Latest update: April 14th, 2012
Michael Widlanski grew up on the West Side of Manhattan. He went to Ramaz Yeshiva and then Columbia University, writing for both school newspapers, before landing a job at The New York Times. He also studied Arabic in college, traveling to Cairo to master the language – and learning to chant the Koran while he was at it. Partly motivating him was his desire, as a ba’al keriah, to learn how to properly pronounce the Hebrew letters ayin and chet. “The Arabs do it better,” he said.
Presently, Widlanski is a professor at Bar-Ilan University after having taught Middle East politics and communications at Hebrew University for 20 years. Last month, he published his first book, Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat.
The Jewish Press: What motivated you to write this book?
Widlanski: I’ve been dealing with the Middle East and terror for more than 30 years, and I was seeing over and over again that academics, media and government intelligence had basically switched sides. They had consciously or unconsciously become one with the terrorists in many respects. I thought it was very important to unmask these people who are supposed to be our best and brightest, but who, in many respects, have become our worst and dimmest.
What would you say are your book’s most important revelations?
The first revelation has to do with academia and government intelligence. Basically, the study of what we call the Arab or Islamic world in American universities was very strongly subverted by an anti-American and anti-Israeli agenda, beginning in the late 1970s, with Edward Said and Noam Chomsky becoming the two most important voices on campus.
As a result, we got two generations of elites – people who went on to become our diplomats and national security officials – who were often ignorant, who couldn’t read or write Arabic or Farsi, didn’t know the difference between Hamas and hummus, and had been educated to believe that jihad was only a spiritual journey and that criticizing anybody who’s Muslim is a sign of a hate crime.
The second revelation is that the people at the very top of America’s intelligence establishment became absolute idiots and incompetents. For example, the person who was the Bin Laden headhunter at the CIA, Michael Sheuer, was an admirer of Bin Laden who never studied a word of Arabic in his life and had never been a field agent in his life. Paul Pillar, the top CIA Mideast desk officer, has to this day been saying we can deal with the Iranians and the regime of Bashar Assad. The guy’s been wrong on almost every single one of his assessments going back 20 years, but presidents and congressmen are relying on these people to protect America.
How did such incompetents land the CIA’s top jobs?
It goes back to Richard Nixon who basically subverted the CIA when he used people from the CIA in the Watergate break-in. That caused a backlash which basically led to the castration of the American intelligence system.
Since that period, the mid-1970s, the American intelligence system has been overrun by oversight – in both senses of the term: oversight in that people from Congress are looking over their shoulders checking for lint around the collar every five minutes, and “oversight” in that they miss facts. They miss them because the people who get the top jobs are politically correct and know how to flow with congressional committees but generally don’t know anything about spying or analyzing data.
But don’t people realize that all this political correctness may cost American lives?
Well, look today in the headlines. We see people going after the New York City Police Department for examining Muslims too closely. Thank God they’re looking at these people! Had they been doing their job in 1990, 1993, and 2001, they could’ve possibly prevented some of the worst disasters.
The man who killed Meir Kahane in 1990 was a member of the same terror cell that eventually carried out the 1993 World Trade Center attack. That attack would’ve been even worse than the one in 2001 except for a miracle – the bomb went off a little too far away from the main support pillar in the World Trade Center. Otherwise, God forbid, both buildings would’ve come tumbling down, and 50,000 people would’ve lost their lives within a matter of minutes.
And when this guy was caught in 1990, they found boxes of information in his house in Arabic, surveillance photos of the Brooklyn Bridge, other monuments, and things from inside the Pentagon, but they didn’t look at it. They said he’s a lone bomber who hates Kahane, and Kahane was a troublemaker anyway. So let’s close it all up.
So today, when the NYPD is doing its job, all of a sudden you have people from The New York Times, the Associated Press, 34 members of Congress, and the governor of New Jersey criticizing it for overstepping its bounds. They’re full of baloney.
What do you make of groups like CAIR that condemned the NYPD? Some people argue that if these groups truly loved America and embraced moderation – as they claim to – they would be the first ones to support any measure necessary to protect America and root out the radicals from their midst.
