I f there's one all-purpose concept bestriding the Zeitgeist these days, “denial” has to be it. Conventionally defined as “the refusal to acknowledge painful realities, thoughts, or feelings,” the term has long since migrated from psychology into politics, where its explanatory power in one case after another appears practically talismanic.
To cite examples from fall 2006 alone, Karl Rove and other Republican strategists were repeatedly charged with “denial” for their rosy assessments of mid-term election prospects; Senator George Allen stood accused of being in “denial” about his (Jewish) ethnic background; conservatives in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal were said to be in “denial” about the influence of gays in the Republican party, even as Foley himself was said to be in “denial” about his sexuality; and numerous books and articles marking the fifth anniversary of 9/11 argued for hanging the scarlet d variously on former President Clinton (for failing to kill Bin Laden), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (for failing to take the threat of Bin Laden seriously enough), and various other members of the Bush administration, including the president himself. Finally, as if to confirm denial's standing as the it-word of our time, came Bob Woodward's bestselling book about the Iraq war, State of Denial (Simon and Schuster). Its thesis — that Bush and his Cabinet had purposefully, if not perhaps always consciously, misled Americans and even themselves by refusing to acknowledge the severity of the problems in Iraq — resonated not only in the reflexive anti-Bush media venues that repeatedly showcased it, but also with other Americans increasingly skeptical about the war.
Political particulars aside, the ubiquity of that word “denial” is worth pausing over. It connotes that we live in an era of unreality, perhaps even surreality, in which what is said in public is at odds with what is true — a shortfall invoked now more or less constantly as a feature of political discussion. And so to the obvious question: Why do so many Americans apparently share the sense that we are all being misled, one way and another, about political reality — and not only about reality in Iraq, but about politics more generally?
I believe the answer to that question is the obvious one: because in some deep sense, it is true. This is not meant to affirm that every current charge of “denial” now circulating is a valid one. It's rather to suggest that the sheer volume of such charges reflects a deeper, underlying truth about the untethering of some current political ideas from firm reality. This is the deeper territory that the ubiquity of that term “denial” invites us to plumb.
One way to begin is to survey the main intellectual and political currents since 9/11, which investigation yields a fact both unexpected and significant. As it turns out, a flight from political reality has indeed been underway on both the left and the right in America in the years since that event, as well as accelerating into more advanced forms in much of Europe. To switch metaphors, in the wake of the 9/11 attack — and later, related Islamist attacks on civilians, most notably in Spain and Britain — many Western observers have responded not by absorbing what we now know to be true about our world, but rather by transposing those brute facts into other, safer, more familiar keys.
One result of that transposition, the record shows, has been the creation of a world of political scapegoats for the unease and anxiety that are the unwanted companions now of Westerners everywhere. These scapegoats, perverse non-explanations for what really ails us, can be identified by features common to the breed everywhere: The passion invested in them by their antagonists is disproportionate to any real problem the scapegoat represents; they are invoked to explain more about the world than they do; they capture some part of the truth, i.e., have a degree of verisimilitude without which a scapegoat cannot exist; and — also like scapegoats everywhere — they pose no threat of retaliation for their overburdening. They are scapegoats in the classic sense: metaphorical beasts seen not in their own right and reality, but rather as communal vessels carrying a political and psychological weight beyond themselves for reasons of communal relief.
In sum, to judge by current intellectual trends, many post-9/11 attempts to diagnose the American soul, both here and in Europe, have served less to clarify reality than to gravitate toward safer and more palatable substitutes. It is a fraught, fascinating spectacle worth exploring in detail — the more so because a parallel outpouring of books, especially from the contemporary European front, makes very clear what today's obvious displacements of political passion are really about.
The immigrant scapegoating
B egin in the United States with the literature lately generated on the paleoconservative and nativist wing of the right on the red-hot subject of illegal immigration — now not only a literature, but also a newly minted political movement that has gone on to enjoy populist and national success. Of course many Americans, including some nonconservatives, oppose the idea of uncontrolled immigration per se. But that is a political and practical fact, as opposed to a creedal statement. It is the creed of the theorists that is of interest here, for it's in that creed that today's anti-immigrant ideology appears most clearly.
According to those theorists and this movement, the threat to our civilization and way of life — such are the terms in which the discussion has been framed — is plain. The foreigners we must focus on most, those who according to some are a dagger aimed at our civilization, those whom we must do everything in our power to keep out of our country because of the harm they intend us, are . . . no, not immigrants from the demographic and cultural risk pool associated worldwide with Islamism, but rather those from somewhere else: specifically those working-class, poor, Spanish-speaking, largely Christian migrants from Mexico and other points south who break U.S. immigration laws by crossing the border in search of work.
Consider Patrick Buchanan's new and bestselling manifesto, State of Emergency (Thomas Dunne Books), a passionate account of “one of the great tragedies in human history,” “the greatest invasion in history,” possibly even, if our enemies have their way, “the end of the United States as a sovereign self-sufficient independent republic, the passing away of the American nation.” They are strong words, none stronger, as befits a nation under attack. But just what kind of attack? Not terrorism committed by radical Islamists, which based on the record so far would actually fit the rhetorical bill, but rather and again some kind of other attack, some kind of vaguer linguistic and demographic attack, some kind of metaphorical civilizational thing from . . . well, from those Spanish-speaking people in Mexico. This is what Buchanan and his followers consider the “existential crisis of our time,” in his words; this poorer offshoot of Western civilization, the people that has come “to conquer us.”
Tom Tancredo, a congressman from Colorado who is closely identified with the Minutemen, a group that has taken upon itself the mission of monitoring the southern border, similarly opens his new book In Mortal Danger (wnd Books) on this apocalyptic note: “I want to do what I can to defend the West in the clash of civilizations that threatens humanity with a return to the Dark Ages.” A “clash”? All of “humanity”? A “return to the Dark Ages”? Wouldn't most people reading these words written in 2006 figure that it is Islamism with its call to global jihad that the congressman has in mind? Once again, though, it turns out that the immigrants who are the heavies here are . . . not radical Islamists from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Afghanistan and Yemen and Egypt and Turkey and Iran and France and Germany and Great Britain, say, but rather . . . well, who else is there?
