On the morning of September 11, 2001, my phone in Ottawa rang at about 8:45. It was my new friend Janet Fiabane, who I’d met only a few weeks before at a party. She told me that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. I turned on the television and watched the horrifying events unfold, hardly able to move, as thousands were murdered before my eyes.
No one who saw it could fail to be affected emotionally. But when the fear, anger and grief subsided, we were left to grapple with it intellectually. For me, and I suspect many others, it would profoundly change our political perspectives and allegiances.
In the short term, we rallied together. New Yorkers responded with courage and sacrifice. More than 75,000 Canadians gave blood. Two hundred and twenty-four U.S.-bound planes were diverted to Canadian cities, mostly Halifax and Gander, and 30,000 stranded Americans found temporary homes in our country. On that day, at least, Prime Minister Jean Chretien said all the right things, and made sure that Americans knew that Canada was with them all the way.
“None of us will ever forget this day,” President George W. Bush told the world that night. “Yet, we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.” Three days later, he gave his stirring bullhorn speech to emergency workers still clawing through the rubble. Just two minutes long, the speech packed an emotional wallop, and I was moved by his courage and leadership.
Prime Minister Chretien proclaimed Friday, September 14th a national day of mourning, and more than 100,000 people crowded Parliament Hill. The main doors of the American Embassy were piled high with flowers, trinkets and messages, tokens of appreciation for the close bond between Canada and the United States.
Right from the start, there were reports linking the attacks to Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network. I’d never heard of Al-Qaeda, or if I had, I’d forgotten. And I knew little about Islam. In fact, my overall understanding of the Middle East was embarrassingly deficient. It was time to think, read, and learn more about what had happened.
9-11 coincided with an exercise in personal soul-searching that was already underway. For most of my adult life I’d been a man of the left. I had organized demonstrations against nuclear weapons and the testing of cruise missiles, and I had marched for abortion rights. I signed a statement published in the Canadian Jewish News condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank. I protested outside Toronto police headquarters after they raided gay bathhouses in 1981, and I marched in the 2nd Gay Pride March in Toronto in 1982. Back in my university days in Montreal, I joined a sit-in at the library.
In 1983 I left Canada on what was to be a year-long trip; I ended up away for 17 years – living and working in New York, Oxford, Singapore and Hong Kong – only moving back to Canada in June 2000. While living in the U.S., I demonstrated for gay rights in Washington; in New York I demonstrated against the Reagan administration and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its too-slow approval of AIDS drugs.
By the morning of September 11 I still considered myself a “progressive,” but I had been growing increasingly disillusioned, particularly because of the excesses of feminism, identity politics, hysterical anti-Israel attitudes, and “political correctness.” And in the preceding weeks I’d been reading The Politics of Bad Faith, by American writer David Horowitz, about his political evolution from left to right. Horowitz was a “red diaper baby,” raised by Communists, and he’d learned his lessons well. As a young man in the 1970s he had risen to the editorship of Ramparts, a major left-wing magazine.
The book detailed Horowitz’s philosophical U-Turn in a collection of essays. He was scathing in his criticism of the left after the fall of communism. He felt that postmodern leftism was the “theoretical expression of agnostic nihilism.” All its academic pretensions, from critical theory to deconstructionism to cultural determinism, with its inordinate emphasis on ethnicity and race, led to assaults on our freedom and liberties. Horowitz bemoaned what he called “the rejection of the concept of the individual…all of these ideas are direct echoes of the fascist theories of the 1930s.” The university curricula had changed – great books were out; minor works were in, as long as they were about colonialism, racism, or capitalism. The crimes of socialist countries were to be ignored. This was all a “radical assault on America’s future” – perhaps over the top – but stirring stuff, nonetheless.
So, on the morning of 9-11, I was already trying to make sense of everything. Now, my questions were: How could anybody fly planes into buildings? What kind of monsters were these people? What kind of ideology would counsel the deliberate murder of thousands of innocent civilians? I wondered whether the Left might rise to the occasion and come up with some worthwhile explanations, some reasonable analysis, and some idea of the right thing to do. But straight off, the Left’s answer was: it was all America’s fault.
Writing in The Independent on September 12, popular left-wing journalist Robert Fisk explained the events of 9-11 this way:
“This is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and U.S. helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia – paid and uniformed by America’s Israeli ally – hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.”
On September 13, in the Toronto Star, editor emeritus Haroon Siddiqui wondered whether the attacks occurred because America was “indifferent to the suffering of too many peoples, from Afghanistan to Chechnya to the Middle East…thus driving the ordinary folk there to seethe in silence against America and the crazed ones into fanatical acts.” A few days later, Siddiqui wrote that the attack was “due to American complicity in injustice, lethal and measurable, on several fronts,” including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the economic sanctions on Iraq, “the mess in Afghanistan where the CIA recruited and trained the likes of bin Laden” (which was untrue) and American alliances with the governments of Algeria, Turkey and Egypt. He concluded that “the public, more than the media, senses this. Some put it crudely: America had it coming.”
