HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 30, 2007
From the Editor

John Turner


I hope all of you will take the chance to look at Samantha Powers’s essay in this past Sunday’s N.Y. Times Book Review titled “Our War on Terror.” It’s a review of four books about radical Islamic violence along with a scathing assessment of how the Bush administration has responded to it.

Ms. Powers’s main point is that we shouldn’t let the stupidity of the Bush response cause us to believe that terrorist attacks are not a problem. They need to be confronted, but intelligently, and not in the foolish, arrogant, myopic ways Bush has employed.

I agree with most of what Powers writes. But in one instance, when she chides author Talad Asad for failing to acknowledge the moral difference between suicide bombing and attacks carried out by U.S. warplanes, she, herself, needs to be challenged. Powers repeats the common refrain that American pilots try not to kill innocent people. Yet when one chooses to use weapons that, despite the most careful efforts, will kill civilians and have been shown consistently to kill large numbers of them, he can scarcely claim he’s innocent of those deaths. The United States doesn’t have to bomb Iraqi villages any more than Islamic militants have to walk into marketplaces with bombs strapped to their chests. In either case, the killers are choosing the methods they have available to advance their cause. And in both cases civilians are being slaughtered in equally horrendous ways. It requires ratiocination well beyond the practical to discover a major moral difference between them. Given the power of egotism to shade argument, we would do well to take a skeptical stance towards assertions of our own moral superiority.

Still, Power’s article is an effective effort to spell out where we stand in the war on terror and would, if it were attended to by policy makers, make us both more secure and better citizens of the world. Yet the most powerful -- and most discouraging -- element of her piece is the hint that features of the American character may prevent the choice of leaders with the intelligence to adopt reasonable policies.

During my visit in Chicago, I had the chance to see Proof, a film that came out two years ago starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins and Jake Gyllenhaal. It was particular evocative to see it here because it is set at the University of Chicago and draws strongly on the atmosphere of the university to create its drama. Also, the whole effect was heightened for me because I happened to be in Chicago to see my daughter defend her doctoral thesis in particle physics, perhaps one of the few subjects that can rival in abstruseness the mathematics that was an important element of the film.

Proof is a film version of a play by David Auburn about a famous professor of mathematics, who in his youth devised some of the most powerful demonstrations in modern mathematics, but who in his later years lapsed into madness and had to be cared for by his younger daughter, herself a mathematician of some promise. The plot turns on the question of whether the daughter has, herself, worked out the proof for a theorem which has baffled mathematicians down the ages. Yet, even though mathematics provides the background for the movie, its main concentration is on the human relations among the principal figures.

I remembered Proof to have had lukewarm reviews but, having seen it, I can’t understand why. I thought Ms. Paltrow’s performance was one of the finest I’ve seen in years, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Anthony Hopkins, though not quite up to what she achieved, were still thoroughly accomplished.

If you haven’t seen Proof, I advise you to take yourself to your video store and rent a copy.

Next week, I’ll be home again, and I’ll see if my familiar environment can offer me anything to write about.


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