Magnifying the Enemy
So it was surprising to read his recent essay on how liberals, not conservatives, should change their stance. Not only surprising, but disappointing.
Beinart usually measures his words with care, but in this case he goes overboard in the manner of the conservatives he usually criticizes. He begins by accepting the premise that September 11 brought the United States face-to-face with a new totalitarian threat.
That is simply and obviously false. If Beinart had stopped to think about it, one hopes he wouldnt have said it. But he goes on to repeat the word totalitarian several times, even likening Islamist totalitarianism to Soviet totalitarianism before it.
Soviet and Maoist totalitarianism were real. Islamist totalitarianism doesnt exist, and its hard to see how it could exist. Totalist rulers like Stalin and Mao went far beyond ordinary tyrants not only in mass murder and other crimes, but, more fundamentally, in self-exaltation. They recognized nothing above themselves or beyond their authority neither God nor law nor even historical truth. They put loyalty to themselves above loyalty even to family. Children were taught to worship them and report their own parents to the state. It was this absolute intrusiveness that defined totalitarianism.
George Orwell captured the essence in his Ministry of Truth Minitrue in his grim satire 1984. The state changes the official truth at whim, from day to day. It alters or destroys the records of the past. Its subjects are utter slaves who must submit to the arbitrary commands of the moment, their minds dizzied by the effort of keeping up with the unpredictable shifts, even reversals, in the party line. Such tyranny depends upon a brainwashed population.
This cant happen under Islam. I say this not in praise, but as a simple matter of fact. Islam is controlled by an ancient text, the Koran, and a long, deep-rooted moral tradition. No tyrant and the Islamic world has seen many tyrants can change or abolish this past. A Saddam Hussein may rule with dreadful cruelty, violating Islamic morality, but he cant tamper with that morality in principle.
Not long ago, conservatives recognized a vital difference between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. The latter might be unjust, even bloody, but they didnt have the unlimited quality of the totalists. They were generally content, like Saddam, to suppress political opposition and leave other areas of life alone. And they were not deemed threatening to the United States; often they were accepted as allies of the United States.
Saddam, though he admired Stalin, was what conservatives would once have called authoritarian. But more recently he was reclassified as a totalitarian, and therefore both enemy and threat. In this case it was the conservatives who were guilty of a Stalin-like twist of the party line.
For similar reasons, Beinart is talking nonsense when he speaks of a totalitarian threat posed by Islamist forces. Al-Qaeda has neither the desire nor the capacity for world conquest and conquest doesnt even seem to be its goal. Try to imagine it conquering not only the United States, but India or China. It has sympathy in the Muslim world, but much less active support.
And whats the ultimate threat? An actual Islamist takeover? Watching the American occupation of Iraq, one wonders how that would work. My seventh-grade geography teacher used to laugh at the idea of Soviet conquest of the United States, simply because of the logistical problems; how, as a practical matter, could the Russians put enough soldiers on the ground over here? Which didnt stop me from having fearful fantasies of its happening.
But fearful fantasies of Islamists have become the basis of U.S. policy, foreign and domestic. The eerie suspension of common sense can be felt upon entering an airport, where each of us is treated as a suspected terrorist. During the Vietnam war, the government didnt treat us all as suspected Vietcong, despite the alleged global threat of Communism.
Lets not do our little enemy the unwarranted honor of magnifying him into a mortal threat. The real danger is what this may to do ourselves.
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