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November 16, 2009

Isn't Everyone A Terrorist (When You Look Close Enough)?

Enemies are very useful things to have around.

A clear-eyed recognition of, and measured response to, properly identified enemies can bring out the best in us. As individuals, enemies can sharpen our own sense of identity by reminding us of who, and what, we are not—and thus, of who we are (or want to be). And as a society, they can bring us together, help define a common purpose, and focus our energies to achieve it.

But they can also bring out the best in us—and of us. At the extreme, they are a handy tool to help despots and demagogues consolidate power by deflecting the fear and hatred that might otherwise be turned back on themselves.

And then sometimes, of course, they do nothing but reaffirm an overly simple, moralistic vision of the world. And for those incapable of seeing the world as complex, rooting out enemies does not need to serve any real, practical purpose. It’s enough, for them, if they can chastise the rest of us for “forgetting” just how really really simple the world is.

In the last few days we’ve seen two examples of this kind of simple-minded thinking: first, the right-wing punditry concerning the tragic Ft. Hood murders, and second, the right-wing punditry concerning Attorney General Holder’s decision to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and others in federal courts in New York. In both cases, anger and resentment from the right stems from the fact that the Obama administration (and the left generally) has not made terrorists (and terrorism) the central villain.

In the Ft. Hood case, a great deal of (Fox News) airtime was filled with agitated condemnations of those who refused to call Major Nidal Malik Hasan a terrorist, even though he had business cards printed up with “S.O.A” beneath his name (soldier of Allah), had taken to incoherent ravings with an Islamic slant, and had reportedly shouted “god is great” just before he opened fire.

As for the Khalid Shaikh Mohammed case, outrage has reached an even more fevered pitch as the right frets about the fact that the monsters who planned the attack on the world trade center would not be tried as enemy combatants in Military tribunals.

What both of these critiques have in common—besides the fact that they are both arguments for putting terrorism at center stage—is that they don’t matter. There are no real-world consequences that might follow the alternative choices. Whether Major Hasan is dubbed a terrorist or a delusional mass murderer, his fate will be the same—he’ll be found guilty and (since this is Texas, remember), be executed ten minutes after his appeal is denied. And as for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, even though several “plausible” concerns have been raised concerning the use of civilian courts (New York security, he’ll have a stage for spreading propaganda, he might get off on a technicality), nobody thinks he might walk free. Even if he were to get off on a “technicality,” the feds have so many crimes lined up to charge him with that he’ll die before all his trials are over. As for the propaganda, it’s downright shocking to me that some of these critics don’t think that, in the war of ideas, the drama of a free, fair, and public trial is not a more powerful message than the ravings of a blood-thirsty lunatic. (For a fuller rundown of the arguments, Josh Marshall has a nice rundown.)

Neither of these critiques are particularly strong; nor do they have any real political value--as those who lodge them must surely know. Those facts, coupled with the fact that both cases have prompted nearly the same response (anxiety over precieved indifference to the word terrorism) suggests to me that such views reflect a crude, but honest cognitive defect. For such people, even the willingness to see complexity is evidence of a moral failure. Their concern is with visionary purity--which is fine, of course, until you want to track down real terrorists who hide out in a real complicated world.

Posted by stevemack at 07:48 PM | Comments (0)

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

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