By JAY AMBROSE
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
On Sept. 11 five years ago, 19 terrorists did their dramatic, murderous best to tell Americans that our civilization was in peril, and for a moment there, it looked like we were catching on, that we had opened our eyes to a frightening new reality.
Sitting before our TV sets, we had watched and watched again as the Twin Towers fell to the ground, we had ingested the horror of thousands of innocent lives lost, and then we put up our flags, looked kindly at one another and rallied around the cause of preserving the last, best hope of earth, as Abraham Lincoln had once characterized this nation of ours.
But it wasn't long before the leftist intellectuals had their non-intellectual say, telling us that the attacks were a warranted -- or at least understandable -- retribution for undeniable political sins, such as supporting Israel in its own fight to survive haters.
All they neglected was everything, such as the scholarship on widespread, non-provoked Islamic resentment of the West, the influential fundamentalist teachings of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and the venomous, jihadist sermons of many Middle East clerics. Some went further than neglect, treating themselves to a swim in the swampy waters of wacko conspiracy theories. If you doubt it, read up on the rants of Gore Vidal, a favorite of the supercilious set.
Not far behind the leftist intellectuals were the cynics, some of whom told us that a few thousand bodies here and a few thousand there was no big deal. Why, they noted, we kill tens of thousands every year in auto accidents, and society trudges on. So why worry about terrorists?
Among their analytical lapses was a failure to distinguish between isolated, accidental car crashes and planned attacks that could wipe out whole cities, thanks to modern weapons of mass destruction. You can rebuild cities, but if there's a constant danger of still another being blown up someday, and then another and another, you eventually toss out the Bill of Rights and associated political ideals. You very possibly establish a police state, something confined and fearful, and that's the end of our great, noble experiment in liberty and openness and what those societal traits make possible: the pursuit of happiness.
The multi-culturalists and their buddies the historical relativists were briefly quiet after 9/11, but weren't about to disappear from the scene for very long. We've got our own fundamentalists in America, they said, as if people protesting homosexual marriage are morally equivalent to people stoning homosexuals to death.
This crowd delighted in reminding us of the Christian Crusades, usually showing vast ignorance on how those wars first came about and treating events that took place 700 to 1,000 years ago as somehow illustrative of core Christian attitudes in the 21st century. In their review of the American story, they would often expurgate everything exceptional, decent, hopeful, uplifting and noble, the scientific, political, social, economic and artistic achievements, dwelling only on the worst of it -- slavery and the Indian wars, for instance.
There has certainly been room to argue with various anti-terror policies of the Bush administration, but the near-hysterical, demonizing style of the loudest critics has very nearly pushed deliberate debate out the door. President Bush is Hitler. He is Stalin. He lied us into Iraq. That war was about nothing but rich oil guys getting richer. Bush's intelligence programs are an unprecedented assault on civil liberties, and so is the Patriot Act. So we are told.
Put all this overheated criticism together, and you have a concoction that is very nearly fanatical, not the stuff out of which you likely get wise, democratic, give-and-take decision-making. The administration itself has spoken with insufficient clarity and been overly slow to seek new directions when old ones weren't getting it where it needed to go.
Bush, at his best, has told us the war on terror will be long and hard. My own sense is that the Islamic-fascist threat will be among the foremost challenges to our American way of life through much of the century, and I refuse to suppose us so forgetful, so shallow, so unappreciative of our Western heritage, so given to vilification as a substitute for thought, that we will not fight the good fight and win. But the signs five years after 9/11 are that large numbers of us just don't get it.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.