A moral crisis tends to go hand in hand with an identity crisis. It's when you don't know who you are that you're most likely to take refuge in a political or ethical identity that provides you with the comfort of a false sense of superiority. When all other identities fall apart, you can always rely on being the better man, the better nation and the empty space with the moral high ground.
In a time of crisis, nations and peoples have to choose to survive. But what is survival? Proponents of a values-based identity have argued that survival means the survival of our values. If we take Measure X against an enemy, whether it's outlawing the Communist Party or waterboarding Islamic terrorists, then we have "killed our values" and we are no longer Americans. It doesn't matter then whether an act saves millions of American lives, if it means we destroy our values, then we have killed the only worthwhile thing about us.
Physical identity and values-based identity are in conflict in a time of crisis when the question is asked, do we want to survive or do we want to be morally pure. A values-based identity appears to be superior, but it is actually the product of an identity crisis. And a nation or a people with an identity crisis is vulnerable because they no longer know who they are. Their identity has been replaced with an identity based on their superior values, values that require them to die rather than give up those values. And if they have forgotten who they are, then they are too afraid to risk their values-based identity by fighting back.
The problem is not a unique one. For example, Jewish assimilation dropped the 'peoplehood' aspect leaving behind a values-based identity. When liberal Jews express their identity, it is values-based, built around "Tikkun Olam", or "Social Justice". That opens up a hole for someone like Peter Beinart to crawl in with a crisis of Liberal Zionism, a conflict between values-based identity and Jewish survival.
Would you rather live as Jews or die as liberals? The determining factor here is whether you have a Jewish identity. Without a Jewish identity, there is only the posturing of values-based identity, and giving up the high "ethics" of bending over backward for the bad guys seems a lot like the death of the only identity such miserable people have. If all that matters about Jews is their "ethical values", then to step down from the moral high ground by bombing a terrorist stronghold is suicide.
The first question is; "Who are you?" That's a question that is asked to individuals and to nations. It's asked directly in the form of a national dialogue, and it's asked indirectly in the choices that are made in a time of crisis.
The second question is; "What do you live for?" The answer to this question is determined by the first question. What we live for derives from who we are. Self-knowledge gives purpose, and purpose gives self-knowledge. A lack of identity is also a lack of purpose. And a lack of purpose betrays a lack of identity. A nation adrift has lost its identity; it lacks direction because it has no starting point.
A thing that does not exist for its own sake has no existence. It has no existence, because it is not survival-based. It is well and good to dedicate yourself to higher causes and beliefs, but if they do not begin with your own existence, then they have no more substance than you do. You can volunteer for a thousand causes, but if you don't care whether you live or die-- then you have nothing to contribute to them.
And yet how can you blame them? What else were they supposed to do?
America was under attack, but what is that thing called, "America"? Is it an actual physical place or is it an idea of free enterprise, democracy and universal tolerance? And who are the Americans? Is Anwar Al-Awlaki an American? Of course, he was born here and he has the right papers, doesn't he?
If Anwar Al-Awlaki is an American and the people who died on September
11 are Americans, then this is a conflict between Americans. And it can
only be settled by the legal system. To recognize an outside enemy, you
have to be able to delineate a border between the "outside" and the "inside", and you have to reach for a physical identity to describe what
belongs inside the organism and what belongs outside it. Otherwise, you
have nothing left but values and legalisms.
If we accept that definition, then the left is correct and this is just an internal conflict between Americans and other Americans, who are extremists, Resident Alien Americans, Undocumented Americans, and Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, who just don't know that they're Americans yet. If to be an American, all you need to do is be born here or happen to have the right papers, or believe in free enterprise, democracy and religious tolerance for Dhimmis, then this is truly a global American civil war within the body of the Pax Americana.
An identity crisis leads to a values-based identity, and a values-based identity leads to a compulsive need to spread that identity to others. Islam is an example of an extended identity crisis and a values-based identity. Its adherents resolve a conflict between their practice and values by projecting it onto the infidel Other and then kill themselves to destroy that Other. Liberals do the same thing. Only their choice of tactics and orientation is different.
An individual or a nation in the throes of a values-based identity crisis is a "zombie"; its identity requires it to feed on and infect others. It is wholly other-oriented, whether in a friendly or hostile way. It strives to fill the gaping hole inside its own being by infecting others with its ideology. It is always insecure because it does not know itself. It is suicidal because it has no reason to live. Its existence wholly derives from its ability to spread its own species of insanity as widely as possible. Since it lives for this purpose, it must also die for it. This is the meaning of a human disease.
The loss of identity is a frightening thing and it can happen in any number of ways. Sudden change, national transformation, catastrophic war, contact with superior outsiders, technological revolution and a thousand other things. It is seductively easy to turn to a simple verity, the meditative chant that says identity derives from some form of moral and ethical superiority. It's child's play to link this up to national exceptionalism, without considering that national exceptionalism has no meaning without national survival.
In times of crisis, repeating "We are the good people" over and over again is no defense. And even before a crisis, it invites attack. It is tantamount to a refusal to defend yourself and makes it absurdly easy for an enemy to turn your own values against you. It then becomes all too depressingly easy for a nation to conclude that it would rather die than violate the absurdly dainty standards it has set for itself as proof of its own superiority.
No nation or people can endure, founded on the belief in their own goodness, in their own ethics and their own superior values. Not only is this unforgivably arrogant and suicidal, but is a thing that has no existence. Physical identity is the heart of any group. When the group attempts to transcend its conflicts through a values-based identity, it either falls back onto physical identity or develops an identity crisis that eventually destroys it.