The War Against Islamic Totalitarianism: How We Got Here

            (Originally published 8/17/04 in Frontpage Magazine. Edited and expanded.)

        One of the more debilitating cognitive blind spots of progressives is their belief that pathological behavior is always the result of privation: If only people were rescued from poverty, or ignorance, or hopelessness, the progressive mind reasons, they would cease doing terrible things. But in the case of Islamic terrorism, which is a pathological behavior, such an analysis is off the mark. On the contrary, the psychic justifications for Islamic terrorism can be found in an intellectually accessible and, in its own way, profoundly moving philosophy that stands in direct opposition to the liberal democratic institutions and Enlightenment values of the West.
The key figure, according to many scholars of recent Islamic history, is the Egyptian fundamentalist thinker Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), whose writings form the basis for radical Islam’s struggle against Western ascendancy. Qutb’s signature contribution to Muslim thought was to update the concept of jahiliyya. For centuries, jahiliyya had signified the state of ignorance in the world prior to the advent of Islam; according to Qutb, however, jahiliyya should also be understood as the underlying spirit of decadence and corruption which exists in all times and all places--and which true Muslims are duty-bound to fight against. There can be no compromise with jahiliyya. “The mixing and co-existence of truth and falsehood is impossible,” Qutb wrote. “Command belongs to Allah or else to jahiliyya.” What was required, for Muslims, was to live under the strict Islamic code of laws called the sharia. It was the only way to ensure that they were living the way Allah intended.
Despite the sharia’s rigidity, Qutb argued that it was the sole source of genuine liberation since the sharia came from God. Either human beings were ruled by God, or else they were ruled by other human beings; there was no distinction, on this level, between an absolute dictatorship or a representative democracy. Both amounted to the rule of men over men--which, according to Qutb, was always a form of oppression. (It’s worth noting that Qutb reserved many of his most virulent criticisms for secular-minded Muslims.) Only the rule of God provided people with freedom. Thus, Qutb rejected out of hand the entire Enlightenment project which sought to separate church from state.
Whatever else might be said of Qutb’s worldview, it represents a straightforward, coherent, easily understood system of beliefs--a system which has been vastly influential among Islamic radicals, including Osama bin Laden. (Osama’s mentor and co-jihadist, Ayman Zawahiri, was a student and follower of Qutb; while studying at King Abdulaziz University, Osama attended weekly lectures by Qutb’s brother, and fellow students recall Osama as deeply drawn to Qutb’s thought.) Jihad is legitimized, in the radicals’ eyes, as the struggle against jahiliyya. The only question is how far jihad is aimed. The short-term project would consist of casting out the infidel Jews and Christians from Islamic holy lands and recapturing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina from the jahiliyya-tainted Saudi regime; the long-term project would consist of subjugating the non-Islamic West, which means defeating the United States, in order, first, to keep its corrupting influences out of Islam, and, ultimately, to liberate the West itself from the suffocating darkness of Enlightenment secularism.
It is a totalitarian movement in the truest sense.
The war against Islamic totalitarianism, on a fundamental level, is therefore a struggle between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment forces. To overlook this first truth--as progressives are wont to do--is to misapprehend the nature of the entire conflict. To be sure, there are other element involved. Ethnic rivalries. Nationalist movements. Regional and tribal loyalties. Religious schisms. Historical grievances. Natural resources. Global economics. The war is a witches’ brew of divided allegiances and score-settling. But at its bottom, beneath the claims and counter-claims, the war is between two irreconcilable visions for the future of mankind. The forces of liberal Enlightenment, committed to rational inquiry and religious tolerance, manifest in democratic rule, versus the forces of anti-Enlightenment, committed to faithful obedience to a divine will, manifest in sharia rule.
It is Thomas Jefferson versus Sayyid Qutb.
From our perspective, to be sure, it seems fantastic, even absurd, to talk about the defeat of the United States by the terrorists--which is the only path to the realization of their totalitarian goal. But our perspective is not the perspective of Osama and his ilk, who take a much longer view of history, a view in which even the most devastating setback is merely temporary and in which compromise is, literally, worse than death. Their hearts and minds are fixed against us, their struggle for our destruction is what gives their lives meaning, and they’re not going to be won over to our view . . . any more than you could be won over, say, to abandoning the welfare of your children. Muslim radicals ask nothing of us save our submission to Islam or our extinction. If we take them at their words (and what reason do we have to doubt them?) then they despise America as much for our traditions as for our policies, as much for who we are as for what we do--since we are, in effect, the cultural, intellectual and military vanguard of jahiliyya. Osama himself spelled this out in his November 2002 letter to the American people. After a pro forma rant about alleged wrongs perpetrated by the United States on Muslims worldwide, Osama outlined his demands: “. . . we call on you [Americans] to stop your oppression, lies, immorality and debauchery . . .  we call on you to be a people of manners, principles, honor and purity; to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and trading with interest.”
Osama’s bullet points follow. They're worth quoting at length:

