If experience is the teacher of fools, class is still in session.
September 11, 2015
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 should have been a rude awakening from the dogmatic slumbers of the previous decade. Instead, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the West went on a vacation from history. The seeming triumph of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism convinced many that all we had left to do was to oversee the inevitable triumph of the Western paradigm throughout the world. Unfortunately, the “world,” especially the Islamic ummah, had other plans, ones that our own bad ideas and cultural dogmas have advanced.
Most broadly, the centuries-long belief that all peoples everywhere are embryonic Westerners should have been shattered by the slaughter in Manhattan and at the Pentagon. The attacks were a horrifically graphic reminder that our core ideals––human rights, sex equality, tolerance of difference, peaceful coexistence, personal and political freedom, material prosperity, the separation of church and state, free speech, and consensual government founded on law––were historical anomalies rather than the destiny of all humanity.
The 19 murderers were acting on a radically different set of ideals and principles––the doctrines of Islam that had destroyed the mighty Byzantine and Persian Empires, and that had invaded, plundered, and occupied southern Europe for 1000 years. We should have learned that nearly a quarter of the world’s people still take seriously what we have reduced to a life-style choice––faith in a transcendent power for whose commands the believer will kill and die, and whose spiritual imperatives trump freedom, human rights, and all the other goods we desire.
At the same time we indulged this universalism, we incoherently endorsed multiculturalism, a doctrine of cultural relativism––the idea that all cultures and their differences are equally good and admirable, that no basis exists for judging a culture or saying one is better than another, and that to say one is better is insensitive ethnocentrism or even racism. September 11 should have exposed this superstition as a dangerous lie, and reminded us that all cultures and social practices are not equal. Islamic sharia law, which codifies beliefs founded on fossilized tradition, intolerance, sex apartheid, and justified violence against infidels, are not just “different,” but inferior, for they limit human potential and flourishing by restricting individual freedom.
The next lesson of September 11 should have been the dangerous consequences of the anti-Americanism rife not just in the Middle East and Third World, but among many Europeans and Americans themselves. In the months after the attack numerous American and European intellectuals opined that America had in one way or another “deserved” the attacks. As Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright put it, the attacks were “chickens coming home to roost,” and America was paying for its numerous imperialist and racist crimes. This fashionable superstition, whose ultimate origins lie in communist propaganda, had hardened into stale clichés and an unthinking reflex triggered by international envy and resentment of America’s success, and by self-loathing and guilt on the part of Americans who enjoy biting the hand that fattens them.
In fact, there has never been a great power with the cultural, economic, and military resources of America that has been as restrained in using that power. Muslims in particular have benefited from America’s dominance, which saved hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the Balkans and Iraq, and even after 9/11, liberated millions more from the psychopathic Saddam Hussein and the vicious Taliban. Contrary to anti-American propaganda, the U.S. wasn’t targeted by al Qaeda for its alleged “crimes” against Islam, a specious pretext bin Laden cooked up to appeal to self-hating Westerners and rally disaffected Muslims, but for being the world hegemon that wields the power and influence the faithful believe Allah has destined for his believers. We should have learned on 9/11 that as a great power, we will be hated, envied, and resented merely for our existence, and that there is no number of good deeds we can perform to make like us those whose culture and traditions teach that they must hate us.
We also should have learned that our abysmal ignorance of history lies behind the demonization of the United States and our blindness to the reality of Islam. Too many of us endorse the lie that the U.S. has been a racist colonial and imperial power, oppressing and exploiting people across the globe, even as we gush over myths about Islamic “tolerance” and cultural achievements, and ignore the 1000-year record of Imperial Islam’s invasion, conquest, colonization, slaving, slaughter, raiding, and plundering of Christian lands. No better example of this ignorance has been the President, who has decried the Crusades––an attempt to liberate lands that had been Christian for over six centuries from their Muslim conquerors and overlords––and the Spanish Inquisition, whose toll of dead in its whole existence is about the same as the 5000 Jews slaughtered over a few days in Muslim Granada in 1066. Without history to provide the context for evaluating human behavior, we are vulnerable to the propaganda and duplicitous pretexts of the jihadists.
Finally, we should have connected the ignorance of history to the delusional utopianism that infects the West. The carnage on 9/11 should have restored the tragic vision of human existence, the recognition that humans flawed by destructive passions in a brutal indifferent world of chance, change, and death will never create heaven on earth. We should have relearned what our fathers and grandfather knew in World War II: that good men sometimes have to do things they’d rather not in order to keep bad men from prevailing; that the question is not whether people live or die, but whether some people die today so more people don’t die later; that hard, brutal choices have to be made in order to protect our civilization and its cherished goods like freedom and human rights. The simple fact is, if we had fought World War II the way we are fighting the war against jihadists and the states that nourish them, we would have lost.
The last decade and a half, especially the presidency of Barack Obama, has confirmed that many Americans, most on the left, did not learn those lessons. They still think the Middle East can be fixed by more democracy or economic development, since those peoples just want what we want, freedom, peace, and prosperity. Perhaps some do, but millions want more to live in obedience to Allah and restore the dominance Muslims enjoyed for 1000 years.
These Americans still practice a morally idiotic multiculturalism that idealizes the enemy, rationalizes or ignores Islam’s illiberal beliefs and sanctified violence, and proscribes as “hate speech” anybody who speaks the truth about Islam based on its 14 centuries of doctrine and practice. Even the terms “Islamic” and “jihadist” have been erased from our government’s discourse, and jihadist attacks described as “workplace violence” or their perpetrators called vague “extremists.”
These willfully ignorant Americans still indulge a self-loathing that reflexively blames America for all the world’s ills, and as such emboldens our enemies to persevere in the face of our civilizational failure of nerve. They still know nothing of history, refusing to put America’s actions in the context of what other great powers have done, and remaining oblivious to the bloodstained history of Islamic aggression. There is no better example of this cultural neurosis than Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, in which he apologized for “colonialism” and flattered the mythic achievements of Muslim Cordoba for the benefit of the jihadist Muslim Brothers sitting in the front row.
Finally, the unschooled pursue utopian ideals that claim civilizational order and peace can be maintained without brutal violence, that wars can be fought without all the permanent horrible consequences of mass violence, that conflict with inveterate enemies can be resolved with talk or material rewards, and that economic development and esteem-boosting flattery of an illiberal religion and culture can transform the faith-based identity of the jihadist into something more like us––all delusions evident in Obama’s disastrous deal with Iran.
Three thousand dead and a multi-billion dollar hit to our economy on 9/11 were not enough to school those still clinging to their delusions. But as the Romans said, experience is the teacher of fools. The implosion of the Middle East and the probability of a nuclear-armed Iran suggest that class is still in session, and more hard lessons are on the way.
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Author: Bruce Thornton
About Bruce Thornton
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press).