Choosing Between Strongholds and Sideshows

Every people has its characteristic traits, including characteristic vices. In the 19th century, when Americans were unpleasant, they were blowhards (see the American chapters in Martin Chuzzlewit , by Charles Dickens). These days, when we go wrong, we are laid-back psychobabblers, like the marvelous Marin parents of John Walker Lindh.

Osama bin Laden’s home movie showed the contemporary vices of the Middle East. There was an air–or better, an aroma–of dignity: the calm tones, the precise, almost effeminate hand gestures. These perfumed wrappings held the noxious content: the mutual admiration; the false modesty; the pious interjections; the dreams of blood. I had read it all, long before I heard it, in Rudyard Kipling’s short story, “The Undertakers.” Kipling’s tale is set in India, not Afghanistan, and its characters are animals–a mugger, or man-eating crocodile, and a jackal–not terrorists. But the mental atmosphere is the same.

“‘Auspiciously met, Protector of the Poor!’ [the Jackal] fawned …. ‘A delectable voice was heard, and we came in the hopes of sweet conversation. My tailless presumption, while waiting here, led me, indeed, to speak of thee. It is my hope that nothing was overheard.’

“Now the Jackal had spoken just to be listened to, for he knew that flattery was the best way of getting things to eat, and the Mugger knew that the Jackal had spoken for this end, and the Jackal knew that the Mugger knew, and the Mugger knew that the Jackal knew that the Mugger knew, and so they were all very contented together.”

Indulging in such dreamy colloquies is the easiest thing in the world. Killing people is harder. But both beat working–at making your country free and decent, for instance. So the Middle East finds itself in a grim loop. Nothing ever improves, which makes bloodthirsty daydreams and dreamy bloodshed all the more seductive, which guarantees that nothing will ever improve.

The tape seems to have changed few minds. Most Americans already wanted Mr. bin Laden to kiss their royal Irish arses. Some in the Middle East who doubted his culpability now grant it. But others argue that the tape is a forgery, and still others have already changed the subject, abandoning Mr. bin Laden as a loser and turning their attention back to terrorism in Israel, where death is always in season. This divided reaction also characterizes Americans of Middle Eastern origin. It is all depressing.

When the 9/11 attacks happened, Americans–mindful of the ill treatment that Germans and Japanese had gotten here during the world wars–went out of their way to see that there was no anti-Middle Eastern backlash now. Even on the conservative e-mail list that I belong to, there was a posting on Sept. 11 or 12 urging all wing-nuts to seek out Arab-American businesses and patronize them. I won’t be seeking out any Arab-American merchants, beyond the ones I normally deal with. I don’t favor punitive policies–no loyalty oaths, no internment camps; I am not, after all, a Middle Eastern ruler. I will simply exercise my right to abstain from rituals of brotherhood until more of my brothers-by-law behave like brothers indeed.

Where will the war go next year? Do we turn our attention to our major regional problems, Iraq and Saudi Arabia? We don’t know what role, if any, Iraq had in helping Al Qaeda. But we don’t doubt that Iraq is building chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and that Saddam Hussein bears us a powerful grudge. Saudi Arabia is officially a friend. But it is the home of Mr. bin Laden and many of his agents, and the patron of a worldwide network of anti-American mosques and madrasas. Or do we do concentrate on rolling up Al Qaeda’s assets worldwide? Fareed Zakaria made the case for this option in Newsweek , urging us to wipe out Al Qaeda outposts in the Philippines. Since we owned the Philippines once, we have a special obligation to help that country out.

It is the old choice between the frontal assault and the sideshow. The stronghold is the big prize–that’s why it’s so strongly held. Sideshows distract from the big push–but maybe they can uncover unexpected weak spots. Such debates marked the career of Winston Churchill. He was accused in both world wars of not wanting to come to grips in northern France and Flanders, where the main battle against Germany plainly was. So he pushed the Gallipoli invasion in World War I, and the invasion of Italy in World War II. Yet his great work of history–before his own World War II memoirs–was the biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, who was always begging his allies, and his masters in Parliament, to focus on the enemy’s heartland. If we opt for the big push, is the eerie near-bloodlessness of the Afghan war, in which Special Operations spotters call in daisy-cutter bombs, a portent of things to come, or a lull before the storm?

Weary problems; an awful world. Early this month, my wife and I went to Rockefeller Center. The crowds were maybe not as thick as in typical years, and each of the flags snapping around the skating rink was Old Glory. Apart from that, it was the traditional scene: Christmas in the city of business which, among all its other business, created–via Washington Irving, Clement Moore and Thomas Nast–so much of Christmas as we know it. My wife, who is not Christian, spoke with a catch in her throat: “They wanted to attack all this.”

They did, and they were wrong. Do we deserve all this? Value it enough? Practice its ideals as well as honor its forms? Work hard enough to protect it? We have the obligation, thanks to 9/11, of defending our country from active and potent enemies. We also have the opportunity to consider whether our days, which could end with the turn of an airplane or a spore of anthrax, are well and truly filled.