To its credit, Tancredo's book does try to connect its alarm over the Mexicans with its alarm over certain other illegal aliens, even distinguishing at one point between threats to America's future that are “external (Islamofascism)” and those that are “internal (the cult of multiculturalism).” But this promising stab at clarification is overwhelmed by the rest of the book, in which the emphasis on Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking manual laborers thoroughly trumps all else. He reports, for example, that Hezbollah has been known to train on the southern border — but relies mostly on an unnamed “former fbi agent” to make that serious charge, and then goes on to spend more pages raising the alarm over the Salvadorean gang Mara Salvatrucha (or ms–13).
Buchanan and Tancredo are hardly alone in focusing on Hispanic immigrants rather than others. Peter Brimelow's 1996 bestselling manifesto, Alien Nation (Harper Perennial), for example — perhaps the most influential forerunner of today's nativist canon — mentions “Muslim” once (in a reference to Lebanon in 1920), “Islam” twice, and “terrorism” and “jihad” not at all. In fairness, of course, Brimelow's book was published five years before 9/11, whereas Buchanan's and Tancredo's come five years after — which is why they sound so oddly out of tune. Of course, one can argue — as some conservatives do — that Islamism and illegal Mexicans are flip sides of the same security problem. But what does it say that among the fiercest opponents of undocumented Mexican workers, the intellectual architects of today's movement, the far more lethal problem of Islamist immigration summons nothing like the rhetorical furor aimed against Mexicans?
Moreover, even Brimelow did not frame his discussion in terms as apocalyptic as those now dominating discussion. And what is most curious about this rhetoric is that, though it appeals frequently to 9/11 — arguing that precisely because of that attack we must seal the southern border now — those dots just don't connect as easily as some others. Whether out of a failure of imagination or for some other reason, Islamist terrorists have in fact shown little interest or presence south of the border; and it is not Islamist terrorists that the Minutemen devote their nights to tracking.
As Joseph Lelyveld observed, for example, in a cover piece for the New York Times Magazine in October about the border dispute, “The argument that the border must be secured because of the threat of terrorism remains largely theoretical. The Border Patrol keeps a count on non-Mexicans it detains (otm's, they're called, for ‘Other Than Mexican') . . . a trickle can be traced to what the Department of Homeland Security classes as ‘special interest' countries. . . . In the Tucson sector, just 15 such persons had been picked up by September 10 in the fiscal year that was about to end — scarcely one a month.”
Of course, even one a month could ultimately spell apocalypse somewhere. But that fact raises a critical question: If Islamism and porous borders are really at issue here, then why is there not an equally ferocious attempt afoot to seal the border with Canada — a country whose forgiving asylum policies have guaranteed an Islamist presence there, as various arrests and foiled plots have made clear?
The answer is that the undocumented Mexicans, like the furor they have attracted out of all proportion to the actual problems they pose, are serving a larger communal purpose. For one more proof, consider also what a world designed along contemporary anti-immigrant principles might resemble. As they often emphasize, the theorists overwhelmingly concerned with Hispanics do not oppose all immigration. Buchanan, for one, concludes State of Emergency with a specific list of traits for would-be immigrants to whom he would rather give preference: those who speak English, who can contribute significantly to American society, who have an education, who come from countries with a history of assimilation in America, who will not become public charges, and who wish to become Americans.
Yet using that same list, one can see that four out of six conditions were fulfilled by architecture graduate student Mohammad Atta, affluent private school graduate Ziad Jarrah, military scholarship-winning Marwan al-Shehhi, and for that matter most of the other 9/11 hijackers and other al Qaeda terrorists caught since then. Add that anyone English-speaking and determined enough could presumably charm an ins officer into believing that they wish to become Americans, and it turns out that such men could have fulfilled not four but five of the six conditions. Now bear in mind that several could also have claimed ties to a white-collar profession — airplane piloting — and we have here a nearly model list of potentially attractive immigrants. Is it a problem that Buchanan's list theoretically inclines toward men like these and against the grape-picking, toilet-cleaning Mexicans whose idea of Wal-Mart is a gift card rather than a car bomb? Common sense says that it is.
None of which means that the activists zeroing in on undocumented Mexicans lack for serious points. It's just that in a more balanced time those problems would amount to political nuts and bolts rather than jingoistic videos of scurrying dark-skinned young men and raw displays of anti-Hispanic animosity. Beneath the overstatement and heat, the faction of the right now targeting immigrants does have several truths on its side. There are indeed parts of the border where barbed wire fences, guns, and dogs are not enough to protect Americans from having their property trampled and diminished by constant traffic; some Americans in those towns also fear crime and experience other insecurities; and immigrant children in some cities are in fact impeded in their assimilation by the idiocy of some Anglo-enforced multicultural curricula. Desperate people do die in the desert every year (though the nativist “solution” of addressing that problem by penalizing the Samaritans who would give them food and water is not self-evident). Drug trafficking on both sides of the border remains a violent, dirty business, and gangs, including especially ms–13, do continue their bloody vendettas here after crossing over: All this and more points in the briefs are true.
Even so, in addition to fulfilling the first condition of scapegoating — insisting that one has found the threat to our civilization — the effort to put illegals at the red-hot center of what ails us also fulfulls condition two: explaining too much (or trying to). Like a lawyer with too many arguments, the anti-immigration troops inadvertently undermine their own credibility with the sheer multiplicity of complaints, thus inviting the question of what is really going on in this furor.
