Foolish Consistency

In his essay on “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a now oft-quoted admonition that, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” It is, alas, far too easy to recognize inconsistencies in others, while forgiving our own lapses. Moreover, some inconsistency is to be preferred. It is certainly true that without inconsistencies, without changes in outlook, without the introduction of new ideas, there is no growth and no change. The addition of more information and more expansive considerations can result in different conclusions that do not reflect desultory mental processes, but rather an active, engaged, and inquisitive mind.

Lest one wishes to fall into Emerson’s dreadful category of “little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” there should be a natural reticence to make too much of the inconsistencies of others. Nonetheless, new conclusions ought to be organic outgrowths of old ideas and part of this growth is an understanding of how and why our ideas have changed. Honesty requires an accounting for reasons behind changes in opinion, an explanation of the evolution of new ideas. Robert Scheer, is a contributing editor at the influential Left-leaning, some would say far-Left, publication, The Nation. He recently seems to have swung himself around completely on his assessment of the true threat of Al Qaeda and he needs to provide a more complete accounting this reversal.

Exactly a year after the devastating attacks by Al Qaeda, that killed thousands on September 11, 2001, Scheer wrote critically of both the Bush and Clinton Administrations for not being quick and vigorous enough in dealing with the obvious threat posed by Al Qaeda. In an article entitled “Bin Laden: A Known Monster Before 9/11,” Scheer wrote,

“The uniquely clear and overt terrorist threat of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization to the United States, its bloody track record in attacking US targets overseas and even the exact location of its base of operations were all known by both the Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations.”

Not only did the US Government know about the threat, but Scheer claims, “…for embarrassingly petty bureaucratic and political reasons, both Presidents were unwilling or unable to take the monster out.”

In 2002, Scheer saw the threat from Al Qaeda as “clear” and criticized the US government for recognizing the threat and still not managing to thwart the attacks of September 11, 2001. Three years since then and two years since Scheer’s original complaint that the US did not respond vigorously enough to threats posed by Al Qaeda, there have been no attacks on US soil. It can not be known with certainty whether Al Qaeda is just biding its time in preparation of a more devastating attack, whether US attacks against Al Qaeda and the elimination of their sanctuaries have constrained Al Qaeda’s ability launch to such attack, or whether internal security measures have made such attacks more difficult to implement.

Scheer chooses a fourth alternative. Scheer, contrary to his old position, now asks in The Nation whether “Al Qaeda is Just a Bush Boogeyman?” A boogeyman is defined as an “imaginary monster used to frighten children” and by analogy Scheer suggests that the Al Qaeda is an overblown and exaggerated threat serving as just one more opportunity for Bush to curtail civil liberties. Of course, the suggestion that perhaps Bush’s policies may have significantly neutralized the Al Qaeda threat is not considered as a potential explanation.

No serious person can consider Al Qaeda simply a “boogeyman.” One is forced to wonder if Scheer has been blind to the work of Al Qaeda over the last couple of years when he asks, “If Osama bin Laden does, in fact, head a vast international terrorist organization with trained operatives in more than forty countries, as claimed by Bush, why, despite torture of prisoners, has this Administration failed to produce hard evidence of it?”

Perhaps he should ask the relatives of the over 180 people killed in a blast set off in Bali what evidence exists of the organization. Perhaps Scheer should inform the relatives of the 200 people killed by a series of bombings in Madrid Spain that the Al Qaeda threat has been exaggerated. Surely, these attacks constitute warnings just as dire and grave as the strike on the USS Cole on October 12, 2001 that presaged the ghastly events of September 11 — warnings Scheer claimed in 2002 we should have recognized and acted upon.

In “Self Reliance,” Emerson also averred that “no man can violate his nature.” It is apparently in Scheer’s nature to criticize the US government in general and George W. Bush in particular, to believe the worst about the US and especially about Bush, and to use whatever evidence available to draw the most negative conclusions possible. This is the fundamental conviction that animates Scheer and reconciles the arguments of the Scheer of 2002 with those of the Scheer of 2005. When viewed in this context, there is no inconsistency Scheer’s different positions.

No doubt, when and if, an Al Qaeda attack occurs here in the next four years, Scheer and The Nation will explain to us, with the same sincerity and certainty — and consistency — that they now dismiss the threat from Al Qaeda, how Bush’s failure to understand the severity of the threat led to attack.

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