Amidst white wine and canapés at a Manhattan art opening recently, I fell into conversation about Iraq with a middle-aged couple named the Gordons, who expressed the typical anti-war sentiments one encounters nowadays in such posh surroundings. Having spent some time over there, however, I was distressed to hear these well-to-do collectors declare that the U.S. should “leave the country immediately;” Iraqis were “better off under Saddam;” the insurgents were “revolutionaries” and “freedom fighters.” When I argued that this so-called “resistance” comprised fascist terrorists who sought to destroy Iraq’s chances for liberty, they huffed that the U.S. was no better. “Isn’t America’s attempt to impose its way of life on Iraq also fascistic?” demanded Mrs. Gordon—as if popular sovereignty and constitutional rights were equivalent to suicide car bombs and videotaped beheadings.
I thought of this interchange a week later when I visited Copp’s Hill Cemetery in Boston. Walking between the 17th- and 18th-century tombstones, I discovered the grave for Daniel Malcolm, a 44-year-old merchant whose marker describes him as a “true son of Liberty, a Friend to the Publick, an Enemy to oppression.” Later, wandering at twilight through Old Burial Hill in nearby Marblehead, I came across an 1848 obelisk dedicated to Captain James Mugford and the crew of the schooner Franklin, who, on May 17, 1776, captured the British transport Hope. (Mugford, killed two days later, is buried near the monument.) The following day, I stood at dawn on Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts—the place where the colonial insurrection began—gazing up at Daniel Chester French’s magisterial 1875 sculpture of a colonial Minuteman, plow in one hand, long-bore rifle in the other.
How far we’ve advanced over the years, I thought, as an early fall wind blew over the Concord River. In past eras, people displayed their love of liberty on tombstones and constructed monuments to their ancestors’ patriotism. Today, sophisticated urbanites profess an inability to differentiate between American actions in Iraq and those of nihilistic thugs. Academics and other cultural elites bleat their insistence that the U.S. invasion was immoral. Misanthropic filmmakers assert that the modern Minuteman is a kheffiya-wearing “revolutionary,” Koran in one hand and RPG in the other, opposing the American “occupation.” Principled opposition to the war exists, of course; still, all-too-often we see people who contend that America is the enemy in Iraq, while exonerating the insurgents. How has it come to this? Why do otherwise rational people persist in these distortions?
It reminds me of the “Why We Fight” movie series directed by Frank Capra during World War II. I used to wonder why the War Department would subsidize such propagandistic films as The Nazis Strike and The Battle for China: surely the evils of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were self-evident to Americans. I don’t think that any more. Now I understand that unless the government tells people over and over again, in clear and unsparing terms, the reasons for going to war and the nature of its enemy, the majority will resist supporting policies that intrude on their safety and comfort. Nowadays, this innate passivity enjoys the sanction of celebrities and entertainers who—unlike their predecessors in the 1940s—preach a gospel of denial and appeasement. Instead of Capra’s documentaries, we have Sean Penn, Bruce Springsteen and Fahrenheit 9-11.
Even worse, we have a mainstream media that elides the malignancy of radical Islam. Reuters, for example, refuses to use the term “terrorist” to describe a monster like Zarqawi. Last September, the New York Times ran a 1,750-word piece on the school massacre in Russia, never mentioning that the assailants were Islamic. In August, the Financial Times profiled Moqtada al-Sadr, omitting the cleric’s devotion to the totalitarian doctrines of shari’a. Worst of all is the recent bestseller Imperial Hubris, which purports to present a hardnosed look at Osama bin Laden—while ignoring his dedication to Wahabbism, Islam’s most intolerant sect. Instead, the book lauds the terror master as “pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous”—and compares him to Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln. When our media decline to highlight the horrors of religious fundamentalism, no wonder so many people conclude the danger is exaggerated.
Snuggled in this fuzzy-minded consensus, one finds advantages blurring the distinctions between America and her terrorist enemies. To assert, “Bush is a fascist” (a comment I hear regularly in the art world) earns one the approval of fellow “progressives,” while allowing a sense of moral superiority over the despised Republicans. Moreover, it’s risk free—not even John Ashcroft would arrest someone for expressing that sentiment. But that’s small beer compared to the real upside of pretending that America is as bad as the Islamofascists: it justifies burrowing deeper into the irresponsible inertia of the Leftist cocoon.
For example, in Iraq, I heard many activists (usually Canadian) claim the U.S. “occupation” was as bad, or worse, than Saddam’s regime. When I mentioned the tyrant’s manifold atrocities, these bien pensants dismissed my comments. At first, this reaction stunned me, since evidence of his evil was everywhere. Only later did I grasp a basic reason behind this willful blindness: to declare that America equals Saddam also implies the opposite: Saddam equals America. And since only a lunatic, or Noam Chomsky, believes the U.S. is completely evil, this false moral equivalency serves to render Saddam less fearsome. The less demonic the dictator, the more immoral America’s invasion of his country. The more immoral the invasion, the less one feels compelled to take a stand against the real evil than Islamofascists like Saddam and bin Laden represent.
To broaden the perspective, if the Gordons—and millions like them—seriously entertain the thought that Islamic jihadists have targeted them for death, they might feel terror, anxiety, maybe even anger—emotions which might oblige them to do something—choose sides, commit to a course of action, perhaps even risk supporting the war against terrorists. To avoid such disruption to their lives, many on the Left hold to the belief that terrorism is the fruit of Uncle Sam’s malevolence in the world. If hegemonic America and radical Islam are identical, how bad can these “evildoers” really be? When Michael Moore contends that the Iraqi “insurgents” are similar to colonial Minutemen, he also assures the Leftist cocoon that it needn’t really concern itself with Islamofascists—they’re just like those cool gun-toting patriots we read about in schoolbooks. No, the real enemy is the Bush Administration.
All of which brings me back to the colonial era—or rather, its image. No doubt people then were similarly conflicted, as Americans are today. Among their heroes were plenty of shirkers, fence sitters and Tory sympathizers. What is different, however, is the message their gravestones and memorials proclaim for succeeding generations: these people chose sides; they took a stand against oppression; they risked themselves for a cause. Again and again, their monuments emphasize the importance of acknowledging danger and taking action, rather than remaining nestled in passivity and moral superiority. French’s Minuteman not only glorifies martial valor, it honors a type of American who, unlike our Gordons today, knew his mind, understood his enemy and was willing to discard his accumulated comforts for hazard and uncertainty. Whether he existed in precisely this way doesn’t matter, what is important is that to the cultural elite of 1875, such values merited emulation.
And today? True, we have thousands of brave men and women shouldering the fight against Islamofascism. But we also have a presidential candidate who prides himself for once denouncing, on a global stage, American soldiers as war criminals. We have a mainstream press that declines to educate its readership on the true nature of radical Islam. We have celebrities who pause from their pampered lives to encourage efforts that would doom the Iraqi people to despotism. Will there be monuments to our generation? Let us hope Pat Tillman and the passengers of Flight 93 receive theirs. But among our cosmopolitan elite, absorbed in the comforts of the Leftist cocoon, the legacy of such lives as Daniel Malcolm, James Mugford and the Minutemen is vanishing, like the summer leaves of Concord.