*You are the nation who, rather than ruling by the Sharia of Allah in its Constitution and Laws, choose to invent your own laws as you will and desire. You separate religion from your policies, contradicting the pure nature which affirms Absolute Authority to the Lord and your Creator. You flee from the embarrassing question posed to you: How is it possible for Allah the Almighty to create His creation, grant them power over all the creatures and land, grant them all the amenities of life, and then deny them that which they are most in need of: knowledge of the laws which govern their lives?
*You are the nation that permits Usury, which has been forbidden by all the religions. Yet you build your economy and investments on Usury. As a result of this, in all its different forms and guises, the Jews have taken control of your economy, through which they have then taken control of your media, and now control all aspects of your life making you their servants and achieving their aims at your expense; precisely what Benjamin Franklin warned you against. 
*You are a nation that permits the production, trading and usage of intoxicants. You also permit drugs, and only forbid the trade of them, even though your nation is the largest consumer of them. 
*You are a nation that permits acts of immorality, and you consider them to be pillars of personal freedom. You have continued to sink down this abyss from level to level until incest has spread amongst you, in the face of which neither your sense of honor nor your laws object.
*Who can forget your President Clinton's immoral acts committed in the official Oval office? After that, you did not even bring him to account, other than that he “made a mistake,” after which everything passed with no punishment. Is there a worse kind of event for which your name will go down in history and be remembered by nations?
*You are a nation that permits gambling in its all forms. The companies practice this as well, resulting in the investments becoming active and the criminals becoming rich.
*You are a nation that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools calling upon customers to purchase them. You use women to serve passengers, visitors, and strangers to increase your profit margins. You then rant that you support the liberation of women.
*You are a nation that practices the trade of sex in all its forms, directly and indirectly. Giant corporations and establishments are established on this, under the name of art, entertainment, tourism and freedom, and other deceptive names you attribute to it.
*And because of all this, you have been described in history as a nation that spreads diseases that were unknown to man in the past. Go ahead and boast to the nations of man that you brought them AIDS as a Satanic American Invention.

Such were Osama’s grievances. The sum of them is what makes us, in Osama's words, “the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind.” Or, in other words, satanic. But Satan, as conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza has noted, does not conquer. He seduces. America, in the minds of Muslim radicals, is not merely the worst civilization in history but the most seductive because we are jahiliyya, unveiled. And we are up in their faces. In a worse way than the ancient giant statues of Buddha in Bamyan, Afghanistan were up in their faces when radicals dynamited them in March 2001; in a worse way than Paddy’s Pub nightclub in Bali, Indonesia was up in their faces when radicals detonated a suicide bomb inside, and then a car bomb outside, killing 202 civilians and wounding another 200 in October 2002; in a worse way than the Miss World Pageant in Nigeria was up in their faces when radicals rioted to protest the contestants’ immodesty, killing 100 and injuring over 500 in November 2003 . . . on television, radio and the internet, in glossy magazines, news journals and paperback books, on movie screens, home videos and CDs, Americans are absolutely everywhere, defying the sharia, acting out in every conceivable manner to seduce the next generation of Muslims away from the path of righteousness. We are bombarding them with the flotsam and jetsam of our pop media, from Eminem’s potty mouth to Britney Spears’s gyrating pelvis, from the Rock’s arched eyebrow to Brandi Chastain’s sports bra, from the brawling on the Jerry Springer Show to the mincing on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Such ephemera are tolerated by us, the lowbrow excretions of our dedication to highbrow ideals like individual liberty, artistic expression and free enterprise. For Muslim radicals, they are the toxic images of a steady spiritual genocide being wrought upon them.
The radicals were striking back at us, albeit with mosquito-like forays, since the era of disco music and leg warmers; on September 11th, 2001, they finally got our attention.
From that morning on, our task in the war against Islamic totalitarianism became axiomatic: Kill or imprison-for-life every Muslim radical in the world. It’s a different kind of war since it cannot end with the surrender of a collective entity; no white flag will ever be respected by our enemies. Prosecuting the war on terror is more like prosecuting hundreds of thousands of miniature wars in which our enemies are individual persons, determined to fight to the death. This is crucial. Even if every Islamic regime in Asia and Africa were to embrace liberal democracy and Enlightenment values, the United States would remain at war with Ahmed, Samir, Abdul, et al.
The radicals must be neutralized, one by one.
The difficult question is how to neutralize them without creating more radicals to take their place.
The name that has yet to arise in our discussion of the war against Islamic totalitarianism is Saddam Hussein. It is altogether legitimate, given the foregoing, to ask whether George W. Bush’s decision to end Saddam’s regime in Iraq was justified as a response to the September 11th attacks on the United States--attacks in which Saddam, as any rational observer must now concede, had no part.
The answer is a roundabout yes: President Bush’s decision to oust Saddam was justifiable. But to make sense of it, we have to set aside the strong emotions that decision conjures up even now. For progressives, this means letting go, for a moment or two, their visceral distrust of the Bush Administration. For traditional conservatives, this means letting go their reflexive desire to support the prerogatives of the Commander in Chief during a time of war. Rational inquiry, rather than political passion, is required to draw the connection between the attacks of September 11th and the decision to oust Saddam. Step one in such an inquiry returns us that miserable Tuesday morning in 2001, that miserable Tuesday morning of warm sunshine and perfect blue skies when the world changed.
From the radicals’ standpoint, the sight of the Twin Towers crumbling to dust, the sight of their ashes rising up to blot out the sun over Manhattan, must surely have seemed like an act of God--an unforgettable, historic blow against jahiliyya. Beyond what the moment meant to the radicals, however, a perilous message went out to the rest of the world. Since the end of World War Two, America’s national security had rested, to a substantial degree, on the belief that a sudden, concerted attack on the United States would be answered by retaliation on a biblical scale. That belief, it turned out, was false. Osama called our bluff. He hit us in a horrific way, and we didn’t lash out in vengeance. We investigated, determined who was behind the attack . . . and even once we knew it was Osama, and that he was operating out of Afghanistan, even then we did not incinerate the Kabul. Rather, we only demanded that the Taliban government hand over Osama “dead or alive.” In doing so, we inadvertently, and unavoidably, provided our international enemies with an easy-to-follow formula for making war against America: Just work your mayhem through non-state surrogates and, after the next 9/11, if America again connects the dots, hand over a few corpses to satisfy Washington’s demand for justice.
Saddam Hussein seemed the most likely candidate to capitalize on that formula.
It’s important to recall that regime change in Iraq had been an official policy of the United States since the Clinton Administration--which was empowered by Congress in 1998 to use any means short of a military invasion to remove Saddam. (Which is the reason President Bush sought and received Congressional authorization to use military force prior to the invasion of Iraq.) The attacks of September 11th, and our measured response to them in Afghanistan, shifted Saddam from back-burner annoyance to front-burner threat--notwithstanding the fact that his pan-Arabism was hard to square with the radical Islam of Osama’s crowd. Still, Saddam and Osama were both consumed by totalizing visions of the future of Islamic peoples, and both saw the United States as the chief impediment to the realization of their visions. More ominously, if a freelance thug like Osama managed to kill 3,000 Americans, what might a resolute sociopath like Saddam, with the financial resources of an oil-drenched country, accomplish?
Now put yourself in President Bush’s position. Here are the facts as you know them in the immediate aftermath of September 11th:

