Politics & Policy

The Biteback Effect

Do we even have a word to describe the new criticism?

Sometimes even the English language is without the right word to describe a commonplace occurrence. We don’t, for example, have a term quite like the German schadenfreude: “Taking malicious delight in someone else’s misfortune.” The Arab world has no real word to denote constitutional democracy, and so uses our Anglicized form of the Greek dêmokratia.

Take the recent boomerang effect of those critics who critique the war, but in the process achieve the exact antithesis of what they intend. After the spring 2004 butchery of American contractors, we went into, and then withdrew from, Fallujah–apprehensive that global media scrutiny would portray us as storm troopers.

In fact, the enemy considered us too equivocating and claimed the retreat as a great victory. So until we retook the city in November, we fretted that the Fallujah encirclement was an example of our blunt-headedness, while our enemy equated it with softness.

Indeed, throughout this conflict the United States has been apprehensive that it was becoming too brutal in its effort even as the Islamic fascists were convinced that we were too weak to fight such a war.

The Greeks might offer us a term for such ironic turnabout; perhaps something like antiepistrophe–”a turning back against oneself”–since the self-appointed moralist usually ends up looking stupid when his own examples refute the very reasons he adduced them.

But in the interest of simplicity, I’ll call it the “biteback” effect. Every time one hears a strident censor bring up a purported American sin, expect that he’ll be bitten right back by proving the opposite of what he intended–and looking foolish in the bargain.

Examine a few recent examples of biteback.

We endlessly quarrel over the Patriot Act as an infringement of civil rights. “We are a nation of laws and liberties, not of a knock in the night,” John Kerry intoned to Iowa votersduring the 2004 presidential primaries. “So it is time to end the era of John Ashcroft. That starts with replacing the Patriot Act with a new law that protects our people and our liberties at the same time.”

Yet few Democratic senators, including John Kerry, now seem to want to repeal it. But in terms of what either the British or Dutch are doing, the Patriot Act is pretty tame.

We are hardly arresting Americans for inflammatory speech, closing down madrassas, or stripping suspect naturalized Americans from the Middle East of their citizenship–even in a war where the only real danger to the homeland seems to come from Islamicists who are planning our destruction through cells so far undetected often due to our past laxity.

Our European friends used to equate the Patriot Act with over-the-top cowboyism; now in their brave new judicial landscape it is becoming passé. After the London bombings and the recent American apprehensions of terrorist suspects from New Jersey to Lodi, those who still demonize the Patriot Act prompt the opposite effect of what they intend; rather than safeguarding our liberties, they endanger them.

On the basis of an FBI agent’s e-mail alleging loud rap music, cold room temperatures, and the rough handling of a Koran, former president Jimmy Carter and Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin advanced Guantanamo as a national scandal and proof of our amorality in this war.

“I think what’s going on in Guantanamo Bay and other places is a disgrace to the USA,” Pius Maximus Carter pontificated, adding that the detention center had “given impetus and excuses to potential terrorists.” Sen.Durbin earlier had assured us of Guantanamo that, “You would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime–Pol Pot or others–that had no concern for human beings.”

But the more one learns about Guantanamo, after having it raised constantly by such self-righteous and anguished censors, the more it seems unlike any wartime detention center in recent memory–but in ways exactly opposite from the Stalag its detractors imply.

Rules of interrogation, Korans, prayer arrows pointed to Mecca, visits by U.S. congressmen, Middle Eastern food, inmates as voracious readers of Harry Potter, and the absence of a single inmate lost in captivity: All of that suggests humane treatment toward terrorists–often caught in combat, always out of uniform, and not subject to the Geneva Convention. Guantanamo seems radically different from any prison run by any other current wartime state, much less like anything in our own past when, for example, we summarily shot German agents not in German uniforms during the Battle of the Bulge.

Indeed as a general rule, the more hysterically Guantanamo is cited, the more it seems, after introspection, to be a sensible wartime jail under nearly impossible conditions.

The sexual humiliation at Abu Ghraib was reprehensible, but the reaction of its critics was equally so–as in Ted Kennedy’s assertion that “Saddam’s torture chamber reopened under new management.”

