How the terrorists can win

If the forces of intolerance stop Cordoba House, the terrorists will have “won” in the only sense that they can ever win: by inducing us to act like them.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but according to an old (or possibly reinvented) Norse myth JFK used to tell, a witch promised Odin the secret of victory, at the price of his right eye. The god promptly plucked out his eye, laid it on the table, and demanded the secret.

Whereupon the witch cackled, “Watch with both eyes.”

Which brings us to Cordoba House.

Daniel Drezner, who (naturally) thinks that Cordoba House should be built, dislikes the argumentum al Qaedam, even in a good cause. Surely he’s right that the current threat from al Qaeda isn’t big enough to force us to do something we really don’t want to do on other grounds, or conversely to abstain from something we want to do.

But if we broaden out from al Qaeda, extremist Islam – as represented by the Taliban, big parts of the Pakistani  intelligence service ISI, the government of Iran, several factions in Iraq, Hezbollah, Hamas, and large segments of public and elite opinion throughout the Islamic world – remains a threat, on several levels, and could remain a threat for a long time.  The optimists are learning Mandarin and the pessimists are learning Arabic. So if it’s true that X would weaken Islamic extremism, that’s an argument for doing X.  Not a conclusive argument, but an argument that deserves some weight..

And Kevin Drum is surely right to say that, on every level, stopping Cordoba House would be an anti-terrorist minus, while allowing it to be built – showing that American Muslims are fully American, and as welcome to build a community center and worship space as anyone else, wherever they want to build it – would be an anti-terrorist plus.  Indeed, the very controversy is bad for national security, because it tells Muslims here and abroad that the United States is not, in fact, fully hospitable to them and their religion.

But (I say this with great respect) it seems to me that these two very smart folks are both missing the point.

If the forces of intolerance stop Cordoba House, the terrorists will have “won” in the only sense that such a fundamentally weak movement based in such basically backward places could possibly “win” against the West. They will have won – only a partial victory, but a victory all the same – by inducing us to act like them.

This isn’t, after all, fundamentally a geographic or ethnic struggle, or even a religious one. It’s a struggle between the values of small-l liberalism and the Enlightenment – rational inquiry, religious tolerance, ethnic and gender equality, social mobility, elections, free speech, free press, individual rights – against the values of dogmatism, ignorance, intolerance, nationalism (in Orwell’s sense that includes ethnic and sectarian triumphalism), inherited status, the subordination of women, hierarchy, tyranny, and the dominance of the family, the village, the clergy, and the state over the individual. The question that should be asked of the American Wahhabis – the people who think, as Newt Gingrich does, that we should copy our policy toward religious diversity from Saudi Arabia – is an old question, but no less valid for it: “Which side are you on?”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

14 thoughts on “How the terrorists can win”

  1. Yes, this doesn't seem like a close call at all.

    Also, why weren't these same people offended at the idea of offices and snack shops and transit being built even closer/on Ground Zero? I find those things much more offensive than a house of worship, if I have to get offended at something (which I don't of course). I much preferred Herbert Muschamp's idea of a burial mound (I think it was his idea). No words, no trivia, just a mound.

  2. The Right pines for the good ol' days when they could beat the drum against the ever present Commies within and without. Now they have to jump from one imagined group of scarey people to another. From blacks to Mexicans to european socialists (French) to gays to Muslims. It must be so exhausting. And confusing to keep up with which part of the constitution to throw on the ash heap this month while claiming to be "strict constructionalists"?

    Oh why did the Communists have to throw in the towel? Well not the Chinese Communists but they're not The Comunists.

  3. "Also, why weren’t these same people offended at the idea of offices and snack shops and transit being built even closer/on Ground Zero? I find those things much more offensive than a house of worship, if I have to get offended at something (which I don’t of course). I much preferred Herbert Muschamp’s idea of a burial mound (I think it was his idea). No words, no trivia, just a mound."

    I liked the proposal of a newer, bigger twin towers, with memorial anti-aircraft emplacements at the points where the aircraft hit. Hit just the right note of defiance in the face of terrorism, I thought.

