The Confused Post Hoc Rationalizations of Robert Wright
Robert Wright’s recent op-ed in the New York Times has the feel of a post hoc argument and is, simply put, confused.
The American right and left reacted to 9/11 differently. Their respective responses were, to oversimplify a bit: “kill the terrorists” and “kill the terrorism meme.”
Conservatives backed war in Iraq, and they’re now backing an escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Liberals (at least, dovish liberals) have warned in both cases that killing terrorists is counterproductive if in the process you create even more terrorists; the object of the game isn’t to wipe out every last Islamist radical but rather to contain the virus of Islamist radicalism.
Wright never gets around to explaining the positive steps that the left would employ; perhaps he means the general “be nicer” approach that would “contain the virus of Islamist radicalism” in a pink, sticker-covered envelope of love. His argument is constructed entirely in a negative light, explaining what he sees as the shortcomings of the approach of the right, as described succinctly in the second paragraph of the above quotation. Of course, Wright also wants to leave room for this morsel:
Concerns about homegrown terrorism may sound like wild extrapolation from limited data. After all, in the eight years since 9/11, none of America’s several million Muslims had committed violence on this scale.
That’s a reminder that, contrary to right-wing stereotype, Islam isn’t an intrinsically belligerent religion. Still, this sort of stereotyping won’t go away, and it’s among the factors that could make homegrown terrorism a slowly growing epidemic. The more Americans denigrate Islam and view Muslims in the workplace with suspicion, the more likely the virus is to spread — and each appearance of the virus in turn tempts more people to denigrate Islam and view Muslims with suspicion. Whenever you have a positive feedback system like this, an isolated incident can put you on a slippery slope.
And the Fort Hood shooting wasn’t the only recent step along that slope. Six months ago a 24-year-old American named Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad — Carlos Bledsoe before his teenage conversion to Islam — fatally shot a soldier outside a recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark. …
Both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were supposed to reduce the number of anti-American terrorists abroad. It’s hardly clear that they’ve succeeded, and they may have had the opposite effect. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ledger, they’ve inspired homegrown terrorism — a small-scale incident in June, a larger-scale incident this month. That’s only two data points, but I don’t like the slope of the line connecting them.
So conducting large-scale wars against terrorists and their allies in foreign lands will result in a backlash of lone gunmen, and yet, it’s also the case that Muslims aren’t inclined toward violence. To square this circle, Wright must mean to indicate that Americans have been accelerating both their wars and their workplace distrust over the last decade, thus pushing the peaceful Muslims to the brink. Personally, I see zero evidence of such developments. The wars have remained limited to the range that President Bush first articulated in his Axis of Evil speech, and the news is hardly peppered with reports of anti-Muslim violence or bias.
And again: What could “containing the virus of Islamist radicalism” possibly mean if we insist that it has nothing to do with Islam?
It’s odd that Wright limits himself to two incidents of isolated Muslim shooters. If we include the Washington sniper and that guy who shot up an Israeli airline ticket counter at a Los Angeles airport, both in 2002, there’s less of a slope than a periodic blip. Contrast that with the clear and gradual progression of Islamofascist terrorism against American interests in the decade leading up to 9/11, which the War on Terror plainly arrested.
At best, Wright could claim that a strong military response to terrorism has as one of its costs occasional small-scale incidents of domestic violence. The case for the leftists’ (undescribed) alternative approach is hollow, inasmuch as there’s no reason to believe that the information flow that brings enemy propaganda to the home front works in reverse. For one thing, suppressing the “Islamic” in “Islamic radicalism” has demonstrably hindered law-enforcement-type efforts to end and prevent the lone shooters. In the case of the Washington sniper, the entire East Coast wasted precious days looking for white men in a white van; in the case of the Fort Hood shooter, he did everything but swing by his commanding officer’s building with a statement of intent prior to the attack. Applying this same approach to efforts to restrain coordinated attacks would be devastating.
For another thing, not everybody has access to free information, and the percentage goes down among populations most likely to be targeted by radicals. There are folks in the West who can absorb international media with the ease of flicking a switch. There are folks in the more advanced Muslim societies with access to a limited range of information controlled by local governments. And there are folks in the less advanced societies with access to almost no outside information. Moreover, while mere interest can bring people in the first group to the evil propaganda of militant radicals, there’s no assurance that folks in the second two categories would have any interest in the gooey propaganda of the pacifist left, even were it available.
So, the American right’s response to 9/11 requires some effort managing a handful of isolated incidents that could be better controlled were it not for the insanity of political correctness. The American left’s response would require an extensive feel-good campaign of historic (imaginary) proportions. For some sense of the impossibility of such a campaign, look to a recent riot in Egypt:
Hundreds of Muslim protesters on Saturday burnt Christian-owned shops in southern Egypt and attacked a police station where they believed a Christian accused of raping a Muslim girl was being held, a police official said.
On a global scale, billions of dollars in good will offerings and messaging efforts — as well as the intolerable risks entailed in proving our desire for openness and fraternity — could be undone on pretense. Any misstep in the minefield of egg shells by any Western individual or group might spark violence among a militant cohort that has identified our willingness to absorb hits and strategy of self flagellation as signs of weakness. Indeed, the forces behind Islamofascism would immediately proceed to lay egg shells at the periphery of their field, thus expanding the geographic and ideological territory on which Westerners dared not to tread.
In short, the progressive response to terrorism would accomplish nothing but making American leftists feel morally superior between large- and small-scale attacks.