BT: Citizens who are responsible for managing and defending their government have to believe in that government and think that it is better than any other. They have to love it and want to serve it, because its goodness and success are theirs as well, an extension of their identities. This means they must have certain virtues: courage, self-sacrifice, loyalty, duty, to name a few. Most important, they have to be willing to suffer, kill, and die on its behalf.
However, when the state is seen as something alien to the people, as a dispenser of entitlements or an umpire of competing private interests, then the people lose that affection and willingness to sacrifice for the state, which is to say for themselves, since in a free state the citizens are the state, and the state belongs to them and their children and future generations. It is an inheritance they want to protect and hand down. When that affection, or patriotism, is lost, then people do not want to pay the price for defending their freedom, and find appeasing an enemy, or deferring hard choices to the next generation, an acceptable option.
MT: What are some of the factors in our time that have led to such a disdain for patriotism and have paved the way for us to adopt a posture of appeasement toward the jihadists?
BT: The most important is the shift in citizens’ attitudes toward the state, which as I said, loses the unifying power that comes when citizens view the state as their possession, as an expression of what they are and what they believe, and as an object of love and affection they are willing to kill and die for.
In addition, some very bad ideas of modernity have become widespread, most importantly the false, and ultimately Marxist-inspired, narrative of our crimes and sins against humanity such as racism, colonialism, imperialism, and exploitative capitalism for which we deserve to be punished.
Finally, fantasies about the “global community” and an international “harmony of interests” have made disdain for one’s own country and culture the mark of sophisticated cosmopolitanism. All these attitudes erode the patriotism from which come the morale and endurance that have always been the keys to victory, and make it easier to adopt appeasing policies that merely postpone the ultimate reckoning.
MT: Could you talk a bit about one of the recurring themes among the three historical examples you write about in the book: a crippling failure of imagination “to see beyond the pretexts and professed aims of the adversary and recognize his true goals, no matter how bizarre or alien to our own way of thinking”?
BT: We in the West assume our ideals and goods are universal. They are, but only potentially: there are many alternatives to our way of living and governing ourselves, most obviously Islam and its totalizing social-political-economic order, sharia law. Suffering from this myopia, we fail to see those alternatives or take them seriously, usually dismissing them as compensations for material or political goods such as prosperity or democracy.
Worse yet, our enemies are aware of this weakness, and are adept at telling us what we want to hear, and using our own ideals as masks for their own agendas. Just look at the misinterpretations of the protestors in Egypt and the Muslim Brothers, not just from liberals but from many conservatives, who have been duped by the use of vague terms like “freedom” or “democracy.”
An important factor in this bad habit is our own inability to take religion seriously. Since religion is mainly a private affair, a lifestyle choice and source of private therapeutic solace, we can’t imagine that there are people so passionate about spiritual aims that they will murder and die in the pursuit of those aims.
MT: Are you optimistic that as a country and culture we can rouse ourselves from having become, in George P. Schultz’s phrase, the indecisive “Hamlet of Nations,” and can reverse our slide toward a fatal appeasement?
BT: No, I’m not optimistic. Democracies are notorious for waiting until the last minute before they rouse themselves. But the American democracy that responded, say, to Pearl Harbor by declaring war on the world’s two mightiest military machines is very different from the democracy we have today. Remember, Pearl Harbor was a military strike against a military target, and it came after deteriorating relations between Japan and the U.S. 9/11 was an attack on civilians on the part of peoples whom, from our perspective, we had not harmed.
Yet within six months, all that righteous anger and determination were starting to dissipate, and we were back to our old bad habits, donning the hair-shirt of foreign policy crimes, wondering what we had done to provoke the attack, undermining and criticizing the Bush administration’s attempts to make sure such an attack never happened again.
So if 3000 dead, two skyscrapers knocked down, and a trillion-dollar hit to our economy weren’t enough, what will be? And even then, will we unsheathe the “terrible swift sword,” or will we use appeasement to buy a few more years of quiet and leisure, pretending not to notice as more and more of our freedom disappears? I suppose we all will have to wait and see.
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