Tuesday night, on the Lehrer show, Frank Gaffney made a clear and powerful argument for the war in Iraq. (The kind, frankly, I wish Bush would make— publicly, clearly, and often.) Ironically, the context was a dialogue on the Sheehan encampment, where his view was countered by Joan Walsh, of Salon, who spoke of Bush as clueless and callous, of Sheehan as of “open heart” and an “open approach.” Gaffney countered with policy, with reasoning. In general, he spoke with understanding of what we all (including the Muslims) are up against. Like all “true believers” and absolute tyrants, the bin Ladens and Saddam Husseins will first and last eat their own.
The dialogue was pointless, although a rich example of contrasts – the man and the woman, the head and the heart, the rational and the emotional, the public and the personal, the general and the specific. We found this also distinguished the hawks from the doves, the right from the left. When it comes to a mother’s grief, Walsh captures it better. But policy shouldn’t be based on the personal—the side with the most moving story is not necessarily the one with the best argument. And in terms of policy, of analysis, of proportionality – well, Gaffney wins hands down. His was the big picture. And, an educated heart energizes the head – his sympathy was for those under the Taliban, under Saddam Hussein, under the rule of a law we find draconian and fearsome – as well, of course, as sympathy for those killed in Bali and Madrid, London and Africa, Beirut and on the Cole, New York and Washington. On one level, this is a contrast between revenge and justice and on another between populist sentiment and reasoned policy. He demonstrates what we often describe as “being Christian” – thinking in terms of others different from the self.
Cindy Sheehan has, they say, made public the personal, put a face on the anti-war movement. What she wants is revenge – she blames Bush in quite personal terms. We understand this impulse. She is caught up in her grief. Joined by others, we watch the left do what they’ve done of late – personalize policy: Sheehan’s grief and “Bush’s War.” Why? Is it because they see only in sectarian terms our public life? Are their sympathies those of isolationists – unable to imagine rape squads or the complaints of the fatwas? Is it because they are unaware of that chronology of attacks long before Bush had his eye on the White House? Is it because they find America’s influence so malignant, that the greatest evil is always our presence, whatever comes before or after? By linking the war to Bush, this makes the next president’s exit natural. (In my coarse terms are they sectarian, insular, insensitive, or stupid?)
I suspect, however, that they simply think in terms of the personal. Their schools, newspapers, and even religions encourage a narrowing rather than a broadening of horizons and sympathies. Self-righteousness comes easily with such narrow borders. Feelings can’t be argued.
Remarkably revenge was not a word often heard in the weeks following 9/11. Yes, in some country and western songs it predominates. (Even there, the first response was Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You?” in which the chorus repeats, “God gave But I know Jesus and I talk to God / And I remember this from when I was young / Faith hope and love are some good things he gave us / And the greatest is love.”) But red-eyed irrational revenge was not so often displayed. We knew it was bigger than the personal and we needed to take it in with the head. But the next day came on and we moved from shock to reason. Books on Islam flew off book store shelves. Righting an injustice, understanding a foe, reasoning – these are the responses of the next day, of the head.
Our innate response may be revenge, but this is seldom given voice –we are embarrassed by it. We are embarrassed because it seems unseemly, uncivilized. We have not transcended revenge because we have transcended the primal feeling – but our system ritualizes it, helping us cool down and think. Our courts make it objective, make it rational – make it justice. An act that is not “right” upsets what we see as a natural balance. Murder, rape, robbery or stock fraud, theft – all violate civilized order, are “not fair.” We need to see order restored.
Not that feelings aren’t important. They often master us; they are primal and forceful. And some are derived from our instinct for survival. Sure, some of the expressions are neither healthy nor productive; they can be, indeed, base. But thinking we can breed this out of ourselves (or that we feel it because we have been indoctrinated and not with our guts) is not very useful. Victims’ groups often speak of the need for families to find a resolution, reach a conclusion, to be at peace – all with a long sentence or execution of the killer of their loved one. I’m not sure how that works – how we become “at peace” with another’s punishment. But I don’t doubt it. I’ve never thought it was a foolish nor superficial argument. Before I can switch stations, I hear the details of the BTK killer’s testimony and realize that the public denunciation gives (however inadequate) the survivors a sense of justice. The relatively judicial scholar of the law, Volokh, impulsively wrote from his gut about revenge – then took it back. That impulse followed by his admission that his first choice wasn’t, really, a good one shows us both how strong those emotions are and how our culture helps us see them worked out in a “civilized” manner – through the courts.
When the court system doesn’t work, those passions will inspire less civilized action. Observers often worry that if we leave ourselves vulnerable to further attacks and are, indeed, attacked, that our response will be horrific. These commentators may exaggerate but are not unperceptive. If we had taken no action and been attacked again, our emotions would have been harder to control: we might not go to the United Nations; we might not hobble together a group of the not-bought and not-bribed. We would have hit back hard & fast, done it with a cleansing anger.