1) You’ve got the head of the C.I.A., a holdover from the Clinton Administration, telling you emphatically that Saddam possesses weapons of mass destruction.
2) You’ve got an overwhelming consensus of foreign intelligence agencies concurring that Saddam possesses WMDs.
3) You’ve got documented evidence of Saddam’s willingness to use WMDs on his enemies, both domestic and abroad.
4) You’ve got a decade of Saddam jerking around weapons inspectors, thwarting their inquiries, and intermittently kicking them out--thereby incurring further United Nations sanctions--which makes little sense unless he’s hiding WMDs.
5) You’ve got a British intelligence report that Saddam recently sought to buy uranium from Niger.
6) You’ve got a history of Saddam supporting international terrorism, including, as his own foreign minister has acknowledged, doling out $25,000 “grants” to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers who kill Israeli civilians (and, occasionally, American tourists).
7) You’ve got a possible Saddam-Osama connection cited in a 1998 sealed indictment of Osama from the Clinton Justice Department, which reads in part: “al Qaeda reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the government of Iraq.” (The charge, you’re informed, was later dropped from the final version of the indictment for lack of corroborating evidence... but of course you’re aware of it. It’s another piece of the puzzle.)
8) You’ve got a personal warning from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is in a position to know, and who himself opposes an invasion of Iraq, that Saddam is planning terrorist strikes against the United States. As reported by CNN on June 18, 2004, here are Putin’s own words: “I can confirm that after the events of September 11, 2001, and up to the military operation in Iraq, Russian special services and Russian intelligence several times received . . . information that official organs of Saddam's regime were preparing terrorist acts on the territory of the United States and beyond its borders, at U.S. military and civilian locations.”
9) You’ve got a 1996 report from the World Health Organization of the United Nations claiming that 4,500 Iraqi children under the age of five are dying each month as a consequence of the U.N. sanctions. You know the number is a grotesque exaggeration, based on data provided to the W.H.O. by the oxymoronic Iraqi Ministry of Heath (which hasn’t stopped the W.H.O. from putting out the statistic as gospel truth). But even if the actual figure is one tenth of the W.H.O. number, that’s still 450 children perishing each month under the status quo.
10) You’ve got a theory, espoused by several prominent members of your administration, that standing up a liberal democracy in the heart of the Islamic world will encourage Enlightenment values among Muslims and thus blunt the homicidal/suicidal edge of radical Islam; it’s just a theory, and will be devilishly hard to execute, but it represents a hopeful alternative to an endless cycle of Islamic terrorism and ad hoc measures culminating, seemingly inevitably, in a massive WMD attack on the United States and a necessarily disproportionate response.

