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Falling Towers


New member
Jun 4, 2010
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Political Leaning
Very Liberal
What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

- T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"

Perhaps the infamous dictum about ends justifying means that appears to undergird so much of America's foreign policy might just as easily apply to certain non-state actors. One of the most startling moments of my undergraduate education was hearing one of Sarah Lawrence's professors, a leftist a outrance, compare the fanatical right-wing theocrat Osama bin Laden to our nation's first President.

"After all," the argument went, "Washington was a wealthy landowner, a slave-owner even, and a conservative nationalist." Yet Washington's struggle against imperialism is today remembered a great deal more fondly by Americans.

In accordance with the principle of charitable interpretation, I swallowed my distaste and went with the assumption that the comparison was meant sincerely, and not intended to shock and provoke as many leftist screeds of this sort appear to be. After mulling it over for a bit, I came to the conclusion that our professor indeed had a point.

The United States not only established its independence through violent means - including the use of vigilante terror against unarmed citizens who too openly professed support for the British king - but has, within living memory, used its unmatchable war machine in attacks throughout the globe that have killed and injured civilians by the tens of thousands.

During the Vietnam War, for instance, we killed about 2 million noncombatants in Southeast Asia through bombing alone. Most of this unlimited use of air power had political and psychological, rather than tactical objectives.

None of this, of course, should be taken to explain or justify the September 11 attacks, merely to keep a sense of perspective about them. To condemn Al Qaeda when our body count is so much higher would be the grossest hypocrisy.

No, if that professor's remarks still sit uneasily with me, it has more to do with Al Qaeda's ends than its means. This is not to say that the use of terror against civilian targets is any more defensible when terrorists do it than when imperialists do it. In both cases, it is at best unclear whether the means employed do actually achieve the desired ends; whether, if the desired ends are in fact achieved, the violence used to achieve them does not create other ends equally pernicious; and most importantly of all, whether the means defeat and destroy the ends.

These are questions to trouble leftists, not medieval barbarians. Osama bin Laden is not George Washington, not because his methods are cleaner, but because his objectives are utterly reprehensible. Washington and his comrades were fairly progressive for their time, bourgeois nationalists steeped in the rationalist ideals of the European Enlightenment.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban, on the other hand, are regressive outriders of what the Slovenian Marxist thinker Slavoj Zizek calls "the New Barbarism." They would replace American imperialism with a second Dark Ages, capitalism with Asiatic despotism. If they could achieve these ends with deep-tissue massage and poetry recital they would scarcely be less appalling.

There are two bottom lines to all this. One is that those on the left who characterize the barbarians at the gate as heroic anti-imperialist freedom fighters are doing no favors to their cause, and setting themselves up for a terrible disappointment. Similarly, the right needs to stop its self-righteous chest-pounding jingoism. America is hardly an aggrieved innocent in world affairs.

The other, more concretely, is that we must come to a concrete resolution with regard to Afghanistan. As the Obama Administration struggles and fumbles with the sticky tactical situation in that unfortunate land, it has become obvious that our halfhearted, slapdash approach is not working.

We ought to either redouble our efforts and deploy all available troops and resources against the villains of 9/11 - which would quite likely endanger our empire in the Fertile Crescent - or simply declare victory and leave.

[For more of my stuff: http://my.democrats.org/page/community/blog/immanentuniversal]
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