Friday, March 2, 2007

Bjorn Staerk: What Went Wrong?

After the September 11 terror attacks people looked for books that could explain the new world they lived in. One of the authors they found was the historian Bernard Lewis, whose "What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response" became a bestseller. Lewis looked at the Muslim world's failure to deal with the West's military and economic superiority. Islam had seen itself as the center of the world, but the West pricked their bubble, and Muslims have been struggling ever since with a volatile mix of envy and hatred towards it.

This is not an essay about Bernard Lewis, or his ideas. I bring him up because the same question keeps spinning around in my head these days, only now with a different subtitle: "What Went Wrong? Islamist Impact And Western Response". When I look around me at the world we got, the world we created after 2001, that's the question I keep coming back to: What went wrong? The question nags me all the more because I was part of it, swept along with all the currents that took us from the ruins of the World Trace center through the shameful years that followed. Iraq, the war on terror, the new European culture war.

This mirror of "What Went Wrong" wouldn't be a story on the same scale, but it has the main theme in common. It would be about Westerners who had their reality bubble pricked by people from an alien culture, and spent the next couple of years stumbling about like idiots, unable to deal rationally with this new reality that had forced itself on them. Egging each other on, they predicted, interpreted, and labelled - and legislated and invaded. They saw clearly, through beautiful ideas. And they were wrong.

Who were these people? They were us. "Us"? This seemed a lot clearer at the time. Us were the people who acknowledged the threat of Islamist terrorism, who had the common sense to see through the multicultural fog of words, and the moral courage to want to change the world by force. It included politicians like George W. Bush and Tony Blair, it included the new European right, it included brave and honest pundits, straight-talking intellectuals in the enlightenment tradition.

And then there were people like me, who labelled ourselves "warbloggers", and called our friends "anti-idiotarians". Phew, all those labels! Now, anyone who knows me knows that I've been drifting away from where I started for years. They're going to laugh if I pretend that I've ever been an Islamophobe, or that I was among the most eager of the Bush supporters, and use that to claim special insights into these people. Some of the ideas I criticize I believed for a long time, some for a short time, and some I never liked at all.

And by "us" I don't mean that everyone thought alike, I mean that there was an identity based on an unspoken agreement about who were "ok" and who weren't. And - God help me - I was ok. I haven't been for a while now, but it's only recently I've realized just how little there's left of what I believed five years ago. Our worldview had three major focus points - Iraq, terrorism and Islam - and we were wrong about all of them.


There aren't many people left who believe that it was a good idea for the US, Britain and their coalition to invade Iraq in 2003. At least fifty thousand Iraqis dead, (or a hundred, or several hundred), maybe two million refugees, and who knows how many more when the Americans finally give up and leave. Supporters of the war have dropped off one by one, for different reasons. Some neo-conservative intellectuals believe that the plan was good, but that George W. Bush screwed it up. There might be something to this. With smarter people in charge, the odds might have been better. But this assumes that a smarter administration would have embraced their plan to invade Iraq in the first place. I don't think it would, and I think the blame belongs with the thinkers who pushed for war, as much as the officials who carried it out.

Every war must have a war party, a group that actively tries to sell war to the government and to the public. For Iraq, that war party was us - neo-conservative intellectuals, and pundits and bloggers who were sympathetic to them. Without all these people arguing for war, legitimizing it, begging for it, an invasion would have been difficult.

Anyone who argues for war plays with dangerous forces, so they must do it responsibly or not at all. Foolish wars have led countries to disaster. They have caused the deaths of millions. History and psychology tells us that war parties tend to be over-confident, paranoid and emotional. So the minimum you should expect from a responsible war supporter is that they are aware of this bias, and do their best to counterbalance it.

It's not enough to believe that you are right. You have to be actively open-minded, you have to listen to your critics, and encourage devil's advocates. You have to set up a robust information structure that makes it as difficult as possible for you to ignore reality. This is the only good way to prevent self-deception. It works. And we did not do it.

What we did was the opposite. At every level, from the lowliest blogger to the highest official, war supporters set up filters that protected them from facts they did not want to hear. We saw what we wanted to see, and if anyone saw differently, we called them left-wing moonbats who were rooting for the other side. We defined the entire mainstream media establishment as irrelevant, leaving more biased, less experienced "new" media as our primary source of facts. We ignored reasonable critics, and focused on the crazy ones, so that we could tell ourselves how incredibly smart we were.