In other words, there is something telling about the fact that so far as their critics are concerned, pretty much anything the Mexicans and Central Americans do appears to be a problem. If they work, that's bad because they are taking our jobs. If they don't, that's also bad because they are taking our welfare. Men come to America and live in groups instead of in families: This is bad because men in groups can be frightening and unruly. Men come to America and live in families instead of in groups: This is bad too because it means more Mexicans here. Women come to live with the men: This is worst of all because they are doing it to have what the critics call “anchor babies.” Similarly, the workers come here when they're young and healthy and that's bad because it makes them better at physical labor; but they are apparently also full of diseases that make them a menace to a First World community. And so on — and on and on. One wonders when an environmental impact study of the very air they exhale near the Rio Grande will be waved by Lou Dobbs to show just how far the law-breaking civilization-busters have gone now. Tancredo even manages outrage over the fact that undocumented aliens can apparently use the stacks of the Denver public library by presenting only a driver's license. Mexican farm hands, reading in a library? Dios mio! Will these people never learn to behave like Americans?
In sum, the insistence by impassioned theorists that illegal immigration south of the border is the pre-eminent problem of our time makes perfect sense — or would, had those been Salvadoreans piloting airplanes on 9/11, Guatemalans bankrolling their efforts, Hondurans plotting attacks on the subways and government buildings of Europe, and Mexicans across the global labor diaspora plotting how to bring down the American government, presumably by poisoning our gardens and toilets. If you do not think that is the way it went down, then Occam's razor dictates this: The sheer volume of emotion on the subject of illegal aliens makes most sense as a manifestation of denial about who would really like to see the end of the American republic — as it turns out, one form of many now circulating.
The “Christianist” scapegoating
W ith equal industry, passion, and confidence that the real current threat to the American way has been definitively found and isolated, the libertarian wings of the left and right since 9/11 have scoured the domestic scene and thrown forth a scapegoat of their own. In another bow to some degree of realism, except with the adjectives all wrong, what they have turned into a blogging bonanza and cottage publishing industry is the overwhelming threat posed by religious fundamentalists . . . again not Islamist fundamentalists, but rather American Christian fundamentalists, known variously in this new canon as “theocrats,” “Christocrats,” “Christianists,” “fundamentalists,” “Christian nationalists,” and the old familiar, “Christian right.”
As with the paleoconservative right and its Mexican illegals, this single-minded insistence on having located “the” fundamental problem for America is characteristic of the anti-“theocrat” genre. As Ross Douthat observed in an essay for First Things about such exercises, “the fear of theocracy has become a defining panic of the Bush era. . . . Today's battles aren't just a matter of ordinary political factionalism, they [the anti-“theocrats”] insist. The hour is much later than that, and nothing less than the republic itself hangs in the balance.” It is this same outsized passion that is the first sign of a gap between reality and rhetoric, one suggesting that a scapegoat may be at hand.
The cover of Damon Linker's new Theocons: Secular America Under Seige (Doubleday), for example, declares that: “FOR THE PAST THREE DECADES, a few determined men have worked to inject their radical religious ideas into the nation's politics. This is the story of how they succeeded.” “A few determined men”? “Radical religion”? A plot to infiltrate politics with religion? Surely, for a book published a few years after 9/11, this language connotes radical Islam; and indeed it does — but not here. Similarly, when he decries “the first stage in a cultural counterrevolution whose ultimate goal is nothing less than the end of secular politics in America,” Linker is not speaking of Islamism — every word of which would then correspond to reality — but rather of what is evidently at least as much of a menace and maybe more: George W. Bush's personal Christian faith. And again, the uncanny verisimilitude: “Defenders of the liberal bargain in America have been slow to recognize the threat posed by the revival of theologically inspired politics in our time. For the past three decades, enemies of the bargain have been working tirelessly to transform the United States in their image, and secularists have responded by ignoring or dismissing their efforts.” Just how many pews out there really hold “theologically inspired enemies of the liberal bargain”?
Michelle Goldberg's recent Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (W.W. Norton) also dons the language of real mortal threat only to expose that beneath that rhetoric lies . . . what Katha Pollitt with no apparent irony calls on the cover “the ongoing takeover of our country by rightwing Christians.” Similarly martial and millenarian language permeates Golberg's book. “Those who don't want to live in the country the Christian nationalists would create have no choice but to fight,” she writes. Repeatedly Goldberg talks of the threat posed by Christian nationalism, described at one point “like being a lobster in a pot, with the water heating up so slowly that you don't notice the moment at which it starts to kill you.” In the end, only “perhaps” can “America be saved.”
For all its alarums and breathlessness, Kingdom Coming is mealy-mouthed when compared with Rabbi James Rudin's The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plan for the Rest of Us (Thunder's Mouth Press). Like Goldberg and Linker, Rudin peers into darkest reality to find it synonymous with the American Christian right. In fact, he is admirably open on that point, explicitly advancing an argument on the very first page that fulfills condition one of scapegoating, namely, locating a mortal threat where none exists: the “specter of our nation ruled by the extreme Christian right,” he declares, “that, more than any other force in the world today, is the immediate and profound threat to our republic [emphasis added].”
While Randall Balmar's Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical's Lament (Basic Books), does not similarly go so far as declaring that Christians are the most important problem facing the republic, he does fulfill the other conditions for post-9/11 scapegoating, from his opening preface with its suggestive use of “hijacking” (as in “the evangelical faith . . . has been hijacked by right-wing zealots”) to a conclusion about “Taking America Back.” Moreover, the scapegoat requirement of disproportionality is surely met with his attack on that horror of horrors, home-schooling, which “represents a betrayal of an essential component of American culture.” “Betrayal,” incidentally, is another word often signaling a scapegoat, especially when it is used metaphorically.
