THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
It's Everyone's War Now
Tonight it could be you"
— Paul Simon, Homeless
There is no friendly nation Americans love to hate more than France. Even as we travel to France for pleasure more than to almost any other European country, we mock their self-important love affair with their own culture, their fetish for their language, their vain habits of body and mind. Even when reminded that France was our only ally during America's struggle for independence from Great Britain — well, that was a long time ago. In the modern era we consider France a fickle ally, having opted out of NATO for many years under de Gaulle, and only intermittently siding with us in our struggles against various bad actors on the world stage. In the last decade we reduced ourselves to the undignified silliness of renaming our fried potatoes to express our displeasure with some French geopolitical decision or another. Without the slightest acknowledgement of irony, we regularly compare the French unfavorably with our most reliable ally, Britain, as an unenlightened parent might belittle one child by lauding the character and exploits of another. Does anyone even remember that the naming of "freedom fries" was prompted by French reluctance to participate in the invasion of Iraq, a decision now derided even by most Americans and for which our loyal friend Tony Blair became the most detested man in Britain?
And then, with the slaughter of innocents on a Friday evening, we were abruptly awakened from our self-indulgent revelry of disaffection. If we ever doubted who our true friends in the world really are, such doubts were instantaneously dispelled in a hail of jihadist gunfire in the streets of Paris. Any resistance to solidarity was shattered.
This was not entirely the case last winter, when the offices of Charlie Hebdo were attacked. We were also duly horrified by violence against those armed only with their pens, but ever so slightly uncomfortable about standing shoulder to shoulder with those whose exercise of free speech was less than entirely responsible. On one level, we cannot help but recognize that France is one of the few countries that takes its civil liberties as seriously as America does. But on another, the juvenile recklessness of Charlie Hebdo's subject matter does not appeal to the taste of most adults of either society. Even those who have no respect for religious piety or other objects of the satirist's scorn were nonetheless queasy about finding themselves on the same team as Charlie Hebdo's scruffy overgrown adolescent malcontents.
This was, of course, beside the point: when freedom of expression is under attack, we have a solemn obligation to defend it. Like it or not, when it comes to the the defense of liberty, we are all on same team. As The Economist stated bluntly in its first issue after the most recent Paris attacks, mainstream political leaders "have a duty to defend the values of a free society — if they wish to live in one."
But if only to comfort themselves, perhaps, some were inclined to see the cartoonists, though undeserving of their fate, as not entirely innocent, either. The coordinated attack on a kosher supermarket on that same bloody day last January was similarly open to extenuation: it was inarguably evil, but understandable that the jihadists would choose a Jewish target. We could tell ourselves that the terrorists were killing certain people for a reason, even if that reason was indefensible. The rest of us were comparatively safe.
The sheer randomness of last week's attacks has put paid to such nonsense. It is clear, once again, that every single one of us is a potential target of Islamic fascism, including Muslims. The victims in Paris who were eating dinner, enjoying a concert or attending a soccer match had no more or less in common with one another than the traders, raiders and waiters who went down with the World Trade Center in 2001. Who among the crowds sitting in cafés last Friday evening was "asking for it", except in the nihilistic fantasies of terrorist fanatics? As far as the terrorists are concerned, the mere fact that we live in a Western country and pay taxes to an infidel government is all the justification they need to kill us. We need not "do" anything to warrant their enmity. Indeed, the ISIS professionals who carried out the most recent Paris attacks, in their choice of venues, may have been trying to clarify a message that was muddled in the relatively clumsy Charlie Hebdo attacks: No one is safe. Even if you are a believer, you can never be pure enough, loyal enough, or vicious enough to satisfy the sadistic appetites of ideological despots.
The Paris attacks are a stark reminder of the necessity of standing with those who share our world view, no matter how distasteful we may find some of their positions or how much we may dislike their leaders of the moment. If we deign only to be with those who are perfect models of ourselves, whether seeking companions with whom to share a bottle of wine or comrades with whom to go to war, then we will always be alone.
This dark episode is also a reminder that geopolitics is never simple. Even close allies have divergent interests. Any good book about the relationship of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill during World War II will bear this out: the two staunchest allies one could possibly imagine were constantly exasperated with one another. They had different tactical approaches to the various theaters of war, different domestic political realities to contend with, and different strategic visions for the post-war order. Their advisors and generals seldom agreed about where to send soldiers and arms, where and when to attack, or even who should lead the fight. Their unity was honored more in the breach than in the observance.
One thing on which the British and Americans did agree was their disdain for General de Gaulle, who was far from the leader of the Free French that either side would have preferred to deal with. But they both tolerated him because they knew that, in the end, he shared their democratic instincts and visceral contempt for Nazism, and because they did not have a choice. We go to war with the allies we have, not the allies we wish we had. If that means fighting alongside France and Russia (not for the first time) then so be it.