Are there dissenting voices? Yes, to be sure. Hans Blix, Chief U.N. Weapons Inspector, is telling whoever will listen that Iraq has no WMDs. But his history of evaluating Iraq’s WMD capacity is checkered; as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency during the 1980s, he praised Iraqi cooperation with inspections--at the very moment Saddam was building up his WMD arsenal to its highest levels. Blix’s assessment of Iraq’s WMD capacity is echoed by another U.N. weapons inspector, Scott Ritter. But there are questions of Ritter’s reliability as well. On August 31, 1998, for example, just after he resigned his position as weapons inspector due to what he perceived as lack of support from the U.N. Security Council, he said:

Iraq still has proscribed weapons capability. There needs to be a careful distinction here. Iraq today is challenging the special commission to come up with a weapon and say where is the weapon in Iraq, and yet part of their efforts to conceal their capabilities, I believe, have (sic) been to disassemble weapons into various components and to hide these components throughout Iraq. I think the danger right now is that without effective inspections, without effective monitoring, Iraq can in a very short period of time measured in months, reconstitute chemical biological weapons, long-range ballistic missiles to deliver these weapons, and even certain aspects of their nuclear weaponization program.

Yet almost a year after he had left Iraq, in June of 1999, Ritter told an interviewer:

When you ask the question, “Does Iraq possess militarily viable biological or chemical weapons?” the answer is no! It is a resounding NO. Can Iraq produce today chemical weapons on a meaningful scale? No! Can Iraq produce biological weapons on a meaningful scale? No! Ballistic missiles? No! It is “no” across the board. So from a qualitative standpoint, Iraq has been disarmed. Iraq today possesses no meaningful weapons of mass destruction capability

So you’re George W. Bush: Are you willing to gamble the collective security of the American people on the erratic track records of Blix and Ritter? Setting aside their dissents, however, you’ve also got more pragmatic concerns. Secretary of State Colin Powell is sounding alarms over the potential hardships of a postwar occupation of Iraq; “You break it, you bought it,” he is saying.
On the other hand, you’ve got a copy of the Presidential Daily Briefing from August 6, 2001 sitting on your desk titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” The intelligence it contains is sketchy--sketchier by far than the intelligence you now possess about Saddam’s capabilities and intentions--but the title haunts you nevertheless. If only you had acted preemptively in August 2001, if only you had taken out bin Laden. . .
Again, you’re George W. Bush. What do you do about Iraq?
We know, of course, what the real George W. Bush decided: Saddam had to go. Given the strategic reality that we could no longer depend on the threat of a cataclysmic response to deter him, the decision seems altogether reasonable. Not necessarily right. But, at minimum, reasonable. Ousting Saddam, moreover, would present hostile regimes elsewhere with a show of American force, a signal that they might be next if they provoked us--as deterrents go, not exactly on par with the prospect of sudden annihilation, but in reality the best we could do. The fact that Saddam was in violation of the surrender terms which kept him in power in 1991 provided either a legitimate casus belli or a useful fig leaf, depending on your point of view, acquitting America of the charge of disregarding international law.
If the decision itself was altogether reasonable, and it was, Bush must nevertheless be severely faulted for resting the entire public case for invading Iraq on Saddam’s WMDs. In so doing, Bush retroactively undermined the rationale of the invasion when no stockpiles of WMDs turned up. His error in judgment here is especially egregious when we recall that the more compelling reason to go after Iraq was always the opportunity to stand up a liberal democratic government in the heart of Islam. The fact that Bush shifted emphasis only belatedly, after not finding WMDs, was an unforgivable blunder. From the outset, he needed to make the public case that overthrowing Saddam’s regime was a phase in the greater struggle to spread Enlightenment values throughout the Islamic world.
It’s a transformation which, in the long run, might even point towards an endgame for the war against Islamic totalitarianism.
There is no doubt, none whatsoever, about the final outcome of the war against Islamic totalitarianism. The Islamic world will embrace the Enlightenment values of rational inquiry and religious tolerance. Such values are no longer optional, not in the twenty-first century. One hundred years ago, this wasn’t the case. One hundred years ago, a dozen fanatics, armed with a death wish and the latest technology available, could perhaps have razed a village. But in the twenty-first century, a dozen fanatics, armed with a death wish and the latest technology available, could slaughter millions and set off an economic panic that might bring down the governments of powerful nations.
Enlightenment values, again, are no longer optional. Rational inquiry and religious tolerance are the glue of modernity. The Islamic world will either embrace them or perish. Their predicament is sketched, with dire poetic flair, by the essayist and philosopher Lee Harris in book Civilization and Its Enemies:

There is a sense of Greek tragedy, with its dialectic of hubris and nemesis, to what has been unfolding in the Islamic world. If Muslim extremists continue to use terror against the West, their very success will destroy them. If they succeed in terrorizing the West, they will discover that they have in fact only ended by brutalizing it. And if subjected to enough stress, the liberal system [of the West] will be set aside and the Hobbesian world will return, and with its return, the Islamic world will be crushed. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.

