Tuesday, September 09, 2008

What We Have to Fear

There's a lot to say about the op-ed that Jeffry Goldberg (who I think is one of those "liberal hawks" who so wisely helped push the country decide to invade Iraq (see e.g.)) has in today's New York Times, and perhaps latter I'll try to say some of it. But one thing that struck me was this:
The nuclear destruction of Lower Manhattan, or downtown Washington, would cause the deaths of thousands, or hundreds of thousands; a catastrophic depression; the reversal of globalization; a permanent climate of fear in the West; and the comprehensive repudiation of America’s culture of civil liberties.
The deaths would be certain, and the depression and the reverse of globalization probably are too. But the final two points -- that such an attack would lead to "a permanent climate of fear in the West; and the comprehensive repudiation of America’s culture of civil liberties" is not only false, but perniciously false, because the act of saying so will help make it true.

Look: we didn't need to react to 9/11 by creating a climate of fear and diminishing our civil liberties. We choose to. Of course, the former enables the latter: a less fearful, a more sober assessment would show us that diminishing civil liberties does little or nothing to make us safer -- it's all security theater. But if we keep ourselves fearful -- an act in the interest of some people who benefit from that fear (such as the politicians who get elected on it) -- we can't see that.

But we can learn from the response to 9/11: learn that responding to an attack with fear, restriction of civil liberties and random unrelated aggression is a recipe for disaster. Learn that even if the nightmare scenario of a nuclear attack were to occur (God forbid), we should keep our heads.

But a lot of people keep repeating, over and over, that a nuclear attack would be the end of our civil liberties -- and, they often add (although Goldberg doesn't) American democracy. Repeating this accustoms us to the idea -- gets us ready to acquiesce to it if such an attack should occur. It begins the acclimation to the climate of fear even before the purported cause of it; it gets us to the point where we think the inevitable, or even proper, response to such an attack would be to discard our civil liberties. As if that were any sort of solution.

I think that, instead, we should repeat the contrary: that a nuclear attack, should one occur, would not be game over for our country and our ideals. That even if a city were to be destroyed, we would hold by the ideals of freedom, and not shove power into unaccountable hands while shivering in fear. That if the worse were to happen, we would remain true to ourselves. That nothing Al Queada or anyone else can do to us will cause us to abandon this.

Saying can make it so.

In the meantime, I agree with Goldberg that avoiding a nuclear attack on American city is probably the most important foreign policy goal of the immediate future (although I wouldn't be as cavalierly dismissive of other goals as he is). Given his claim that what is currently preventing such an attack are technical difficulties, and that the "hard part is acquiring fissile material", it seems to me that we should consider steps to avoid this -- steps that are well-thought out, directly applicable and likely to work, even if they appear radical in today's politics.

But rather than salvaging the immoral doctrine of "pre-emption", as Goldberg suggests, I would propose radically limiting the amount of fisible material by implementing an aggressive inspections regime on all countries -- including ours -- and getting rid of existing nuclear weapons (which all have, of course, fisible material) in all countries, including ours. In other words, a real commitment to non-proliferation, which would require us to give up our own nuclear weapons and the advantages that (we think) we get from them.

Oh, and I'd suggest that we stop recruiting for Al Queada and other terrorist organizations by occupying Iraq, i.e. withdraw in the swiftest way practical. And further, I'd suggest that we stop funding and supporting Israel's occupation of the West Bank, also a central plank in terrorist recruitment in the middle east.

But those steps are ones that Goldberg, and other members of the foreign policy establishment, rarely if ever consider. They're too radical. Much simpler to suggest more preemption, more war, more deaths of other people, far away, where we won't have to look at them.

"By any means necessary" always somehow comes down to "we'll be as violent and immoral as we want". It never considers genuinely practical steps -- if the biggest barrier to a nuclear terrorist attack is getting fisible material, then limiting that material worldwide is surely a relevant step. And doing so by agreement -- that is, under the terms of the non-proliferation treaty, which the US has been violating for decades by not taking any genuine steps towards diminishing its own nuclear arsenal nor having the slightest intention of doing so -- is a far better method than attacking countries on the basis of "intelligence", which Goldberg himself translates as "we really don’t know exactly what’s going on, but...".

But no. We'll keep making war until we are struck in the worst possible way: and then that will be used as an excuse for more fear, less freedom, and, ultimately, more war. While the warmongers cry that this was the last thing they ever wanted or expected.

We need to stop reacting with fear. And stop preparing ourselves to act with fear. Or we'll never live any other way.


goethean said...

Much simpler to suggest more preemption, more war, more deaths of other people, far away, where we won't have to look at them.

Far away from the US populace, but not far away from Goldberg, given that his main concern in life seems to be the continuation of Jewish apartheid policy in Israel.

Now that I've said that, by Goldberg's standards, I'm a raging anti-Semite. Yay!

Anonymous said...

Saying can make it so.

I don't think this is true, any more than saying "George W. Bush is a great American and a warrior-king out of the opium dreams of John Norman" makes that true.

The populist power of the mass media has made people unusually sensitive to, and inclined to parse the daylights out of, every utterance, whether out of the mouth of Sarah Palin on CNN or Terrell Owens on ESPN, but such sensitivies are more than half disingenuous adaptations to the economy of offendedness that makes up the part of the American mind that isn't too drunk and stupid to function.