Among the bloggers there was a sense that there were all these brilliant people, who knew so much about history, war and society, who had previously been without the tools to express themselves. Thanks to the wonders of amateur media, we could now finally exploit this huge reservoir of expert knowledge. And when you contrasted the lazy neutrality of the old media with the energy of the new, it certainly could seem that way. Here were people who regularly would write thousands of words about the historical context of Islamist terrorism, who could write brilliantly about freedom and democracy, who commented boldly on the long trends of history. How could such people be wrong?

But what we saw was not expert knowledge, but the well-written, arrogantly presented ideas of half-educated amateurs. This, too, went all the way from the bottom to the top. It often struck us how well the writing of the best of the bloggers measured up to that of pro-war pundits and intellectuals. We thought this showed how professional the amateurs were, when what it really told us was how amateurish the professionals were.

And so we came to believe that we could invade Iraq and plant the seeds of a new, democratic Middle East. Yes yes there were also the nukes, but we saw beyond that, towards a spring of freedom that would delegitimize terrorism and fanaticism all over the region. Some people will tell you that they never pretended this would be easy, that they always knew it might not work. There are no certain outcomes, and if you have a good chance of success, that chance is worth taking, even if it doesn't end well. Also many argued - and I think I may have been one of them - that instability would be a good thing for the Middle East. The stability of these authoritarian and extremist regimes was precisely the problem. A little chaos would only do the region good.

When I think of this chaos argument today I am struck with horror at the stupidity of it. There's no secret about what happens when a state collapses. It might go well, but when it doesn't, there is no upper limit to how badly it can go. Millions of people may die. Fanatics and sadists fight their way to the top, trampling the weak down beneath them. In our vision of a liberated Baghdad, we saw the beginning of a new Eastern Europe. Now, I have nightmares of Congo, Rwanda, Angola, Uganda, Algeria, Yugoslavia, Somalia, Lebanon, Afghanistan.

As for the chance of success, what gave us the idea that we could estimate this? There are some now who say that even if the war supporters got a lot of things wrong, so did the opponents, so there you go, that's uncertainty for you. Everyone was wrong, but at least we were on the side of freedom, and they were on Saddam's. But that's just not true. The opponents were right. They said this was extremely risky, they said it might result in countless deaths and instability. They got a lot of details wrong, but that's just the point. For the Iraq invasion to go right, war supporters had to get many predictions right. Opponents knew that if any of those predictions were wrong, the whole thing could fail. So the smart choice was to be cautious.

War opponents said a lot of things that were stupid, cynical and deluded. Some war supporters find comfort in this, I don't. The opponents were, on the whole, right. We were wrong, and people in Iraq will pay for this mistake for a long time.


The war on terrorism has not been a disaster, but there too we went wrong. And not just Iraq war supporters. This mistake crossed party lines and infected mainstream thought through most of Europe and North America. We got the threat wrong, and we got the response to it wrong.

Right after September 11, civil liberties activists warned us not to overreact. Attacks like these, they said, were a classic threat to individual freedom. We had to make sure that we didn't fall into xenophobic hysteria and authoritarian solutions. We listened to this, we nodded, and then we all went ahead and ignored it.

There were of course no anti-Muslim riots, no massacres, no overt authoritarian measures. But everyone agreed that terrorism was such a large threat that we had to give the state new powers to fight it. The most extreme examples were the cases of torture by proxy and imprisonment without trial by the US, but all over the West there has been a new wind of authority. Some argued that freedom of speech should be restricted for Muslim extremists, others that the police needed more powers of surveillance.

The British CCTV system, built partly in response to IRA attacks, shows how eagerly people may trade freedom for security. All it takes is a permanent climate of fear, and the calm, soothing voice of authority telling you it knows how to make you safe. I'm not saying that we've become unfree, or are about to. But I think the path towards it is open. The only response to terrorism we can imagine is to give more power to the state, and once given, that power will be hard to take back.

I'm pessimistic about this, because the underlying mechanism of trading freedom for security so strong. The security is often illusory, giving us little more than a temporary reduction of anxiety. The anxiety soon returns, and more freedom must be traded away. Just as a war frenzy can spin out of control, so can a panic for law and order in the face of terrorism. Especially so since the alternative is so depressing and counterintuitive.

As I wrote earlier (Living With Terrorism), the right way to fight terrorism is to be stronger than our fear of it. There are many things we can and should do to prevent terrorist attacks, but we have to treat fear as the single most damaging weapon terrorists have. Compared to a panicked public, a bomb is relatively harmless. With weapons, terrorists can only do as much damage as a weapon can do. Through fear, they have the full powers of state and society to play with.