Properly understood, the war on terror is less like a war than like a race. On the one hand, it’s certain, even as you read these words, that Islamic radicals are conspiring to stage another assault on the United States to equal, or perhaps surpass, the carnage of September 11th. On the other hand, it’s certain, even as you read these words, that American intelligence agencies and military services are working to kill or capture as many Islamic radicals as they can get their hands on. The race boils down to this: Can America effectively dismantle al Qaeda and its allied organizations before the terrorists manage to strike again, in a major way, on American soil?
The answer is likely no. Tragically no. The difficulty is that it’s not a fair race. As former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once pointed out, al Qaeda is actively recruiting Muslims to their cause at least as rapidly as the American military is thinning their leadership ranks. Notwithstanding the heroic efforts of Homeland Security officials and intelligence agencies to thwart another attack, it’s virtually certain--as our elected leaders keep reminding us--that the terrorists will eventually succeed.
We will take another hit.
Harris’s insight is that each al Qaeda success hastens the demise of Islamic terrorism. Not because the United States will eradicate it; that will never happen. The United States will never eradicate Islamic terrorism. Islamic terrorism will end only when the overwhelming majority of Muslims--who currently serve as its psychic enablers, fellow travelers and tacit sympathizers--turn against it. But in several prominent Islamic countries, this will entail their turning against their own governments, which continue to sponsor terrorism. And people do not engage in civil wars just because foreigners, especially despised foreigners, think they should.
There are, in fact, only two conceivable scenarios by which the requisite pan-Islamic upheaval will happen. The more humane scenario is the one initiated by President Bush. That scenario is to establish a liberal democracy in Iraq, in the heart of Islam, and hope that it inspires moderate Muslims in the vicinity to embrace Enlightenment values and reject the radical elements among them. The cost of this more humane scenario, if it eventually succeeds, will surely be hundreds of thousands of Muslim lives.
But what if democracy in Iraq fails outright? Or what if it survives but fails to inspire the overwhelming majority of Muslims to reject the radicals? In that case, Islamic terrorism continues unabated. What follows then is the “Hobbesian” scenario Harris sketches: Sooner or later, the United States will take one hit too many, or one hit too catastrophic, and the American people will set aside their natural aversion to promiscuous bloodshed and demand a disproportionate response. They’ll elect a government which promises to end the threat, permanently, whatever the cost--and the cost will likely be millions, perhaps scores of millions, of Muslim lives. Like the German and Japanese civilians in 1945, Muslim civilians from North Africa through the Persian Gulf and down into Southeast Asia will at last feel their absolute defeat. They’ll accept that the fundamentalist struggle against the West has been lost. They’ll dig out from the ruins of their cities and recognize that they cannot allow the radicals to make martyrs of them all. Then, with our assistance, both military and financial, they’ll set out to purge themselves of the terrorist cancer.
Tragically, the Hobbesian scenario is the more probable of the two. Muslims, collectively, have spent the last five centuries making one disastrous decision after another. That’s the unvarnished truth. The idea that liberal democracy in Iraq, if indeed it takes hold, will inspire Muslims throughout the region to do what needs to be done ranks as a long shot. Still, it’s worth a try.
Again: the outcome of the war against Islamic totalitarianism is not in doubt. The forces of Enlightenment will, one way or another, eradicate the forces opposed to Enlightenment. It may take years, or even decades, but Islamic totalitarianism is doomed. Keeping in mind that geopolitical truth, as well as the self-evident truth that all persons are created equal--and that the killing of any person therefore represents an equally irreparable tear in the human fabric--we must ask ourselves one basic question about the war against Islamic totalitarianism: How can we hasten its end with the lowest body count? It’s a gruesome question, but a moral one, haunted by the likelihood that more deaths sooner might mean fewer deaths in the long run. The deadlier the weapons the radicals acquire and use, the more viciously and indiscriminately the war against them will eventually be waged. The scalpel, if necessary, will surely give way to the terrible swift sword. But there is no evidence, none whatsoever, that the blood-drenched currents of history can be managed, any more than they could be managed in the twentieth century, or nineteenth or eighteenth or seventeenth centuries, no evidence that the mass bloodletting by which history baptizes generation after generation, against the wills of even the most powerful leaders, is a thing of the past.
For that reason, it’s crucial not to misunderstand how we wound up here. The war against Islamic totalitarianism is not the result of George Bush’s response to September 11th, 2001. It’s not the result of Bill Clinton’s decision not to assassinate Osama bin Laden, or his decision to pull out of Somalia after the Mogadishu massacre. It’s not the result of George H. W. Bush’s decision to leave Saddam in power following the first Gulf War. Or Ronald Reagan’s withdrawal of marines from Lebanon when their barracks were bombed. Or Jimmy Carter’s dithering during the Iranian hostage crisis. It’s not even the result of America’s steadfast support for a Jewish state in the heart of the Islamic Middle East.
The war against Islamic totalitarianism, on the contrary, is the culmination of a chain of events set in motion centuries ago, back when the social evolution of humanity hit a fork in the road. Down one path lay the Enlightenment . . . and beyond it the goods and, yes, even the excesses of modernity. That path was taken by predominantly Judeo-Christian peoples. Down the other path lay a return to the Middle Ages, to stagnant theocracies and cultural wastelands in which the only relevant question became Who did this to us? That path was taken by predominantly Islamic peoples. They are history’s abject losers. And they’re not happy about it.
But abject losers are the deadliest enemies to engage since they have so little left to lose. They can face down a much greater military power with the most terrifying of all demands: Either submit to us, or kill us. The war against Islamic totalitarianism, as it’s currently being waged, amounts to an effort by America and its allies to stave off the lunacy of terrorist jihad long enough for moderate Muslims to disassociate themselves from it . . . and then to kill off the terrorists themselves.

