Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner


Monday: We are living now in an age much like the one mentioned by Samuel Butler in the opening lines of Hudibras:

When civil dudgeon first grew high,
And men fell out they knew not why?
When hard words, jealousies, and fears,
Set folks together by the ears,
And made them fight, like mad or drunk,                       
For Dame Religion, as for punk.

Probably, most people know that religious passions are high. But many may not be aware of the forms they take among some of our less-than-perfectly-balanced neighbors. If you would like to know more you would do well to take a look at Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. The title itself is charged with irony. Genuine Christianity has nothing to do with nationalism. Yet a number of those who have loudly usurped the name of Christianity like to trumpet "Dominion Theology" as a way of carrying out the will of a God who, oddly, thinks just as they do. They claim to be convinced that God wants them to seize the power structure of the nation and, indeed, of all the significant organizations within it, in order to ride herd on the wayward impulses of those of us who haven't yet seen the light. This is nothing new and, as Ms. Goldberg is quick point out, doesn't at the moment pose a threat of a theocratic coup. But it does significantly alter who can exercise political influence and the general atmosphere of public life. I have been wont to say we have nothing to fear from the fundamentalist thrust. That may still be true. But perhaps the time has come to get just a little irritated.

Tuesday: The farce of calling Iraq a sovereign state was made evident yesterday by a statement from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Commenting on a raid carried out by American forces in Anbar Province, he said: "Reconciliation cannot go hand in hand with operations that violate the rights of citizens this way. This operation used weapons that are unreasonable to detain someone -- like using planes." This is the prime minister of a nation saying he did not know about and had no control over a military attack carried out in his own country. How that fits with sovereignty we'll leave to George Bush to explain. For the rest of us, it simply makes clearer the murderous chaos our government has created in Iraq.

Wednesday: We tend to get agitated -- or, at least, pretend to be agitated -- by conflicts like the one going on in Lebanon now. That's because it's not pleasant to see on our TV screens the bodies of children killed by bombs. Decency is outraged. Unfortunately, decency does not rule the world. Whatever is in control is not outraged at all.

Conflicts of this sort are not on a scale that's unsustainable. Israel could keep on killing a thousand of its neighbors and losing two hundred of its own citizens each month for the next fifty years and those who weren't killed would remain capable of pursuing life that, after a while, would come to seem normal. For that matter, the United States could experience an attack like the one of five years ago annually for fifty years running and if our own hysteria didn't paralyze us -- which in our case it might -- we could go along scarcely missing a beat. Violent death does not interfere markedly with the mechanisms of modern society, except right at the spot where it takes place.

One might argue that the psyche of nations couldn't stand the strain of the process, but he would have little evidence to prove his point. There is nothing in the nature of things to stop killing at the rate the so-called war on terror is now producing. If it is to be stopped, humanity must summon the will to stop it. And one of the interesting questions facing us is whether such a will can be brought into being. There is much to suggest at the moment that it cannot be. I hope that's not the case, but I can't be confident that it's not.

A good many nations of the world -- including our own -- select leaders who do not have it in them to work hard to find ways not to kill. In truth, a readiness to kill is seen in many places as a requisite of leadership. Anyone who would do all he or she could to avoid it would be called weak and unfit to head the council of a nation. Other inclinations support these tendencies. Those who carry out the killing decreed by the nation are said to be the finest members of society and are regularly praised more highly than those who find cures for diseases, or advance scientific knowledge, or teach others to use their minds well. Modern technology makes violent death ever more remote from the experience of those who launch wars. Most of the launchers live in air-conditioned palaces. Mr. Bush has not suffered a moment of physical annoyance for having set off the invasion of Iraq. By all accounts he lives comfortably and sleeps well.

If there are to be genuine efforts to stop international killing then the people who find killing distasteful must devise ways to confer power on men and women who share their views. Pious exclamations and crocodile tears are no substitute for leaders who are disgusted and sickened by killing. If we can't protect such people from the charge of weakness, we may as well prepare ourselves for another half-century of what we see today, with occasional surges to keep the TV ratings high.

Thursday: The toxic combination of arrogance, ignorance and intellectual sloth that is the Bush foreign policy is beginning to draw the scathing analysis it deserves. In this morning's Washington Post, Richard Holbrooke, one of our more astute diplomats, notes "the dangerous new anti-American coalitions" caused by the administration's actions and statements. The current blow-up in the Middle East has the potential to explode into a conflict far more extensive than the average American has contemplated. The price of playing on the world stage is paying attention to what's happening on every part of the platform. And paying attention has not lately been an American strength. You'll notice that the Kurdish region of Iraq seldom makes its way into American newspapers. It's not in flames at the moment, and conflagration seems to be the only thing that causes this administration sleepily to open its eyes. But the Kurdish determination to carve a nation out of parts of Turkey, Iraq and Iran doesn't abate simply because Americans can't be bothered to attend to it. And it is only one of the serious problems that need to be managed in the Middle East. It's an open question whether the U.S. political classes can shake themselves sufficiently awake to head off disaster. Right now, we see little evidence of minimal consciousness.

Friday: Newt Gingrich, in a response to Richard Holbrooke's op/ed piece in the Washington Post, declares that Holbrooke is wrong to call for more active negotiations in the Middle East. What we must do, says the former Speaker of the House, is defeat our enemies, among whom he places, prominently, Iran. It would be gratifying if Gingrich would tell us what he means by "defeat." But, of course, he will never do that because it would require clarity in his use of language. Gingrich is a flamboyant member of a gang of prophets who preach only to people who don't care what words mean. They thrill to the sound of certain proposals and, so, line up behind them. Defeating enemies sounds good, so let's do it. But how we're going to do it has to be left up to others. Followers of the prophets of meaninglessness are unlikely to get more specific than to suggest dropping a bomb somewhere. And asking what the consequences of that bomb are likely to be is a query beyond their imagination. It's a chicken and egg matter to wonder who comes first, false prophets or empty-minded mobs. But this we can be sure of: they go always together, and without one we wouldn't have the other.



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