Response to Michael Walzer

Response to Michael Walzer

The terrorist attack on September 11 evidently had two purposes. First, to inflict on ordinary Americans pain of the sort widely meted out to other civilian populations around the world by those who oppose their governments. Second, to polarize the situation between the elite United States interests and militant Islamicists, eliminating as much as possible any middle ground. Lamentably, the first of these aims succeeded fully and the second, substantially.

The perpetrators of the attack deserve a commensurate response-coercive, deadly, and precisely targeted to those responsible. This is not to say that any and all military action to follow from the United States is warranted. George W. Bush’s announcement that the country was at war-without specifying the exact enemy, the form of the combat, or the nature of the victory being sought-was scary. We on the left should know better than to give blanket endorsement to such vague projects. The initial broad support for American retaliation, both here and abroad, will evaporate-and with good reason-if the riposte ends up striking all sorts of innocent figures, while missing the perpetrators.

But we should not be afraid to back a deadly response to those who murder Americans. Michael Walzer is right about one thing: no conceivable changes in American foreign policy could ever satisfy all would-be authors of terrorist actions. There are too many of them, and they come from too many ideological directions. We must never imagine that somehow cleaning up America’s domestic or international stance will relieve us of any need to respond to terrorist acts.

Nor should this need cause us to suspend our critical faculties-and our critical stance-regarding America’s far-reaching role in the world. That is where Walzer’s analysis fails us. When he speaks of terrorism as the world’s new scourge, he seems to be thinking only of terrorist activities emanating from one source. In fact, America itself has been and remains a prolific source of terrorist activities-that is, coercive acts against civilian populations as a political tool-all around the world. Perpetrators include Americans themselves, their surrogates, and surrogates of their surrogates. Have we forgotten what American forces did in Vietnam-the killings and other violent intimidations aimed at “drying up the support” among the peasantry for an enemy that we could not defeat in the field? One of the many living participants in such actions against unarmed civilians, Bob Kerrey, now heads a major institution of higher learning in New York. When his actions surfaced in national debate last year, the consensus seemed to be that war is hell, and no one could properly attribute responsibility in such matters who had not experienced the situation first hand. I disagree.


But the salient case, in today’s international context, is America’s ally and protégé, Israel-a country whose very creation required ...