There’s still time. But the clock is ticking.

Whither Voltaire?

Voltaire never actually said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Many Americans say it, however—knowing the likelihood of their having to lay down their lives for free speech is roughly nil—because, well, they’re Americans. Defense of free speech is baked into our collective DNA. Or at least it used to be. If nothing else, the Trump Circus of the last few weeks has laid bare a newfound, shall we say, flexibility when it comes to free speech. Forget about defending it to the death. Many of us seem to quiver at the prospect of getting unfriended on Facebook.

Now I take a back seat to no one in my revulsion for Donald Trump—the man, as well as the candidate. Saying he’s intellectually and temperamentally unfit for the presidency is like saying Keith Richards isn’t much of a morning person. You’re not exactly breaking news. But anyone with even a faint notion of what it means to be a citizen should be appalled that a ragtag mob of protesters—some chanting their support for faux socialist kewpie doll Bernie Sanders, others sporting Black Lives Matter! T-shirts—was able to shut down a Trump rally last week in Chicago.

The response?

Let’s just say it has lacked many defenses-to-the-death.

Trump’s three Republican rivals, for example, after perfunctory condemnations of the protests, said, in effect, Look at what happens when you’re not nice to people. Without naming Trump, Hillary Clinton condemned “divisive rhetoric.” Sanders was less shy: “What caused the protests at Trump’s rally is a candidate that has promoted hatred and division against Latinos, Muslims, women, and people with disabilities, and his birther attacks against the legitimacy of President Obama.” (You'd think Sanders would credit the protesters, given the number who were chanting his name, with a greater degree of moral agency, but, hey, he's a central planning kind of guy.) took the whole thing up a notch, venturing into traditional brown shirt terrain: “Mr. Trump and the Republican leaders who support him and his hate-filled rhetoric should be on notice after tonight’s events.” Even President Obama got in a rhetorical sucker punch, again without mentioning Trump by name: "Our leaders—those who aspire to be our leaders—should be trying to bring us together and not turning us against one another.”

Well, yeah, Mr. President, it’s great if they do. But does their kumbaya-quotient determine their right to speak to a crowd that shows up to hear them?

The truth of the matter is that last week’s Chicago shut-down had little to do with Trump or his supporters. Rather, it had to do with a growing contingent of young people—the protesters’ youth is evident in every video clip of the incident—who feel entitled to silence speech they don't like. They want to claim the entire US as a "safe space" for their political orthodoxy because they know, in a reptilian-brained kind of way, that their orthodoxy cannot withstand rational scrutiny.

That last point should not be overlooked. The safe spaces we find on many college campuses are not places students go to avoid getting their feelings hurt; they’re places students go to avoid having their opinions challenged—which is natural since their deepest convictions are rooted in a perpetual sense of victimhood rather than in empirical evidence or logical reasoning. If you reject their victimhood, as conservative speakers are wont to do, you reject their entire identity. You reject them.

All of which makes Trump their ideal foil. Not only does he reject their victimhood, he’s as brutish, cliché ridden and bereft of self-awareness and self-control as they are; they detest his agenda (insofar as it can be gleaned from the word salads he tosses) and realize that few in the media (not even at the hated Fox News) will rise to his defense. He’s the kind of guy you can call a totalitarian, with only a Cliff’s Notes grasp of the term, based primarily on his jaw line. So why not shut him down?

Answer: Because you don’t shut down political speech. Full stop.

Ironically, there is a whiff of totalitarianism blowing across the political landscape right now. It’s the same one that’s already befogged many college campuses. And it ain’t coming from Trump.

Politics and the Writerly Imagination

My new essay for the New York Writers Workshop website:

Politics and the Writerly Imagination

Living Memory (2004)

