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The Monolithic State of America

November 27, 2001

Many of my favorite books are books that shook me up, even angered me, when I first read them. One of these is The Present Age, by the late Robert Nisbet.

I knew Bob Nisbet slightly, and he was kind to me, especially considering what a young fool I was. He had the wisdom to know that a young fool can often be transformed by time alone. Or, as the poet William Blake put it, “If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.”

Nisbet, a distinguished sociologist and conservative philosopher, published The Present Age in 1988. Though he hated Communism, he harbored a profound skepticism about the Cold War. In 1988 I still didn’t see how a man could hold both attitudes at the same time. Yet I respected Bob Nisbet enough to listen when he said things I didn’t want to hear.

Chief among those things was this: If the Founders of the American Republic could come back today, they would be most astounded, among all the vast changes that time has wrought, by the militarization of the United States. Since World War I, this country has been totally transformed by war and constant preparation for war.

American militarism has been the chief force in changing a decentralized federal republic into a centralized, bureaucratic monolith. During World War I the United States underwent an amazingly swift metamorphosis. World War II accelerated the alteration. The Cold War completed the transformation from isolated republic to global empire. We became inured to limitless government in the name of “defense” and “national security.”

[Breaker quote: 'If the fool 
would persist in his folly ...'Nisbet didn’t live to see it, but the new “war on terrorism” has, in just a few weeks, further compounded the constitutional evolution he warned against. The shock of September 11 has disposed countless Americans to accept, without demurral or reservation, the claim of new powers by the Federal Government — particularly by the executive branch.

But this disposition was made possible by a new tradition of equating patriotism with militarism, and militarism with “defense.” Most of us no longer recognize the new tradition as a break with our original tradition. So we beg the Federal Government to protect us from terrorism, even if that means letting it usurp powers never assigned or allowed to it.

Instead of asking ourselves the pragmatic question, “How can we defeat terrorism?” we should be asking ourselves the more basic question, “Is this the kind of situation we should let ourselves be maneuvered into?” How did a country that was once determined to remain aloof from the endless conflicts of the Old World manage to get itself embroiled in, of all things, the medieval Crusades?

But the original Crusaders were at least fighting for something defined and definite: the Cross of Christ. They agreed that Christianity was right and Islam wrong. President Bush would never say such an atavistic thing. He insists (in effect) that we are fighting for Islam itself, because terrorism is a “perversion” of “true” Islam, which is a “religion of peace.” In other words, this is a war for liberalism and tolerance, which Mr. Bush equates with “true” Islam.

Such nonsense is too much for the distinguished Zionist scholar of Islam Daniel Pipes, who reasonably asks by what authority a Texan Methodist can decide what is orthodox or heretical for Islam. In a purely secular sense, Islam is as Islam does.

It’s no concern of mine, in other words, whether Osama bin Laden speaks with the voice of authentic Islam (whatever that may be) or as a crank who happens to have a lot of followers who have the means and determination to kill people I love. Either way, I want him stopped. The sooner the better.

But — and here’s the rub — stopping him may also create more like him. No doubt the U.S. military campaign will deter countless people from trying to emulate him, but it will also have the opposite effect on a few. And a few terrorists or guerrillas are enough to make a lot of trouble, as we have already seen.

The state of Israel has been cracking down on terrorism, hard, for thirty years. Has it worked? The problem is worse than ever. And that’s what we can expect over the next few decades if our own government follows Israel’s example. If we persist in our folly, will we become wise?

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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