Paranoia: Always in style | Main | All over but the shouting

July 20, 2006

Paranoia, part II

Posted by Phil on July 20, 2006 10:18 AM

I suppose that last post just sounds like a bunch of name-calling unless I point out that the Republicans' inflating and exploiting of their base's paranoia is all style, no substance. It's laughable to watch the president surround himself with "snowflake babies" and praise our nation's culture of life while tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis have died, and continue to daily, in a war we started and the chaos that has ensued. Sure, Saddam has blood on his hands--now we do, too. And for what?

We pulled out of Afghanistan too soon and now the Taliban are creeping back into control. Our mission in Iraq, such as it was, has failed in almost every particular--we keep catching bad guys, but nothing helps. We seem powerless to prevent its shattering into civil war and providing new jihadist campgrounds. And now we stand idly by while Israel, in her madness, bombs not just Hezbollah but all of Lebanon into anarchy, sending Lebanese refugees into Syria, of all places, from whose influence they just freed themselves.

Islamist terror keeps presenting us with fresh crimes from which to recoil. They're really, really bad people. Why is it so hard for America and Israel to maintain the moral high ground? Because the paranoid style demands revenge, aggression, overkill. We want to FEEL SAFE. We want to KILL DANGER. We've declared war on a tactic to conquer a feeling. The loss of one American embryo, one frozen, potential person (whose person-hood, in the vast majority of cases, will never be realized) is a moral crime, an affront to our decency. But the loss of tens of thousands of innocent, living human beings--"ours," "theirs"--in any action we call the War on Terror is acceptable collateral damage. We must defeat the Enemy, for he has made us AFRAID.

Whether any of it is working or not is beside the point; in fact, if it isn't working, it only reinforces the paranoia: There is still an enemy who lurks. At least we're doing something. At least we're showing resolve. At least we're supporting the troops by believing that the mission they were sent on is wise and just. To do otherwise would be to dishonor their sacrifice. We must honor the mission, and they must continue to die honorably--these fully realized human beings, killing and dying for our culture of life.

Here's where I make a few caveats about being a regular American myself, loving my wife, my kids, the street where I live--all that. Don't hate my country, mind you; don't want the terrorists to win. "Freedom Isn't Free" is a bumpersticker sentiment meant, as I take it, to be either a noble expression of willing sacrifice or an accusing finger pointed at cowards like me who won't go die in just any old war. To the extent that it makes a valid point, I'd express it like this: "Conflicts Have Costs."

Only a fool believes all conflicts are avoidable, or expects to win one without cost and sacrifice. The point is to use your resources wisely, effectively, and imaginatively. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. didn't utilize nonviolent confrontation because they were starry-eyed peaceniks who just didn't like violence. They were shrewd, tough pragmatists who chose the strategy they thought would win, and they did win[md]even though they themselves were killed. Conflicts have costs, and heroes and innocents die in equal measure. What matters is whether the just cause prevails.

What if Gandhi and King had chosen guerilla war or terrorism? Their causes would have been no less just, their bravery and sacrifice no less great--although all that would be arguable, because they would have lost. They would have lost to the stronger powers they fought; their costs would have been incurred for nothing; and they would have lost the moral high ground upon which all just victories are built. Their names would be infamous today, instead of revered.

Obviously it's a stretch it to find strategic parallels, but the point is this: We're in a conflict with Islamist terrorists. It will have costs. We need to win it. To win it, we need to reduce the number of Islamist terrorists, not drive more citizens into their ideology with ignorant brute force. For five years we've absorbed the costs of this conflict that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have chosen to incur. The idea that we're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here is, at least as it relates to Iraq, absurd on its face (we're creating them over there and probably ensuring that they'll attack us here)--but its basic premise has gone largely unquestioned: It is unthinkable that more innocent Americans should die in America, so we have chosen to incur our costs in this conflict in the form of dead soldiers on foreign ground--where they cause, either directly or by their presence, the deaths of innocent civilians. Which causes the all-consuming, eternally aggrieved hatred that terrorism feeds and thrives upon.

I believe our military approach to the war on terror is misguided and counterproductive. I don't think the evidence shows that we're even trying, particularly, to "defend the homeland." I believe our cause is just, but I don't believe our costs in this conflict are being wisely incurred, no matter how brave our soldiers or how honored their flag-draped coffins.

Although it is argued that our military approach has prevented another attack at home, I personally think that's due mostly to dumb luck and the fact that, although al Qaeda et al have some nasty sharp teeth, they're not the massive, pervasive threat they've been made out to be. If they could pull off another 9/11, they would; failing that, they'd rather have 9/11 be our last vivid memory of them. Even an attack that killed hundreds would fail as an event meant to reinforce their power.

That's not to say that they won't, eventually, kill hundreds or thousands again. The fact is that more innocent Americans are going to die in this conflict, both in and out of uniform. Nobody wants it--I don't want it--but conflicts have costs. It is simplistic, sentimental folly to say "Freedom Isn't Free" and believe that because American soldiers are dying, American lives and freedom are being defended. It feels right: we're at war, and in a war, soldiers fight and die. But the American military isn't fighting the war we're in, and most Americans don't have to think about the war the military is in. We've even gotten a tax cut! America has been happily walled off from whatever, if anything, is ennobling about war, about conflict in the name of a just cause. But look at Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Gaza, Lebanon. That's the war we're in, and who is doing most of the dying? Civilians. Our soldiers, through no fault of their own, aren't doing anything except damaging our cause. And dying. They're dying for our bumpersticker beliefs.

We need to stop our military adventuring and address Islamist terror in a hundred ways at once less dramatic and more effective--ways that the Bush/Cheney administration have humiliated, hampered, and hamstrung at every turn: intelligence, infiltration, diplomacy, law enforcement, human aid and human rights, domestic security, emergency response. In a different world, it's the way we would've handled it, if the party in power didn't think every function of government should be either eliminated, ignored, or handed over to private enterprise to make a profit on.

Is it naive to think this is any way to win a war on terror? I don't know. Isn't it naive to think that people--whole nations--won't hate us if our military destroys their homes and loved ones? Isn't it naive to think the way we've been doing it is working?

Sure it is. But the paranoid style loves a man in uniform.

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