One of the things that the media and, often, the political elite do is to try to put our political discourse in a straitjacket. I’ve always thought that it was a sign of weakness that America created the House Un-American Activities Committee and other like committees. It showed a certain lack of confidence in the superiority of American political and economic institutions to shut down people’s ability to advocate for other systems.

Of course, it’s easy for me to say that sitting here on the other side of the Cold War. But our institutions are strong, and they are superior to other systems that stifle human ingenuity and freedom. When we try to shut off debate we undermine our own greatest strength. That’s why it bothers me that much of what Reverend Wright is being criticized for is saying things that are impolitic. He says that America committed terrorism abroad, so we shouldn’t be surprised that someone came and committed terrorism here in retaliation. That really shouldn’t be an impermissible thing to say. Saying that such a statement is totally out of bounds is really just an insistence that America doesn’t and never has committed acts of terrorism abroad. But that’s a definitional argument. If you want to debate it, you have to define what we mean by ‘terrorism’.

Ayman Zawahiri and Usama Bin Laden were completely explicit that the 9/11 attacks were direct retribution for what they consider to be acts of terrorism. In their 1998 fatwa that declared war on American citizens, they began with this:

No one argues today about three facts that are known to everyone; we will list them, in order to remind everyone.

First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.

If some people have in the past argued about the fact of the occupation, all the people of the Peninsula have now acknowledged it.

The best proof of this is the Americans’ continuing aggression against the Iraqi people using the Peninsula as a staging post, even though all its rulers are against their territories being used to that end, but they are helpless. Second, despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which has exceeded 1 million… despite all this, the Americans are once against trying to repeat the horrific massacres, as though they are not content with the protracted blockade imposed after the ferocious war or the fragmentation and devastation.

So here they come to annihilate what is left of this people and to humiliate their Muslim neighbors.

Third, if the Americans’ aims behind these wars are religious and economic, the aim is also to serve the Jews’ petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there.

Right there in black and white is the rationale for why we were attacked on 9/11. They said nothing about our freedoms or Baywatch or our religion. Now, we do not have to agree with Al Qaeda’s interpretation or characterization of American foreign policy in the Middle East to acknowledge that they are sincere in their analysis. We might even argue that we were justified in our policies regardless of whether people were terrorized and humiliated by them. But we were attacked for our policies and we seem to have a phobia about even discussing that fact, as if it might in some way justify the murder of 3,000 American citizens on 9/11.

You’ll also notice that the fatwa listed America’s attempt to “divert attention from [Israel’s] occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there” as one reason to kill innocent American civilians. No one is allowed to talk about that at all. Again, you can disagree with their interpretation of what Israel is doing, or you can argue that Israel and America are fully justified in doing what they are doing. But it’s right there in the fatwa…we were attacked, in part, because of Israel’s occupation of territory seized in the 1967 war and our support for Israel. We can choose to cover our ears and not talk about it, but it won’t make us any safer to deny the motivations of our enemies.

What’s really happening here is a lack of confidence in the rightness of our policies. Elites are concerned that the American people will not support our foreign policies if they see how directly they put us at risk of retaliation. But if our policies are correct, they can withstand an open debate. Are we willing to spend trillions of dollars and give up our civil liberties and privacy rights to sustain our foreign policy? Can we have a debate about that?

Should we rethink our priorities? How can you rethink if you don’t think?

So, Reverend Wright points out that 9/11 was retaliation. Terrorism begets terrorism. But we can’t allow him to say that because we don’t agree that we committed any terrorism. Fine. But whatever you call it, we committed something. And that something caused us to get attacked in retribution. Can’t we have an honest conversation about whether we had (or have) good policies without it meaning that the murder of our innocent civilians was justified? The answer is, no. We can’t. We can’t because our elites have no confidence that people will support our foreign policies if they really understand their cost in dollars, security, and our constitutional rights.

This is why I have so much sympathy with Libertarians on foreign policy. But the important point is that Reverend Wright isn’t considered damaging because he’s a black liberation theologian. He’s considered damaging because he said the United States and Israel committed acts of terrorism. And no one is allowed to say that. It’s taboo not because it’s hyperbole. It’s taboo because our elites are afraid to answer the charges in an honest debate.

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