Symposium: Conservatism and Empire

Ten years on, September 11 is a tragedy that continues to break hearts. Family and friends continue to mourn loved ones whose lives were cut short. Many, many Americans mourn the loss of our long and closely held illusion that our oceans and military strength would keep us safe from violence coming from abroad. And those with eyes to see must mourn that our leaders, and too many of our people, have taken from the tragedy exactly the wrong lessons, and acted on those wrong lessons with extreme prejudice, bringing further suffering to soldiers and civilians here and abroad, even as they have set us on a dangerous path of military overreaching abroad and accelerated cultural self-destruction at home.

No one should minimize the tremendous suffering caused by the barbaric acts of that terrible day. Thousands of innocent people were murdered, their lives ended and the lives of their families and friends forever marked by loss, and by the knowledge that the deaths were the result of hatred and a cynical, dehumanizing drive to use them for political ends. With the shock and sadness that followed, there was a righteous anger that is not only to be expected but to be taken as a proper spur to both thought and action.

But what thought and what action? A determination to bring down the people and organization that planned and carried out the acts certainly was appropriate. Action to bring this about, including action that would bring us in conflict with the Afghan regime sheltering Al Qaeda, was a necessary, indeed inevitable consequence. And a hard look at the ideological as well as political and social origins of Al Qaeda’s influence was as necessary as action itself, both to make sense of the tragedy and to prepare the United States to answer the continuing threat. Finally, security measures to better protect our borders and our people, particularly in the air, were essential for Americans’ physical, mental, and even economic wellbeing.

Significant military and security action, as well as serious reconsideration of some policies at home and abroad, clearly were necessary. And it was to be expected that there would be anger and a certain amount of overreach on the part of an American administration embarrassed and angered by what had been done to its people on its watch. Unfortunately, two American administrations now have produced a frightening list of failures and wrongheaded actions and policies highly dangerous to our physical and cultural wellbeing.

Iraq: Wrong Country, Wrong War

Through a combination of cynicism, pride, and simple foolishness the George W. Bush administration chose to respond to 9/11 by eliminating the regime it hated perhaps most in the world, but one which was utterly irrelevant to 9/11 itself. The Bush II administration invaded Iraq in pursuit of nonexistent Weapons of Mass Destruction. Saddam Hussein, a truly evil dictator to be sure, was ousted, in the public mind, on account of his (nonexistent) support for Al Qaeda. The Bush II administration had something more grand in mind: nation building. The “mission accomplished” of the invasion soon became the quagmire of coalition building, military policing, and anti-terror actions in a hostile country about whose complicated and deep rooted divisions it knew less than nothing.

Thousands of American troops have been killed and untold numbers of Iraqis, the vast majority innocent civilians, have been killed or reduced to desperate poverty. The end result: a fatally weak regime seeking relevance in its own territory amidst untold carnage and human suffering, spawning increased hatred of the United States. And none of it had anything to do with 9/11.

Afghanistan: Right Country, Wrong War

Bush II also invaded Afghanistan. Here at least was a regime that genuinely had been providing aid to Al Qaeda. But merely tracking down and bringing to justice the man behind 9/11 and using that fact and related intelligence to bring down his organization, were not enough for Bush II. Instead, we were dragged into yet another “nation building” fiasco. This time we became involved with a corrupt leadership, fighting guerillas we ourselves had armed in their fight against the Soviets, and attempting to build a western style regime in a country still ruled along tribal lines.

And even after bin Laden’s demise we continue seeking to impose, not just a western style regime, but a (liberal) western style culture, rooted in values of individual autonomy and egalitarianism wholly at variance with the traditions and values of the vast majority of the Afghan people. Not surprisingly, the result has been a veritable war of all against all among tribes, factions, the political class, and international aid workers and their American military protectors. The staying power of any new regime is doubtful to say the least; the staying power of the resulting hostility toward the United States is guaranteed.

Islam, the Middle East, and the Delusions of American Power

Barack Obama was elected President in significant measure out of the American people’s frustration with the endless conflicts in the Middle East. Two wars were “won” without bin Laden’s capture, and without any end to the fighting or loss of life. His response? To involve us in yet further military action, this time in support of rebels unseating Muammar Gaddafi, another truly evil dictator whose own barbaric acts of anti-American terror merited retribution, but who was no friend to Al Qaeda. Our NATO allies have chosen to take over the bulk of the intervention in Libya, saving us, it is to be hoped, from yet another effort at nation-building. But time will tell how involved we become in this latest conflict about which we know very little, with its roots in clan rivalries as much as political abstractions.

What is more troubling is that, despite early moves to draw down American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, there appears to have been no learning curve whatsoever in two administrations’ policies in the area. Not even the discovery that our “friend” Pakistan had been sheltering bin Laden, apparently for several years, has taught humility to those who seek to redraw the political and cultural map of the region and, ultimately, the world. For many a resurgent Iran is the next target. And who knows where events in Syria may lead if hopes for an end to brutal regimes in the region are not tempered by humility regarding our own power (and right) to influence events?