May 15, 1944 the front page of the New York Times carried a brief dispatch from the war in Europe. It told the story of an American B-17, on a bombing run over Laon, France, that was struck by a bomb accidentally released by another American plane flying in formation above it. The bomb wedged in the tail of the Flying Fortress, killing the tail gunner, but didn’t explode. “Although the plane was almost unmanageable,” the dispatch read, “the crew stayed with the ship.” Terrified the bomb would detonate during what promised to be a bumpy landing, the four surviving crewmen tried in vain to dislodge it while the pilot, Lieutenant Burdette “Buddy” Williams, guided the wounded plane back to its base in England. The bomb was still in the tail when he touched down.
For their actions, the entire crew was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for Valor. Sixty years later, I’m sitting here, typing these words, staring at Buddy Williams’s medal. It wound up with me after my mother, Leona Goldblatt, who once was Leona Williams, died last December.
It was Buddy--not my father--who was the great love of my mom’s life.
She mentioned Buddy to me for the first time twenty years ago, five years after my father’s death. Details came in drips and drabs at first. The fact that she even had a first husband. The fact that he was a  hard-drinking, motorcycle riding daredevil pilot. The fact that she divorced him after the war because of his boozing. The fact that she remarried him several years later when he sobered up. The fact that she divorced him again when he fell off the wagon.
Then, over the last few years, she began to open up. She talked about the time Buddy buckled her into the front seat of an open cockpit crop duster, handed her a pair of oversized aviator goggles, and took her on a series of barrel rolls--as she screamed herself hoarse with only the seatbelt holding her in the plane. She talked about the time, during the war, when she and another pilot’s wife drove from Ohio to Florida to follow their husbands . . . managing the entire distance, despite fuel rationing, by flirting with gas station attendants. “Just flirting,” she added.
So I knew some of the stories. But I had no tangible evidence of her life with Buddy until I flew down to Florida at the end of November, after Mom entered a hospice. She was 80, dying from acute emphysema and from a ventral hernia which had swollen her abdomen out like a cantaloupe and necessitated, in the last year of her life, her wearing maternity pants. By the time I got to her bedside, she was doped up and sleeping sixteen hours at a stretch. Whenever she came to, she’d ask my sister Gail or one of my nieces for a sip of water, or a taste of cherry Jello--which she’d acknowledge afterwards with an exaggerated “Ahhhh.” The skin of her arms, from her elbows to her fingertips, had turned purplish black, and she’d sometimes stare at her hands, as if trying to decide if they were really hers; other times, she had just enough strength to clasp our hands if we slid them underneath her palms.
Gail and I alternated vigils, so she never woke up alone. That turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. The Wednesday night after I arrived, as Gail was dozing off in a folding chair, Mom suddenly sprang up from her bed, pulled off her oxygen mask, unhooked her catheter, and began putting on her street clothes. She tapped Gail on the shoulder to tell her she was leaving. “I’ve got to get out of here,” she explained. Gail squinted up at her and thought she was dreaming; Mom hadn’t had enough strength to sit upright for a week, but now she was pacing back and forth across the hospice room, searching for her purse. When the reality of what she was watching sank in, Gail jumped up and hugged her for several minutes, until the fit passed, then laid her back down on the bed. Then she curled up beside her until Mom fell back asleep--after which Gail wept until morning.
My worst moment came Friday afternoon, a couple of days later. The head nurse, a tall thin black woman with the weariest, wisest eyes I’d ever seen, mentioned that dying patients were often listening even when they seemed fast asleep; she suggested talking to Mom about heaven, about re-uniting with her loved ones. It sounded like a good idea, or at least a nothing-to-lose idea; at minimum, it would break the monotony of watching her sleep. So I told her a story she loved to tell me, her earliest memory; I tried to tell it to her the way she did, with the details she used to dwell on: Do you remember that drive through the Ozarks, back in the summer of ’28? How your daddy pulled over by the roadside watermelon stand, how you and Sophie and Tillie and Bertha and Herman and Pete waited in the back of the Willis Knight while he bought that great big watermelon? Do you remember the jump seat you were sitting on, how you loved to feel the bumps in the road? Then came the moment your momma said it was all right to get out, and the six of you poured out of that back door and onto the grassy bank next to the stream. Do you remember that? How cool the grass was after the heat of the ride? How your momma handed out the turkey sandwiches she’d made back home in Shreveport? Do you remember the watermelon, the way your daddy tied a rope around it and sank it into the stream to chill, the way he carved it up after lunch with that long knife of his? You always said that was the best you ever ate . . .
As I finished the story, my mom began to smile. Her eyes were sliding back and forth beneath her eyelids. She was back there, beside that stream, eating that watermelon. So I counted the experiment a success and began to regale her with more stories from her childhood, back when she was Little Lonie Meyer, the tiny terror of Louisiana Avenue. Falling out of a tree house in her backyard, slinging stones at bumblebees and then dashing for cover, setting fire, accidentally, to the family garage. (She swore that she wasn't smoking!) Every story I could recall, every detail of every story, I told her. How, when she was six years old, playing Cowboys and Indians, waving a wooden arrow, patting her open mouth and yelling woo, woo, woo, she tripped and fell--and wound up with the arrow broken off in her throat. How, when she was eight, playing Cops and Robbers, she tried to arrest an older male cousin; how, when he wouldn't go quietly to their make-believe jail, she ran back into the house, grabbed her b.b. gun, marched back outside, and shot him in the leg.
Towards the end, however, the expression on her face changed. I didn’t notice it at first; I was too involved in the storytelling. But then she let out a low moan that ran through me like an electric current. She was rolling her head side to side on pillow, clutching at the bed sheet with her blackened fingers. Then, suddenly, she cried out, “Momma!”
