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The American Taliban
Published on Monday, December 10, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
The American Taliban
by Richard Rapaport
TWO DAYS after the September 11 cataclysm, the Rev. Jerry Falwell laid down his own prophetic interpretation of the attacks, revealing more than he might have liked about his low view of the state of American life.

Appearing on Pat Robertson's "700 Club" television show, Falwell blamed the excesses of American liberalism as exemplified by the ACLU, NOW, and pro- choice, feminist and gay groups in general, for the growing distance between God and America. Falwell argued that humanists working to "secularize America" had provoked a disenchanted deity into retracting some sort of heavenly anti- terrorist shield, thus enabling "the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserved."

During the broadcast, host Robertson, a 1992 and 1996 Republican presidential candidate, nervously concurred with Falwell's analysis. But recognizing a brewing public relations debacle that could eclipse Falwell's 1999 jeremiad against PBS's innocuous Teletubbies, Robertson and Falwell quickly began issuing clarifications and apologies for bad timing -- if not necessarily for the underlying belief.

Several weeks later, in early October, a similar hell-and-brimstone call for religious redemption coursed over the airwaves. It announced, among other things, that "no one can deny the great sins of polytheism and (its goal) to share with God in His sole right of sovereignty and making of the law." Unlike the Revs. Falwell and Robertson, a besieged Osama bin Laden saw no public relations' advantage in retracting any part of his Oct. 6 video declaration of war against the West.

The shared reasoning of America's and Islam's best known purveyors of fundamentalist thought was ironic, scary and hardly coincidental. The message of fundamentalism; Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or what-have-you, is remarkably unified. It is paternalistic, sternly moralistic, anti-feminist and a reaction against the secularism and commercialism that is a signature of the modern world. There could not have been a better metaphor for the violently clashing views of the secular and the fundamental worlds than the fiery fall of New York's World Trade Center twin towers.

But the September 11 attacks also revealed a difficult conundrum for the Bush administration, the most conservative presidency in history, now forced to deal with the contradiction of fighting the fundamentalist mullahs abroad while supporting the fundamentalist Moral Majority at home. So far, however, it has proven to be a largely untroubled straddle. How is one to justify the deep satisfaction in the de-veiling of Afghan women at the same time as advocating that the abortion rights of American women disappear behind the veil of federal edict?

So far, with liberal Democrats more or less asleep in exposing this blitz, the White House has gotten away with it by playing a clever game of political "good cop/bad cop." It is a routine that has elevated first lady Laura Bush into the public face of secular humanism, at least in terms of the good news of the liberation of Afghan women from Taliban repression and support for the widows and orphans of the World Trade Center attack.

And while the president stays above the fray in his role as commander-in- chief, the nitty-gritty of the American fundamentalist agenda is being brought alive by the current attorney general, John Ashcroft. Ashcroft, President Bush's "bad cop" and his administration's gift to the Christian right. Military tribunals, racial profiling, violations of attorney-client secrecy and prolonged unreported detention aside (although the Bush administration's assault on civil liberties can hardly be considered an aside), Ashcroft is the spearhead of the effort to use America's state of constitutional distraction to further the issues of greatest concern to homeland-based fundamentalists. Among these are the attempt to roll back abortion rights, bar human embryo stem-cell research, challenge Oregon's assisted-suicide law, attack California's medical-marijuana initiative and other laws that are seen as furthering the liberal, secularist agenda.

The most striking feature about the Bush administration's double-barreled assault on civil liberties and lifestyle is the post-attack Republican conversion to robust federalism. So much for the state's rights agenda that has been a supposed matter of faith in the modern GOP. The Bush administration has discovered the wonders of such once feverishly protested "liberal" means to power, such as presidential decree and federal intervention, which were used to great effect in areas such as civil rights and environmental protection.

Now, those same tools against which Republicans have fulminated for years, and against which Bush campaigned, are driving the administration's attempts to win such "sanctity of life" issues as medical research on human embryos. This issue is well understood by American fundamentalists as a Trojan Horse maneuver, such as the ban on so-called partial-birth abortions, through which to achieve the most deeply held fundamentalist desire; an end to legal abortion as guaranteed American women by Roe vs. Wade.

The Bush administration should be congratulated on its nearly flawless intervention in Afghanistan. But nothing less than loud protests will do in the face of the embrace of the American fundamentalist agenda at home under the protective cover of fighting fundamentalism abroad.

The final irony is that like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Bush administration is very much a minority government. Handsomely outvoted in the popular vote and the barest possible winner in the electoral count, Bush should be very careful about mistaking popular support for the war against terrorism as a mandate to institute the agenda of Falwell, Robertson and their allies, members of what can, without blinking, be called "the American Taliban. "

Freelance writer Richard Rapaport in San Francisco at

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


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