While addressing the nation on Friday night, President Barack Obama listed what he called some of the many “unanswered questions” following the Boston Marathon bombing, including, “Why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence?” This question made the president sound naïve. Obama’s supposed confusion reflected his fear that Americans would “rush to judgment” and blame Muslims. But more than a decade after 9/11, the President of the United States should have been able to identify the brutal brothers as totalitarian terrorists, even at this preliminary stage of the Boston investigation.
While Islamist terrorists are not Nazis, both share a totalitarian worldview. Totalitarianism is a political ideology that relies on terror, seeks complete control of individuals, and sacrifices everything—including innocent bystanders, facts, and language—to serve its absolutist aims. Among the most lethal forms of totalitarianism have been the Nazi, Soviet, Communist Chinese and Islamist varieties. In his 2003 best-seller Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman explained that Islamism was a fascist perversion of traditional Islam, an ideological hybrid mixing the worst of the East with the worst of the West.
Totalitarians detest America. Our delightfully chaotic modernist freedoms threaten the totalitarian mind. The French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel noted that ideological anti-Americans attack the United States as “imperialist” when it intervenes internationally, but “isolationist” when it does not. Similarly, Islamist totalitarians have blamed the U.S. for fighting Islam even when Americans have died saving Muslims in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Such “wonderful illogicality,” Revel taught, revealed “obsession.”
The descent of people like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from their all-American immigrant story into anti-American totalitarian terrorism remains rare yet by now familiar. Though ideologically rooted in the first half of the twentieth century, this scourge metastasized in the second half of the twentieth century, following the social, cultural, and political cataclysms of the 1960s. Although “The Sixties” demonstrated the extraordinary ability of Western democracies, particularly the United States, to reform, the era’s venomous backlash encouraged a renewed anti-Americanism that even many elite Americans and Europeans embraced.
What we could call Che Guevera Rules spread throughout the Third World and the radical, post-modernist West, glorifying guerillas, hailing anti-colonialistmovements, and relativizing once universal laws. Those deemed oppressedasserted a near absolute right to use violence or any other tactic. By the 1970s, with the United Nations General Assembly emerging as the Third World Dictators’ debating society, terrorism as a tactic received international sanction.
Just as smoking marijuana served as a gateway drug for so many addicts at the time, targeting Israel helped relax international standards regarding terrorism—with anti-Semitism often boosting totalitarian anti-Americanism. When the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Yasir Arafat addressed the U.N. in November 1974, he rationalized his violent methods—and received a standing ovation. “Whoever stands by a just cause and fights for liberation from invaders and colonialists cannot be called terrorists,” Arafat proclaimed. “Those who wage war to occupy, colonize and oppress other people are the terrorists.”
With the United States and its closest allies increasingly in the international docket, many apologetic Westerners believed “our assailants are motivated by what is wrong about us,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Harvard professor, US Ambassador to the U.N., and New York Senator, who fought this New Left totalitarianism, observed. “They are wrong,” Moynihan thundered. “We are assailed because of what is right about us. We are assailed because we are a democracy.”
The liberal philosopher Michael Walzer called modern terrorism, entailing the “random murder of innocent people,” the “ultimate lawlessness” violating the most “minimal standard of political decency.” By romanticizing terrorism as the weapon of the weak, justifying “anything they do,” and holding them “to no standards,” New Leftists actually patronized these “oppressed” peoples.
The Tsarnaev brothers’ terrorism emerged out of this noxious nexus, the ideological cesspools where totalitarianism, anti-Americanism, relativism and Westerners’ condescending apologetics fester. In this struggle between totalitarians and democrats, democracies’ long-term strengths often appear as short-term weaknesses. Totalitarians dehumanize their enemies; democrats empathize. Totalitarians demonize; democrats rationalize.
President Obama’s reasonable, tolerant instincts make sense, within limits. Obama was correct in affirming that the “American spirit includes staying true to the unity and diversity that makes us strong—like no other nation in the world.” America’s democratic diversity has trumped lethal forms of totalitarianism before and will triumph again. But feigning ignorance by speaking vaguely as Obama did of “whatever hateful agenda drove these men to such heinous acts” insults Americans’ intelligence.
We know the enemy is not Islam, but is totalitarian Islamism. We know the Islamist totalitarians’ favored tactic, terrorism, must be condemned unequivocally, without justifying some motives, as the Islamic lobby in the U.N. continues to insist. We know that the only way to win is to avoid what Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned was a “failure of nerve,” especially among America’s “interconnected elites.” And we know, not only what we are fighting against, but what we are fighting for—democracy, freedom, and the safe, good life we deserve, or, as Thomas Jefferson wrote so eloquently, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.