Fools on the left, jokers on the right
I went to a peace rally last weekend. I left convinced that for the present crisis the anti-capitalist left and the religious right are utterly irrelevant.
The rally was held on a beautiful autumn day in Washington, D.C. Given the setting, the sun and the music this should have been a festive crowd. It was not. It was very angry. Speaker after speaker blamed the massacres of Sept. 11 on the racist, imperialist and fascist policies of the United States.
It got so bad that when a representative of the National Organization of Women (NOW) got up and spoke about the Taliban's human rights abuses, the crowd began to boo. One young man near me waved a placard that read "America: Get a Clue."
The rally also attracted a sizable counter-protest. That crowd was not as diverse or eclectic, everyone seemed to be either dressed in red, white and blue or waving something with those colors. Nonetheless, they were just as angry. If the police had not separated the two groups there would have been bloodshed when anarchists set fire to a dozen American flags.
In all the chaos, what caught my eye was a small group of 10 people gathered under a seven-foot wooden cross. I walked over and asked what they were doing. The man holding the cross said they came to pray for America's repentance. The women next to him added that she believed the attacks were God's judgment on the nation. She said she agreed with the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who blamed the attacks on abortionists, gays, lesbians and pagans.
I left the rally appalled by what I heard that day. I couldn't decide what was worse: the vile moral equivalence of the peace protesters who equated terrorists with President Bush or the confused self-righteousness of those who seemed to know the secret will of God. The anti-capitalist left and the religious right stand at the opposite ends of the political spectrum. Ironically, both agree that the attacks of Sept. 11 are judgments for the nation's immorality. They are both wrong.
On the left, the national sins include racism, colonialism and oppression. The monster of terrorism came about, they claim, as a response to America's economic and military might. Thus, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon can be explained as an act of resistance against the imperialist power. I heard such logic at the rally and read it from left-wing luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag and Michael Moore.
The anti-capitalist left has become apologists for Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors. Most of us already know that the Taliban are brutal toward women, kill homosexuals, hate Jews and want to exterminate even more innocent American citizens. Let's face it, in a perfect world, bin Laden wants to replicate the Taliban across the Middle East. Given the facts, can anyone on the left make a convincing claim that the Taliban are morally equivalent or superior to the United States? Can the evil of Sept. 11 be absolved by the fact that bin Laden opposes corporate globalism and United States military power? I think not.
On the right, Falwell and Robertson make the mistake of equating America with God's chosen people. When the two television preachers criticize all "who have tried to secularize America," the underlying assumption is that there once was a "Christian America," when it met with God's approval as his chosen nation.
As a historian I object to this characterization. From the beginning the American republic was filled with injustices that surely deserved God's judgment. I agree that America has had an exceptional history — it has been the metaphorical city on a hill. But it was never a Christian nation. Nor has God chosen America for special favors. His chosen people are no longer drawn from one nation or state. Falwell's vision of church and state is historically wrong and theologically unsound.
Falwell and Robertson compound the problems by blaming the terrorists attacks on those whom they have battled over social policy. Assigning evil to one's political enemies is not new but the transparency here is so obvious it is absurd. The figureheads of the religious right have again mixed morality and politics in the wrong amounts.
As clergy they should spend their time ministering to the suffering and spreading the Gospel. As citizens they should be helping to create public policies and institutions that protect the innocent and punish those who take vengeance into their own hands.
On this last task both left and right fall way short. In their indictments of the nation's morality neither provide just and constructive solutions for the present crisis. And, in the process, both excuse the terrorist action by denying the basic idea of all morality: that individuals are responsible for their own actions and should be judged accordingly by all responsible citizens.
Scott Flipse is associate director of Notre Dame's Washington Semester and a Pew Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the Washington Semester, please visit the website at www.nd.edu/~semester.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Monday, October 8, 2001