And like the Hispanic-hunting conservatives and their illegals, the denouncers of “theocracy” simply cannot let the Christians get anything right — and they also thereby meet one of the other conditions of scapegoating: using the supposed culprit to explain too much. Theocrats are stupid and backward and medieval; no, they are calculating and pro-active and Machiavellian. So indiscriminately does Andrew Sullivan's latest book, The Conservative Soul (HarperCollins), malign them all that even sympathetic reviewer (and self-described friend of Sullivan's) David Brooks felt compelled to point out in the < i>New York Times that, “You take those people [Christian believers] out of American politics and you don't have a country left.”
Alan Wolfe's latest book, Does American Democracy Still Work? (Yale University Press), is no less alarmist than the libertarian bloggers and many others who lack his scholarly credentials but share his apprehension about the religious right: If Americans do not snap to and cease being the somnabulent dupes they have apparently become, then “American democracy, which in its greatest moments inspired people throughout the world, will lose its luster, destroy the hopes of its founders, and no longer stand as a model for other societies to emulate.” Thus is condition one of scapegoating fulfilled here too. Nor does Wolfe, elsewhere a careful academic, resist the temptation to tar all on the right equally, as do so many who have found the Christians relatively easy game compared to some others: “for all their talk of the sincerity of their faith, they are people who have never given any indication of being constrained by conscience.” Really? Truly? “Never”? The absolutism alone signals that something is up.
In sum, just as the paleoconservative and nativist wings of the right appear to have channeled the anxiety of the post-9/11 years into one relatively safe scapegoat — largely Hispanic illegal immigrants — so have the libertarians and some liberal allies fingered their own culprit in the “theocrats,” “Christocrats,” “Christianists,” and “Christian nationalists.” At the heart of their case is an obnoxious positing of moral equivalence among “fundamentalists” and “theocrats” irrespective of religious stripe. Accordingly, anyone believing anything based on any holy writ whatever is suspect, no matter whether the message being received is that two hundred babes must die in Chechnya tomorrow or that two hundred trees should be planted in Tel Aviv by Texan evangelicals to hasten the second coming. As with the example of illegal immigration, this rhetoric all makes perfect sense — or would in a world where Jerry Falwell calls down fatwas on naral, the 700 Club sends suicide bombers into the Key West Fantasy Fest, and Richard John Neuhaus posts death warrants on ewtn whenever he wants the members of Moveon.org decapitated.
The libertarians do have an important part of the truth in tow, a truth giving their anti-Christianism its zeal, thus fulfilling the versimilitude requirement of scapegoating: We in the West are indeed, as they charge, threatened by certain people in the grip of a totalitarian interpretation of religion. But pace the polemics this faction has popularized, that religion is not Christianity, and most of its followers are not Americans.
The Bush scapegoating
I n addition to the ideological scapegoats arising from points right to left, certain other forms of the denial of reality have also manifested themselves in the years since 9/11. Most obvious is the cult formed of disparate theories maintaining perhaps the ultimate resistance: that the towers did not fall because Saudi-born hijackers flew into them, but because of (fill in the blank): an Israeli conspiracy, a Washington conspiracy, a military conspiracy, an industrial conspiracy, a plot ordered by the man in the moon. Of course no one serious — at least in America — believes any of this (about some others we shall presently see). Even so, the inside-job men do warrant at least a mention as the most literal incarnation of post 9/11 denial.
But there is one other scapegoat in whom some serious people do believe: George W. Bush — not the president of the United States, exactly, but his all-purpose totemic doppelgänger. That is not to confuse the scapegoating of Bush with legitimate criticism of Bush's decisions, especially of the war in Iraq. To the contrary, such criticism has abounded for years now in books including James Mann's The Vulcans (Penguin Press, 2004), Francis Fukuyama's Neoconservatism at the Crossroads (Yale University Press), George Packer's Assassins at the Gate (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), Tom Ricks's Fiasco (Penguin Press), and Bob Woodward's State of Denial, to name just a few. These and other recent works challenge American policy and strategy at the level of political principle, criticizing the Iraq war in particular on grounds by which all wars are measured, such as tactical effectiveness and strategic plan. All make arguments rather than vent noxious emotion, and none gives off the telltale signs of scapegoating.
But then there is the other kind of criticism back-pedaling away from reality and into the wilderness of the scapegoats: the industry demonizing Bush himself personally. Michael Moore's Stupid White Men (“Thief-in-Chief”) (Regan Books, 2002), Molly Ivins' Bushwacked (Random House, 2003), David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush (Three Rivers Press, 2004), video skin-crawlers like Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Gabriel Range's Death of a President, to such say-no-more titles as the I Hate George Bush Reader (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004) and The Bush-Hater's Handbook: a Guide to the Most Appalling Presidency of the Past 100 Years (Nation Books, 2004): in a move that has taken even the publishing industry by surprise, Bush-hating tomes have topped bestseller lists for years now. Perhaps the deep-set need for a scapegoat is one reason why.
Consider one recent such book, Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (Penguin Press). Like so much else now dominating the nonfiction aisles, it apprehends one large truth — that the current balance between reality and rhetoric has been altered in a way deleterious to us. It then scrambles that message, again like the other scapegoaters, into a version more palatable than what the actual one would require. In this case, the scramble ends in focusing blame and hatred onto one single man — George Bush — who also shares a key feature of attraction alongside other scapegoats: He is not going to strike back.
Like others who are Bush-haters simpliciter, Rich is too bilious to make a systematic argument. The result is a burning effigy of a book whose smoke obscures one fundamental point: Whatever else George W. Bush is about, what the record does seem to show and what even many of his enemies feel forced to concede is that he does actually believe in what he is doing. Because it can't allow itself to go there, <>The Greatest Story Ever Sold becomes as two-dimensional as its subject. Rich's passion for hunting al Qaeda rings authentic and strong, and so does his desire to show that the Iraq war was a disastrous diversion. But as he himself puts the problem in a discussion of journalists who went along with the administration's rationale for invading Iraq, “Their contempt for the war's critics often seems so defensive in retrospect that it's hard not to wonder if the overheated rhetoric was a reflection of their own deep-seated, unmentioned doubts.” Omitting that reference to the war's critics, it is an apt comment on the diversionary passion not only of this book, but of the rest of the Bush-hating genre too.