The difference in those two concepts is the difference between the personal & tribal and the public & universal. Justice is an attempt to restore order to a disordered world—it is the head at work, joined with the heart. My husband deplores those court trials that weight the sorrow of the survivors in sentencing the convicted. He doesn’t deplore them because he thinks the source of anger & grief, the awareness of the enormity of the way order and justice have been torn isn’t important, but rather because we should feel this same rending, this same injustice for the friendless, family-less victim. That, it would seem to me, is what is at the core of Western culture – and indeed of many interpretations of Christianity. Men, all men, have within them the spark of the divine. If any are harmed, the great harmony, the order of our society has been set awry and some order, some justice is needed to reorder, to tune the society to a larger harmony.
Sheehan’s son is dead – she takes it personally; this is not surprising., But this is not a guide to policy. Are we surprised, however, that this response is seen as telling? When channels focus for months on Aruba and Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson and Schiavo we are engaged in a drama with which we can identify. Such news doesn’t challenge us to look up nor out, but rather to engage in the personal and sentimental. So why would we when faced with her grief? Doesn’t it focus us? But such news stories have simplified our vision; they have also tended to put us in the center–we feel for the mother of the murdered or lost girl – ah, she is like us. As our sympathies contract, self-righteousness becomes easier. Nor is this merely CNN & Fox’s influence. Because this subjectivity has jettisoned history, post-modernists can discuss with condescension Shakespeare’s treatment of women or Faulkner’s racism. With the certainty of the provincial, we assume we would have done then what is conventional now.
Lately, our Sunday School class has been reading John. I remarked on the beauty of a religion that saw the divine inhabiting an enemy. This is central to Whitman’s poetry, to Lincoln’s strategies. Of course, I added, that didn’t mean that Lincoln didn’t intend to win that war nor make Whitman pause at backing him; if 600,000 people were the cost, so be it. One of my classmates (a professor of sociology) asked, “Then, are you saying Lincoln’s a hypocrite?” Such chutzpah was my immediate reaction – though thankfully not my verbal one. No, I said, because he thought some things were more important. I realized that wasn’t very convincing. I still have trouble putting into words what I feel, but here it goes: Respecting the eternal soul of a Confederate soldier was part of his vision but on this earth that soul (and certainly the souls of slaves) were better served by emancipation and a republic that proved its viability.
Academic certainties lead to dead ends, although I respect my classmate’s honest and clearly heart felt beliefs. (A good deal more than those of our national church.) Still, a couple of weeks later, he complained of the “demonization” of those who do not follow Christ; John records Christ as saying he “hates.” But, surely, a loving acceptance of all souls need not be a loving acceptance of all they feel nor all they do. Indeed, to love the good is to hate the bad–even entangled in ourselves, entangled in others.
The sociologist is bothered by one of the great sources of terror in our time (and probably in all time): a society that thinks of others as “not people.” The universality of that belief is indicated by the number of languages that have one word for the “people” and another for all others. In war, that justifies tearing babies from the womb of the sub-species. But the very sense that the “other” has God-given rights and a soul is central to Christ’s teachings, to our country’s founders, is an essential belief of modern Western civilization. (Of course, he would rightly imply, tribalism was certainly not unknown in Christian countries; I agree, but that is because it is true of the nature of man.) He seemed oblivious of the fact the very teachings we had been reading lately have been a powerful countervailing force to our human nature, with its tendency to value more highly our own. And that ignoring that devalues the church in which we were sitting and the book we were reading.
On a more mundane level, I wonder what is the point if Christians don’t see in some comparative way Christianity as, well, better. The class’s alacrity (though I’m not sure unanimous) rewriting of “I am the way” was interesting. A woman immediately said, well, he doesn’t mean “the way” – of course, he means, one of the ways. The sociologist observed that Christ – or his followers – could surely not be that “arrogant.” I was amazed. For one thing, the text is not all that unclear. I have not been, myself, a churchgoer, have not joined this church. But I looked around at people of piety and good works, people who had spent sixty and seventy and with some eighty years going to church on Sundays and mission outreach on Mondays and men’s prayer breakfast on Thursdays. It seemed to me that they had been affected by their beliefs and their church, that some were filled with grace. I have come to see them as exemplars and viewed them with a real fondness. And here, they seemed to argue that the church had had no effect on them – was, indeed, meaningless. The remarkable and always prepared teacher offered the fact that John wrote the gospel years after Christ had died; I’m not sure what he believed but while he encourages discussion, he (in true Christian fashion) tries to still confrontation. Maybe these words weren’t Christ’s. Well, maybe not. And certainly I have seen people of other sects and believing in quite different religions (or none) who lived lives of great generousity and beauty, of true goodness. I certainly don’t think the Presbyterian Church has a monopoly on such grace (indeed, I have my doubts about the grace of the national church’s views).