When terrorists attack, we should resist the immediate impulse to "do something". We should not be "swept off [our] feet by the vividness of the impression, but say, 'Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are and what you represent. Let me try you.'" I don't believe this is realistic. I believe that our civil rights are in the hands of terrorists. The more bombs, the less patience people will have with personal freedom. We'll hear all the old arguments, presented as new, about suicidal liberalism, the chaos of freedom, and the importance of moral unity. We already are. And that's why I'm a pessimist. We were wrong about terrorism, we still are, and I suspect we always will be. At best we can hope for long periods of calm where personal freedom is allowed to reassert itself.

Islam and the culture war

The last major mistake we made was about Islam, and especially the role it got to play in what we might call a European culture war. The European culture war is a war in defense of secular, but Christian-based, enlightenment values against Muslim extremists, multiculturalists and naive leftists. It is a war for the "soul" of Europe, as Pat Buchanan said about the American counterpart.

Europe's culture warriors often come from the right, like me, but many also from the left. What they have in common is frustration with what they see as a deadening centre-left consensus among the elites - politicians, academics, journalists. There's a sense that there is this great fog of dishonesty that we must chase away with reasoned and courageous thinking. The elites believe in little, they tolerate anything as long as it is foreign, and despise everything that is solid and proud in European culture. That's why they aimed so much hatred against Christian pseudo-fanatics, while letting genuine Muslim extremists in through the back door. They told us that Europe's worst enemy was itself, when of course the real threats come from the outside.

The culture warriors want to restore Europe's sense of purpose, and restore some of its old values - including our Christian heritage. Not necessarily Christianity itself, but they admire its moral firmness. The elites believe nothing, and that makes us vulnerable to Muslim extremists, who are blessed with a complete lack of uncertainty and a total committment to their religion.

Islam is the key to the European culture war. There is a sense that we have been infiltrated and betrayed, that Europe is slowly falling apart from the inside, and it is all because of Muslim immigration. Millions of unintegrated muslims, most of whom are at odds with basic European values, and many of whom actually despise our culture and want to make it more Islamic - and a few of whom are willing to kill us to accomplish this. Most culture warriors don't believe that Islam is inherently evil, they believe it can be secularized - Westernized, but they all believe it is the key to everything that is happening, not least for what it reveals about our own elites.

Here's why I'm frustrated: I'm not sure where all this went wrong. I can look back at what I believed some five years ago, and what motivated me to hope for exactly the kind of thing we now have - a grassroots reaction to the centre-left multicultural consensus, edging steadily in on the mainstream - and I'm not so sure that I was wrong. This idea that it should be ok to discuss Muslim extremism, and make demands of immigrants, and not meet cruel traditions with a tolerant smile, I certainly still believe that. And this rebellious reaction I had to the media consensus, there was nothing wrong with that. And we really do need to revive some liberal and rational strands of thought that somewhat inaccurately go by the name of enlightenment values.

But there must have been something wrong with that starting point, nevertheless, because why else would so many people who adopted it gradually turn it into something distasteful and frigthening? Or maybe it was like that from the beginning, and it just took me a while to notice. However it was, their lack of doubt bothers me now, their self-righteousness and anger, their clear labelling of people as either corrupt enemies or enlightened friends.

I'm bothered by their humorless sarcasm and gotcha-approach to cultural criticism. I worry that their defense of European culture has become rationalized chauvinism. I'm dumbstruck by their choices of intellectual heroes. And I fear that their constant indignation and certainty will inspire a popular revival of xenophobia.

I realize that it is precisely in reaction to such behavior that the "multicultural" worldview makes sense. We do need to doubt ourselves. We do need to worry at least as much about our own potential for evil as that of the foreigners. We do need to meet other cultures with some humility and respect. We do need to have mixed feelings about our own culture, admiration tempered by wariness, as with a wild animal. We do need to listen to people who believe differently, instead of just lecturing them. Not because there is no right or wrong, true or false, and not because every culture is equal, but because the alternative is so dangerous. The road of the righteous champion of the Army of Light.

So it appears that I believe all of these things, both the essential ideas of the culture warriors and those of their multicultural enemies. This might be a contradiction - I'm not sure. It would seem that I'm both anti-elitist and elitist, that I understand both those who want to confront and those who want to talk. And maybe that's not such a bad place to be.

I know how the culture warriors feel about such doubt, they see it as weakness, a fear of moral clarity. But I see something cold and inhuman in their clarity. Give me conflicting ideas, isolated incidents, and individuals. Keep your angry visions, I'll do just fine with doubt and curiosity.

And now..?

Now I try not to do it all over again. I think I'll begin by writing down, in big letters, somewhere I can't help but notice it: "Warning! Objects in blogs are smaller than they appear."

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