Politics & Policy

Cognitive Dissonance

What you see and what you get.

We are bombarded by strange paradoxes that pop up on our television screens, and then disappear without a chance for proper reflection and gestation — only the contradiction, hypocrisy, and idiocy are left behind to enrage us. Analysts, pundits, and press officers offer the conventional wisdom de jour only to have it altered, confirmed, or ridiculed by a “late-breaking” flash, or by the throat-clearing of a more impressive grandee.

#ad#Are we sane or mad when we watch the Pakistani spokesman in Washington assure us of “continuing friendship” and “full support” — and then channel surf to her country’s Taliban schools and mullahs promising death to Americans? Are terrorist states like Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Lebanon always, sometimes, or never sponsors of terrorism? Tragically, the only constant is that the memory of, grief for, and anger over our dead is fading, as our pundits give us every reason to do little, and little reason to do much.

Without a strong sense of national purpose — and the courage to act alone — option A is now suddenly “of course” B — but perhaps, tomorrow, either C or yet again A. Those in the prior administration — Mr. Christopher, Mr. Berger, Mr. Cohen, and Mr. Clinton himself — who did not act resolutely against a long series of terrorist murdering, now either explain why they did not act, or explain that they in fact did act — or explain why they did not act and why we should (or should not ) act — or, at times, all four at once. Mr. Bush, Mr. Rumsfeld, Ms. Rice, and others have been admirable, but they are up against formidable odds.

The high NATO command had made it clear for days that it wanted “evidence” of terrorist culpability; but then so do Pakistan, the Taliban, Iraq, Iran — and Mr. bin Laden himself. Excepting the British, each day a European country takes its turn assuring us that it is helping, not helping, protesting, worried, or aiding mysteriously and stealthily, “in ways appropriate to the situation at hand.” Yet the NATO command did not formally invoke Article Five for a joint response until nearly three weeks after thousands of innocents were vaporized. Perhaps, in 1950, had 7,000 Germans been incinerated on the Warsaw Pact border, we could have asked for a 21-day inquiry as Soviet tankers lunched in the coastal cafes of Normandy.

The European Union rhetoric of the last decade has turned many of our traditional allies into neutrals — and it is perhaps time that we should, with some regret, stop pressuring them and accept their decision. Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and others are more like Sweden and Switzerland than like military allies who will join ranks with their comrades-in-arms. NATO, dare we say it, has become a boutique alliance that requires no real sacrifice — unless it’s to be American, and thus can be both decisive, and yet nuanced and criticized when successfully completed. Given the level of European assistance in hunting down and jailing the killers of Americans during the last two decades, it was indeed easier for a fundamentalist to cut a check in Brussels than it was for an American fighter to fly over France on its way to Libya.

Europe’s hesitancy is paradoxical, when more muscular allies — Russia and India in particular — are so much more supportive. Like us, they are multiracial, secular, democratic, and nuclear — and with no illusions about the deadly purpose of Islamic fundamentalism. They are not shy about the need for action, and oddly are becoming more like us — and the kindred Europeans, less — as the war continues.

An Italian premier is lambasted by his European colleagues for suggesting that the culture of the West is superior to that of the Islamic world. Yet from his vantage point, the shores opposite Italy (past and present) are the more dangerous places, where fanaticism has turned to genocide in Algeria; Libya is a lunatocracy; and Egypt is unable to feed, protect, or govern itself. Europeans, the chastised leader seems to be suggesting, are not immigrating to the Muslim world.

Even more chaff clouds our domestic radar. Harvard University purportedly accepted over a million dollars from scions of the bin Laden family, whose ties with their bad-seed sibling are not always altogether broken; and we remember that Yale University not long ago rejected 20 times more from its own alumnus to promote the study of Western Civilization. Saudi grandees lecture us on the inappropriateness of using their bases to kill murderers, yet in the aftermath of the slaughter immediately call in our authorities to help protect the bin Laden family inside the United States until it can be whisked safely away back home. Would that the princes worried more about the ghosts of 6,000 than about the status of the estranged kin of a terrorist. But then Stalin purportedly scoffed that the death of one is a tragedy, the death of a million a statistic.

Our talking heads bring in Muslim moderates to explain to us yokels the differences between radical fundamentalism and Islam; but then the imams and moderate Palestinians so often achieve precisely the opposite effect, by castigating Israel (usually ten seconds into the interview), warning us about racial profiling (15 seconds) — and rarely saying a word about the dead, or about the uniqueness of the United States in welcoming a self-critique impossible anywhere in the Arab world. Then they are thanked for their “insight,” and go on to the next show.

Why are these images and pronouncements so contradictory, and so often infuriating? The ghastly events of September 11, of course, explain much of the chaos — more dead than in all American wars combined up to the morning after Shiloh. We are also stunned by the shadowy nature of our terrorist enemies, and surely worried about the volatility of the Middle East at large.

Yet much of our contradictory “yes, but…” language reflects more than just the uncertainty of these tragic days. Rather, we are seeing the last bitter wages of decades of the moral vapidity inherent in cultural relativism; conflict-resolution theory; and a general ignorance of history, whose result has been to leave us Americans — of all people! — quite afraid.

More in government need to counteract this and come to the aid of Mr. Bush and his stalwarts. Pericles, Lincoln, and Roosevelt (either one) — or Tony Blair — must single-mindedly remind us always of our dead — firemen like Michael Weinberg, Paddy Brown, Joseph Angelini, Gerard Schrang, Tarel Coleman, Joseph Gulleckson, Jose Guadalupe — and the hundreds more from Ladder 28 and Rescue 1 — and the thousands more still whom they tried so desperately to save.

Press spokesmen must point out to the naysayers that we will use both special operations and conventional forces — because they are complimentary, not antithetical, given the daring scope of our global response — whose methods are mysterious as their ends are not. Those in the State Department must make it clear, publicly, that allies lend assistance and neutrals do not, and that the choice in theirs, not ours, to either follow or get out of the way when we roll out. If history is any guide to the present, victory in battle alone — not pleading and obsequiousness — will bring us more allies than we need or desire.

Others should make it clear, in the new world after September 11, that if a country has a democracy, and is secular, and fights Islamic terrorism, it is most certainly to be welcomed to our cause. Perhaps one or two charged-up Trumans may “misspeak” on occasion, suggesting rudely that the active friendship of Russia and India is a good thing, and surely of more concern to us than whether Mr. Arafat donates blood, or whether the Iranian “parliament” gives us a polite admonition.

The American people are not saber-rattling, blood-thirsty, or hysterical. We do not want bombs tomorrow. But we do need help in bridging the abyss between what we know to be true and what we see and hear. Please, spokesmen, less counterfeit light and more heartfelt heat.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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