Michael Moore’s political commercial-avoiding hard, but necessary questions

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“Fahrenheit 9/11.” Much has been written by others suggesting that the film lacks a serious commitment to truth. In my opinion, Mr. Moore’s film does seem more campaign ad than documentary-the statements made may be nominally true, but are so shorn of nuance or context as to be false. The remarkable thing about “F9/11” is that people are actually paying money to see this extended political fulmination, when many use TiVO or like device at home to avoid similar fare altogether.

Of course, just as I expected this film to be largely distortion, those of you who know that I served as constitutional legal counsel to Presidents Reagan and Bush (the elder) no doubt expected me to say just this. So rather than detailing all the areas where Moore has been shown by others to be factually or contextually challenged, let me say the nicest thing I can about the film: It prompts thought about the war on terror.

Other reviewers have found Moore’s movie to be incoherent on the war. Superficially, Moore postures like a pacifist, but insofar as the film affirms the intervention into Afghanistan to oust the repressive Taliban regime, the ultimate criticism he levies is with the strategic decision to engage in multiple theaters of the war, not with the need for war itself. Moore, in short, is angry with President Bush for concluding that Iraq is a central piece of the response to the war on terror, which, to put it most politely, Moore believes is mistaken. Of course, Moore also proclaims that Iraq never murdered an American, which overlooks that Saddam Hussein boasted of rewarding the families of successful Islamic terrorists, killed Americans in the Gulf War and tried to assassinate the former President Bush.

Nevertheless, putting Moore’s casuistry to one side, he suggests a legitimate line of inquiry especially since-subsequent to the intervention-commission and another study have found that: (1) while the “collaborative” linkages between Iraq and Al Qaeda are substantial, they are by the light of the best available intelligence (which we now know was less than adequate for any president) unrelated to 9/11; (2) the weapons of mass destruction that caused the U.N. and both the Clinton and Bush administrations such considerable and understandable anxiety have yet to be located and (3) each day the gruesome perils associated with this volatile country have to be accounted for, no matter how significant to us and the Iraqi people the removal of a genocidal tyrant may be in the long-term.

Moore doesn’t really deal with any of these concerns, however. Perhaps it is because he has no case here. Bush made a reasoned judgment given what was then known. The intervention in Iraq was never portrayed by President Bush as strictly 9/11 or weapons of mass destruction related. Instead, the justifications were an admixture of the security and humanitarian considerations that have been the hallmark of previous foreign policy decision-making by a number of presidents. As Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens has observed, “If Michael Moore had had his way, Slobodan Milozevic would still be the big man in a starved and tyrannical Serbia. Bosnia and Kosovo would have been cleansed and annexed, Afghanistan would still be under Taliban rule and Kuwait would have remained part of Iraq. And Iraq itself would still be the personal property of a psycho-pathetic crime family, bargaining covertly with the slave state of North Korea for WMD.”

Eliminate the bobs and weaves and a whole lot of rank nonsense about the business relations of the Bush family and the bin Ladens (other than Osama), and Moore’s complaint-besides the fact that Vice-President Gore lost-is that we are fighting the war on terror unsuccessfully by devoting too many resources to the wrong venue. Again, an arguable matter, and one that all citizens have a right to raise, even if the Joint Chiefs seem a rather better source for guidance than a filmmaker with a penchant for bombast. Note, however, that Moore’s case is far different than whether we should have gone to war at all. Thoughtful religious people, such as Our Lady of Malibu’s Monsignor John Sheridan, building on the work of John Paul II, argue well that war is not the answer in a world where we are instructed to love our neighbor as ourselves.

While Moore’s movie provokes deeper thought, its ad hominem method cannot carry anything close to the profound challenge posed by the monsignor and the Holy Father. Moore’s denunciations are not those made out of love, but disrespect of neighbor. He nominally praises the enlisted men and women of the military while belittling them as ignorant, abusive or worse. He shamefully patronizes a mother’s pride in her children’s military service and then manipulates her pain at the loss of her son in battle. And while this multimillionaire denizen of Manhattan puts the less advantaged front and center, he far too often invites the audience merely to snicker behind their backs. His hatred for President Bush is palpable and is made manifest through countless high school level film techniques from liberally employing television outtakes to a mean-spirited use of Mr. Bush’s less than perfect syntax.

As one leaves the theater, the emptiness felt is in direct relation to the difficulty of the questions elided by Moore. Here are a few:

1. Why did the radical Islamic world before 9/11 declare war on America?

2. Was America singled out for attack only because of its physical presence in the Middle East since the Gulf War, or also because of its cultural influence?

3. Was America targeted because of its steadfast support of Israel such that anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism are now one?

4. How much of the Islamic hatred toward America is dependent upon a false impression? The 9/11 commission recently referred to this as a “struggle of ideas” made necessary by what the commission described as “cartoonish stereotypes … fashionable among intellectuals who caricature U.S. values and policies.” Do these stereotypes include the violence-crazed, sexually addicted images exported for great revenue by Mr. Moore’s friends in the entertainment industry?

5. Having had thousands of American civilians slaughtered on 9/11 contrary to every international norm and law of war (which Moore chooses to show largely by blank screen), why has the world community been so reluctant to join us in a proportional, yet determined response to Islamic terrorism? If France and Germany, for example, think Iraq is not a necessary part of the puzzle, what is? And exactly what part of the burden of countering Islamic terrorism will the French and Germans or other G-8 nations be willing to bear?

6. Is there a realistic way to achieve peace-the kind of peace spoken of by Augustine and Aquinas-as not the mere absence of war, but of the tranquility of order under law respectful of human dignity, without further military engagement?

7. How are we preparing to support our own rule of law in the face of a biochemical or nuclear terror attack potentially involving not thousands, but millions of civilian casualties, exempting no region or family in the United States?

The First Amendment rightly shelters Moore’s pointed, if sometimes pointless, antagonisms. Yet, as Walter Lippmann taught, there cannot be freedom without responsibility. Unfortunately, “Fahrenheit 9/11” shows little evidence of giving responsible thought to the consequences of unfairly demeaning one’s own nation before a worldwide audience during a time of war.

Douglas Kmiec is the Caruso Chair and Professor of Constitutional Law at Pepperdine University.