It's time to put "French fries" back on the menu.
"A war between Christian and Christian was mild, prisoners were treated with humanity; but, warned His Excellency, a war between Muslim and Christian could be horrible."
— Envoy to the Sultan of Tripoli to John Adams, 1786, from John Adams by David McCullough
We have lived with the suggestion for so long now that we are engaged in a "clash of civilizations" between the Christian West and Muslim East that we are in serious danger of believing it. Worse, we are far too inclined to give the jihadists the apocalyptic struggle they desperately desire. There are indeed extremists whose world view is antithetical to our own, and many supposed moderates in the Middle East who are quick to explain away the actions of the worst among them with a knee-jerk condemnation of The Great Satan. You must understand, we are frequently told, how different our cultures are. Of course, they insist, we don't condone such violence, but we are just not like you. Besides, all of the problems in the Arab and Muslim worlds are at bottom the fault of the West.
First, we need not understand anything of the kind. Western powers are indeed responsible for drawing the boundaries of the modern Arab states (boundaries now proudly flouted by ISIS) and for propping up many a miserable Middle Eastern dictator. But it hardly need be said that many of the medieval tribal and religious customs that persist throughout the region predate even the Crusades of the late Middle Ages. Moreover, given the chaos that has resulted from deposing tyrants in Iraq, Syria and Libya, and the ongoing political turmoil in post-Arab Spring Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, our support for thuggish but pliant autocrats may in the historical view look like a brilliant strategy.
However, it also cannot be overlooked that millions of Arabs and Muslims yearn for the very political and social freedoms enjoyed in the West. Even as Islamic fanatics seek to impose their homicidal will on the rest of the world, many in their own midsts are clearly rooting for the other side. There are millions of Muslims living in the United States who have managed to reconcile their faith and heritage with living in a contemporary Western culture — as tens of millions of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia have done for the last century and a half. How quickly we forget that even being Catholic was once considered by many to be inimical to American values. What would America look like today without the German, Polish, Irish, Italian and Hispanic Catholics who have put their indelible stamp on our society? We would hardly recognize ourselves without them.
Even to many Americans, there are many aspects of our own civilization that are nothing to be proud of, let alone worth fighting a war to defend. The flip side of bold, innovative and self-confident is often crass, outlandish and arrogant. Which part of our civilization exactly are we defending when we imagine ourselves in conflict with another? The "Fanfare for the Common Man" part or the advertising jingle part? The Apple iPhone part or the toxic waste dumped in third-world countries part? The market shelves overflowing with food part or the employees who stock them on minimum wage and barely able to feed themselves part? The World Series part or the professional wrestling part? The Casablanca part or the free online pornography part? And which monolithic civilization of our imagining do we suppose we are in conflict with: The ISIS lunatic fringe part now governing swathes of Iraq and Syria or the refugees who are fleeing from them part? The wrapping of women in burkas part or the invention of algebra part? The destroyers of ancient monuments part or the builders of great cities part?
Even if violent jihadism represents a small minority of the world's Muslims, they nonetheless have enough tacit and illicit support from those who should know better to make life dangerous for the world at large. But that is not an argument for endless war, any more than the Paris attacks are an occasion for passivity. A clash of civilizations is precisely what the self-proclaimed caliph and his minions dream of in their sleep. They want nothing more than to live out the prophecy of a great conflagration between true believers and everyone else. We may have little choice but to destroy them, but we are fools to give credence to their apocalyptic fantasies.
"For every complex problem there's a simple solution, and it's wrong."
— H.L. Mencken
A few days after the attacks of September 11, 2011, an F-16 fighter jet roared over my house just as I was stepping out the door. It was a fearsome sight, its unprecedented appearance in domestic skies intended to reassure a populace shaken by fear. The jet might as well have shouted: no one should doubt the power and resolve of the United States. It was evidence that no one was strong enough to defeat us. As much damage as the terrorists could inflict, as many lives as they could take, they had not the power to invade us, or to bomb us incessantly from the air. The nation would be safe, if only we kept our wits about us.
But in the overwrought reaction to 9/11, now reawakened by the attacks in Paris, it was also abundantly clear that the only power great enough to destroy us was ourselves. And in the ill-conceived overreach of the Patriot Act and every other act of desperation in the ensuing years, it became obvious that we would not in fact keep our wits about us. We would turn to our military to solve problems that it was not built to solve, and remain oblivious for far too long to the growing reality that our military strength was also a weakness. It could do nothing to protect is from elusive lone terrorists. Its misapplication in foreign conflicts, while sometimes unavoidable, was also unavoidably a source of inspiration for even more such terrorists. We recognized rather too late that we face an extremely nuanced and difficult balancing act: how to project our power and protect our interests, without destroying in the process what makes them worth protecting in the first place.
