The Left and 9/11 | The Nation


The Left and 9/11

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The prowar left and the antiwar left have both tended to view the conflict through ideologically tinted prisms. Reflexive anti-Americanism is one such prism. As Don Guttenplan, a London-based correspondent for The Nation, observes, for a small but vocal section of American radicals, "there is only one imperialism, and if it isn't American it's not imperialism." In the past decade this theology of American evil has assumed increasingly twisted forms, including, in some cases, a creeping sympathy for Serbian nationalism. It has also produced a highly selective solicitude for the oppressed: "Muslim grievances" are to be heeded when they emanate from Palestine, but ignored or even repudiated when they arise in Bosnia or Kosovo. This has damaged the left's moral standing and widened the chasm with human rights activists, who should be our natural allies.

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

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Adam Shatz
Adam Shatz is a contributing editor at the London Review of Books and a former literary editor of The Nation. He has...

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The MIT linguist and prolific essayist Noam Chomsky has emerged as a favorite target of those keen on exposing the left's anti-Americanism. Although Chomsky denounced the attacks, emphasizing that "nothing can justify such crimes," he seemed irritable in the interviews he gave just after September 11, as if he couldn't quite connect to the emotional reality of American suffering. He wasted little time on the attacks themselves before launching into a wooden recitation of atrocities carried out by the American government and its allies. In a clumsy analogy, Chomsky likened the attacks to Clinton's bombing of the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan (wrongly suspected of manufacturing biological weapons), which resulted in one direct casualty. According to Chomsky, because the destruction of the plant placed tens of thousands of Sudanese at risk of malaria and other lethal diseases, it was "morally worse" than 9/11.

Much of what Chomsky said--his argument that the United States should treat the attacks as a crime, rather than an act of war, and that it should apprehend the terrorists and bring them before an international court rather than declare war on Afghanistan--was echoed by more centrist thinkers, including the British military historian Michael Howard in Foreign Affairs and Stanley Hoffmann in The New York Review of Books. The problem was not so much Chomsky's opposition to US retaliation as the weirdly dispassionate tone of his reaction to the carnage at Ground Zero, but, as Todd Gitlin points out, "in an interview undertaken just after September 11, the tone was the position."

"There's a humbling insight into the US pretension of occupying the moral high ground in Chomsky's work," international legal scholar and Nation editorial board member Richard Falk reflects. "Part of what he's saying is true. Objectively viewed, the United States isn't the victim but in many contexts, including its response to terrorism, the perpetrator." But, adds Falk, he's "so preoccupied with the evils of US imperialism that it completely occupies all the political and moral space, and therefore it's not possible for him to acknowledge that even without intending to do so, some US military interventions may actually have a beneficial effect."

Instead of taking "an either/or view" of American military intervention, Falk argues, "we should look with as much care as possible at the case where the interventionary claim is being made, and consider the effects of intervening and not intervening." As his own writings on Afghanistan illustrate, however, it's not always easy to make these calls. Falk changed his position on Afghanistan several times before arriving at the conclusion that the war was "just and necessary," despite the use of tactics like cluster bombs that he believes were "in clear violation of the laws of war."

Falk has been widely chastised for his vacillations. "Will the old Falk please stand up? We need you, Richard!" the antiwar lawyer Peter Weiss wrote in a letter to The Nation. "He wanted to be vindicated, he didn't want to be right," says Hitchens, from the other end of the spectrum. And yet one could argue that it was the opposite--that Falk was trying to stake out a principled position, one attentive both to the delicate balance between human rights and domestic security, and to the rapid changes on the ground in Afghanistan. In doing so, he spoke for many people on the left, though unlike some of us he expressed his uncertainty and ambivalence, and was not afraid to admit that he had been mistaken.

While Falk did not evaluate the war through the distorting prism of anti-Americanism, he also avoided the misleading view of many prowar liberals, for whom America's struggle against Al Qaeda and Israel's war with Palestinian suicide bombers are one and the same. "America's crime, its real crime, is to be America herself," Paul Berman wrote in The American Prospect shortly after the attacks. "The crime is to exude the dynamism of an ever-changing liberal culture. America is like Israel in that respect, only fifty times larger and infinitely richer and more powerful." The implication of Berman's argument is that no change in Middle East policy could stem the tide of Arab anger, directed as it is not against specific American or Israeli policies but against "our" way of life. Though rarely cited explicitly, Israel shapes and even defines the foreign policy views of a small but influential group of American liberals. It's one reason Berman and like-minded social democrats at the journal Dissent may support a war against Iraq. Saddam Hussein has not attacked us, but, as Ann Snitow, a member of the Dissent editorial board, reminded me, "Who is 'us'? Is it New York or Tel Aviv? The 'us' slides around."

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