    They weren't offended at the idea of offices and snack shops and transit, because,

    1. The Twin Towers contained offices, snack shops, and transit.

    2. They weren't brought down in the name of potato chips and filing cabinets.

  4. NYCer here. I actually agree with Bret on the for once. Most Manhattanites I know don't want some huge, tacky waste of space going up there. If the idiots squabbling over the space would shut up and get back to work, that would be one thing. But as is, they're annoying enough that some of us wish someone would fly a plane into their offices. Just build the fugly towers back as they were, and get back to business, and who gives a flying *#^% what some fundie in a cave thinks, or for that matter what some fundie in a flyover state thinks about Cordoba. We're the best city in the world, and anyone who wants to tell us how to live can bite me.

    As for transit, I really don't go down there much, but I know a bunch of folks who think having the that E stop back would be nice, thanks.

  5. Once when my son asked me why he was stuck taking junior high science classes, I told him that after Sputnik, the country decided to expand science education to keep up with the Soviets. "So," he, said, "the fact that I have to take Earth Science means the Communists won."

  6. The terrorists won back about March 2003. We've been an occupied nation pretty much ever since. Does calling the entire rightwing apparatus a bunch of quislings invoke Godwin's law?

  7. Uh, the World Trade Center E stop has been back in service at least since 2003.

  8. Someone from Manhattan clarify here if I am mistaken. "Thunder Video" at 100 Greenwich St is just as close to the WTC site as teh proposed community center. It operates in the same place as "Thunder Lingerie and More" and "Party Poopers." The nature of these establishments is a bit tough to make out from Google street level maps, but the words "Peep Show" appear to be on the front of the place in blue neon lights, as well as a window display that cannot be pleasing to the moralist brigades who want this area to be sacred ground.

    Or did the Twin Towers contain porno shops as well as snack shops?

    And why have we heard nothing from the outraged conservatives about this violation of this hallowed ground? They have tolerated this very well for the past nine years. And they tolerate it at this moment. Not a peep, pardon the expression, from any of them. Aren't there any mama grizzlies out there who will confront the smut shops and chase them away?

  9. "Uhhh, Brett. The Twin Towers also contained Muslims."

    And, if rebuilt, it would doubtless continue to. Don't mistake me for one of the opponents to this mosque, I'm quite doctrinaire on the 1st amendment, AND property rights, either of which should suffice in this case to settle the matter. Whether they're entitled, having obtained the property, to build a mosque on it, is quite apart from the motives they have for building it, which I suspect are not pretty on the part of the people paying for it.

    Speaking of paying for it, does anybody else find the idea that we're paying for the fund raising tour a bit smelly?

  10. I know little of the true tenets of Islam. I read of some atrocities (stoning, cutting off hands of thieves) or the seemingly myriad ways misogyny is condoned or encouraged quickly followed with a retort of "Yes, that happened, but it isn't a true reprsentation of Islam. The Koran doesn't dictate that practice." What's real and what's a distortion of the religion? That said, I do find some of what is done very troubling. The U.S. Constitution guarantees free exercise of religion with minimal interference from the state. What if the exercise of that religion dictates treatment of women in a fashion totally at odds with the law? Obviously Muslims can't get together in Detroit and stone to death an adulterer. But much of what it appears they believe is so very antithetical to any sort of human rights values we generally share as a nation. I think many of the more rational people opposing broad Islamic inroads to our society would like answers to these questions. Where do you turn, who do you believe, when asking whether some of the more bizarre, harsh, misogynistic beliefs and practices you read about are true aspects of the religion?

  11. I am not thrilled about the timing of the Cordoba House. It might have not been such a big deal, if we are not at war and things have calmed down a bit, but why now? The best solution would have been to either re-build WTC or a memorial park; keep that bloody piece of entire real-estate secular. Something that, in principle, should be an issue for the New Yorkers and to a little bit less extent an American issue, becomes an international issue. Presto! Instant media spin. Spin, baby, spin!

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