May 14, 2004

Going Wobbly?

I'm getting a decent amount of the 'you're going wobbly' strain of reader E-mails.

One E-mail, about something of a pre-9/11 epiphany about the perils of Islamic terrorism that took place at a Soho cafe--sparked some memories of my own.

A few months after 9/11, I was sitting down in Soho as well. I usually stayed in far east Soho/Nolita where I lived--avoiding the swarms of tourists clogging central Soho.

But that day found me having lunch with a good friend and his girlfriend in far West Soho (I think on Thompson). We were eating al fresco at an Italian with the outdoor tables closely clustered together (the premium on outdoor dining space in Manhattan was painfully apparent).

My buddy was one of those expat types who never wades north of 14th St and works in the film industry. He was subjecting me to the typical 'we trained UBL' speel and thus (wink wink), you kind of reap what you sow, right?

I cut him off a bit past mid-way in the rant and tried to inject some facts into the discussion. Yes we helped train some Afghan (and Arab/Central Asian) irregulars, in the midst of the Cold War, so as to stave off Soviet advances in Afghanistan. Yes, of course, some of those irregulars became further radicalized and provided manifold human capital for jihadists in far-flung spots like Bosnia, Chechnya and so on. Yes, provision of Stinger missiles and such might also have included some training in guerrilla tactics. Yes, just maybe, UBL himself may have benefited directly from all the CIA training, doling out of cash and Stingers, myriad Peshawar intrigues.

But, no, we didn't train UBL (or anyone else, for that matter) in urban terror tactics aimed at the mass slaughter of innocent civilians. No, we didn't train him to fuel up the jets and smash them into iconic skyscrapers smack dab in the center of the leading financial district of the world. No, we didn't instruct him to grin and have a hearty chuckle about the carnage--while expressing pleasant surprise that the Towers actually crumbled.

We moved on to new topics after my rant (would it be oxymoronic to call it a fact-based rant?). What I remember, however, is that a tall, blonde woman approached me after she finished her lunch at the neighboring table. Standing in front of our table, she openly thanked me (rather effusively) for getting the facts out (she was obviously listening to our entire conversation).

We were perfect strangers. As the New Yorkers among you will appreciate--it can take a lot for New Yorkers to actually, er, talk to each other. Or evidence that their sensory antenna have actually gauged, in some fashion, your mere presence in their immediate physical radius.

But it was that kind of time in downtown. We had been, in turn, incredulous, deeply wounded, ferociously angry. But we were moving towards resoluteness, clarity, a desire for lucidity and facts during a time of crisis.

So no, in that vein and mood, don't tell me (even a good friend) that the U.S. created UBL. My B.S. detector would have to go off, big time, and given the events a few blocks to the south a couple months back, I simply didn't have the time for such claptrap.

Few sensible folks did.

Which leads me to the whole Abu Ghraib/Nick Berg going-ons. As I've written before, I don't see these events as linked (al-Q very much wants to world to see them so). But, inevitably, temperatures are rising in reaction to both events.

Many on the right of the blogosphere have gone through something of a flip-flop over the past week. Infuriated by the FUBAR situation at Abu Ghraib--we expressed our outrage and spent time grappling with various questions: a) how the hell did this happen? b) should Rummy go? c) should the jail be destroyed?

Then some beast-like coward of a man sawed-off the head of an innocent civilian in a scene straight from the 11th Century. People, with mixed feelings and queasy stomachs, forced themselves to watch the video clip on-line. And they were, of course, really, really disturbed.

But here is the key difference between Nick Berg's slaughter and Abu Ghraib. We should only be surprised about the occurence of the latter, not the former.

Why? The nature of our enemy has been crystal-clear since 9/11. Their objective is simply to slaughter as many innocents in the West as possible. And the more terrifyingly excecuted the slaughters--the better.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has, despite all the derision that such statements evoke among the predictable quarters of the absurdist, hyper-relativistic Left, been an avatar of human rights for many long decades.

Put differently, we are more the country of the Statue of Liberty, Miranda, and the Declaration of Independence than the country of My Lai, Plessy, Abu Ghraib.

We intend, and strive, for greater justice.

Yes, an errant cruise missile that smashes into the wrong target in a Baghdad neighborhood, all told, will look just as damn ugly (hell, even worse) as Nick Berg's beheading.

But we strive to avoid said outcomes. We strive for a better compact for humanity--domestically and abroad. Contra such efforts, who doubts al-Qaeda and affiliates wouldn't vaporize Manhattan or the City of London the moment they could?

Bush and Blair, of course, get this. I'm not so sure the center-left really does. I've yet to convicingly hear from Kerry, for instance, that he really gets the perils presented by the nexus of WMD, failed or terror states, transnational terror groups.

Listen, we can all quibble with the Coalition's often (though certainly not always) piss-poor handling of post-war Iraq. We can criticize other Bush missteps in the war on terror (too cozy with Sharon, public diplomacy shortcomings).

But, at least, we have been apprised of the key dangers of the 21st Century and have cobbled together a robust foreign policy doctrine to combat said threats. To be sure, the doctrine will need tweaks and better implementation. But we are, at least, reacting to events--not slumbering through gathering storms as during the Clinton years.

At some level, I suspect that Bush understands, to paraphrase Dostoevsky, that humanity has always been equally torn between instincts for self-preservation and instincts for self-destruction.

Partly as a reaction to this reality, he has decided to seek a greater security umbrella in the perilous Middle East region (to better the chances that the self-preservationist instinct prevails).

Bush has gambled in a big, strong way. If he loses, if Iraq degenerates into a failed state, a state wracked by civil war, a radical theocracy of some sort--we will all lose. Even serious people in gauchiste quarters of Paris and Berlin get this. The stakes are high indeed.

So yes, let's get on top of the Abu Ghraib scandal as I've extensively blogged. But let's also keep the larger context of these perilous times in mind too. An event that will make 9/11 look de minimis is being actively plotted (or at least dreamed about) daily.

We must forge an intelligent way to prevent said terrorists from obtaining the means to carry out such attacks--while pursuing intelligent policies that reduce the pool of individuals ready to engage in such wanton carnage (see conflict resolution in Israel-Palestine, robust punitive measure against those found to be responsible for the horrors of Abu Ghraib, more effective public diplomacy with the Arab world, economic reforms through the region, and so on).

So, am I going wobbly? No, I'm not.

I simply demand higher standards of conduct from my country and its leaders than those we expect from our enemies.

You should too--in spades.

Posted by Gregory at May 14, 2004 03:23 AM
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