Further entanglement of the United States in the politics of the Middle East—a region about which our administrations continue to prove they know less than nothing—with intervention now in clan wars in Libya and increased tensions with a resurgent Iran. and our friend Pakistan was the one actually hiding bin Laden for years.

The Grand Error: On the Dangers of Religion and Secularization

There has been a sad but not surprising increase in hostility toward Muslims since 9/11. But also tragic and at least as dangerous over the long term has been this hostility’s leading ever more members of Western elites to reject religion itself as a dangerous source of intolerance, hatred, and violence. Of course, there always has been a significant anti-religious sentiment in the modern liberal West. Rooted in many factors, including genuine moral enormities committed in the name of religion as well as a general fear of moral judgment and, for some, a cynical desire to turn faith to political ends, this hostility has led to increased marginalization of religious principles, practices, and communities in public life.

September 11 has brought renewed vigor to rabid atheism (e.g. Christopher Hitchens’ screed, God is not Great). And, more troubling by far, it seems to have spurred even those connected with the political right (e.g. Roger Scruton in his The West and the Rest) to recast their own tradition and civilization in a warped, secularized mold. Until recently it was those on the leftward end of the political spectrum who spouted the tired and fundamentally incorrect Whig history of secularization as the key to progress. September 11 seems to have caused some who claim to be our culture’s defenders to the same kind of self-destructive pseudo-history.

Since French Revolutionary times, there has been an increasingly powerful myth put forth that the classical age of Greek philosophy and Roman power gave way to Dark Ages of superstition and faith, from which the West slowly rose through the triumph of Science and political centralization, culminating in movements to disestablish powerful state churches and bring the rule of democracy, freedom, and progress. Our own United States is portrayed as the product of a decision to put the wars of religion to rest through mutual forbearance in a secular public square devoted to individual expression. The fundamental untruth of this picture, which ignores the roots of rights in Church teachings, the roots of liberty in the freeing of the Church from secular kings who sought to appoint their own bishops, and the roots of human dignity in a faith that finally put to an end the human sacrifices of Greek philosophers and Roman generals as well as pagan tribes, has long been ignored by our chattering classes in the press and academia, few of whom know anything about history that cannot be found in the pages of the New York Times.

Two generations of scholars, from the religious left (Harold J. Berman) to the irreligious right (Barry Alan Shain) have shown how utterly baseless Whig, secularizing history truly is. But now people calling themselves conservatives are spouting the same nonsense. Scruton and others tell us that the separation of faith and politics, and of a monolithic conception of religion or “church” from a monolithic conception of politics or “state,” is the source of our freedoms.

Yet ideology has managed very nicely to create mass murder—whether in the gulag, the Nazi death camps, or Mao’s Cultural Revolution. And the separation of the spiritual from the temporal sphere, acknowledged as a founding principle of civilized life by Christians from their earliest days, always was recognized as rooted, not in a secular view of human dignity and the requirements of politics, but rather in the demands of religious faith and the requirements for ordered liberty among religious peoples.

Why on the occasion of an anniversary like 9/11 is it worthwhile to dwell on academic disputes? Because the mistakes ofour intellectual class are undermining our already weak culture. At a time when our civilization, weak as it is, must face a very real challenge from a reinvigorated Muslim culture, the very core of our culture is being dismissed as something necessary to its beginnings, and pleasant to our private lives, but dangerous to our public life. Where Christianity and the Judeo-Christian tradition previously had been recognized as essential elements of our way of life—shaping our laws, our institutions, and our conceptions of the person and that person’s flourishing in virtue—today it is seen, even by its so-called defenders, as little more than a source of private comfort, best kept behind closed doors. Even at ground zero the current major of New York City bans religious organizations, as if they would bring a divisive character to an event that can have meaning only in light of eternal truths. Meanwhile, our public schools continue to ban even the most innocuous forms of public expressions of faith and, as in the recent case of CLS v. Martinez, tell Christian groups they can receive equal status with others only by allowing those who hold their beliefs in contempt to seek election to run their organizations. And the reduction of marriage to a disposable public expression of disposable commitment and call for financial benefits continues at an accelerating pace.

One of the most obvious truths of human conflict is that you can’t beat something with nothing. And our current religion-phobia is reducing our culture to a mere enablement of individual self-indulgence—in effect, less than nothing. We will not have freedom for long if we do not have virtue. And virtue will not exist without a concept of an ordered universe, one rooted in history and faith. Even those with no faith should be able to recognize that history proves the necessity of religion to bind a people to their traditions and ways of life.  

Bruce P. Frohnen is a Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. He is Associate Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University College of Law and editor of the Political Science Reviewer.