empires, the death of 5 to 10,000 of our fellow-citizens (an outmoded concept) counts for nothing.
[I agree with the underlying point: that the American universal empire should be abandoned, that we should redefine ourselves as a particular nation and civilization and disengage as far as possible from the Muslim world, which would include disengaging Muslims from our world as well.]
[In conclusion, Fleming has made a handful of good points toward the end of the article. But they are overwhelmed by the perversity that constitutes the bulk of the article.]