Fahrenheit 9/11 has now invaded the Persian Gulf; reaction to this propaganda masquerading as a documentary has been no less strong there than in America. Mamoun Fandy, a Saudi expert, appearing in the Arabic paper Asharq Al Awsat, saw the movie as racist and filled with wild-eyed stereotypes and generalizations. This should come as no surprise: Moore’s unsubtle cinematic method tries to make Bush look sinister merely by showing him on the screen–repeatedly–with men in Arab dress.
This, of course, is not Fahrenheit’s only–or most serious–transgression. The bigger problem is that Moore’s political fulmination offers up a nominal truth so shorn of context as to be rendered utterly false. But instead of detailing all of the areas in which Moore has been shown by others to be factually or contextually challenged, let me say the nicest thing I can about the movie: It prompts thought about the war on terror.
That said, the thought the film itself offers is quite incoherent–not unlike the Democratic standard-bearer. Superficially, Moore postures like a pacifist; but insofar as Fahrenheit supports the Afghanistan conflict and the Taliban’s ouster, his ultimate gripe is with the strategy of engaging in multiple theaters of war, not with the war itself. Moore is, in short, angry with President Bush for concluding (mistakenly, in Moore’s opinion) that Iraq is a central part of the war on terror. Of course, Moore also proclaims that Iraq never murdered an American, overlooking the fact that Saddam boasted of rewarding the families of successful Islamic terrorists, killed Americans in the Gulf War, and tried to assassinate the former President Bush.
Putting Moore’s sophistry to one side, he does suggest a legitimate line of inquiry. This is especially true since–following the Iraq intervention–the 9/11 Commission and other study has found that 1) while the “collaborative” linkages between Iraq and al Qaeda are substantial, they are–by the light of the best available intelligence (which we now know was less than adequate for any president)–unrelated to 9/11; 2) the weapons of mass destruction that caused the U.N. and both the Clinton and Bush administrations such considerable and understandable anxiety have yet to be located; and 3) each day the gruesome perils associated with this volatile country have to be accounted for, no matter how significant to us and the Iraqi people the removal of a genocidal tyrant may be in the long term.
Moore, however, doesn’t really deal well with any of these concerns. Perhaps it is because he has no case. He certainly doesn’t come to grips with the worldwide declaration of war against all Americans, made by the so-called “World Islamic Front” in February 1998 and highlighted by the 9/11 Commission. Quoting the declaration, the Commission aptly reminds us of something Kerry and his surrogate Moore would like us to conveniently forget: The World Islamic Front made it the “individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible” to “murder… any American, anywhere on earth.” Given this universally declared threat–and this unprecedented disregard for all laws of war–Bush made a reasoned decision to hunt down not only those who instigated the attacks on New York and Washington three years ago, but also those who continue to plan attacks today, as the latest and highly specific terror alerts for New York and New Jersey reveal.
The intervention in Iraq was never portrayed by President Bush as strictly 9/11 or WMD related. Instead, the justifications were an admixture of the security and humanitarian considerations that have been the hallmark of previous foreign-policy decision-making by a number of presidents. As Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens observed even before the latest targeting of the Manhattan and Newark financial and insurance centers: “If Michael Moore had had his way, Slobodan Milosevic would still be the big man in a starved and tyrannical Serbia. Bosnia and Kosovo would have been cleansed and annexed. … Afghanistan would still be under Taliban rule, and Kuwait would have remained part of Iraq. And Iraq itself would still be the personal property of a psychopathic crime family, bargaining covertly with the slave state of North Korea for WMD.”
Eliminate the bobs and weaves, and a whole lot of rank nonsense about the business relations of the Bush family and the bin Ladens (other than Osama), and Moore’s complaint–besides the fact that Vice President Gore lost–is that we are fighting the war on terror unsuccessfully by devoting too many resources to the wrong venue. An arguable matter, perhaps; certainly, one that all citizens have a right to raise, and that is legitimately the focus of the ongoing presidential campaign. But as we inform ourselves, surely we can locate sources with far more military and foreign-affairs depth than a filmmaker with a penchant for bombast.
It should be noted that Moore’s case is far different from an argument over whether we should have gone to war at all. Very thoughtful religious people, such as John Paul II, argue well that war is not the answer in a world in which we are instructed to love our neighbor as ourselves. While Moore’s movie provokes deeper thought, its ad hominem method cannot approximate the profound challenge posed by the Holy Father.
Moore’s denunciations are made not out of love, but instead disrespect, for his neighbors. He nominally praises the enlisted men and women of the military while belittling them as ignorant, abusive, or worse. He shamefully patronizes a mother’s pride in her children’s military service and then manipulates her pain over the loss of her son in battle. And while this multimillionaire denizen of Manhattan puts the less advantaged front and center, he far too often invites the audience merely to snicker behind their backs. His hatred for President Bush is palpable, and is made manifest through countless high-school-level film tricks that range from liberally employing television outtakes to a mean-spirited use of Bush’s less-than-perfect syntax.
As one leaves the theater, one feels profoundly unsatisfied, as Moore’s film elides several difficult and relevant questions. Here are a few:
1) Why did the radical Islamic world declare war on America before 9/11?
2) Was America targeted because of its steadfast support of Israel, such that anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism are now one?
3) Was America singled out for attack only because of its physical presence in the Middle East since the Gulf War, or also because of its cultural influence?
4) How much of the Islamic hatred toward America is dependent upon a false impression? The 9/11 Commission recently referred to this as a “struggle of ideas” made necessary by what the Commission described as “cartoonish stereotypes…fashionable among intellectuals who caricature U.S. values and policies.” Do these stereotypes include the violence-crazed, sexually-addicted images exported for great revenue by Moore’s friends in the entertainment industry?
5) Having had thousands of American civilians slaughtered on 9/11 contrary to every international norm and law of war (which Michael Moore chooses to show largely by blank screen), why has the world community been so reluctant to join us in a proportional, yet determined, response to Islamic terrorism? If France and Germany, for example, think Iraq is not a necessary part of the puzzle, what is? And exactly what part of the burden of countering Islamic terrorism will the French and Germans and other G-8 nations be willing to bear?
6) Is there a realistic way to achieve peace–the kind of peace spoken of by Augustine and Aquinas–as not the mere absence of war, but of the tranquility of order under law, respectful of human dignity, without further military engagement?
7) How are we preparing to maintain our own rule of law in the face of a biochemical or nuclear terror attack potentially involving not thousands, but millions, of civilian casualties, exempting no region or family in the United States?
The First Amendment rightly shelters Moore’s pointed, if sometimes pointless, antagonisms. Yet, as Walter Lippmann taught, there cannot be freedom without responsibility. Unfortunately, Fahrenheit 9/11 shows little evidence of responsibly thinking through the consequences of unfairly demeaning one’s own nation before a worldwide audience during a time of war.
–Douglas W. Kmiec is chair and professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University. He a is former constitutional legal counsel to Presidents Reagan and Bush. This piece is adapted from an essay that originally appeared in the Malibu Times.