TCS Daily

Why We Fight

By Frederick Simonds - June 11, 2002 12:00 AM

It has been just nine months since the horror of September 11th, but it's almost as if America has returned to the naïve comforts of peacefulness we enjoyed up until that terrible morning.

The all-Chandra news coverage, the resumption of partisan bickering in Congress, the seemingly fated violence against Jews in the Middle East, the attention lavished on the World Cup and the NBA and NHL Finals - these things have an anodyne quality to them that renders the gruesomeness of the September attacks to be, if not exactly unmemorable, then certainly pushed to the back of our immediate consciousness.

And even when we do hear about September 11, such as being reminded by the recent congressional hearings or the reorganization of the bureaucracy announced by President Bush, it is precisely that - we have to be reminded that it occurred.

Pressed with the obligations of our everyday lives, we almost have to be snapped into recalling that thousands of our countrymen perished, that the twin icons of American free enterprise were obliterated, and that the physical symbols of our democracy were nearly annihilated, all in a single morning otherwise indistinguishable from any other.

Given all this, it's especially easy to forget that we are a nation at war. Easier still is to forget - or not even to be sure - why we fight. And being unclear about the reasons for fighting certainly inhibits the willingness to do so - a dangerous position for a nation under assault.

Thank goodness then for William Bennett, whose new book, Why We Fight, answers precisely that question and provides much-needed moral clarity for our war on terrorism.

In a volume that is slim in size but not in argument, Bennett points out that some of the national virtues that are our greatest strengths are, paradoxically, our greatest weaknesses in the new conflict imposed on us by Islamic fundamentalism.

Some are obvious, such as our willingness to accept newcomers from all over the globe. Others are not so clear. The things that most broadly define our Western culture - freedom, tolerance, critical thinking - hold the seeds of vulnerability against an enemy dedicated to eradicating those very things.

One hallmark of American and European society over the last several decades has been a subtle struggle between the latter two of those virtues - tolerance versus critical thinking - often at the peril of freedom. So far, tolerance is winning, and in a way that undercuts the argument why tolerance should be celebrated.

Tolerance too often seeps into nonjudgmentalism, which as Bennett notes, is a sickness "encouraging a paralysis of the moral faculty."

That is what was behind the failure of so many Americans (particularly on college campuses) to forcefully condemn September 11th, arguably the single most atrocious act that has ever taken place on our soil. After all, didn't we bring this on ourselves? Aren't we responsible for the rage of extremist Muslims in the Middle East? Aren't we guilty in our own way?

Bennett shows this as the muddle it is, and demonstrates in clean, convincing language the imperative of not shying from the fight against rogue states and terrorists.

It's not as if everyone in America needs to be convinced why we fight. The very public displays of bottled-up patriotism and the polls showing initial support for the war indicate a deep-seated understanding on the part of many Americans. But a visceral understanding ultimately needs the support of an articulated position.

Bennett's strength is his ability to articulate what so many people think or feel but perhaps are unable to say so eloquently. That skill has particular value as, day by day, we move further in time away from 9/11.

Why We Fight serves to remind us that we are permanently engaged in a conflict of cultures. One is a culture informed by the principles of Judaism and Christianity and refined by the Enlightenment. The other is a culture defined by the unenlightened and often unreasonable principles of Islam. Bennett sums this up starkly: "There is simply no equivalent in the Koran to the New Testament's admonishment to 'turn the other cheek'; conversely, there is no equivalent in the New Testament to the Koranic injunction to 'kill the disbelievers wherever [you] find them.'"

Are we at war with Islam then? More accurately, we should say that Islam is at war with us. And until Islam comes to peace with modernity, as Christianity did with the Enlightenment, we will be locked in this struggle in our own defense and for our own survival.

Frederick Simonds is a writer living in Washington.

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