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George W. and "The Vision Thing"
January 24, 2002
by Bernard Weiner

Let's see if I got this straight. The feds need to get information from the elite Al Qaida and Taliban prisoners held at the U.S. base in Cuba. The FBI and CIA know these "detainees" are fanatic in their devotion to their restricted, fundamentalist religious view. Therefore, they are treated harshly.

Now that makes sense. What might happen if the U.S. authorities treated these guys with more civility and brought in loyal American Muslims to talk to them? Let us not forget that the vast majority of these prisoners have never been outside their tiny little corner of Afghanistan or their Arab country of origin, have neither physically visited the West nor come into contact intellectually with outsiders to their narrow band of understanding. Why not wideband them? There are examples worth mentioning:

1. Khruschev's point of view about the U.S. was deeply affected by seeing all the cars owned by employees in a huge factory parking lot; previously, he thought such claims - that ordinary blue-collar workers could make enough to afford automobiles of their own - were nothing but American propaganda.

2. Or remember Malcolm X's experience: He hated all white people, to the point of obsession, until he made his hajj to Mecca. His view of the world was extremely circumscribed. In Mecca, he met Muslims of all stripes - whites, Asians, blacks, Arabs, et al. - and suddenly had a revelation that it was ideas and spirituality that bound human beings together, not color.

Something similar could happen here if the U.S. really wants to get vital information out of its Al Qaida prisoners. Certainly, it couldn't hurt, and might actually prove useful.

Ancillary point: If the FBI specifically and the Justice Department in general have moved from a prosecutorial mode to a deterrence mode - i.e., the aim is to prevent terrorist acts rather than to put suspected terrorists on trial and get them incarcerated for long stretches - then it follows that eventually, the government will have to release these "detainees" and they'll go back to the terrorist organizations that spawned them, and to the countries from whence they came, to wreak more havoc on the world.

True, by following its present tactics, the U.S. in the short run may be preventing immediate terrorist atrocities from occurring, and that's mighty important in breaking the momentum of Al Qaida's terror operations. But, given the religious zealotry of the prisoners and their dedication to the cause of jihad, in the long run we're asking for trouble. Better to put them on trial and, if guilty, send them to prison.

Bin Laden and the other jihadists do think long-range, looking decades (and in some cases, centuries) ahead. Their aim is nothing less than the destruction of the decadent West of the infidels, and the resurgence of the old-style Islamic empire. We may think this silly, to want to return the world to 7th- or 12th-century medievalism, but these guys are serious about it, and are willing to carry on this holy war for as long as it takes.

Fundamentalism, of whatever stripe, Islamic or Christian, seeks to keep the real world from seeping into the accepted Wor(l)d of God. That's why our own Talibanists - the Falwells and Robertsons and Sheltons in the U.S. - must not be let anywhere near the corridors of public power, and why our Founders' wisdom in keeping religion and the state totally separate must be celebrated and adhered to with great scrupulousness. There are enough holy warriors and puritanical ayatollahs out there without importing their narrow mindset into our own society. (Still, Bush feels he owes them big time, and caters to their point of view quite often, in everything from stem-cell research to abortion to the right-to-die.)

Speaking of narrowness, it seems quite clear now, after a year of residency in the White House, that George W. has inherited "the vision thing" deficit from his dad. He knows how to react, he knows how to mouth the trigger words of patriotism and battle, he knows how to pay off his conservative and far-right corporate and social-agenda backers, but he hasn't a clue about what might be done, what could be done, to make this a better country, a better world. "Compassionate conservatism," alas, was just a campaign buzzphrase.

Nixon, because he was a conservative, was able to get us out of Vietnam, sit down with the Chinese, enact some decent social legislation - and not get mauled too badly by his right-wing constituency. He had "the vision thing."

But George W., with his limited sense and knowledge of history and the world, is missing a golden opportunity to grow into a great president. Instead, devoid of vision, he is incapable of doing anything other than business as usual domestically (tax breaks for the wealthy and for large corporations, environmental rapaciousness and increased reliance on oil) and, aside from hunting terrorists, in the area of foreign policy as well.

What may trip him up is the arrogance of his imperial-like reign, from his take-no-prisoners campaign to his savaging of the Bill of Rights to his stonewalling and lieing in the Enron scandal. Usually, it takes a few years for a president to get this swell-headed and start making big mistakes. George W. is risking self-destruction at an early stage. One can only hope.

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