This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 6, No. 3.
History is littered with the detritus of attacks by tribal gangs against civilized world powers. In the past, nations under siege rose up with righteous anger and visited the full measure of their force upon their enemies. Although they often made costly mistakes, they did not make excuses for their foes while their own city burned. They did not blame themselves for the assaults of their enemies, and they never engaged in prostrate self-abnegation to atone for the carnage. They did not apologize for defending themselves.
Apologetic self-abnegation, however, is the hallmark of America’s approach today.
Attacked on our own soil and across the globe, we have refused to accept that the cause of the slaughter is the openly stated commitment of clerics, pundits, and political leaders to a barbaric ideology of religious war. Schools in Pakistan train Taliban jihadists who kill Americans while we negotiate with so-called “moderates” among them. University academics scream about American sins, praise bloody tyrannies as “liberation movements,” and call Israel “occupied territory.” Newspaper columns predict the ascendance of political Islam, while the maniacal theocracy of Iran makes the prophecy real. Clerics issue fatwas sanctioning the murder of blasphemous writers and artists. Young people are indoctrinated into jihad as the path to paradise. Killers who enjoy the ambrosia of American life murder American soldiers at American military bases.
To explain this litany of aggression we search doggedly for evidence of our own malfeasance. We atone for our alleged sins by showering foreign dictatorships with money and the sanction of diplomatic discussions. We apologize for every dead civilian, even as the enemy hides behind defenseless children and flees into safe havens across foreign borders. We offer constitutional protections to murderers pledged to destroy our Constitution.
Why are we doing this? What has brought us to this state? The answers are all around us, in the ideas bombarding us from every direction. Don’t judge other cultures—your own has much to answer for. Don’t invoke history—your colonial past was criminal, and your victims seek restitution for crimes against their ancestors. Don’t cite economics—your system is oppressive, and foreign peoples are trying to free themselves from you. Don’t be certain you are right—there is no right. Deny your own value—your self-esteem is a veneer to mask your evil.
Never mind that your culture drew millions to your shores, desperate to escape centuries of stagnation, famine, and wars. Forget the fact that your “colonialism” brought laws and a measure of civilization to people mired in primitive tribalism. Evade the fact that your system created the greatest riches in history by setting men free, and that the wealth of foreign people today is directly proportional to the extent they have emulated you. Never mind that all this is good, for there is no standard of the good beyond a consensus of subjective opinions. Don’t be proud—suppress any thought that you have earned the pride you feel in yourself.
Most of all, the voices of today’s culture cry incessantly, give up the delusion that you are productive, benevolent people; get off your high horse and recognize your puny moral status. Give up your self-esteem, for you are no better than those to whom “justice” means arranged marriages, public amputations, and stoning for adultery.
Self-abnegation is the new path to atonement.
This is the intellectual climate we have steeped in for decades. Is it any wonder that we are acting as these ideas demand?
This is why, ten years after 9/11, we have not defeated the enemy that used hijacked airliners to murder thousands of Americans before our eyes.
The central “evil” we seek to avoid is that of fighting for our own self-interest, so we give a pass to America’s most strident enemies and wage the pretense of war against tertiary foes, justifying those drawn-out bloodlettings as waged for the good of others. “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” not “Operation American Defense,” brought us to Baghdad. We seek an “Exit Strategy,” not a “Victory Strategy,” in Afghanistan. And what was our reward for liberating the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein? A self-imposed, decades-long, multibillion dollar duty to provide food, clothing, medical care, and toilets to the Iraqis. That, and the rise of Iran into a regional, and soon nuclear, power—these were our rewards.
In the course of these wars, we have sacrificed the best of our people to self-abnegating rules of engagement. One Navy SEAL team, isolated behind enemy lines and fearing prosecution for murder should they break the “rules,” released hostile shepherds, who betrayed the SEALs to an enemy force, which ambushed them. When another SEAL team was annihilated by an enemy warrior, we conducted an “investigation” rather than a forthright offensive. When American soldiers return to their families maimed or in coffins, we praise their sacrifice but do not obliterate their foes.
Rather than act aggressively abroad, we react aggressively at home by turning inward and building the infrastructure of a police state in our airports and schools. What else should we call the Department of Homeland Security, with its body-searching of American children? Like self-flagellating monks crushed by guilt, we scourge our own skins rather than the skins of those who launched the jihad.
That an article such as this, if published in most newspapers, would result in a flurry of letters exclaiming our culpability in the attacks against us is a measure of how deeply Americans have accepted the philosophy of self-abnegation.
The deepest cause of this malady oozes out of the ideas that permeate our culture. Intellectually, we have refused to face the fact that we are at war and should act to end it quickly. Morally, we have denied all principles except one: moral goodness means self-sacrifice. Psychologically, we lack confidence in our efficacy, and have murdered our self-esteem by leaping into the quicksand of sacrifice. Politically, we are at perpetual war, because to win decisively would be an act of self-interest—and that is the one action we dare not take.
These are the fruits of the philosophy of self-abnegation. Until we repudiate the ideas that bear these fruits and embrace a philosophy of reason and self-esteem, we can expect more of the same, into a darkening future.