Stagecraft and War

I. SPECTACLE

As brutal stagecraft, the attack on the World Trade Center was perfection. You could almost split the moment right down the middle: nauseating mind-numbing horror on the one side and pornographic mesmerizing spectacle on the other (so that’s what it looks like when you fly a plane into a building…). It was perfectly calculated to arrest and disarm us. I am convinced that its only shortcoming as a spectacle will prove to be its very perfection: you only get one shot like that and now we are awake as never before. There will be more battles, lost and won, over many years. But you only get one Pearl Harbor. You only get one blind national sucker-punch smashing in from the void.

When your enemy stabs at your heart, he does you at least one favor: you will not mistake his intent in the future. No warning, no conditions, no demands. He has shown himself to be committed to your destruction. It frees you to get about the unambiguous business of eliminating him. Whoever they are, they might have worked away at the edges of the empire steadily for ten years or more. What is an embassy here or a guardpost there to the vast, fat American public? But they chose to shoot a poisoned bolt straight at the heart of the empire. You only get one like that.

II. ARE THEY RIGHT?

I don’t know about you, but I have been feeling very cranky and unsettled these days as I try to think about this attack. It’s hard to shake the sense of some breached dike, some unstoppable black tide boiling across our borders with suffocating speed. I think one source, perhaps the most important source, of the deep-seated anxiety about the attack is an unspoken fear that they might be right, these crazy terrorists: maybe our fat tottering country has lost its way and deserves to be punished. We are weak and decadent. We have lost our faith while Islam’s warriors keep theirs burning fiercely. This is the spirit in which Jerry Falwell invokes God the Chastiser. Maybe it’s time, the nagging thought goes, for the godless to be swept away by jihad, burned away by sacred fires of purifying destruction. Globalization is bad, our corporate exports are insulting and poisonous, and American foreign policy is rotten to the core. We deserve this righteous hatred that boils into murderous rage as surely as if we manufactured it ourselves. We are powerless to stop the surging tide.

Hold this thought in your head. Shine some light on it. When you really inspect it, it falls to pieces. They are not right. We are powerful. They cannot “win.” But you must inspect this thought and see it fall to pieces. Otherwise you will be crippled in your ability to fight the man who wants to kill you, because he experiences no doubt whatever on this score.

III. ULTIMATE REASONS

Why, then, the hate? We must understand that there are proximate reasons for hate and ultimate reasons. The proximate reasons are always plentiful enough. Troops in Saudi Arabia. The endless Iraqi embargo. Despair in Gaza. Many of these proximate reasons are understandably galling, due mostly to the swaggering arrogance of our wealth and ignorance. But they fall far far short of the sustained hatred required to plow a jet into skyscraper. To suggest that they justify such a deed is irresponsible in the extreme.

What is the ultimate cause that motivates teams of well-organized suicide bombers? The United States is the colossus of global capitalism. The ultimate problem is simply this: we believe in the commerce of ideas, people, and capital, and they do not. Stronger than that: it defines us and it disgusts them. Many unfortunate policies of our government deserve reconsideration. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that rearranging the proximate causes of hate will have the least impact on the ultimate causes. Reworking our relationship with Israel will never make the Taliban love us. Picture an imaginary conversation with the Mullah Mohammad Omar in which you say, “Tell me, what do we Americans have to do for you in order to get back to our blissful pre-attack lives?”

If we cannot change the ultimate causes of hate, how can we prevail? Well-targeted violence and equally well-targeted persuasion. We can reduce the number of people who feel that bitter hatred so deeply that they will act. We can engage as many Islamic states as possible in the constructive global economy. Not so easy — many years, very expensive. No other way.

IV. SALVATION

These terrorists have shown themselves adept at a terrible kind of stagecraft. Now we must show ourselves adept at war. Even as we carry the fight to them, we must make them understand that the loss of these buildings is not a crippling blow. Ten world trade centers destroyed would not humble us. Not twenty, not thirty. We harness the might that rises from the unshackled motion of capital, people and ideas, above all ideas. This is wealth; it might be the very definition of wealth. That this country is founded on these principles makes it my pleasure and privilege to live here. There is no American tribe but that which derives from this. No single ethnicity or religion forms America’s backbone; rather it is an iron commitment to these ideals. In one sense this is less satisfying than an old-fashioned blood or tribal bond. To the simple-minded it appears to be a case of Mammon before God. It is unholy, this commitment to the civil before the sacred, and this is why we are hated. But our unsentimental commitment to this world rather than the next gives us an impure, driving, unstoppable energy. I cannot name the endless diversity of America’s crazy-quilted citizenry, but I know its very mongrel mix is my salvation.