On Sept. 12, 1939, John Colville, a junior secretary in the British Foreign Office, wrote in his diary that there was “a feeling of autumn in the air.” World War II was less than two weeks old. “It was unpleasantly chilly as I sat on the balcony in my dressing-gown reading in the papers that the British Expeditionary Force had landed in France. It is as if one of those war films was being acted again in real life, only one misses the secure feeling of sitting in a comfortable armchair at the Curzon Cinema.”
And now, just as World Trade Center hits the cinema, we are hit with news of the British Muslim terror plot. If you don’t like the headlines, wait five years; the old ones will come back.
I wonder if anyone is really surprised. Flustered, yes, and vexed at having to check toothpaste through in the suitcase. But we knew that Al Qaeda was considering explosive gels 11 years ago, in its aborted plot to blow up a dozen American airliners over the Pacific. That was before Israel invaded Lebanon; before we invaded Iraq or Afghanistan; before 9/11. Our friends are always thinking of us. We are under jihadist eyes the moment we are born; everything that follows in our lives is gilding on our reprobate nature.
The jihadist who wants to kill you may be there on the sidewalk. Madrassas churn out filth in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Indonesia, but their extension courses churn it out in Hamburg and London and Brooklyn. We were all shocked by France’s time of troubles last fall, but is France the worst off? The most alienated French Muslims burned a few thousand cars; the most alienated British Muslims wanted to burn a few thousand people. Tony Blair, heroic though he is beyond the three-mile limit, presides over an enemy base camp in his own country. Yet Mr. Blair is not wholly responsible for Londonistan. Millions of Muslims in the West feel temptation and repulsion like an alternating current in the filament of their lives; for some percentage, the ideal balm will be murder.
No need to fill the papers with shark attacks this summer; the news goes on. Israel lost a war. For a country the size of New Jersey, this is a bad habit to fall into. No President, including Harry Truman, who first recognized the Jewish state, would have held the window of international diplomacy open as long as George W. Bush, who gave the Israelis a month to hammer Hezbollah. Nor was he the only sympathetic foreign leader. All sorts of unusual bedfellows, from Jacques Chirac to the Saudis, were sending semi-overt signals that they wished the Israelis well in their war on Hezbollah, or at least did not wish them the ill they usually do. Yet Israel came up short. Hezbollah, and its imitators, have learned that a few thousand rockets, fired from a few years’ worth of well-dug-in positions, can depopulate the equivalent of whole counties of their hated enemy. One hopes that heads will roll in the Knesset, and within the Israel Defense Forces. Meanwhile, the proposed United Nations ceasefire treats Hezbollah as a quasi-national entity. Morally, they might as well recognize the Crips, the Klan or the pirates of the Caribbean. But Hezbollah has the ultimate V.I.P.-room credential: victory.
There’s more. Behind all the clatter, Iran pushes ahead with its nuclear program. Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis examined the possible consequences in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month. Would “fear of mutual assured destruction restrain a nuclear-armed Iran from using such weapons against the U.S. or against Israel?” The late Ayatollah Khomeini, quoted in current Iranian schoolbooks, thought not. “We will stand against their whole world and will not cease until the annihilation of all them [i.e., the infidels]. Either we all become free, or we will go to the greater freedom which is martyrdom.” “In this context,” Lewis adds, “mutual assured destruction, the deterrent that worked so well during the Cold War, would have no meaning.” So can we look forward to a future in which the 12th imam calls up, from the bottom of his well, to the attentive Mr. Ahmadinejad, and tells him to lob the big one on Tel Aviv? On the troublesome Mr. Blair (hard luck for Londonistan, but the jihadists there would presumably share his appetite for martyrdom)? Or should he slip one to some eager gnomes who will give Oliver Stone his sequel?
The times call out for Ned Lamont. The Democratic Party of Connecticut, in a bit of political jujitsu, reached deep into Greenwich, home of George H.W. Bush, and found a rich man who makes him look like a trucker. It was Mr. Lamont who said on the campaign trail that “our nation is stronger when we work with our friends and negotiate with our enemies.” Roger the first, Ned. But don’t expect us to wait up while you have a few gin and tonics with Sheik Nasrallah.
Thank God Iraq is off the front pages, because the news isn’t any better there. It is definitely a bad patch, in the larger bad patch that will extend for the rest of our (one hopes, not curtailed) lives.
There is one thought to keep in mind, besides fortitude. It is the gloomsters’ day in the sun (or the shade), and rightly so, for the gloomy are generally right as to facts. But they are not entirely right as to men. Countries may clash, and even civilizations, but that does not mean we are in some fated Wagnerian “clash of civilizations,” as Samuel Huntington put it. Religions and cultures and countries have anfractuous knobs and limbs. But murders and wars also happen because specific people profit by them, gaining wealth or power or a better opinion of themselves. The tenets of Shiite Islam did not send rockets into Israel; Hezbollah and Syria and Iran, which subsidizes and controls the first two, did it for their own particular motives.
There is a corollary to this thought. George W. Bush may have said too much when he said, in his second inaugural, that “freedom is the permanent hope of mankind.” But it is one of the hopes. More precisely, men have three: They want to live; they want not to be oppressed; they want to be seen. These three hopes often war against each other (for example, men risk death to end tyranny or to make a figure in the world). As we go about the work of defending our own lives, we can’t forget, or cease cultivating, the possible support of people unlike us, whom we will never know.