In the Toronto Globe & Mail, Rick Salutin wrote that the U.S. had nurtured Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan, “in the course of which it worked with, armed and trained – Osama bin Laden” (again, untrue). Salutin’s solution was simple: end the Israeli occupation and end the sanctions against Saddam’s Iraq.
The Council of Canadians called the United States “the biggest bully in town and in the world.”
Also in the Globe, Naomi Klein asked whether the U.S. created “the conditions in which such twisted logic could flourish, a war not so much on U.S. imperialism but on perceived U.S. imperviousness?” A few days later, she wrote that bin Laden was a “figure of diabolical fanaticism”, but “also the warped and twisted progeny of all of these unintended consequences of wars past and present – a Frankenstein of collateral damage.”
On October 1, Sunera Thobani, professor and former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, gave a fiery speech in Ottawa at a conference titled “Women’s Resistance: From Victimization to Criminalization.” Thobani answered everything through the lens of identity politics, with her talk “If We Are All Americans Now, What is a Brown Girl to Do?”
Thobani said the U.S. was “one of the most dangerous and the most powerful global forces that is unleashing prolific levels of violence all over the world.” She had three “demands” that would solve the problem: lift the sanctions on Iraq, resolve the Palestinian question and remove American bases from the Middle East.
Meanwhile, President Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over bin Laden and expel Al-Qaeda. The Taliban refused. On October 7 the United States and Britain began Operation Enduring Freedom and started bombing Taliban positions. On November 12 Northern Alliance forces marched into Kabul and the Taliban fled. By December the UN Security Council had established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to oversee military operations, and more than 50 countries, including Canada, would join in.
Throughout this, President Bush seemed measured. He certainly wasn’t reckless. Nobody was being bombed back into the Stone Age.
In November, I walked into Book City in Toronto, and out on the front counter was a display of Noam Chomsky’s 9-11, a 125-page insta-book. It was typical Chomsky – bashing Israel, bashing American foreign policy; Al Qaida was all America’s fault, the United States was a terrorist state – all regurgitations from the 1960s. I sighed, and put it back.
I was done with the Left.
Two years later when Bush took out Saddam Hussein, one of the cruellest dictators of our times, all hell broke loose. The floodgates opened a flurry of lunacy that lasted for a decade.
You had that mendacious filmmaker Michael Moore with his ridiculous Fahrenheit 9-11. You had that fascist clown George Galloway feted on CBC and speaking at United Churches. A decrepit anti-war movement actually wanted to abandon the people of Afghanistan to the Taliban. Israeli apartheid week (a Canadian creation) started on campuses, and Queers Against Israeli Apartheid started marching in Gay Pride. Genocidal terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah could target civilians and people would blame Israel. The United Nations was now run by dictatorships. And pathological holocaust deniers like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were invited to speak at Columbia University.
And then, in 2006, Stephen Harper had the gall to be elected Prime Minister. We were now deep into the era of derangement – derangement about Bush, Harper, and Israel. One friend of mine was downtown in Ottawa just when Harper’s limousine happen to stop; he got out; and she noticed his icy blue eyes – to her, indicative of somebody who was evil.
So, I started a gay conservative blog, GayandRight, and I found a new political home in the Conservative party. Many gays objected to the fact that I was Conservative and many Conservatives objected to the fact I was gay. But, I also found lots and lots of gay people within the conservative movement, and two of my friends and I started the biannual Fabulous Blue Tent party at Party conferences. Our last party was so packed that one cabinet minister couldn’t get in the front door. It was ultimately gratifying to see the Harper government accept thousands of gay refugees and to stand up for the rights of gay people around the world.
I also started the Free Thinking Film society to fight for liberty, freedom and democracy.
The left that I knew was long gone.
But my journey is not a typical left to right story. Guess what? The right has its own pathologies – different, for sure, from the left – but just as debilitating. I cringe when Sarah Palin talks just as I cringe when Justin Trudeau talks. The left may want to “tax and spend” but the right has a very narrow playbook of just eliminating programs and cutting taxes, which, I believe, exposes some pretty empty thinking. Surely there is more to offer. The left has “truthers” and the right has “birthers”. There are isolationists in both the left and right – Ron Paul and Noam Chomsky both believe the U.S. had it coming.
Neither side has a monopoly on truth and wisdom.
Fred Litwin is the Founder and President of the Free Thinking Film Society which is dedicated to showing films on freedom, liberty and democracy. His memoir on his political journey will be published in the Fall of 2015.