The professor narrowed his eyes, leaned back in his chair and yawned.
"You don't really believe that do you?"
I stared back perplexed.
"That there is really some terrorist conspiracy poised against the United States."
There was a short silence. I took a deep breath, not sure if he was serious. But when I looked in his eyes, I detected no trace of humor.
"Well, the events of Sept. 11 would certainly seem to point to it."
He suddenly sat forward, his face growing flushed.
"Come on, Mr. Davis," he said with an edge now in his voice. "You should know better. You're a journalist. That neocon crap is just as easily disproved as Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It's clear fabrication -- used by Bush and his cronies to justify an unjustifiable war. Better to check the terrorism coming out of Washington before looking elsewhere."
I had to do a double take to remember where I was sitting and to whom I was speaking. Was this Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein or some other fringe American intellectual of the far left? Was I in Northern California or Vermont, where such pabulum passes as standard rhetoric?
No. I was in America's intellectual heartland, Harvard University. And I was addressing one of the most noted political scientists in the country.
After a year at Harvard University, I have come to understand that the professor's world view represents far more mainstream opinion in the intellectual community than I had ever imagined. For many of the professors, students and general community leaders in this high-brow enclave, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, are a distant memory -- the stuff of nightmare perhaps but something more akin to a natural disaster than a deliberate and unprovoked attack on the United States.
Gone is any outrage against the Muslim extremists who perpetrated the atrocities of that day. Absent is any sense in which America is at war with a pitiless force pledged to the elimination of democracy and its replacement with a totalitarian system based on religious law.
Instead, the wrath of the Cambridge liberal community is taken out against the American president himself. George W. Bush, whose election is universally regarded in these circles as tainted and illegitimate, has emerged as the personification of deceit and the cause of world turmoil.
It is not unusual in such elite society to hear Bush described as Adolf Hitler reincarnate; the United States under the Bush administration as an imperialist, racist, capitalist pariah, or that Bush is needlessly spilling American blood for the sake of Middle East oil. In addition to his bungling of American foreign policy, he is saddled with the responsibility for the melting of the polar ice caps, for the human rights violations of prisoners of war in Cuba and Iraq, the despoliation of the world's rain forests and the exploitation of child labor in Southeast Asia.
In short, it is Bush and the policies of his imperialistic thugs who revolve the spindle on the axis of evil, not Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein or any of the more nefarious leaders of the Third World.
There was once hope that Harvard would change its orientation under a more open and even-handed administration. But even the installation of the former secretary of the Treasury, Lawrence Summers, as Harvard president, has had little impact on the status quo. While Summers pledged to shake up the university, there has been no significant shift in hiring practices or in the selection of professors for tenure.
In most departments, liberal orthodoxy reigns virtually unchallenged, and in the department of government, only three professors out of 60 could be identified as conservative. When I suggested to one conservative Harvard professor that she must, because of her political views, endure great conflict with her colleagues, she looked at me glumly and could only answer, " I wish I did have conflict. Unfortunately, nobody talks to me."
How is it possible that during a military conflict, catalyzed by the most violent attack against America since Pearl Harbor, there could be such unparalleled denigration of a sitting U.S. president among academics?
While all previous wartime presidents had their detractors, none of them -- including Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- endured such a level of disparagement amounting to a characterization as fascist. The vilification of Bush among academics surely transcends normal election year politics and adds new understanding to the term "ivory tower detachment."
Part of the answer is that for many, America's adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq are not perceived as a response to a real military threat. In this regard, both Iraq and Afghanistan are not real wars but punitive missions, representing failure, much like Gen. John F. Pershing's fruitless invasion of Mexico in 1916 or America's involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s.
Then, as now, the invasion of another country, albeit on much smaller scales, was derided as folly that threatened the peaceable reputations of sitting presidents -- one who campaigned in an election year on the platform that his diplomacy had kept his country out of the World War I, and the other who had built a name as a humanitarian by pioneering legislation in civil rights and social welfare.
More than likely, the academic antipathy to Bush stems from an inability to appreciate that the rules of war have changed. Invisible enemies who operate in small, isolated units; who can plot and execute a major military assault against a superpower from a cave; who rely on highly sophisticated technologies to communicate commands to underlings; who are capable of marshaling vast financial resources to procure nuclear weaponry, and who are driven not as much by ideology as "martyrology" is a form of military conduct still largely unrecognized by academia in this century.
Seen in this light, liberal academics mistake as anomalies the events of Sept. 11 and the dozens of other major terrorist attacks around the world since then. They are unable to connect the dots between these events, because the pattern of attack does not conform to a standard military campaign, nor does it represent a serious injury to a seemingly impregnable political system.
Liberal academics, because of their grounding in the dialectics of the Cold War, are not yet capable of viewing the power of terrorist organizations in the 21st century to threaten democracy, because there is no precedent for either its success in toppling elected governments or of achieving significant military objectives.
But the result of the Spanish general election in April provides an important warning. It should make clear that the terrorist menace is no longer restricted to performances of mere political theater but is also now geared toward acts of direct political intervention. Under these circumstances, the threat to Western Civilization is as real as fascism's was to the democracies of the 1930s.
We can now ruefully reflect on the tragic ill preparedness of the Free World to Hitler's designs in the 1930s. Academics and intellectuals in Europe and elsewhere largely stood on the sidelines as the Nazi threat swelled.
No one should pretend that the terrorist menace, if excused and ignored by this country's intellectuals, could not have the same devastating consequences for the United States and its allies in the future. Portraying the American president or any other American leader as a terrorist may provide cartoonists and columnists with spiteful ammunition to hurl at conservatives. But in the end, it only serves to deflect attention from the real battle and lends support to a source of evil that threatens us all.