Monday, October 29, 2007

The danger of misidentified dangers

When I was a tender lad of 13, I read a book by then director of the FBI, John Edgar Hoover, entitled Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America. The book, published in 1958, was designed to make the reader terrified of the imminent Communism threat, a conspiracy of evil-minded men and women dedicated to destroying freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and every other freedom that Americans love and cherish. After reading the first couple of chapters, I responded as the author no doubt hoped: I became afraid—very afraid—of Communists. By the time I had finished the book, I was still afraid, but the focus of my fear had changed from Communism to the FBI. Hoover's warnings against Communism seemed so obviously unsubstantiated and overstated that I became much more alarmed at the prospect of anyone taking the book seriously than at the prospect of Communists taking control of the educational system, the news media, the government and my private life. Although it would be a decade or so before I learned about the psychological concept of projection, I had an unshakable conviction that Hoover was a frightened man because he was a frightening man, a man with a mind filled with suspicion, hatred, fear and, yes, the very deceit of which he was warning his readers.

After reading John Edgar Hoover's book, which was intended to terrify the reader and thus could reasonably be classified as a piece of terrorist literature, I never again had any worries or concerns about Communism. That Communists were so intent on destroying American freedom struck me as a preposterous claim. Surely, I thought, their motivations had to consist of something more than simply wanting to destroy freedom. There must have been something positive they hoped to achieve; human beings, it has always seemed to me, are rarely moved by nothing more noble than the wish to eliminate good from the face of the earth. And yet for some thirty years after reading Hoover's pathetic piece of fear-mongering (which I assumed was itself motivated by somewhat noble but disturbingly misguided intentions), I stood by helplessly as a great deal of American foreign and Domestic policy was driven by this ridiculous and unnecessary fear.

When the Communist threat unofficially and symbolically came to an end with the fall of the Berlin wall, I thought for a week or two that the manic panic driving American politics might eventually die for want of an enemy to fear. That thought proved to be short-lived, however, for soon Americans were being treated to hand-wringing reports of a new enemy: terrorists. It was not long before it was clear, although not often clearly stated, that what Americans should now be alarmed about is a horde of Muslim fanatics whose goals were, amazingly enough, identical to those of the defunct Communists. Just like the Godless Communists before them, the God-frenzied Islamists were obsessed with world domination and the total eradication of freedom in every form. A new dangerous enemy had been found. The Cold War could continue. Or, if one prefers the language eventually used by Norman Podhoretz, World War III had come to an end, and World War IV was under way.

In recent months one has been hearing with increasing frequency references to a group of people known as Islamofascists. “Islamofascism” is a term that Stephen Schwartz of The Weekly Standard claims to have coined. In his own explanation of the term, Schwartz says it “refers to use of the faith of Islam as a cover for totalitarian ideology.” One suspects that the first element of the compound, ‘Islamo’ is used to distinguish this sort of totalitarianism from the kind of domination of the world advocated by signatories of the Project for the New American Century or by those who use the faith of Christianity or Judaism for totalitarian ideology.

Stephen Schwartz advises that we learn to use the term “Islamofascism” accurately and sparingly. Properly used, he says, it refers to the ideologies of such organizations as al-Qa'ida and Hezbollah, which are organizations informed by, respectively, Sunni and Shi'i principles. Schwartz's reason for placing these two very different organizations under the same umbrella seems to be that both have contempt for Israel and both sponsor disruptive paramilitary campaigns against Israel and her allies. His reason for calling that umbrella ‘fascist’ seems to be to call attention to the resemblance of their putative anti-Jewish sentiments to the sentiments of Germany under the National Socialism.

One of the notable features of al-Qa'ida, according to Lawrence Wright, a scholar who has studied that organization's websites and whose observations were aired on CBC's program Ideas in a program called “AL QAEDA AND THE ROAD TO 9/11 ”, is that they have next to no political or economic policies at all. Fascism, as usually understood, is a politico-economic ideology based on a state-controlled economy (in contrast to a free-market economy) in a state based on a strong sense racial or ethnic or national identity (in contrast to identity based on commitment to spiritual or intellectual principles). It would appear, therefore, that there is nothing at all Fascist about Islamofascism. The ‘fascist’ element in the compound seems chosen not to be politically or economically descriptive or informative but to be psychologically manipulative. Its purpose, it seems, is to conjure up fear—in this case, a fear of the specter of racism, and especially the specter of anti-Semitism.

On October 29, 2007 on the Fox News program America's Newsroom, a guest reminded viewers that America has dangerous enemies “who need to be killed.” This was preceded by several references to Islamofascism. It is quite possible that the guest was at most half right; there probably are dangerous people in the world whose policies would not do America or anyone else much good. It is unlikely, in my view, that anyone anywhere has ever needed to be killed; more likely is that there are people whom other people would like to be killed. In fact, what I would be inclined to argue is that it is precisely those people who would be willing, or even eager, to see others be killed who are the dangerous people of this world. The so-called Islamofascists do not have a monopoly on dangerous people. The guest on Fox News who asserts that others need to be killed is dangerous for precisely the reasons that her would-be victims are dangerous. Anyone calling for the bombing of Iran is at least as dangerous as anyone in Iran. It could be argued that the more influential the person advocating the bombing is, the more dangerous that person is.

Just as in 1958 the militant anti-Communists were no less dangerous than the Communists, now the militant anti-Islamofascists are no less dangerous than the people designated by that dubious label. What is dangerous is militancy. What is dangerous is the issuing of overt and veiled threats. What is dangerous is the state of mind, wherever it may occur, that enables anyone to see another living being as a worthy candidate for death. No particular group of people has a corner on the market of being dangerous in that sense.

People who are dangerous do not need to die. They need to be listened to. They need to be allowed to state their grievances without being prejudged. They need to be treated as human beings fully entitled to all the respect that any other human being is entitled to receive. Until that basic principle is understood, neither America nor anyone else will ever be out of danger.