In a War of Nerves, We Can’t Afford Panic

What is our state of mind? What is the enemy’s? How do these affect our prospects?

In Month 1 after the attack, almost everyone responded well: sad, united, angry. Month 2 hasn’t been so good, thanks to the anthrax scare.

The deaths we have suffered are grave, and since they were caused by weapons of mass destruction, they sanction any response that is necessary and just. But given what happened on Sept. 11, and what may happen in the future, we have panicked. Anthrax is a non-contagious disease that is cured by common antibiotics. Treating anthrax is closer to treating the flu than it is to treating many equally lethal and more common diseases. (What about cancer? What about AIDS?) Yet we have behaved as if the plague walked among us.

It would not be entirely fair to hammer the people who set us such a bad example: the TV anchors who showed too much emotion, the House leaders who adjourned their business, the Senate leaders who head-faked them into doing it so as to gain political advantages of their own. We are playing a new game, and it is still early enough that everyone can take a mulligan. But we have to learn from this episode the importance of mental readiness. The government and the medical system probably do have the capacity to save almost everyone’s life even if the bin Laden–ite murderers manage to spritz a rush hour with spores. But the psychological front was woefully unprotected. Few politicians, it turns out, are naturally cool. Mayor Giuliani, until he began meddling in the election, had cool in spades. President Bush, after a rocky start, acquired it. If Tommy Thompson and Tom Ridge can’t do better, then they will have to put Senator Bill Frist, a surgeon and a voice of calm, out front instead.

The jitters came from a delayed reaction to the horrors of Sept. 11; from the post-attack news hole (bombing runs and special-forces raids are not that compelling); from the bobbling on Capitol Hill and in the media. But the jitters also came from the fact that germ warfare is objectively scary, especially if you view it in the abstract. Six weeks ago, smallpox had vanished from the world. Now we read about its return in newspapers. Bummer!

We need to adjust our paradigms. Smallpox is coming back, with all its friends; live with it. There have been moments when I thought the remarkable Indian-summer weather of the last month and a half was sent to mock and torment us. But in fact, it is an invitation, if we will accept it, to live. The pious murderer sitting in his cave has affected our lives; he may even end them. But he does not control the weather. If we can see what kind of a day this is, then by definition it is a day in which he has failed of his objective. So enjoy it.

Mr. bin Laden probably did not win many friends in America with his last fireside chat. But the target of his propaganda assets-from the dervishes brandishing posters of him and Evil Bert at rallies, to the chickies reading his press releases on Al Jazeera-is opinion in the Muslim world.

Years ago, A.M. Rosenthal made a suggestion: an Arabic equivalent of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, broadcasting unfiltered information about oppression and corruption to the people of the Middle East. Such a network would have a lot to cover. It would have to be an arm’s-length operation, since it would often tell unpleasant truths about regimes with which we were, for the moment, dealing. On the other hand, our alliances of convenience have been the justification for treating so many regimes with kid gloves over the years, and look where that has gotten us: a worldwide terror network directed and funded by the Saudis, our supposed friends.

We are in a losing race with demography. The nations of the Muslim world are producing cohorts of young men which they are too dictatorial, too ideological or too corrupt to employ productively. The poverty and the social disorganization that produces it are the real causes of Muslim shame and wrath, more than American policies or Israel’s existence. If your country owned all the oil on the planet and still went broke, without having produced so much as a decent auto industry, wouldn’t your thoughts turn to jihad, assuming that self-examination was too painful?

That is a long-range problem. In the meantime, we should not forget two proven ways of influencing Muslim opinion. One, already mentioned by Nicholas von Hoffman, is bribery. Cultures and individuals motivated by honor-from Alcibiades to Coriolanus to Benedict Arnold-often act in ways that strike outsiders as treacherous. Monetary inducements often do not shame the man of honor; they are tokens of esteem, acknowledgments of his inherent worth. Rent-a-Pushtun is now open for business.

The other avenue of influence is relentlessness. Sir John Keegan, the British military historian, made this point in an essay about Sept. 11. The treacherous attack exemplified the tribal mode of warfare, going back to the Persian Empire. It depends on surprise and deceit, and it can have spectacular one-shot successes. The Western mode of warfare, going back to the Greek city-states, prizes relentlessness-soldiers, often citizens, fighting face to face until the enemy surrenders or collapses.

The Battle of Shiloh was the first terrible battle of the Civil War, and its first day saw the Union side driven from most of its positions and penned against the Tennessee River. At a crucial point, Gen. William (Bull) Nelson arrived with reinforcements on the opposite bank. As they crossed the river, they could see that the landing swarmed with deserters-Union soldiers, fleeing or separated from their units, in confusion and disorder. “Draw your sabers, gentlemen,” Nelson said to his officers, “and trample these bastards into the mud.” That is what his troops proceeded to do, while their bands played “Hail, Columbia.” When the Union soldiers who were fighting desperately heard the music, they cheered. Later that night, William Tecumseh Sherman saw Ulysses Grant surveying the carnage in a driving rainstorm. Sherman said that the Union had had “the devil’s own day.” “Yes, yes,” said Grant, chomping a cigar. “Lick them tomorrow though.”

There will be time enough to worry about our enemies’ opinions tomorrow.

In a War of Nerves, We Can’t Afford Panic