A Response To A Roast: A "Fifth Column" Apology

I don't know what to say about yesterday's many tributes except thank you. I'm peuce with chuffedness. I am also happy to be reminded of the infamous prime time butt-rub. One reader, however, makes a serious point I should address, about that infamous sentence in a piece I wrote a few days after 9/11. The piece was a vast one, but the sentence I wrote was both sloppy and disgraceful. I did address the issue at the time.

Here's the offending sentence:

"The middle part of the country--the great red zone that voted for Bush--is clearly ready for war. The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead--and may well mount a fifth column."

Here's my first attempt at self-defense:

Note what I didn't say. I didn't say that the vast majority of Gore voters aren't patriots or that they don't support this war as much as anyone else. Later in the piece, I pay particular tribute to New Yorkers, mostly Gore voters, who have shown the world their humanity and courage this past week. The paragraph follwing that sentence continues:

"But by striking at the heart of New York City, the terrorists ensured that at least one deep segment of the country ill-disposed toward a new president is now the most passionate in his defense. Anyone who has ever tried to get one over on a New Yorker knows what I mean. The demons who started this have no idea about the kind of people they have taken on."

I'm sorry but it's completely clear I am not damning an entire section of the country because of the way they voted.

Elsewhere in the same piece I say,

"[Giuliani's] combination of chutzpah, practicality and deep, deep compassion is the essence of New York City. His troops - the firefighters and cops and medics and volunteers of the city - would make the Londoners of 1940 proud. If New York alone were a nation - and it has almost twice the population of Israel - then this war would already be well under way, and its outcome in no doubt."

So much for damning the blue zone. What I was clearly saying is that some decadent leftists in "enclaves" - not regions - on the coasts are indeed more concerned with what they see as the evil of American power than the evil of terrorism, that their first response was to blame America, and that their second response was to disavow any serious military action.

I really was thinking of far left academics. But even then, I quickly realized this was a step too far and apologized:

I have absolutely nothing against the countless patriots in the blue zone, as my tribute to New Yorkers and the rest of the essay shows. I was talking about a few intellectuals and their cohorts who clearly do feel ambivalence about America fighting and winning this war. But these broad categories of "blue" and "red zones" can be misleading and unhelpful. I won't use this shorthand again. Ditto the shorthand of "fifth column." I have no reason to believe that even those sharp critics of this war would actually aid and abet the enemy in any more tangible ways than they have done already. And that dissent is part of what we're fighting for.

By fifth column, I meant simply their ambivalence about the outcome of a war on which I believe the future of liberty hangs. Again, I retract nothing. But I am sorry that one sentence was not written more clearly to dispel any and all such doubts about its meaning. Writing 6,000 words under deadline in the heat of war can lead to occasional sentences whose meaning is open to misinterpretation.

Let me take one more chance nine years later to apologize again, and to say that, in retrospect, my vitriol for the academic left should not have veered into that territory, and I am ashamed I went there. But also to clarify some myths about it: I was not describing half the country (really, truly), and I was not describing opponents of the Iraq war (that was way in the future).

My better angel at the time wrote this piece, "This Is A Religious War." It represents my real thinking more accurately than that disgraceful, sloppy sentence, and I hope it helps balance out the offense.