A version of this article originally appeared in the November 25, 2001
NEW YORK–In the aftermath of September 11, pundits were quick to proclaim the American left a victim of the war on terrorism, for two reasons.
The first is that progressives, since Vietnam, have stood solidly in opposition to the use of US military force. This stance could be honorably maintained then and during a host of sordid US military ventures since, but leaves them unbalanced or marginal in today's case, where force seems justified.
The second is that this war is about securing the "open society" that terrorism threatens–a society in which individual and corporate freedoms, resting on secure property rights, can be exercised worldwide without restraint. But the left–in its World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and Genoa, in its opposition to fast track–has been most visible for opposing the corporate domination that naturally follows from such rules. And so, the pundits reason, any left support now for the war against terrorism is at odds with its recent actions. But this reasoning strikes us as wrong. Only the pacifist left has ever opposed all use of US military force; other progressives simply have strong views on when it is appropriate and believe that blank, ubiquitous endorsement of military action does not serve the country. And there is no reason to equate opposition to terrorism, a crime against humanity, with support for a particular program on how humanity should be organized, a matter that remains a subject of legitimate debate.
If anything, the war on terrorism creates an opening for progressives, not closure–indeed, it presents the opportunity of a lifetime.
It is a truism of modern politics that war generally mobilizes and helps the democratic left. It does so, despite the repression of dissent that wartime also often brings, because war raises the stakes in politics and invites consideration of wider goals, including justice. War's mobilization of the populace against a shared threat also heightens social solidarity, while underscoring the need for government and other social institutions that transcend or replace the market. And war's horrors daily press the question of how military action can be avoided in the future without abandoning core principles of domestic order.
All this shifts the playing field of political debate away from those who counsel "let's leave it to the market or the military" as the answer to all human concerns. Far from seeming hard-nosed and realistic, they suddenly appear beside the point, if not immoral. Those who believe in social justice and shared democratic effort in problem solving, by contrast, seem onto something important and even admirable.
Consider the birth of "new normal" America. On September 11 the public saw terrorists flying into buildings to kill innocents–most of them ordinary workers, many of them foreign-born. It saw public servants running in to save them, freely sacrificing their own lives in doing so. It was not private corporations that lined up afterward to find the dead and comfort the families, but volunteer workers, more public servants, and nonprofits of all kinds.