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.

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Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

“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.”
There is some truth in this. However, for the time being, it is probably best to kill terrorists as efficiently and effectively as possible. That will give the remaining terrorists pause to reflect on the rightousness of their cause. Meanwhile there will be fewer who have to be persuaded to reconsider their career path.
BTW, I happened to watch the “Kingdom of Heaven” the other night. To correct the filmmaker, Saladin did not simply free all of the residents of Jerusalem. He offered them for ransom. Those that could not be ransomed were sold into slavery.

David S
David S
11 years ago

I am not going to go down your road. What if your son, daughter, brother,sister, father, mother were killed in an attack not about you but was just a part of a war? Would you just accept it? Would you say to the killing group – ok I understand my loss is not your fault? Wars kill many innocent people. The Iraq war killed many innocent people. Can you come to terms with that? If I were a relative of a killed person I would seek revenge.

Justin Katz
11 years ago

David,
I’ll ignore your assumption of moral superiority.
We may be different in this, but if I lived in a nation from which Islamic radicals were staging attacks against a foreign superpower (the foreign superpower), I expect I’d be inclined to attack the people who’d provoked the giant. (Of course, it would be more of a last straw, because the terrorists and Islamofascists tend to be of the disruptive, oppressive sort.) And then, when the superpower gave dramatic evidence that it was striving only to kill the bad guys while expending resources to help me rebuild my country, well, I expect I’d side with the evil Americans. Indeed, anybody, I expect anybody who isn’t in cahoots with the bad guys or who doesn’t have a Neanderthal’s concept of vengeance would do the same.
At any rate, your answer is incomplete, because it offers no strategy for reacting to a horrific attack in which thousands of our sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, friends, etc. were killed as they went about their days one sunny September morning.

joe bernstein
joe bernstein
11 years ago

David-the Iraq War is like every other.A hell of a lot of innocent people get killed.I like how you engineer your argument to shove blame on our country.I didn’t support the Iraq War,but in case you were asleep,the attack on the WTC and Pentagon occured PRIOR to it.The justification was the presence of US forces in Saudi Arabia-who were there to defend them against aggression by Saddam Hussein,starting during the first Gulf War,where we were supported by most countries in the region.
You sound like a RIF agitator,but over here,no one gives out little pissant ratings like they do-you’re free to rant all you want.
If Obama okays ops in Afghanistan that kill bystanders,will you hold Barry accountable?
From 1632 until 1918,wars were fought with minimal civilian casualties-that change after Versailles and the Twenties and Thirties and the 1918-20 period were ther runup to mass slaughter of civilians.Don’t get all preachy about Iraq here-how about Nanking,or Tokyo,or Hamburg,or Hue City?
You have a smart answer for that?Every nation that has fought a war has blood on its hands.Period.
You think moslem terrorists are justified?It sure sounds that way.

David S
David S
11 years ago

I thought that my comment spoke for itself. The problem with starting a war is ending it. One way is with brute force. The victor claims the spoils. Short of that you will get revenge. I believe war between peoples should be of last resort. The unleashing of killing and mayhem should be when all other options have been tried and exhausted. Was this the case with Iraq?

Justin Katz
11 years ago

Well, it seems you’ve missed the new paradigm: To the previously oppressed natives go the spoils. We just want security.
Nice try on the redirect, though. I offer explanations of other methods, you shoot them down, and you never wind up having to say what you’d actually do about anything.

joe bernstein
joe bernstein
11 years ago

I thought Iraq could be contained and never did get why Bush had to invade.Personality based regimes like Saddam’s generally die with the death of the dictator-ideology/theocratic based regimes are much more persistent-Iran as a prime example-the USSR as another.
We could’ve used the forces committed to Iraq to pursue the Afghan campaign,and just possibly degrade the Al Qaida forces to the point where they were rendered nearly powerless.
When Reagan attacked Qaddafi’s home instead of bombing Tripoli,he made a great move-bring the war right to the SOB who started it.
I hate the idea of bombing Iran the way we did Iraq.The Iranian people themselves are not our enemy.We could bomb the Majlis when the Mullahs and their unshaven little front man are there-drop a MOAB or Daisycutter-probably waste a whole slew of Revolutionary Guard bigwigs in the process-decapitate the Islamist government and minimize any civilian casualties.
Obama would never have the balls to even consider it.
Another feckless Jimmy Carter,but in a vastly more dangerous world.
War,in its unrestrained horror,should indeed always be a last resort.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

“I thought Iraq could be contained and never did get why Bush had to invade.”
The entire history of warfare is a sad tale of the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. However, once engaged, and I think I quote MacArthur, “there is no substitute for victory”.

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