Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Thinker
The Thinker

By Michael Kinsley

Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page B07

The strangest aspect of President Bush's new War on Tyranny is the connection he draws between tyranny and terrorism. It's not the connection you would suspect, or the one Bush was making during his first term. When Saddam Hussein was still in charge of Iraq, it was enough to say that bad guys are bad guys. A sadistic dictator is just the type of person who would also harbor terrorists and stockpile weapons of mass destruction.

But now Bush says that terrorists are actually the victims of tyranny. In his inaugural address, this seemed like a bit of transitory, use-once-and-discard highfalutinism. But Bush returned to the theme in his State of the Union address Wednesday. "In the long term," he said, "the peace we seek will only be achieved by eliminating the conditions that feed radicalism and ideologies of murder. If whole regions of the world remain in despair and grow in hatred, they will be the recruiting grounds for terror, and that terror will stalk America. . . . "

The legendary anarchist writer Emma Goldman said much the same thing in a 1917 essay, "The Psychology of Political Violence." It is "the despair millions of people are daily made to endure" that drives some of them to acts of terror. Can one question the tremendous, revolutionizing effect on human character exerted by great social iniquities?" She quotes a pamphlet from British-ruled India: "Terrorism . . . is inevitable as long as . . . tyranny continues, for it is not the terrorists that are to be blamed, but the tyrants who are responsible for it."

Bush does not say that tyranny excuses terrorism. But he does say that tyranny explains terrorism. This is new. One of Bush's big themes in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was that terrorism is "evil," pure and simple. Former Commissioner of Virtue William Bennett ground out a quickie bestseller on this theme, criticizing efforts to understand why someone might become a suicide bomber as a refusal to look evil in the face.

Conservative thought has long rated the notion of "root causes" -- explaining antisocial behavior as a consequence of social conditions -- as a major heresy. Neoconservatives have especially enjoyed burning witches over this doctrinal deviation. This makes it all the more remarkable that a president thought to be in the thrall of neocons should sink so eloquently into deep doctrinal error. Not only does he blame terrorism on social conditions -- he says point-blank that "only . . . by eliminating [these] conditions" can the terrorist threat be eliminated. He sounds less like a Republican than a dorm-room Marxist. And good for him. Who says the '60s passed this fellow by?

Our president appears to be on some kind of intellectual journey. The idea of an evolution in George W. Bush's thinking is about as hard to accept for Bush's opponents as evolution itself is for some of his supporters. Nevertheless, there is evidence. I thought I had our president pegged as a man who made the great leap of faith at age 40 and has used that as his intellectual model ever since. Decide what you want to believe, believe it and cross it off your to-do list. But this assessment may have been an injustice.

Bush may come to regret his descent from the heights of certitude to the swamps of doubt. The old George W. wasn't expected to have thought through his policies and pronouncements. Now he will lie awake at night pondering questions like these, raised by his State of the Union address:

What does it mean that "one of the main differences between us and our enemies" is that we have "no desire and no intention to impose our form of government on anyone else"? Bush talks more about "freedom" than "democracy," but can there even be freedom in a totalitarian theocracy? Can people freely choose a society where freedom is severely limited, and if so, what does the Bush Doctrine say about that? Approving words on Wednesday about "governments that . . . reflect their own cultures" were probably intended to allow for ayatollocracies in the Middle East. If so, what is left of the War on Tyranny? If not, what is left of the idea that we don't wish to impose our form of government on anyone else?

If Bush's Social Security plan doesn't reduce the total amount government borrows or increase the total amount people save -- and there is no reason to expect either -- what difference does it make if some, most or even all the participants are better off than they would have been under Social Security Classic? And if society is no wealthier as a result of this new system, where is the bonus that Bush is promising future retirees supposed to come from?

Bush said Wednesday he "will work with Congress to ensure that human embryos are not created for experimentation or grown for body parts." This sounds like a welcome willingness to compromise his stringent restrictions on stem-cell research. But Bush has never proposed restrictions on the work of fertility clinics, which routinely create embryos and discard most of them to help people conceive children. Why is using embryos for this purpose okay if using them to save lives is not?

Thinking. It's enough to drive a fellow back to drinking.

The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.