Torture & liberalism

This sadness feels Medieval,
locked in ice and dusk

— Lisa Russ Sparr, “Penance I”

[book cover] Rounding the century and having bested the last eighty years’ most malignant forms of government – fascism and communism – Western liberalism had only to fear problems stemming from the economic success its political success had fostered: pollution, global warming, and something about the computers all shutting down at the century’s stroke of midnight.  All of these problems stemmed from our not thinking about the future, the last of them – a failure to write computer script that would recognize years beginning with 20 instead of 19 – being perhaps the perfect analogy for our lack of forward thinking.

Nine months into the new century’s term, we realized what must have lurked in our collective subconscious all along – that we had rounded not only a century but also a millennium, and that our biggest contribution to our biggest problem was not a failure to look forward as much as it was a failure to look backward.  Our political response to radical Islam, we decided, must be rooted in something more millennial and seminal than the liberal notions that gave birth to our young governments.  Everything became negotiable to meet a new, ancient threat.

President Bush’s speech to an emergency joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001 seemed both eloquent as well as terribly naïve and misleading.  Within two minutes of beginning his speech, he claimed that terrorists attacked us because “they hate our freedoms.”  What could a movement based on a fundamentalist view of Islam care one way or another about modern Western political thought?  Surely the terrorists didn’t strike to take away political freedoms.

The nation seemed reassured, however, in the months following the speech as Bush’s War on Terror began to cross policy lines America had never crossed before, most notably in instituting a “preemptive war” and in torturing prisoners of war.  This is how one must respond to an ancient struggle employing twenty-first-century terror, we reasoned.  Our democracies are at once too new to comprehend the philosophical and religious underpinnings of radical Islam and too slow – too mired in slow notions like “due process” – to respond to new biological, chemical, and nuclear threats.

Writing in the street-level shadow of 9/11, Paul Berman contradicts all of this.  Radical Islam has less to do with the ancient struggle between Islam and Western Christianity as it does with twentieth-century totalitarianism that we never really defeated in the first place.  Islamic terrorism is not a combination of ideology that predates liberalism and a method of warfare that postdates it – a combination that would blow us away from ourselves and make us search for solutions that have nothing to do with liberalism, such as torture.

Berman’s 2003 book Terror and Liberalism examines the writings of radical Islam’s greatest and most influential thinkers, particularly Sayyid Qutb and his younger brother Muhammad – the latter a professor of Islamic studies who taught Osama bin Laden – and describes their similarities with the philosophies supporting the one-party states of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  The aesthetics of terror, the ideal of submission, the aggrandizement of suicide, the myth of racial or religious purity and Armageddon, the uniqueness of parochial interests, the divinity or near divinity of the strongman ruler expressed through his accepted madness, the cult of death, and the extreme and oft-expressed hatred of liberalism’s freedoms – all of these intellectual symptoms are as present in radical Islam as they were in Mussolini’s fascism or in Stalin’s communism, Berman argues.  Islamic terrorism has more to do with eighteenth century Romanticism than it does with a literal interpretation of Koranic passages.

An effective Western response, then, is not out of reach.  Radical Islam is no less modern than we are.  But we have to understand the philosophical underpinnings of liberal democracy more than we do of radical Islam to have a chance.  Implicit in Berman’s book is the notion that our failure to understand our enemy points to the less obvious and more dangerous failure to understand ourselves.  Berman does a fair job of this, comparing the historical and philosophical differences between American European liberalism.  His examination of liberal democracy is not nearly as detailed as his examination of fundamentalist Islam, however, and that is disappointing.

Berman is no pacifist, and he cites the Gettysburg Address in his book in support of his notion that liberal democracy must have a universal appeal and must be militant at times, as well as true to its values, to survive.  Berman is a chief philosopher of the liberal hawks, most of whom supported Bush’s 1993 invasion of Iraq, though Berman doesn’t address the relative merits of that invasion in his book.

Bush was right to describe the 9/11 terrorists as “the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century,” Berman argues, and Bush was right in certain other particulars, most notably in championing women’s rights in Afghanistan in the months following our attack on that country.  Berman establishes, however, that most of Bush’s actions in the “war of ideas” were pathetic, and he demonstrates that Bush was wrong, of course, to surrender the very ideals he said we were fighting for by adopting torture.

But what is liberal democracy?  And until we understand who we are, how can we trust our government to fight effectively and in accordance with whatever set of ideals we claim to possess?  In the resurfacing debate about torture that led to yesterday’s dueling speeches by President Obama and former Vice President Cheney, Berman’s book is important.