What William Bennett Doesn’t Understand
The September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington shocked and outraged most Americans. It is common to respond to what is shocking and unexpected by invoking familiar vocabularies and seeking the comfort of ideological certitudes. So it is hardly surprising that many on the American left responded in just such a way, recurring to the language of “anti-imperialism,” “peace,” and “global justice” to condemn the U.S. military response and U.S. foreign policy more generally. For them, the “real” problem was not al-Qaeda or even terrorism. It was the system of global capitalism dominated by the United States. Such reactions were rightly criticized, in these pages and elsewhere, by those leftists who believed that the problem behind the 9/11 attacks is indeed terrorism, that the unfortunate record of U.S. foreign policy neither explains the resort to terror nor mitigates its malevolence, that a U.S. military response was necessary and just, and that only the United States can lead an effort to destroy terrorist networks that pose a general threat to any acceptable conception of civilized life.
Though this has been less noticed, American conservatives responded to 9/11 in a very similar way. For them, of course, the standard trope was not “America as imperial power” but “America as all that is noble and just and good in the world” (see Dinesh D’Souza’s aptly titled What’s So Great About America). But beyond the exaltation of a mythical “America,” many conservatives treated the 9/11 attacks as an occasion to revive the “culture wars” of the 1980s and to target the left, and liberalism more generally, as the real enemy. This has been a standard refrain on the television talk show circuit, especially on Fox News (9/11 seems to have done for Fox what the Gulf War did for CNN and, long ago, the Iran hostage crisis for Nightline on ABC). You can find it also in such recent best-sellers as Ann Coulter’s Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right and Sean Hanitty’s even more tendentious Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty over Liberalism. Similar themes have been articulated, in more refined but potentially more dangerous form, in a number of speeches by Lynne Cheney, and in a report put out by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni-an organization founded by Cheney and Senator Joseph Lieberman-entitled “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America, and What Can Be Done About It.”
The basic themes of this conservative argument are easily summarized: whereas ordinary Americans are righteously indignant and angry about terrorism, liberal intellectuals and academics have so exalted critical reason that they are incapable of common sense; while Americans are rightly patriotic, liberals are either insidiously cosmopolitan or downrigh...
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