So, for once, I kept still. After all, this is a moment when others’ experience should still my thoughts. And I admit, sometimes I’m a bit irritating – a quite new addition to a class that has been going for decades, surrounded by people who have been through quite a bit with one another. I admire them – their full lives and warmth astonish me. Their politics span a pretty broad spectrum as far as I can tell – so do their perspectives on their religion. But I’m not always sure who believes what and whose shoes I might be stepping on.
Some in the class have had the intense and complex experience of war. Two landed at Normandy, a large percentage were or have children making a career of the military. (This is the religion of the border warriors and one of the establishment churches in a town built around a military college; even the sociologist’s son is career military.) They spoke of the bond between soldiers; one knew a veteran of the trenches and the famous World War I Christmas truce. Others spoke of a Navy pilot in the congregation who had been moved by their reunions with Japanese ones.
The sociologist is a good man, but he wants to simplify the world with the limited vocabulary of modern academia. And so, he complains of Bush’s self-righteousness and Lincoln’s “hypocrisy” and Christ’s “demonization.” Of course, this leaves little room for the ambiguous heroism of battle. The military has, over the centuries, “civilized” warfare. Men are disciplined because its leaders understand better than most that we have within us a darkness – we, too, could be the Japanese at Nanking, the Germans at the Holocaust, the Americans at Wounded Knee. But we also can be heroic—a heroism greater in battle because of the stakes. We see two different systems – we contrast the Abu Ghraib the vile Graner supervised with the Abu Ghraib Hussein built. To see them as the same is to see myopically. To take in the system, we need a wider angle, a broader mind. We also need a tragic sense: man as tainted. But civilization (at its best, not always) can lead from a gut reaction of revenge to a broader vision of justice, from a loyalty to tribe to a respect for all. It is the justice of civilization that punishes those, like Graner, who have harmed the “other.” If we really want to grow and if we really want to appreciate Muslim beliefs (and Muslim transcendence) as well as our own, we need Gaffney’s way of looking, not Walsh’s.
Gaffney was swimming against the tide; Gwen Ifill wasn’t having much of it—why doesn’t the president meet with her, she asked. But she did give him the last word as Gaffney responds:
And, look, the problem is not whether if we hug people we will demonstrate that we’re good people. The problem is we’re dealing with people who wish to destroy us. And I don’t know how to make that more starkly or more clearly. They have in mind creating a global kalifate, they call it, subjecting all of us to a rule of Shariah like the Taliban. I happen to think it was a very honorable and laudatory thing that we helped deliver the people of Afghanistan from that kind of world and indeed that we’ve helped deliver the people of Iraq from that kind of world, at least for the moment. I think far from condescending comments about people who accomplish those sorts of things, we ought to be grateful for them and I hope the president will continue, as I say, to make the case to the American people that not only were these good things in their own right but they are an incredibly important ingredient in a larger global campaign which we cannot afford to lose.
Sheehan’s demonization of Bush is not unusual—I see it in my students and my colleagues and on television. All are fed by a media which ignored and now ignores history, the fatwas. The Washington Post sees “politicization” in sponsoring the Pentagon’s Freedom Walk, which, they contend “ties the attack on Sept. 11 to the Iraq war, and of course, The Post’s reporters have proven … that there is no connection between the two, that that link is false.” Of course, “have proven.” The very words indicate their limited sense of policy in when Iran stands between Iraq & Afghanistan. They are back to their horse race. Iraq is a metric – Bush up, Bush down. A deadline not met – bad for Bush. (How will it affect off-year elections?) An election stands – good. What about the Iraqis? What about those who truly see us as the disposable “other”? The press’s weakness (seeing only the personal), obsession (seeing all as political), and bias (as Glenn Reynolds repeatedly observes in contrasts with WWII, “But back then, the press wanted us to win”) have become obvious because we’ve been using our heads more; we have to – the stakes are high
The short term, the personal, the emotional – all these lead the left to ad hominem and ad populum. Last week, Mark Shields waves polls at David Brooks, describing them as “uncomfortable facts.” Well, yes, they make hawks uncomfortable and yes any policy like this needs support; but polls are not argument. Brooks responds with a gentle objectivity. One feels, the other thinks. With a broader horizon and imagination, Gaffney would argue (as would Bush, perhaps inarticulately but no less forcefully) the peace of appeasement would be no peace for the Iraqis – and would we want to live in a world in which we did not consider them, too? And the others, how many others over there and eventually over here would be touched by such an appeasement?