Let's Grieve But Let's Not Be Stupid Together

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“The Bush administration today gave the nations of the world a stark choice: Stand with us against terrorism & or face the certain prospect of death,” wrote The New York Times on September 14. I’ll say that’s stark, and many media pundits have echoed it.

“Some people find that kind of talk upsetting,” wrote Marcus Gee in The Globe and Mail. But “let’s not fool ourselves & this is war.” Rex Murphy added: “As between terrorism and democracy, there’s no room on this planet for both.” And Margaret Wente: “Therapy is not what Americans need most right now. What they need is a very clear strategy to stop the terrorists.”

Yet none of them gave any specifics of a strategy. It’s as if what they really do want is therapy, in the form of bombast and rhetoric (terms used by Jim Coyle in The Toronto Star). In the National Post, Andrew Coyne said, “The government of Canada intends to play possum & But what if we’re wrong? What if our cowardice went unrewarded? & What words would Mr. Chrétien use to inspire us & what shining ideals would he invoke?” This is not so much posturing as a call for posturing: Give us words, he implores, to comfort and relieve us. It comes out as a big, desperate wank.

Edward Said - a literary scholar first, Palestinian advocate second - wrote in the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram: “This is a war against terrorism, everyone says, but where, on what fronts, for what concrete ends? & Collective passions are being funnelled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick &” In last week’s New Yorker, Susan Sontag said, “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.”

It’s striking that the U.S. government, so far, is taking that rhetoric far less seriously than its echo chambers in the media. In the time-honoured way of governments, they say one thing to the people and another among themselves. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld now says not to expect big bombing jags. Instead, there will be a covert campaign with lots of seedy informers and thuggery, the way most crimes get solved. It may be, in other words, less a war than a police action, as Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in the same New Yorker, itself a model of non-rhetorical response to the bombing.

The Bush people seem to have concluded that anything like a real war would do more harm than good, so they’ll proceed with caution while also addressing what has been called - problematically in my view - the root causes of terrorism, like the Palestine impasse. They have, for instance, put far more pressure on Israel to negotiate than one can picture the Clintons doing. The media are another matter. Despite occasional hedges, they seem serious about war. Thank the Lord (whoever’s) they aren’t in charge.

The rebirth of the political:
Exactly fifty years ago, Hannah Arendt wrote of the years before the First World War when “Europe was much too busy expanding economically & to take political questions seriously” and “Power was thought to be synonymous with economic capacity.” Even governments had “the same faith in economics as the plain businessmen” and politics “tended to become a kind of theatrical performance of varying quality.” Then came a war that ushered in the most political century in history.

This month may have seen a similar rebirth, not of politics itself but of accepting its importance, following the economic fixations of the 1990s. Last weekend, I sat on a panel in Regina called, “The global village as company town,” set up before September 11.

Can you imagine describing the main forces in the world today without including politics? Governments matter once more, if only because you can’t privatize the military and you need armies to deal with threats like terror.

The head of the Business Council on National Issues says his group is taking tax cuts off the table and suddenly deficits are okay again. Governments will reacquire functions like airport security, which they had off-loaded. I don’t think the importance of governments ever really ceased, but there was an illusion about it. And I don’t hail the change as a simple blessing, except in the sense Hannah Arndt meant: If politics is crucial, we might as well acknowledge it and deal with it.

My problem with terrorism’s “root causes”:
Like poverty, or the Israel-Palestine conflict, this notion of cause comes from the physical sciences. It implies that terror is a result, and that without the cause, there would be no terror. Now you can find root causes for Nazism too, including the peace treaty after the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles. Still, in 1938, it would have been idiocy to focus on eliminating those causes rather than their effects. Besides, there’s no guarantee Hitler would not have existed without those causes, or Osama bin Laden. What you can talk more sensibly about, I’d say, is contexts that nourish, or undermine, fanaticism. Hitler without that treaty would have had far less fertile ground to root in.

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