The trouble with putting Bush personally at the center of what ails us is much like the related trouble of relocating the illegals or the theocrats there instead: i.e., it tries to explain too much. In this, too, the parallelism of the scapegoats can be seen. He is a child of privilege who believes in nothing. No, he is an ideological Christian possessed of an unwavering and therefore dangerous faith. Which is it? He is a tool of the oil interests, of the neoconservatives, of the Christians; no, he is a puppet master of them all; no again, he is himself a puppet of Karl Rove. He is “someone who likes to compete and win at all costs” (Rich); he is someone who has had everything handed to him and doesn't know what it is like to struggle (also Rich). And so on.
Yet one other current of informed opinion has offered up yet another version of events that is also evasive of reality, albeit with a twist. Rather than focus their passions on external scapegoats, some foreign policy specialists seem to have decided something else that points away from zeroing in on Islamism: namely, the argument that 9/11 was not that big a deal after all.
Foreign Affairs magazine, for example, observed the fifth anniversary of the event with contents reflecting the veritable panoply of post-9/11 denial: a lead essay on what American evangelicals are doing to U.S. foreign policy, a second essay arguing that Muslims in France are working hard to assimilate, and a third essay by John Mueller, drawn from his new book on the subject, arguing that “almost no terrorists exist in the United States and few have the means or the inclination to strike from abroad.” With uncanny coincidence Foreign Policy led its September/October 2006 issue with a cover piece recalling “The Day Nothing Much Changed” by managing editor William J. Dobson. “For all the sound and fury,” he wrote equably, “the world looks much like it did on September 10”; “the tragic drama of that day did not usher in a new era.” Clearly, if counterintuitively, what now passes for the final word on 9/11 among at least some experts is that reaction to the event was overdone, misunderstood, somehow hyped.
In its own urbane way, this no-problem declaration is every bit as out of touch with reality as the response of the missile-spotters, the demolition obscurantists, and everyone else producing one proof too many showing that our “worst” problems somehow lie elsewhere. Putting aside the trivial truth behind their argument — it is surely the case, if creepily so, that killing a mere 3,000 Americans that day did not bring down this superpower of 300 million — life did indeed change for a great many people that day in a way that has yet to change “back.” To argue otherwise is more an exercise in irrealism or surrealism than in realpolitik. One need only ask anyone who lives in New York or Washington or who lost family or friends on 9/11 or in Iraq or Afghanistan since. Add to those numbers any American who has boarded a plane in the last five years, and you have a clear majority of the adult public able to verify that something substantial did change for the country that day, even if it is not so numerically quantifiable as the Dow or the rate of unemployment. To argue otherwise is simply to flout the evidence of other people's senses, if not also one's own.
As do the current arguments of Kevin Phillips. In the years since 9/11 he has produced not one but three books — Wealth and Democracy (Broadway, 2003), American Dynasty (Penguin Press, 2004), and American Theocracy (Viking Adult) — all imaginative and interesting, offering what he calls a “trilogy of indictments” of modern-day Republicans, especially Bushes. Phillips' work is scapegoat syncretism: His proposed culprits include George W. Bush, the Christian Right, the oil companies, and certain innovators in high finance. Nor does he hesitate to state that these rank right up there with Islamism in some kind of equivalence: The “three major perils to the United States of the twenty-first century,” he writes (thus fulfilling condition one of scapegoating), are “reckless dependency on shrinking oil supplies, a milieu of radicalized (and much too influential) [American Christian] religion, and a reliance on borrowed money.” To the rhetorical question of “shouldn't war and terror be on the list?” he answers a yes-but: “they are, one step removed.” Thus are conditions two and three, overburdening and verisimilitude (the mention of oil as a factor in Islamist power, which it is), met simultaneously.
Islamism in Europe
Y et all the while these past five years, as the list of ostensible dire threats to the republic has grown — illegal Mexican immigrants, legal American Christians, the Mossad, the cia, the military-industrial complex, the dynastic family from Kennebunkport — a different serious public literature that is not fantastic, that is well-documented, increasing, and consonant with some other disturbing facts, illuminates just what actual “existential crisis,” as Buchanan puts it, really defines the West today. This is the reportage, primarily but not only from Europe, outlining clearly exactly just who really means us harm and why.
One 2006 book illuminating that subject is Murder in Amsterdam (Penguin Press), a meditation by Dutch-born writer Ian Buruma on the murder in November 2004 by an Islamist of avant-garde filmmaker Theo van Gogh, one of whose movies had lately outraged the Muslim community and its radicals there. In a crime that rocked the Netherlands and other parts of Europe as no other in decades, Moroccan-Dutchman Mohammed Bouyeri shot van Gogh off his bicycle in Amsterdam and then slit his throat — “as though slashing a tire,” as one witness put it — before kicking the corpse and calmly walking away.
Like other observers in Holland and elsewhere, Buruma sees van Gogh's death as emblematic of the fate of Europe itself, one of other such symbolic events both representing and intensifying the collision of Islamism and the rest of the Continent:
Just how unprepared many non-Muslim Europeans are, how baffled by the apparent ebbing in the past two decades of Kantian eternal peace against the flowing of what looks like Islamist eternal mau-mauing, is also clear from Buruma's account. So shocking was van Gogh's murder in pacific Amsterdam, he reports in one telling detail, that the two policemen who had helped to apprehend the killer actually embraced one another at the trial and wept with joy upon learning that he purposely decided against killing them that morning as well. Similarly, van Gogh's death is known by some as the “Dutch 9/11” — a phrase that by itself poignantly summarizes how out of touch with their enemies' real designs many people in the Netherlands must be.
