Fanatics—Theirs and Ours

Culture Watch

Mr. Kutler is the author of the Wars of Watergate and the editor of Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes.

Johannes Rau, President of Germany, spoke to over 200,000 people in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate the other day. It was an incredibly emotional moment. Particularly striking was the older element in the crowd, who probably remembered John F. Kennedy's stirring words nearly four decades ago:"Ich bin ein Berliner." President Rau forcefully and eloquently spoke to the American people, and said:"You are not alone." Moving, indeed. My impression is that Rau was not there to audition for any rhetorical memory book; instead, he offered an encompassing insight for the present crisis. We do not, he noted, confront a religious, an ethnic, or a racial enemy."The enemy is fanaticism," he bluntly warned. Fanaticism that everywhere kills -- people, ideas, and our souls.

The Oklahoma City bombing should have taught us our enemies are homegrown, as well. With fanaticism of any stripe being our mortal enemy, we must also look inward and at ourselves. Enemies abound. The once-popular works of Eric Hoffer, the San Francisco longshoreman, taught us that the"True Believer" was a one-idea directed person, motivated by hate, anger, and frustration, and who without blinking, would destroy all that is antagonistic to his true belief.

We can leave the realm of abstraction and readily identify some of those enemies. Last week, Jerry Falwell (and his sidekick, Pat Robertson), held forth on national television to assault the bedrock of American faith, a faith that goes back to our roots and founding as a nation, transcending any particular sect.. Part of that faith is enshrined in the First Amendment's guarantee of religious toleration and diversity. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc: Falwell and Robertson despise the America that was and is.

Falwell on the Christian Broadcast Network's"700 club," hosted by Robertson."God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve," Falwell said. Our beneficent, loving God? With such friends, God can look back nostalgically on his encounters with the Devil. Falwell then revealed his peculiar faith in diversity, for he left few off his enemies list."The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their faces and say, 'You helped this happen.'" Abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the ACLU -- what, no Jews?

Much of America long ago refused to express any critical posture toward Falwell and instead accepted him as a legitimate evangelical. He even has a"university," but you can bet that his place is about as tolerant of diverse ideas as is Osama's base camp. Falwell does not deserve a free pass in the media. Why have much of the media virtually ignored this story? Are they still trying to shake their Gary Condit hangover? Or, as typically is the case, are they unable to deal with more than one story at a time? Why isn't this a valid, appropriate story to expose? Are they afraid of him and his crowd? A White Hose spokesperson said that the President"disassociated" himself from Falwell's remarks. But will the media have the courage -- no, the sense -- to ask the President:"Will you repudiate such remarks? Will you repudiate Falwell?" Unlikely, for the President needs Falwell to rationalize his next step in stem cell research to the anti-abortion folks.

We have an enemy within, an enemy that is ugly, destructive, and subversive of everything we allegedly believe. President Bush said we should"smoke out" Osama, et al, as well he should; he also should focus some attention on how others terrorize and threaten us. Talk about our"Homeland Defense" currently is fashionable, although the story has been available since the end of January. We can also defend our homeland by answering and repudiating Falwell in the"public square" he so professes to love.

Cecelia Holland, the novelist, suggested that"our best revenge is to be who we are." What we are assaults both Osama and Falwell every day. We are diverse, we have guaranteed liberty, and we desperately want to be tolerant. All this assaults them to the very core of their perverse beliefs.

Look at the evolving place of women in our life."Every liberated woman," Ms. Holland has said,"is an attack on his whole way of life, every time she draws a free, unveiled man-equal breath." When we remain free to believe as we wish, without assaulting the lives of others, when we practice our different faiths, or even when we don't particularly want a faith, when we marry across religious, racial, or ethnic lines -- we assault and offend such bigots. We have denied credibility to Osama bin laden -- or to any similar terrorist. We respect his power, but that is ephemeral. We reject him as evil and cowardly. And so, too, Jerry Falwell and his fellow peddlers of hate.

To be sure, Osama and Falwell are different men but they most assuredly are committed to the same course. They have different ways of killing ideas and killing a nation. Unfortunately, he has intruded himself into the public sphere, and he has acquired celebrity status. We need to heal. Falwell has no place with us; he deserves only our profound contempt.

This article first appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on September 18, 2001.

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