When I came to finally read Berman's book in 2005, I found most of its ideas already familiar to me. After briefly heralding my own genius, it became apparent to me there is a more likely explanation: since this book was published in 2003 its ideas have become widely disseminated through the media and other literature. This book had a big impact, mainly because it helped to explain a fact that puzzled and frightened many Western observers - why those marching jihadists looked and sounded so much like Nazis and Bolsheviks.
That's the "Terror" part; but what about the "Liberalism" part? I found most fascinating Berman's look at how the left wing views terrorism. Not succumbing to the psychological need to protect his own against all criticism, he is nevertheless judicious and allows those he examines to retain their humanity. This is a courtesy that is becoming increasingly rare on both sides of the aisle, which is perhaps what makes such acts of self-reflection valuable in their insights. Berman penetrated to the heart of a problem that has plagued me since the planes hit those towers.
In another time and place I might have called myself a "liberal". Labels don't really matter, but they do inasmuch as we all understand a particular meaning and set of beliefs to be behind them. There was a time when this label might plausibly have meant someone who believed in using state power (which is the most effective world-historical implement) to expand the realm of the world that enjoys human rights, freedom and the rule of law. Liberals are hardly shy about the use of state power to make the world a better place, and nor am I. Under such a definition, liberals would staunchly oppose movements that run counter to this goal - Nazism, Communism, and religious fundamentalism.
Liberalism since World War II has an uneven record in opposing totalitarianism. Sometimes its adherents were ciphers, sometimes - and this is Berman's thesis - they just didn't understand what they were up against. Liberalism speaks with the language of human rights, justice and freedom, and then betrays its highest goals with its sympathies. We are left with a situation where, as Berman points out, the largest demonstration in the history of the human race had the stated goal of keeping Saddam Hussein in power. The exact goal may have been phrased differently ("No American troops in Iraq"), but this would have been the effect of the demands. If the ten million people who protested on February 15, 2003 had their way, Saddam would still be in power.1 He would still be killing, shooting at American planes protecting the Kurds and Marsh Arabs, and seeking weapons of mass destruction.
A liberalism I could get excited about would see Islamofascism and gag. It would look at the death camps of North Korea and see that here lies the real evil of the world. I am not suggesting that the left wing nowadays views these things with pleasure. Rather, they appear not to view them at all. They focus almost entirely on faulting civilization. North Korea carries out forced abortions with coat-hangers on women in death camps, and Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq pretend to offer men jobs so they can attract a crowd to blow up. But in America, the PATRIOT Act allows the FBI to view phone records after weeks of paperwork and judicial warrants. So there are abuses on both sides.
This all bears a strange similarity to how genocide has usually been viewed in the United States - indeed, how the current tragedy of Darfur is playing out. Liberals were often the most immune to this problem, in the past. Genocide is usually met with a mixture of scepticism, denial, and scapegoating. It is clear that what is happening in Darfur now is a catastrophic slaughter directed from Khartoum. A civil war requires two sides that are fighting - this is a civil massacre. Yet, we are told of abuses on both sides. During the genocide in the Balkans, it sometimes happened that a group of Bosniaks would get around the arms embargo and get hold of some light weapons. They would strike out ineffectually at their tormentors, and the myth of atrocities "on all sides" would be perpetuated.
Herein lies that common criticism of modern liberalism - that it "blames America first". Modern liberalism looks at suicide terrorism, and it blames the victims - Israel and America. The incidence of an event like the Beslan massacre is viewed as almost inevitable when it comes, and people profess not to be surprised with each escalation of barbarity. They nod sagely at incidents which surely deserve to be labelled pure evil (if we are to admit this term has any validity) and think they understand. They think they have a simple explanation.
The explanation is simply to lump blame on the victim. Here is where Berman is most illuminating. He notes that at the height of the second intifada, after Yasser Arafat sold his people out at Camp David, support for the Palestinians and demonization of Israel were both at their height. Arafat walked away from the table at Camp David, fashioned his olive branch into a spear and launched it at Israeli civilians. As the depravity of the Islamic factions reached new heights, condemnation of Israel followed to the same giddy summits. Such barbarism by the Palestinians surely had to be the fault of their oppressors, who soon found themselves compared to the apartheid regime in South Africa and Adolf Hitler.
Witness Jenin. There was no massacre at Jenin. Yet all Israel's critics wanted to talk about as the bombs exploded in Jerusalem was the "war crimes" at the Jenin refugee camp. Such make-believe atrocities were all that could possibly justify the actions of the Palestinian terrorists, and so fairy land had to be trawled for such stories. The supposed depravity of Israel was the only thing that justified the all too apparent depravity of the Palestinian terrorists. Under such logic, the victim had to be responsible for every new wound inflicted on him.
As Berman implies but never directly says, when one is unable to recognize the true nature of reality and causality, one is prone not only to ineffectualness, but also to injustice. When faced with a totalitarian evil, it can either be assumed that the movement is what it appears to be, or that it is caused by a greater evil still. The increased ferocity of our enemy's attacks inspires renewed denunciation of the wrong group. And the injustice of liberalism's view of terror lies not in condoning it (for it does not), but in spending far too much time faulting civilization and not nearly enough confronting barbarism. Such a standpoint is not likely to expand the realm of freedom in the world.
1. Incredibly, Moscow, a city of over ten million people (Europe's largest), managed to muster a protest of only 300 people. Here is a city with real things to worry about.