Another chilling look in 2006 at what Islamism is doing to Europe is Londonistan (Encounter Books) by Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips. Methodical and impersonal, it details both vignettes of Islamism in Britain today and the manifold capitulations of the various elements of the British establishment in the face of it — both developments on a scale that will almost certainly come as a shock to American readers. First, to the obligatory and obvious disclaimer. “There are hundreds of thousands of British Muslims,” writes Phillips at the outset, “who have no truck whatsoever with terrorism, nor with extremist ideology.” Her point is to focus on the other ones, from the imams and mosques on down.
“The British Muslim establishment,” she charges, “has itself been hijacked by extremist elements funded and promoted by the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and elsewhere.” Taking full advantage of a culture in which tolerance is seen as an eminent, sometimes paramount, virtue, terrorists and their sympathizers have preached hate and violent jihad without impediment and plotted violence with an apparent minimum of interference — indeed, often with the generosity of the welfare state making their terrorist vocation easier to swing.
Phillips is perhaps edgiest on the subject of British capitulation, arguing that over and again the desire of a complacent and otherwise contented public not to acknowledge the poison out in plain view permeated reaction to Islamism, and always for the worse. “Not one person who called for Rushdie to be killed,” she observes, “was prosecuted for incitement to murder.” From that seemingly small example of pathology, many others have followed, all cut from the same political and psychological cloth: denial.
Prince Charles himself, she reports, was an important force behind building north London's Finsbury Park mosque, dubbed by Phillips the “clerical epicenter of the jihad in Britain”; he has spoken frequently of how Islam helps to solve the spiritual poverty of the West; and he has further said in public that when he becomes king he will change “Defender of the Faith” to “defender of faith.” So too, as Philips documents in a chapter entitled “On Their Knees Before Terror,” has the Church of England inverted moral reality time and again. “The first instinct of many British clerics,” as she summarizes the coe's reactions to the July bombings, “was to empathize and agonize not with the victims of the atrocity but with the community of the faith in whose name it had been committed — and to deny that religion had anything to do with it at all.”
Again not surprisingly, these kinds of reassuring words, happy talk amid an unhappy reality, also appear to have had consequences — perhaps even life and death consequences — for the people charged with protecting Londoners from Islamist attack. Perhaps most emblematic, the government's own Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre decided one month before the London tube bombings to demote the terror threat assessment because “there was no group with current interest and the capability” of pulling off such attacks — this despite the many radicals operating in plain sight and the unmistakably violent threats they poured forth. No wonder Phillips concludes that “Britain is in denial . . . deep into a policy of appeasement of the phenomenon that threatens it, throwing sops to both radical Islamism and the Muslim community in a panic-stricken attempt to curry favor and buy off the chances of any further attacks.”
Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within (Doubleday), is another 2006 reality check that is similarly packed with information guaranteed to shock almost any American who has not lately spent months on the Continent. An expatriate of some years' standing (he moved first to Amsterdam in 1998, and his book also covers events in Oslo, Copenhagen, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, and Stockholm), Bawer here presents a compelling account of both his own evolution from Europhilia back to an appreciation of his own country and, more broadly, a painfully detailed portrait of what tolerance and capitulation toward Islamist enemies have wrought.
Quite apart from the all-important issue of terrorism to which Bawer naturally devotes most of the book, the extent of bargaining and accommodation on other Islamic and Islamist issues is little understood on this side of the Atlantic. And therein lies a tale of how small capitulations may lead to large ones.
“The European establishment,” Bawer charges by way of example, “has been reluctant to challenge even the most reprehensible traditions brought to Europe by immigrant groups. Female genital mutilation, for example, takes place in nearly every country of Western Europe; Sweden, Norway, Britain, and France have even passed laws against it. But like many such laws in Europe they're never enforced. Only in one department of France have serious measures — namely, mandatory medical exams — been instituted to prevent mutilations; but though they've proved spectacularly effective, no other jurisdiction in Europe has adopted similar procedures. Only once, moreover — also in France — has anyone ever been put on trial for subjecting a child to such an operation.”
Of course, one can argue that the habit of female genital mutilation, like the perhaps related statistics Bawer cites about high rates of intra-family violence among some subgroups of Muslim immigrants, is one of those matters of “cultural preference” that lie beyond the reach of the state. Even so, his book solidly connects the dots between capitulating on points like these only to find the pressure then increased to capitulate elsewhere as well. In the matter of education he reports, for example, that Amsterdam's schools are almost completely segregated now between Muslims and non-Muslims as a consequence both of Islamic instruction in the classroom and of reported harassment by non-Muslim students; and other countries, Bawer shows, are likewise experiencing breakdowns in juvenile integration (to put it mildly). “In most of Western Europe,” he chronicles, “the multicultural elite was, almost without exception, allied with the Islamic right on all these fronts — explaining away delinquency, suppressing reports of violence, standing up for hijab, and so forth.”
Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe: Why the Continent's Crisis Is America's Too (Crown Forum), both affirms and enhances Bawer's argument with impressionistic details from her upbringing and travel in countries including Britain, France, Italy, and Turkey. Like Bawer, she too is preoccupied by the pathological tangle of elite capitulation, anti-Americanism, and Islamist power. “Anti-Americanism,” she observes, “is a key and inextricable tenet of political Islamism, as is anti-Semitism. . . . Through the unlikely alliance of the Muslim Right and the British Left, anti-Americanism has escaped its circumscribed association with privileged, self-enamored sophisticates, permeated Britain's underclass, and become inextricably conflated with a raw strain of racial and religious resentment.” She, too, zeros in on the longer-term consequences of the capitulations large and small.
