Response to Michael Walzer

Response to Michael Walzer

Viewed from inside “history in the making,” a place where Americans now dwell, September 11 appears as a day that marked a radical change in our world. When we finally went to sleep that night, it seemed that a familiar way of life was irrevocably gone, and that a new one we did not fully comprehend had taken its place. But like many an epoch-defining date, September 11 signifies not the sudden birth of a new world, but the appearance, in dramatic relief, of a gradually emerging new order. The mass murders of that day forced us to recognize the immediacy and gravity of political dangers that we knew existed, but had still largely discounted. Today, we know there is no more urgent matter before us.

Michael Walzer sketches a compelling political perspective on the issues we now face. Our first priority, he and I agree, must be to eliminate the capacity for the Taliban and al Qaeda to sponsor future September 11s. The old injunction of Mother Jones, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living,” has particular resonance here. This “war” must be fought on a number of different fronts: diplomatic, economic and financial, domestic security, international public opinion, and military. A sensible and principled course must be steered between a “just say no” antiwar movement opposed to any meaningful use of force against the Taliban and al Qaeda and an “anything goes” jingoism prepared to countenance any military action. By contrast, our support of the use of armed force is made in the context of this broader campaign, as the military option cannot succeed by itself. In addition, it requires that all reasonable precautions be taken to protect innocent life. Finally, Walzer and I agree that intellectuals of the democratic left must challenge what he aptly calls “a culture of excuse and apology” for acts of terror that has arisen in parts of the academic and organizational left.

Where I dissent from Walzer’s formulation is his identification of the enemy as “terrorism.” Terrorism is a means to a political end, not a political end in itself. It is possible, although rare, for acts of terror to occur in the name of political causes we would otherwise consider just, such as the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the struggle against fascism. But the systematic use of and continual reliance upon terror is a distinct feature of totalitarian movements and states, as Hannah Arendt noted in her classic study of the subject. The mass murders of September 11 are the face of a twenty-first century totalitarianism, and it will better suit the protracted struggle to identify the enemy by that name, rather than by a description of the means it employs.

Political clarity on the nature of this enemy is vital. Although it serves a rhetorical purpose to describe the Taliban and al Qaeda as “fascism with an Islamic face,” as one commentator did...