Commentary

Attacks on American Values

The monstrous attacks of September 11 have brought Americans together like nothing since Pearl Harbor. Flags fly from homes and offices, Hollywood stars sing patriotic songs, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress praise each other. The attack on America was so shocking that it even caused Bill and Hillary Clinton to join Lee Greenwood in singing “God Bless the U.S.A.,” a song usually heard only on country radio and at Republican conventions.

Most Americans have rallied around President Bush’s eloquent defense of American values: “This is civilization’s fight. This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom.”

But not quite everyone. There are a few people who don’t “believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom.” Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson got the most attention for arguing on national television that God had given the United States “probably what we deserve” because of “the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians,” and the ACLU. Leftist filmmaker Michael Moore matched them in vitriol with this ugly statement on his Web site: “They did not deserve to die. If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who DID NOT VOTE for him! Boston, New York, DC and the planes’ destination of California — these were places that voted AGAINST Bush!”

Even more disturbing are the comments of presumably more sophisticated thinkers. Katha Pollitt writes in the Nation that she won’t fly the American flag because “the flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war.” Even when terrorists kill thousands of American citizens, she sees nothing but evil in the symbol of America.

Nobel Prize-winning playwright Dario Fo wrote in a widely circulated e-mail: “The great speculators wallow in an economy that every year kills tens of millions of people with poverty — so what is 20,000 dead in New York? Regardless of who carried out the massacre, this violence is the legitimate daughter of the culture of violence, hunger and inhumane exploitation.”

That sums up the criticism of America that unites the Islamic terrorists, the anti-globalization street protesters, the resentful right, and the literary left: They hate the culture of markets and liberalism. They hate the Enlightenment and modernity. They hate reason, science, technology, individualism, pluralism, tolerance, progress and freedom. And to be more specific, they hate Wall Street, Hollywood, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Microsoft, Ralph Lauren ads, and the casual joy of American freedom.

These people share H. L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Most of these people wouldn’t blow up a building. But when someone does blow one up — especially the tallest, most arrogant buildings on Wall Street — they can’t bring themselves to say that killing innocent people is evil. (And if some would object that Wall Street greed is hardly innocent, they should consider Samuel Johnson’s observation that “there are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.”)

Indeed, some of the people whose job is to warn us against evil can’t bring themselves to see it. Seattle Presbyterian pastor John Worster complained to National Public Radio about President Bush’s use of religious language — good vs. evil — to discuss a political conflict. “When, from the highest office in our government that kind of language is used, it seems to me it’s just an attempt to stir up a kind of blind patriotism that says, `We can do no wrong, and anybody who doesn’t follow our style of life must be evil.’”

But Bush didn’t say that other lifestyles are evil. He said that terrorism is evil. That should be an easy distinction to understand.

One consequence of the evil acts of September 11 was to help us all remember what is good about America. And another was to give a few people an opening to reveal to us what they really think about America — -they don’t like our freedom, our openness, our tolerance, our prosperity, our exuberance.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute.