So, here we are in the middle of one of those big online debates. They never end; no one ever “wins,” because both sides are right, and (rightly) aware of their rightness, and unwilling (or unable) to transcend the frame of reference that is the necessary underpinning of their rightness. A few (a very few) are willing to actually listen to the other side, raising the possibility of a synthesis that one day might lead beyond the current stalemate, but too much of the discussion is just angry, sarcastic, or dryly snarky denunciations, knocking down strawmen created by inverting all the known-to-be-right positions of one’s own side and attributing them to the other.
Consider the following two essays which, in combination, have thoroughly depressed me the last few days. First up, from ex-Israeli military man, novelist, and far-right commentator Mark Helprin: War in the absense of strategic clarity. This is probably the most dressed-up version I’ve seen of the argument, presented repeatedly since 9/11, that we are, in fact, at war with the whole of the world’s Arab population, or the whole of its Muslim population, or both. It is the argument that says the ties between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 are self-evident in the Arabic ethnicities and Islamic belief of the dead hijackers.
Of course, this glosses over the all-important step where the boundary between us and them was drawn. We could also observe, after all, that all the hijackers were dark-haired, or male, or human, or mammals, and blame that group for the attacks. But those boundaries would include too many whom we know, from personal experience, to be innocent. Drawing the boundary in such a way as to group only Arab (or Muslim) innocents within our retaliation’s blast radius works better. We can indulge our sense of rage, and the darker fear that underlies it, with relative impunity, entertaining various brutal fantasies for how we will even the score with them. Like Ann Coulter’s call to invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. Or Rich Lowry’s musing that nuking Mecca (in response to a hypothetical terrorist dirty bomb detonated on US soil) would send a strong message, and would kill few people, though perhaps the more moderate strategy of nuking Baghdad and Tehran, and maybe Gaza City and Ramallah, and maybe Damascus, Cairo, Algiers, Tripoli and Riyadh, would be preferable. Or Helprin himself, who comments wistfully in his essay about the ability of the United States to “almost instantly turn every Arab capital into molten glass.”
In response to Helprin’s essay, Lee Harris of Tech Central Station offers the following: War and wishful thinking. Harris points out that the mere desire, even the very, very, strong desire, to go to war in response to the events of 9/11, does not, in and of itself, mean that a suitable target for such a war actually exists.
Harris makes a bunch of other observations about the nature of war, some of which I disagree with, but his conclusion is worth quoting:
Everything about the present crisis is new. Historical analogy drawn from the period prior to 9/11 more often misleads than illuminates. We are in a brave new world, and the sooner we recognize the unreliability of all our prior categories and metaphors to guide us, the sooner we will free ourselves from the wishful thinking that is perhaps an even greater threat to our survival than the terrorists themselves.
I think Harris has a point, but I think that ultimately, he’s as bound up in his own frame of reference as Helprin is. And that, sadly, isn’t anything new at all.
When nuclear weapons entered the world’s military arsenals, humanity did a collective double take and said, “Whoa. We’ve got to re-think this whole war thing.” We still do. And while my own views (obviously) fall much closer to Harris’ side in this debate than Helprin’s, I think the debate itself is not particularly helpful in coming up with a solution.
So what is the solution? I don’t know. That’s why it’s depressing.