Like Bawer, Berlinski also connects the attempts to appease the actual and would-be terrorists on the one hand, and the increased probability of future attacks on the other. Citing a document published four months before the Madrid attacks by an organization with ties to al Qaeda, for example, both authors argue that the motive underlying the killings was to produce a withdrawal of Spain from Iraq. (“We think,” Berlinski quotes the document as saying, “that the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it will have to withdraw as a result of popular pressure.” As it happened, it took only one blow, days before a national election, to swing the result in favor of the party pledging withdrawal.) Yet giving terrorists what they wanted hardly appears to have lowered the risk to Spaniards; after the Madrid bombing, the country's security services interrupted plots to blow up the Spanish high court and the Madrid soccer stadium. They also arrested a cell of Pakistani criminals with links to al Qaeda and to the terrorists who killed Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Their video collection also happened to include surveillance of several large buildings in Barcelona.
Berlinski zeros in on the point: “By capitulating to the terrorists' demands” in the wake of the attacks on the Madrid subway, she writes, “the Spanish electorate proved that a well-timed bloodletting could achieve better results than the perpetrators of the slaughter had dared to hope. In doing so, they condemned many more of us to death. Why wouldn't the murderers repeat such a successful experiment? Is it any surprise that they did, in London, in July 2005?”
These are good questions, and they point to a most unsettling conclusion: Not only did European governments raise the risks to their people in turning a blind eye to the Islamists in their midst, but Spain has further increased that risk by proving that attacks work — the bigger, the better.
Could we perhaps console ourselves with the thought that this literature is overly “alarmist”? Certainly a truly systematic treatment of Islam and Islamism in Europe has yet to appear. Both the Bawer and Berlinski volumes, in particular, are deeply personal; part of Bawer's narrative concerns the effect of Islamism on the homosexual marriage he moved to Europe to obtain, and Berlinski for her part writes as a sophisticated and opinionated young woman steeped in the same kinds of liberties that Western-hating Islamists would snuff out.
In neither case, however, do the personal and impressionistic details undermine the book's theses. For that matter, so detailed with facts from the public record are all these volumes that readers hoping for a kinder and gentler look at Islamism in Europe will have a hard time writing any of them off. It is no overstatement to say that the tensions in one European country after another between elements of the Muslim community and many others are far more serious and far-reaching than has been understood by almost anyone, at least on this side of the pond, and that those tensions have serious consequences for the West's security.
Writing of the Bawer, Berlinski, and Phillips books in the Claremont Review, eminent British thinker Theodore Dalrymple (who now lives in France) cautioned against rhetorical overkill. Yet he also contributed this emblematic story behind the Phillips book, which perhaps makes her larger point most tellingly of all:
The America scapegoating
W hat “deep cultural problem” — the denial of which this new genre writes so forcefully — looks even deeper if we consider just a few fault lines that have shown up since these books appeared. Following is a mere sketch from September and October of 2006 alone.
In September, Pope Benedict xvi gave a speech in Regensburg quoting a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor suggesting that Islam was sometimes advanced through violence. Wrath from Muslims around the world followed in various forms, including the now-customary calls for jihad, the killing of a nun in Somalia, and the firebombing of seven churches in the West Bank and Gaza. In France that same month, a high school philosophy teacher named Robert Redeker wrote in Le Figaro that Mohammed was “a merciless warlord, looter, a mass murderer of Jews and a polygamist.” He and his family are now in hiding under police protection.
In Denmark in October, two young artists from a group called Defending Denmark posted cartoons on a website mocking the prophet Mohammed. Following reaction from Muslims around the world, they are now in hiding and under police protection. That same month, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, both famous and infamous for its avante-garde interpretations, cancelled a planned performance of the Mozart opera Idomeneo after police warned that a scene featuring the heads of Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha might give offense to Muslims.1 The cancellation happened to coincide with the first-ever “Conference on Islam,” also in Germany. As Anne Applebaum noted, “The real and so far mostly undiscussed lesson of this storm in an orchestra pit . . . [is that] Germany, like much of Europe, remains totally unprepared for the reality of modern terrorism.” That month also marked the one-year anniversary of riots in Muslim suburbs outside Paris and elsewhere during which many thousands of cars were burned in numerous cities, including a record 1,400 in one single night in the capital. In the six-month interval before that one-year mark, over 2,500 incidents were reported against police outside Paris alone, and the phrase “permanent intifada” became part of the news vernacular relating the ongoing friction and criminality while 4,000 extra police and riot controllers were dispatched in anticipation of anniversary violence.
Also in October, Jack Straw, backed by Tony Blair and Salman Rushdie (who is no longer living in Europe), questioned the effect on community of the full veil, thus sparking a furious debate, with outraged Muslims as well as Britons (for example, in the Guardian) pre-emptively wondering whether a “right” to say such things even exists. In more news from Britain that month, a citizen born in India who converted to Islam pleaded guilty to murder conspiracy in what authorities said was a plot to blow up the New York Stock Exchange and several other targets in the United States, including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank buildings in Washington, the Citigroup building in New York, and the Prudential building in Newark. His computer records also showed plans for using limousines packed with explosives to be detonated in underground parking garages in Britain. His seven co-defendants are still awaiting trial. Incidentally, the American indictment notes that he spent time in college in the U.S. and used that position to case targets.
To stand back from even a sketchy account of these facts — for which many more could have been substituted — is to grasp something of the atmospherics of Europe these days that rhetoric about the Iraq war and other U.S. depredations effectively drowns out: Across the Continent, Europe has Islamist troubles of its own. And to stand those facts alongside what many Americans have viewed as a puzzle — i.e., that the anti-Americanism emanating from some parts of Europe has been markedly more virulent since 9/11 — is to reach a fascinating if unorthodox possibility: Perhaps America — or rather, once again, the doppelgänger by that name conjured up by so many European anti-Americans — is the biggest post-9/11 scapegoat of them all.