“What the matter, Mom?”
“Oh no oh no oh no . . .”
I jumped up from the chair. “Is something wrong? Are you in pain?”
“Help me!” she cried. “Please, Momma, help me!” She was thrashing back and forth now. I held her by the shoulders. I could feel her weakened muscles working against my grip.
“You’re in Florida, Mom,” I said, with as much force as I could manage without raising my voice. “It’s Mark. I’m right here. You’re okay.”
“Please, Momma!” she screamed, with tears rolling down her face. “Please help me, Momma!”
I ran out of the room and sprinted towards the nurses’ station at the end of the corridor. Three nurses, including the head nurse, were chatting behind the desk as I drew near. I yelled at them, “She’s in pain!”
“Your mother?” the head nurse asked.
“Help me,” I gasped. “She’s suffering.”
The head nurse rushed out from behind the desk and followed me back to the room. By the time we got there, Mom was curled up in a fetal position, sobbing. The nurse checked her vital signs, then held the back of her hand to her brow.
“It’s all right,” she said. “She’s just hallucinating.”
“She was crying out for her mother.”
“That happens sometimes. It’s the Demerol.”
“You told me to talk to her about her family.”
“It’s not as bad as you think,” she said. “It’s worse on you than on her.”
With that, she left the room. I sat down again beside the bed and, for the next hour, listened to my mother cry out for her mother. It was the longest hour I’ve ever lived. The terror in her voice, the reservoir of mortal dread I’d accidentally opened within her, the guilt of that hour I’ll carry with me to my grave.
My guts were still churning at sunset when Gail showed up for the night shift with unsettling news; she couldn’t find a record of the funeral arrangements for which Mom had prepaid two decades earlier. It was a point of pride with my mom; she’d shelled out thousands of dollars in the rush and confusion after my father died. “You and Gail won’t have to pay a penny when I go,” she would say, apropos of nothing, at least once per visit.
“What about the funeral home?” I asked Gail. “They must have records.”
But she had called them. They had no records. Neither did the cemetery itself--even though my mom and I had stepped over her pre-engraved headstone whenever we visited my dad’s grave. Hers was right next to his, which read Morris Goldblatt 1911-1979. Hers read Leona Goldblatt 1923- The last date, I now knew, would be 2003. But I needed to turn up that funeral contract among her papers--or else we’d be back at square one when she died.
The job was nightmarish. My mother was a pack rat; I found grocery coupons from the 1980s, a warranty for black and white television purchased at Masters Department Store in Flushing, Queens in 1971, and every report card my sister and I ever brought home . . . and that was just in the top left drawer of her dresser. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Slips of note paper with phone numbers but no name were mixed with un-cancelled postage stamps that she’d cut from the envelopes on which they’d been glued and embossed invitations to weddings in which both the bride and groom were long deceased. I found a half dozen loose buttons, three yellow thimbles and a bent belt buckle.
I was at it for three hours when I came across a scrap book I’d never seen before. It was from her life with Buddy. Anxious for a distraction, I began to page through it. Among the matchbooks, crushed flowers and old photos, I found the yellowed Times front page and the war medal. Proof of a life more adventurous, dramatic, more (no use denying it) romantic than my own.
I sat on the floor of her condominium with that scrap book on my lap for half the night. I’d had enough of my mother dying. I wanted to think about her living, about her young and pretty and in love with a drunken flyboy. If that meant I had to pay again for her pre-paid funeral, so be it. I was done looking for that contract. I phoned Gail at the hospice and told her.
The next morning, however, as I was about to leave for the day shift, my niece Melissa drove up in her red pickup truck and pulled into the guest parking space in front of the condominium. She had her younger sister Jessica with her. Gail had dispatched them to take up the search for the missing contract. Looking at the two of them, twenty-one and seventeen years old, as they hopped out of that red truck, flush with life, flush with expectations, certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that between the two of them they’d find that damn contract, I realized I was looking at my mom’s spirit, her undying legacy, her donation to the planet.
When I showed up for my turn at the hospice, Gail was waiting for me outside the door to my mom’s room. She was smiling at me in an indecipherable way. I smiled back at her and said, “What is it?”
She didn’t answer but slid open the door. Mom was sitting up in bed, talking to the head nurse as she switched bags on the IV drip connected to her arm. She glanced up as I walked into the room and said, in a lucid but slurred southern drawl, “You’re looking thin, boy.”
I laughed. “So are you.”
“Ain’t that the truth!”
As awful as Friday had been, Saturday afternoon turned out to be one of the great graces of my life. My mom’s favorite sport was football. She lived for it, devoted her weekends to it each fall and winter, and thought she knew more about it than anyone else. That Saturday, Mom and I watched one last college game together. I don’t recall which teams were playing--she kept insisting that one of them was her beloved LSU Tigers, though it wasn’t. She even made an attempt, after one team scored, to lift both her arms and signal a touchdown. During halftime, Melissa and Jessica showed up at the hospice. Melissa was waving a manila envelope at me as she walked into the room--the funeral contract. They gave their grandmother long hugs, and then the three of us sat around her bed and watched the rest of the game.
After it ended, my mom clapped her hands with great satisfaction and said, “So I guess LSU’s got a team this year.”
“I guess so, Mom.”
For the record: LSU won the national championship that year.
There’s an expression in football which goes: You don’t want to leave anything on the field. What it means is that, whether you win or lose, you don’t want to come off the playing field after the game ends wondering if there was something else you could’ve done. You don’t want to be sitting in the locker room afterwards thinking, I should’ve tried this or If only I’d have thought of that . . .
Well, my mom didn’t leave anything on the field.
It’s what I said in her eulogy the following week.