Bin Laden = Ashcroft - December 18, 2001

Bin Laden = Ashcroft Just-retired New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis revealed that his "big conclusion" about life is that Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft both represent how "certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right." Lewis, whom the Times described as "the newspaper's most consistently liberal voice in recent years," equated the two men in an interview published on Sunday, the day after his final column ran. Lewis, a Times reporter for many years before becoming a columnist in the late 1960s, also expressed disappointment in the failure of socialism in Britain, but made clear he doesnt let reality get in the way of his utopian vision: "You know, the health service doesn't work. I'm still for it. But it doesn't work." The December 16 Week in Review section featured a parting interview with Lewis. The introduction: "At the age of 74, after 50 years at The New York Times, Anthony Lewis has retired. His last Op-Ed column appeared yesterday. Ethan Bronner, an editor at The Times, asked Mr. Lewis, the newspaper's most consistently liberal voice in recent years, to reflect on his career." Bronners first question: "What have been the large themes of your columns?"

Lewis replied: "I've dealt with concrete things, usually quite obsessively, because particular issues seem to be dominant in my mind: Vietnam, while that was going on, South African apartheid, and then the Middle East." Bronners second question: "Have you drawn any big conclusion?"

Lewis answered: "Maybe it's a twin conclusion. One is that certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft. And secondly that for this country at least, given the kind of obstreperous, populous, diverse country we are, law is the absolute essential. And when governments short-cut the law, it's extremely dangerous." As James Taranto suggested in his "Best of the Web"

column on Monday

(), "imagine if a right-wing commentator had similarly likened Ashcroft's predecessor, Janet Reno, with, say, Stalin." A bit later, readers came across this exchange. Question: "Have you changed your view on socialism?" Lewis maintained: "I can remember when the Labor government was elected in 1945 in Britain. It was one of those defining events. I was coming out of a lecture hall at Harvard. There were still a lot of troops abroad and all that. The election was announced and it was a Labor landslide, which was an extraordinary surprise. And here was a headline on a newspaper that somebody was hawking outside this lecture hall. And I thought, Well, this is great. Socialism is really going to have a chance. Democratic socialism is going to have a chance. Well it just turned out to be more difficult and the resources weren't there. You know, the health service doesn't work. I'm still for it. But it doesn't work." A great illustration of the cliche of living in an ivory tower.

In his December 15 column, his final one, Lewis also equated Islamic and Christian fundamentalism: "No one can miss the reality of that challenge after Sept. 11. Islamic fundamentalism, rejecting the rational processes of modernity, menaces the peace and security of many societies. But the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism is not to be found in Islam alone. Fundamentalist Christians in America, believing that the Bible's story of creation is the literal truth, question not only Darwin but the scientific method that has made contemporary civilization possible." OpinionJournal.coms Taranto commented: "Now, we have no brief for Christian fundamentalism, but give us a break. There's a world of difference between hijacking airplanes, destroying skyscrapers and murdering thousands on the one hand, and questioning Darwin on the other. (Besides, to question is the essence of the scientific method.)"