Within days of the Sept. 11 atrocities, a small group gathered at the edge of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., to protest a policy not yet fully formulated. "NO WAR," insisted a hand-lettered sign held up by two young women.
With the polls running 14-1 in favor of war, it makes you proud to live in a nation that gives the smallest minority the freedom to speak out against our government -- even in a time of crisis. So why was I skeptical over what seemed a reflexive response? Many on the left are so mistrustful of American power, so certain about our baleful influence on the rest of the world, that they seem to have a problem whenever the United States goes to war.
But unless you're a pacifist, it's hard to argue that war is not justified in a case when a nation has come under direct attack, as ours just has.
Fortunately, it's misleading to speak of a single "left" and mistaken to take as typical of progressive opinion a few isolated statements blaming America for "bringing on" these attacks or suggesting that somehow we had it coming. Virtually all mainstream liberals and progressives have condemned the terrorists and insisted that terror's instigators should be brought to justice. Only a single vote in Congress was cast against the declaration of war on terror.
"We share the deep anger toward those who so callously and massively destroy innocent lives, no matter what the grievances or injustices invoked," declared a statement signed by a long list of mainly progressive religious leaders, including many pacifists. "Those culpable must not escape accountability." This statement is far more representative of progressive opinion than a few blame-America-first outbursts.
But if history is any guide, once war starts, once bombs start falling, some on the left will revert to an anti-American rhetoric that focuses on the victims of our attacks and forgets who brought this fight to our soil in the first place.
That's why it will be important to remember why this war is legitimate. Fascism, as George Orwell noted long ago, is one of the most overused words in the political lexicon. But in this case, the United States is battling forces whose ideas approach some of the classic definitions of fascism.
Our adversaries use terror in an attempt to impose regimes that would deny basic human liberties. They combine backward-looking appeals -- in this case linked to peculiar interpretations of Islam -- with promises of regional, if not global, domination. They use modern methods to upend modernity. How can progressives do anything but stand against these movements?
Progressives should be wary of any attempts to excuse or rationalize the horrors of this month. It is important to insist that human misery does breed support for terrorism. But using the existence of poverty and injustice to explain away these suicide attacks will only undermine arguments for alleviating injustice.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair had the right formulation when he spoke of the need to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. The same is true of terrorism.
Supporting the war on terror does not mean rubber-stamping every action taken by our government. On the contrary, we need to debate which forms of war will prove effective and which won't. Because the legitimacy of our struggle rests on worldwide outrage over the deaths of thousands of innocent people, we must be careful ourselves to minimize civilian deaths -- and to make that a public part of our policy.
War cannot be calibrated with perfection. Even a just war is hell. But because we are making large moral claims, we need to guard our own moral standing.
In response to the rise of Soviet power, Cold War liberals, as they became known, endorsed the struggle against communism even as they continued to insist on strong measures for social justice. Cold War liberalism fell into some disrepute during and after the Vietnam War, but its basic instinct was right: the battle against communism was just.
The new struggle against terrorism is just, too, even if opposition to terror is not likely to provide the same coherence to our foreign policy as anti-communism did. Yes, in fighting terror, we will form alliances with unsavory regimes that we may come to regret and make decisions that go terribly wrong.
But it's a battle that needs to be fought. Progressives shouldn't be reluctant to support it.
Washington Post Writers Group