We would not know that the last 15 years even happened, let alone that the nation made any strategic blunders, from the current crop of would-be Commanders-in-Chief. We are variously treated to simplistic solutions that vary from the idiotic to the shameful: "Bomb the shit out of them" (doing that already, thank you very much), "Send in the troops" (tried that in Iraq — how did that work out?), "Shut the borders" (that'll show 'em). It is the last one that is the most preposterous, mean-spirited and counterproductive. It is a natural impulse to want to strike back at one's enemies. But closing the escape route for desperate refugees, very few of whom qualify to enter the United States anyway? Perhaps it was inevitable, though, given the strong anti-immigrant strain that has been running through the conservative camp since the last election cycle. It is not the first time that politicians have attempted to tie immigration to terrorism (jihadists have been streaming over the border for years, don't you know?) but the first time in a long time that outright bigotry has been the policy of major candidates for the highest office in the land.
The appalling hypocrisy of a nation of immigrants now rushing to pull up the drawbridge can hardly be exaggerated. How many native Americans were called Bush, Rubio, Carson, Cruz or Trump? Even blue-bloods came here from somewhere else. What kind of customs and immigration control did the passengers on the Mayflower encounter when they landed on these shores? Well, the candidates of exclusion might say, they didn't need any: they were all devout Christians whose behavior was above reproach. Millions of dead Indians would beg to differ, if only they hadn't been systematically slaughtered and their few survivors herded into camps (a.k.a. reservations). Those who would create a religious litmus test for entry (Messrs. Bush and Cruz, so far) ought to be disqualified from office not only on moral grounds, but on the grounds of sheer idiocy. Mr. Trump has gone even further to favor closing mosques and establishing a "registry" of Muslims living in America, including, presumably, many citizens of long standing. It would be hard to invent strategies more perfectly designed to validate the most outrageous assertions of our enemies.
These paragons of Christian virtue and deep strategic thinking have apparently not noticed that nearly every incidence of mass murder in these United States of America in the last half century has been committed by white male Christians. Taken to the same conclusion drawn by some of the candidates, we ought to be planning the deportation not of 11 million illegal Hispanic residents, but of several hundred million descendants of white European settlers. Still worse, this is the one reaction Islamic fascists want to elicit more than any other, as it enables them to make the claim — plausibly — to their fellow Muslims that the West truly hates them. This potentially drives even more disaffected young Muslims into the welcoming arms of terrorists. Way to go.
The one great advantage in this fight that we have in America over our European allies is that we much more successfully integrate our minority populations into the American social fabric. Muslim immigrants are not isolated in ghettos and denied access to education and opportunities, the way they are in much of Europe. Most North African immigrants to France and Turkish immigrants to Germany will never feel entirely French or German, even after being legal residents or citizens for generations. By contrast, there are many well-established, prosperous middle-class communities of immigrants from the Middle East who identify as American. Steve Jobs, whose father was a Syrian immigrant, was a prime example. (Mr. Huckabee, another virtuous candidate, went so far as to suggest that the climate wouldn't be good for Syrian refugees, having apparently not noticed the millions of former Africans living in the northern parts of the United States who somehow learned to dress for the weather.) This is not to suggest by any means that Middle Easterners are not subject to the same forms of overt or subtle discrimination felt by other groups. But these are now the acts of individuals, no longer official state policy — at least not under the current government. But by clamoring to close the gates and denouncing the foreignness of these unruly hordes, we are not merely repeating the ignorant mistakes of the 19th century, we are handing a propaganda victory to the enemy on a silver platter.
The other insidious aspect of the anti-refugee backlash, which was enthusiastically endorsed by a majority in Congress who voted this week to make it even harder for Syrian victims of violence to gain entry, is its implicit racism. Our nation was built on the idea that it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from: anyone can become an American. This is so self-evident that it sounds clichéd just to say it, but the despicable rhetoric oozing from the mouths of Republican candidates in recent days makes it necessary to state the obvious. The zealots of ISIS and al Qaeda, ironically, accept fighters from anywhere. They apply a religious test to their followers, of course, but not, apparently, a racial, national or ethnic one. The American politicians who would apply a religious test to refugees, having already defamed millions of Spanish-speaking migrants as criminals (not only the notorious Mr. Trump, but all those who insist on referring to human beings as "illegals"), are more bigoted even than the deluded followers of Osama bin Laden and the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. No small feat.
November 23, 2015
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