Sixty-five years ago next month, the Oxford Union debated the following resolution: "That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country." The motion passed 275 votes to 153.
Winston Churchill called that a "disgusting symptom" that would breed "contempt"— not least in Germany, where Hitler was already making plans to wipe various European nations off the map. The Manchester Guardian disagreed, noting the mistakes British politicians had made in wars past and the hypocrisy they exhibited in the present.
The spirit of the Oxford Union lives on, not least on America's campuses. Professor Ward Churchill's characterization of the victims of the September 11, 2001, atrocity as "little Eichmanns" is only the most infamous example.
Here's a more recent more: after five Iranian swift boats threatened U.S. Navy vessels in the Straits of Hormuz, Juan Cole — a professor at the University of Michigan and former president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) — was quick to blame America first: "This episode is just about the most pitiful thing I have seen since Bush came to power, and believe me I've seen plenty," Cole wrote. "The Iranian Revolutionary Guards issued their own video and audio of the encounter, which shows a routine identity check. . . . The Iranian press is suspicious about the timing of the Pentagon videotape, noting that it was released just as Bush was heading to the Middle East to try to convince the Arab allies of the US to make common cause with Israel against Iran."
Hollywood moguls also have adopted the Oxford Union approach to national security, reheating Pogo's Big Idea of the 1970s: that we have met the enemy and he is us. Among recent propaganda flicks: Lions for Lambs (right-wing politicians selling an unpopular war), Rendition (CIA torturers and a sexy suicide bomber), Redacted (U.S. Marines raping and murdering children), and even The Good Shepherd, a film about the CIA's early years, featuring American secret agents letting loose locust plagues on Third World farmers and waterboarding an innocent man. Why would anyone fight for such a country?
But those of you who do — be warned: You may turn into homicidal maniacs! Last Sunday, the New York Times ran a front-page piece headlined "Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles." The story suggested that military service in Iraq and Afghanistan is transforming nice young men into crazed killing machines.
Just hours after the papers landed on doorsteps, the Powerline blog's John Hinderaker was asking why the Times had not bothered to compare the murder rate among veterans to the murder rate for young American men generally. Hinderaker and others crunched the numbers themselves and found the murder rate much higher for young men who stayed home. Columnist Ralph Peters estimates that recent war vets are about one-fifth as likely to be implicated in a homicide as the average 18- to 34-year-old man.
In what other hearts does the Oxford Union spirit dwell? A group of Muslim scholars recently wrote a letter to Christian leaders asserting the need for "peace and justice" between these two great religious communities. Good for them. But the Christian leaders responded with a letter asking "forgiveness" for Christian sins against Muslims "in the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the ‘war on terror')." Note the quotes around that last phrase. Note that the many sins committed by extremist Muslims against Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and moderate Muslims were not mentioned.
At the Oxford Union, there was, at least, respect for freedom of speech. In Canada, today, by contrast, Orwellian "human rights commissioners" are persecuting Mark Steyn, author of America Alone, for simply arguing that Western civilization is worth defending and for predicting that, if current trends continue, Europe will soon be Arab- and Islamic-dominated. Such ideas, Steyn's critics charge, "promote ill will" toward Muslims and must be punished.
Also summoned by government commissioners — commissars? — was Canadian publisher Ezra Levant, who dared to reprint Danish cartoons lampooning Islamist terrorism. Levant stood up to the Grand Inquisitors, saying: "We have a heritage of free speech that we inherited from Great Britain that goes back to the year 1215 and the Magna Carta. We have a heritage of eight hundred years of British common law protection for speech, augmented by 250 years of common law in Canada."
Yes, but there also is the tradition of the Oxford Union circa 1933. And right now it is not certain which tradition will prevail.
— Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.