Manhattan’s Front Line: The Dinner Party

I should feel elated. The skinny, cave-dwelling polygamist is on the run, and our bombing campaign-which I supported-has temporarily prevailed. Instead, I feel a curious letdown. It’s reminiscent of situations where I’ve been at the bedside of deathly ill relatives, giving my all as they slid downhill, only to find, when they showed signs of recovery, a strange depression creeping over me. It has to do with being on the alert, caring about someone or something beyond yourself-a sense of dedication that might even give some inkling of the appeal of a rapturous, self-sacrificial jihad. As long as you’re involved in your “mission,” whether as caretaker or warrior, your adrenaline flows and you feel wholly and purposefully alive. When crisis mode is no longer required and that role is removed, our chemistry changes. We collapse.

And I’ve felt like I’ve been fighting on two fronts, in the murkily impenetrable landscape of Afghanistan and among the even grimmer liberal pessimists of Manhattan. At a dinner party a few weeks ago, when journalists were in full quagmire moan, the guest on my left, a venerable gentleman in the arts, raised his glass. “Here’s to peace,” he proposed, and all of the others feelingly echoed his toast. Almost all: When I said, “Here’s to victory,” and my husband seconded me, there was a resounding silence. Then voices rose in argument, the two of us very much outnumbered-but not outvoiced-by those who felt that even one Afghani death would discredit our bombing attack on the Taliban. Never mind that before the bombs, families were fleeing and thousands of children were dying of starvation under its rule; never mind that the point of such an assault, whatever its “collateral” damage, was ultimately to save and preserve a great many more lives; never mind that for three years now, mass e-mailings had been passionately protesting the treatment of women by the Taliban and calling for action (like what? Asking Congressmen or the U.N. Security Council to sit down with the mullahs’ consigliere to discuss education policy?)

This was before ground forces began moving in and children were allowed to fly kites for the first time. I know momentous problems lie in wait, not the least being the behavior of our allies, the Northern Alliance and the unpredictable Pashtun. But the destruction of the Twin Towers and the incineration of so many innocent victims signaled an irreconcilable conflict. It’s not the specific criticisms of American policy that I minded so much as the tone and emphasis, and the impulse of otherwise intelligent people to switch the subject from the lethal hostilities initiated by a criminal conspiracy to our mitigating guilt. Until 9/11, arguments around the dinner table tended toward mild differences among us blue-state types on such issues as Middle East policy and what to do about the settlements; unanimous outrage at the depredations of the Republican Party (Ashcroft, the religious right, the stimulus package; the administration’s conflict-of-interest with business, and especially the Big Oil interests) and the pathetic lack of resolve of the Democratic Party. But suddenly we were divided, and I found myself a once polite and deferential dinner guest turned angry patriot. People I thought of as friends began to send hate e-mail, like copies of Arundhati Roy’s venomous attack on the U.S.

When the subject of the war came up (and how could it not?), the knee-jerk protest went as follows: 1) yes, the Taliban is terrible, but this isn’t the right way to go about it (what is?) and we’ll never find Osama bin Laden (so we shouldn’t try?); 2) yes, the Taliban is terrible, but we’re just as bad in our own way, bullies that we are, unilateralists, etc., etc.

It was this theme and its multiple variants that drove me up a wall. Mr. bin Laden had taken comfort at finding a fifth column in our midst, fulfilling his hopes of undermining our morale by exposing our soft underbelly, our inability to accept death in the interest of a higher purpose. That we can’t say the words “higher purpose” without a secular smirk may in itself be the fatal weakness in our society.

I was reminded of George Orwell’s criticism of the British intelligentsia during World War II. He derided the “irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power.” He talked about the flabby pacifists of the left, the “emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality.”

As long as we blame every global uprising on U.S. “imperialism,” then we patronize other countries and ethnic groups by infantilizing them, removing their autonomy, depriving them of the right and obligation to criticize themselves.

Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis’ article in the Nov. 19 New Yorker should be required reading for every armchair pundit. An update of his prophetic 1990 article for The Atlantic Monthly about the age-old struggle between Islam and Christendom as it was then approaching its current phase, Mr. Lewis has shown how the fanatical war to recover a lost glory far transcends the specific issues and policies of individual countries. The Soviet Union was far more repressive of its Muslim populations, committing Islam’s cardinal sin of having infidels dominate true believers, but Russia simply held no attraction for the Muslim masses and was therefore never a target. What comes through in Mr. Lewis’ and every other knowledgeable account is how little we understand the forces arrayed against us, how compulsively we force our own liberal, a historical consciousness on the dark, implacable passions of the other side.

Yet not since Mao’s little red book has auto-critique been so fashionable. We can all sit around and thrash out the intricacies of the Koran, stand up and confess our impurities and addictions: to getting and spending, Western-style; to theater and movies, television and books and art and sophisticated drugs and high-tech medical treatment; to our more worldly religions and our veneration of rationalism. Maybe we could even trash a couple of Buddha statues as an acknowledgment of our culpability for carrying the treasures of other cultures to the safety of our museums.

To put ourselves in their shoes, our women could wear shawls and stay home say three days a week; our men could grow beards, pray five times a day and shave their armpits. And most importantly, whenever the conversation turns to Mr. bin Laden, we should revert to self-flagellation; we should stand in the corner and repeat, over and over again, “We’re the bad guys.” Not goodhearted empathetic us , of course, but our parents, the folks in the White House and the administration, the military and the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. For to many on the left, those daddy surrogates-not the Islamic extremists-are the real them . And the us is the smart, the hip, the intellectual, the peace-lovers with utopian yearnings and a sneaking admiration for cave-dwelling hair-shirt demagogues like Mr. bin Laden.

I’m uncomfortable with flag-waving and the down-home hayseed vernacular of our rhetorically challenged President, but I’d rather see knees jerk in the direction of jingoism than defeatism.