After all, what if we are no longer looking at a comfortably static Europe, good old Venus to the American Mars, but at a culture whose raw domestic facts have been changing radically? What if European accommodationism today is not so much reflexive and historically ingrained, as conservatives in the U.S. often complain it is, but rather the public transmutation of fear itself — the fear of cultures taken hostage within their own borders?
For though governments may cooperate cheerfully behind the scenes and tourism and trade on both sides continue at prodigious rates, there is no avoiding the fact that the traditional condescension toward Yanks in parts of Europe has taken a virulent new turn — one that also cannot be written off as disgust over Iraq because it encompasses so much more than the war alone. Berlinski's, Bawer's and Phillips's books all offer useful roundups of the unprecedented kind of anti-American rhetoric issuing from high quarters in Britain and the Continent these days, and though anyone following the European press since 9/11 will not need immersion, it is still surprising to see what vitriol certain eminent figures have put their names to. “I Loathe America,” wrote Margaret Drabble in an emblematic piece by that title in 2003 in the Telegraph. “My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me, like a disease. It rises up in my throat like acid reflux, that fashionable American sickness.”
Seeing anti-Americanism not as some sui generis virus in itself, but rather as a natural consequence of anxiety over Islamism in Europe, also explains certain events that otherwise seem inexplicable. Perhaps they are not after all. In 2002, for example, a book by Thierry Meyssan, The Horrifying Fraud (Paris: Editions Carnot), became a bestseller. Of course its thesis — that no airplane crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11 and that the whole job was a put-up of the American military-industrial complex — was preposterous. But given that there are real grounds to fear what France's Islamists might do — and Britain's, and Holland's, and Spain's, and Germany's, and everyone else's; just as important, given that one thing they do or threaten to do is retaliate for whatever they perceive to be an offense — the felt public need for flight into some other explanation makes psychological sense even if it is intellectually and otherwise wrong.
None of this is to deny that Europe and America have real and substantial differences with one another quite apart from the issue of Islamism (just as they also have many critical political and economic matters in common, of course). Leaving aside security and strategy, the sheer demographic divide between the U.S. and non-Muslim Europe seems bound to guarantee a friction of its own; Europeans are from aarp, and Americans are still driving the kids to soccer practice. But where anti-Americanism was formerly fussy, today in some quarters it is ferocious; and it defies common sense to assign all the blame for that ferocity on Bush and the war in Iraq. To repeat, the anti-Americans themselves cast the net far wider.
In sum, given the information now assembling about just what is going on in Europe, about how accomodationist European politicians already are, and about how much more they are being called upon to do to appease restive Muslims both Islamist and otherwise, a new, unorthodox answer to the puzzle of anti-Americanism suggests itself. Perhaps these days, on the Continent, the widespread, all-explaining urge to lay everything at the door of the U.S. has little to do with America proper. Perhaps it does not have much to do either with the post-Cold War unipolar world. Perhaps it is not even really about Iraq.
No, perhaps the anti-Americanism of today is best understood instead as a way of being furious in public with somebody for the insecurities and anxieties wrought by Islamist terrorism in this world, including in increasingly Muslim Europe — an option made even more attractive by the safe bet that Americans, unlike some other people, are unlikely to respond to this rhetoric, let alone to editorial cartoons, by burning cars, slitting throats, or issuing death threats in places like Paris and Amsterdam and Regensburg and London.
The need to blame
T o identify primal fear as the denominator common to the anti-American scapegoating now emanating from some quarters in Europe is not to suggest anything like sinister intent. The same is true of the pundits who have made a different industry of scapegoating in the U.S. All have their reasons, and the overriding reason is an obvious one. There is something deeply human about the desire to find all the things scapegoats can provide: a vessel to bear one's anxieties and outrages, a target that won't hit back, a welcome distraction from the real thing.
On the positive side of the ledger, the threat of Islamism as a problem within the West and not merely emanating from outside it is indeed beginning to get the airing it deserves, at least in the United States. The appearance of the Phillips, Berlinski, and Bawer books is one sign, as are other serious treatments now in the works. So is the attention the subject now garners in news and commentary that comes largely (though not exclusively) from the right.
On the negative side, the record of ideas from the last few years also suggests that we too need to keep our guard up. That is why the appearance of scapegoating since 9/11 bears watching all its own: because freedom can be curtailed one baby step at a time, and fuzzy ideas about reality only accelerate them. Who would have guessed 20 years ago that by 2006, a Norwegian man eating lunch in the restaurant beneath the parliament would be asked to remove his jacket because the Star of David on it is now considered a “provocation”? Or that German cultural authorities at a flagship opera would opt for pre-emptive self-censorship? Getting from here to there had to start small: One pulled punch at a time in a newspaper editorial, one more act of omission in calling a spade a club, one more clever set of reasons for why something that is not the obvious thing is really the menace that walks among us.
As for what looking into reality requires of us if we are not to take refuge in scapegoats, it is no wonder that the temptation to look elsewhere continues strong. The real thing was apparently on near-perfect display in Amsterdam at Theo van Gogh's murder trial, where according to Ian Buruma the murderer Bouyeri finally broke his silence to address van Gogh's mother as follows:
H]e wanted her to know that he didn't kill her son because he [Theo] was Dutch, or because he, Mohammed, felt insulted as a Moroccan. Theo was no hypocrite, he continued, for he had simply spoken his mind. “So the story that I felt insulted as a Moroccan, or because he called me a goat f——r, that is all nonsense. I acted out of faith. And I made it clear that if it had been my own father, or my little brother, I would have done the same thing . . . if I were ever released, I would do exactly the same, exactly the same.”
In the face of a reality like that, who wouldn't rather pin the tail of “our most pressing issue” on some other donkey — Spanish-speaking illegals, right-wing Christians, George Bush, Israel and the Jews, even and ultimately America itself? The deformation of political truth to avoid recognition of the Islamist threat which is one of its current defining features is a normal response to an abnormally terrible fact. Unfortunately, that does not make it any less inimical to freedom.