Absolutely correct. When you see groups like CAIR coming after the police or the army, you know that their real objectives are not to safeguard America or the rights of innocent, law-abiding Muslims. You also, of course, know it from other things – like the money they’ve transferred to all sorts of questionable organizations and people.
Many conservatives argue that one of the obstacles to fighting radical Islam is our refusal to define it as our enemy. Rather, we talk of a generic war on “terror,” which of course is just a tool, not an enemy.
Most of the terrorism in the world today is carried out by Muslims, and that was already true in the 1990s. This is a war, and terror is the weapon of choice because even a few well-trained men with minimum weaponry like box cutters can bring a whole country to its knees with a careful operation.
But is it a war against terror or a war against the people who use terror?
It’s a war against terror and the people who use terror. Terror is a very specific kind of operation. It aims to undermine democratic government by undermining the faith of the people in their elected officials.
Terror doesn’t work against dictatorships because a dictator immediately uses total force and kills all the terrorists and any innocent people standing near them, or not even near them – and it’s all over. You couldn’t use terror against an Adolph Hitler or a Stalin or the ayatollahs in Iran because they’ll use total force against you.
But if you’re a terrorist and want to undermine the faith of the people of Israel, Britain, Spain, or the United States in their government, terrorism is a very effective strategy. So you have to destroy both the people who use it and the very idea that it can be used.
But are we really fighting everyone who uses terror? Aren’t we only fighting a specific group of people using it – namely, radical Muslims?
My book focuses on Arab Islamic terror, but I think Arab Islamic terror is most of the terror in the world today.
You say that terror would never work against a Hitler or a Stalin. In your book, though, you write that America could never act like a Hitler or Stalin since Americans don’t have the stomach for it. Instead of saying they don’t have the stomach for it, why not encourage them to have the stomach for it?
I think you have to fight hard – but you don’t fight dirty. When you get the terrorist you kill him. You don’t read him his Miranda rights or give him a proper burial at sea.
Why not fight dirty?
Because we don’t want to become what they are. You could defeat the terror in Gaza by wiping out Gaza, right? We could kill a million people, but is that what we want to be? No. So what we do is we fight firmly. I’m not saying we’re fighting as we could in Israel, for example; I would fight more firmly. But you don’t become what you oppose.
But why not do it as a “one-shot” deal? You fight dirty for a year or two and then when it’s all over, you return to normal.
It wouldn’t even take a year or two. It would take 10 minutes.
Then why not do it?
Because then you become a murderer like they’re murderers. You don’t drop an atom bomb on everybody from the other side. They’re not cockroaches. There are people there who didn’t commit the crime. If it’s a war, and you can’t differentiate sometimes and a few people are next to him, and you have to do it to save yourself, okay. But to deliberately go out and kill everybody who’s anywhere near the other side – you don’t do that.
Two points, though. First, many innocent civilians are really not terribly innocent since they often give, if not direct aid, then indirect aid and moral support to terrorists. And second, you mentioned the atom bomb. President Truman killed 150,000 Japanese people because he said, “Better them than us.” Why don’t we say that too: better them than us?
The atom bomb saved more than a million lives because it prevented the physical invasion of Japan which would’ve led to at least another million causalities. Truman, though, would not have launched a weapon that would have killed the whole Japanese population. That also would’ve solved the problem but he felt it wouldn’t be right to save a million lives by killing 50 million people. And he was right.
In the same section at the end of the book, where you discuss and reject the possibility of fighting dirty, you also propose severely restricting, if not eliminating, immigration from radical Islamic countries. This seems like a sensible proposal that deserves consideration. And one hardly ever hears it raised or discussed by politicians or the media.
It should. We know that the main culprits of Arab Islamic terror come from countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, and Iran. We have to be very vigilant about these people. It shouldn’t be, “Okay, you’re automatically in unless I find something.” It should be, “You’re probably not in unless I find justification to let you in.”
But it gets back to what I said at the beginning. It’s the doctrine of political correctness [which prevents proposals like this from being discussed].
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies.
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