I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Will the real cowards please stand up?

(updated below)

In his new column today, admired warrior Mark Steyn follows in the footsteps of David Warren by mocking (from a safe distance, as always) the willingness of Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig to participate in a conversion ceremony in order to save their own lives. Just as Warren did, Steyn devotes an entire column to arguing that the weak, girlish cowardice displayed by the two Fox journalists in Gaza is what is plaguing "the West," and -- as always -- it is only unrestrained, chest-beating war (fought by others) which can bring us the masculine, warrior power that we need to be saved from Islamic aggression.

Steyn builds his "argument" by glorifying several extremely courageous individuals -- fictional characters in a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle -- who were "Anglo-American-French tourists taken hostage by the Mahdists, the jihadi of the day." Steyn says they were "in the same predicament as Centanni and Wiig: The kidnappers are offering them a choice between Islam or death." But unlike the Fox journalist cowards in Gaza, Steyn lauds these fictional individuals as brave men and women of character:

"None of them, except perhaps Miss Adams and Mrs. Belmont, had any deep religious convictions. All of them were children of this world, and some of them disagreed with everything which that symbol [the cross] upon the earth represented."

Yet in the end, even as men with no religious convictions, they cannot bring themselves to submit to Islam, for they understand it to be not just a denial of Christ but in some sense a denial of themselves, too. So they stall and delay and bog down the imam in a lot of technical questions until eventually he wises up and they're condemned to death.

Steyn then contrasts the bravery of the Doyle characters with the conduct of Centanni and Wiig and -- just like Warren did -- claims that in their cowardly, life-saving behavior lies the real lesson of our Epic War of Civilizations with the Islamofacists:

One hundred ten years later, for the Fox journalists and the Western media who reported their release, what's the big deal? Wear robes, change your name to Khaled, go on camera and drop Allah's name hither and yon: If that's your ticket out, seize it. Everyone'll know it's just a sham.

But that's not how the al-Jazeera audience sees it. If you're a Muslim, the video is anything but meaningless. Not even the dumbest jihadist believes these infidels are suddenly true believers. Rather, it confirms the central truth Osama and the mullahs have been peddling -- that the West is weak, that there's nothing -- no core, no bedrock -- nothing it's not willing to trade.

Earlier in the column, Steyn complains of a newspaper story reporting on the assault of a 16-year-old girl by three men in Australia because the article failed to mention that the attackers were "of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean appearance." Steyn then ties that story to the Centanni/Wiig cowardice. Their wilingness to convert in order to save their own lives shows "that these men are easier to force into the car than that 16-year-old girl in Sydney was."

Steyn also points to the new book by "gay Tory Andrew Sullivan" in which, Steyn says, Sullivan is "attempting to reconcile his sexual temperament and his alleged political one." Steyn claims that the "live-for-the-present" philosophy promoted by Sullivan's book is "almost a literal restatement of Faust's bargain with the devil," and is the same weakness of character found in the Fox journalists (and in the war-avoiding appeasers of the West). "In the Muslim world, they watch the Centanni/Wiig video and see men so in love with the present, the now, that they will do or say anything to live in the moment. "

So, to recap: The West is like a 16-year old girl assaulted by aggressive Middle Eastern men - weak, vulnerable, humiliated, and in submission. Gay hedonist Andrew Sullivan, along with the bound and submissive Fox journalists, are the symbols of the weak, decadent West which Steyn so despises -- devoid of any manly values and courage. Each week, Steyn screeches that we must wage war -- aggressive, unrestrained, manly glorious war against our Enemies -- because the alternative, which he fears so deeply, is to be a 16-year-old submissive girl or a gay Andrew Sullivan -- the men without chests, as Warren put it. You can find this transparent dynamic in most warmongering screeds these days.

The ironies of this disturbed war dance are virtually infinite, the most obvious one being that the Steyn Warriors can never point to any sacrifices they make or risks they incur. But the most striking irony is this. So much of the neoconservative warrior cries are built on an ethos of deep fear, of exactly the desperate desire to be protected and saved which Steyn and company claim is the hallmark of the girlish, soul-less West. As they strike the warrior pose, they are desperately willing, even eager, to fundamentally change the character and principles of our republic and to sacrifice the core liberties which define it because they are scared and want, more than anything else, to be protected.

Do you want to hear what a person sounds like when they really are -- to use Steyn's words -- "weak, that there's nothing -- no core, no bedrock -- nothing it's not willing to trade"? Here is Bush loyalist Sen. John Cornyn, explaining why we should allow the President to break the law and eavesdrop on our conversations without any oversight: "None of your civil liberties matter much after you’re dead." And here is Pat Roberts, showing how willing he is to trade all American values in the hope of being protected from the things he fears: "I am a strong supporter of the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment and civil liberties. But you have no civil liberties if you are dead." That "rationale" means we do anything -- give up all freedoms, relinquish all values -- because desperately trying to stay alive is the only thing that matters.

So someone -- like Centanni or Wiig -- who recites a few words that they don't mean in order to avoid death is a wretched, feminine coward who has no core values and nothing they are willing to die for. But if that's the standard, then people like Steyn and his fellow neoconservative warriors -- who want to place blind faith in the Government in exchange for promises of "protection," vest in the President the most unlimited powers, and fundamentally change how our country functions and the values which define it, all because they think that doing so is necessary to increase their chances of living -- are drowning in a self-protective cowardice that dwarfs by many magnitudes that which they mock in others.

The creepy spectacle of watching one warrior after the next insist that we must risk other people's lives and bomb more people so that we don't feel girlish and scared and submissive is repugnant enough, in itself, to have to witness on a daily basis. But the fact that these same people are the ones whose deep, irrational fears of The Terrorist override virtually all other considerations, and who demand that we change our nation and relinquish all of the values and liberties which have always defined it and which make it worth fighting for, all because they believe that doing so is necessary to allow them some marginally greater chance of avoiding death, renders their accusations and warrior dances -- on top of everything else -- an exercise in the grossest and most absurd hypocrisy.

Mark Steyn and his comrades think they are so courageous (as they make clear virtually every day). But a courageous act entails risk, and they never risk anything. Quite the contrary, they are desperate to eliminate all perceived risks to their "safety," regardless of the costs. Their entire world-view is based upon and driven by their deeply irrational fears, which lead to a never-ending desire to sacrifice liberty (theirs and ours) and a hysterical, risk-free insistence that the Bad Scary People (along with hundreds of thousands or even millions of others near them) be bombed, incinerated and killed -- all so that they aren't so scared any more, so that they can feel safe.

On a daily basis, they re-enact writ large the ritual in which Centanni and Wiig engaged -- submitting to unlimited Government power, relinquishing all of our national values, and assenting to the most crazed wars fought by others, without limits, all to assuage their own fears, in order to obtain illusory feelings of "safety." As Steyn put it in purportedly describing Centanni and Wigg, "that there's nothing -- no core, no bedrock -- nothing [they're] not willing to trade."

UPDATE: Whenever I write about the fear which drives large swaths of Bush supporters, people write -- both in comments and by e-mail -- to argue that they are driven less by fear (which is merely their tool) and more by authoritarian desires. I don't disagree, but they're not mutually exclusive. As John Dean points out in his book, fear is often the driving reason why people seek protection from government power and become part of a movement which worship authority.

Coincidentally, Dean is appearing live today at the FDL Book Salon at 5:00 p.m. EST for a discussion of his book, which I am hosting, so anyone interested can raise that topic (or any others) directly with him later today.

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