Americans did not systematically kill or torture tens of thousands of innocents. Apprehended terrorists still prefer to be captured by American troops rather than by Iraqi militia and security forces, since it means a trip to a supervised Abu Ghraib–and air conditioning and regular meals where they will not be shot or tortured.

We bandy about Abu Ghraib as something out of the Inquisition, but for those on the frontline it means something far different from the ritual beheading, torture, and murder that characterize the enemy’s way of doing business.

Every time Cindy Sheehan tries to adduce another writ against the current administration (a.k.a., “Bush crime family,” “evil bastards in the administration,” “f***ing hypocrites,” “biggest terrorist in the world”)–whether demanding a second private presidential meeting before so many other grieving families have had even one, or blaming Israel for the deaths of American soldiers–it has the opposite effect of what she intends. Under the sad logic of biteback, she reverses her own original position from the legitimate lament of a grieved mother trying to make sense out of the tragic loss of her brave son, to a deeply disturbed object of cynical partisan manipulation by the Michael Moore/Moveon.org Left.

So why do we see so much biteback these days?

In the age of utopianism we demand impossible standards of perfection. Then when they cannot be met, we conclude that we are not good at all, but the equivalent of a Pol Pot, Hitler, or Saddam himself–an elected American president who is a worse terrorist than Osama bin Laden.

And in a war with enemies like few other in our recent history, the contrast between rhetoric and reality is only accentuated: panties over the head of an Iraqi inmate, no head at all on an American prisoner; Korans given to the enemy terrorists in jail, Bibles outlawed for visitors to our friends the Saudis; our elected president becomes a member of the “Bush crime family” as we worry about proper barristers for Saddam Hussein’s genuinely criminal family. As we fear that we have fallen short of the postmodern therapeutic age, Islamic fascists brag they are avatars of the Dark Ages.

Second, we don’t believe that we are in a war anymore. Jimmy Carter thinks that something we do in Guantanamo galvanizes terrorists, as if the camp had been in existence since 1979, when under his watch this present quarter-century cycle of killing and terrorizing Americans with impunity in the Middle East began in earnest. Thus instead of joining in the effort to defeat Islamic fascists, the opposition and our pundits nitpick and moan, hoping for media attention and political points, convinced that none of their triangulation aids the enemy–since we aren’t really in a war at all.

There is a third reason as well for biteback. The offenders are often old-line partisans like Sen. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, or Sen. Durbin, in addition to the more hysterical Left like Michael Moore or Moveon.org. For the most part, under our system of democratic majority rule, despite sizable support in the electorate, they are currently without real political power, lacking majorities in the House and Senate, without the presidency, behind in the state legislatures and governorships, and losing the Supreme Court.

Instead of advancing a comprehensive counter-agenda to the president’s, too many on the Left turns to hysterics.

Yet the United States itself has not changed its character under Republican hands. Its government and people are as they were, thus ensuring the more the Left lashes out about losing the republic, the more their charges seem strident and extremist–bringing them shame as the additional wage to their irresponsibility.

Biteback occurs because the truth cannot be warped or distorted by its assailants: We are waging a moral war involving rules of engagement, the promotion of democracy, freedom from fascism, and billions of dollars in aid to others.

Once one is familiar with the nature of biteback, it hardly seems so bothersome since it only damages those who induce it.

There is also the biteback not just of hysterical slurs, but equally of counterfeit praise.

More pious praise for the United Nations? Thanks for conjuring up the memory of the Annan clan, Oil-for-Food, and the slaughter in Darfur. When Jimmy Carter talks of morality, I brace for even more amorality–like his contrived 2003 broadside against a sitting president in order to win a Nobel Prize from anti-American European judges. Dan Rather still lectures on journalistic standards–which reminds us of the protocols of forged memos.

Anticipate that when the full complexity of biteback is mastered, future allegations from Sens. Durbin and Kennedy that we are Saddam-like or Nazis will be taken as proof that, on the contrary, we are probably too naïve and too lenient-and that they still sound unhinged.

Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.

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