The World Upside Down

From the unthinkable to the passe in an instant.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Battle begins to take on a logic of its own, as the world itself does not stop at the sound of gunfire, but in fact goes on — and on, and on each day, peeling off an old layer of dogma and exposing raw truth. Sometimes organized conflict — in a manner quite unlike other natural tragedy — shatters pretense, overturns old ideologies, and in a blink of an eye makes what was once unthinkable very soon rather pedestrian.

Fifth-century Athens was the product of Salamis; the First World War turned parlor Marxism into deadly Communism. The battle of Yorktown cost the British an entire people — unruly offspring that would come to fight, haunt, and eventually save them. The Missouri Compromise was once seen as adept peacemaking; after Fort Sumter, Gettysburg, and Appomattox, such negotiation about an evil like slavery appeared the height of naiveté.

For fifty years, through wars, embargoes, lectures, and terror, Americans have assumed that Gulf sheiks that fueled our gas-guzzlers were our friends — and so we politely, but rather amorally, looked the other way at Wahhabism, gender apartheid, and tolerance of, and sometimes direct support for, terrorism. No longer. I was watching a Saudi spokesman not long ago lecturing on television (they often lecture us on television) — and everyone in the room laughed at his pretentious title, scoffing, “Who elected him?” None would have been so rude a year ago. Before 9/11 Americans would be alarmed to hear Palestinian rantings and flag burnings, as they shouted at us of dire consequences to come should we ignore the “Arab street.” Now we are more likely to worry for them than us — more concerned about the implications of our deadly, not their empty, wrath.

Once Arafat was “indispensable” to peace, now he is a naked emperor whom the crowd confesses was without clothes all the time. His own documents prove he is a terrorist and has broken almost every agreement that the well meaning and naïve once put so much faith in. If homicidal bombings are going to maim and kill innocents — both when he is a purported” head of state” and when he is table-talking without lights in his bunker — then who needs him?

Palestinians cry massacre, but, in fact, they now at last have the fighting their leadership asked for. While the world rightly asks Israel to follow the accepted rules of fighting, it is slowly coming to the realization that men in jeans and sneakers who shoot guns from apartment terraces and blow up children are bona fide combatants of the worst sort — and in the past, combatants who were far more humane folk than these have died in wars. I gave a lecture the other evening at a local civic organization, and a questioner summed up the mood of the audience with, “Well, those Palestinians wanted a war, and now they pretty much got their wish. So let’s see how well they do when the Israelis shoot back.”

For all the remarkable efforts of the Palestinian propaganda machine, it is slowly losing the public-relations war — and for reasons other than the bombast, lying, filibustering, and simple rudeness displayed each night by propagandists on our television screens. Americans are learning that what Mr. Atta and his fellow psychopaths did in New York is far closer to Palestinian homicidal bombers, while what are doing in Afghanistan is more akin to what the Israelis are now attempting in Jenin. Ambulances are being stopped in Nablus? Americans are more likely to think of the Taliban hiding in hospitals and shrug, “Then do not put terrorists and arms in Red Crescent vehicles.” Palestinians are being stripped-searched? Americans wish that those who murdered Johnny Spann had been likewise — and add that some of us right here in the United States are being asked to disrobe, thanks to homicidal bombers who kill innocents and promise more death to come.

All the old worries and anxieties about our friends are slowly dissipating as well, causing not anguish, but a weird sense of liberation from the ancient dread. Jordan and Egypt are tottering? Let them totter. What are they going to do — send a deprived Egyptian with a hijacked plane into the World Trade Center to finish the work of an earlier fellow mad fundamentalist? What are we going to see in their place? Kings? Strongmen? Mullahs? We’ve dealt with them all before. The royal families of the Gulf might use the oil weapon if we are not careful? But what is worse — paying an extra half-dollar a gallon or having 15 Saudis destroy the symbols of our culture and vaporize 3,000 Americans? Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Iran say some scary things about us. What are they going to do? So disrupt daily American life that we have a recession, wait two hours in lines at our airports, and see each day grannies humiliated as they are forced to take off their shoes? Most Americans are more likely to shrug at the dire warnings, “Sorry, been there, done that — doing that already right now.”

Ask an American today about intervening to solve Europe’s internal wounds in the Balkans, and he would say “not a chance.” You see, he’s read too many stories about French best sellers claiming that we blew up our own Pentagon, heard too many early snide statements about 9/11, read too much about European academics boycotting Israeli scholars, and seen too much anti-Semitism in Marseille. Europe is a one-eyed Jack, and now we’ve seen his flip side: threats to impose sanctions against the only democratic state in the Middle East; “international rights” groups flocking to Guantanamo but avoiding real slaughters like Nigeria, the Congo, and Rwanda; silence about the murder and mayhem by unelected fascists; and smug lectures to democracies whose efforts to defend their citizens from murder are not always utopian.

Americans for the first time in my memory seem not to care a whit what Europeans think — to the great consternation of our elites on the East Coast. Heartland Americans think the French are ridiculous, and seem almost to welcome Gallic disdain. Most of us out here, far from being deprived yokels, have a clearer appreciation of the quite profound amorality in Europe than anyone in the Ivy League: we detect a cynical, self-loathing paralysis of cheap talk and aristocratic banter on the continent that never leads to any real good physical deed: prancing and preening in Brussels and Paris, but paralyzing fear when the real innocents are being butchered in Serbia a few miles away. Tough talk to a democratic and humane America, not so tough talk to nightmarish killers in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

I had a conversation not long ago with a European, who typically so, began with the pained look of someone who was methodically entering a long grandfatherly lecture about the American pathologies of “unilateralism” and “exceptionalism.” When I laughed and told him he should worry more about keeping us in NATO than threatening to leave, more about America turning its attention to Russia, India, Japan, and South America than to Paris and Rome, and expect pride rather than guilt that we stopped the Russians, fought the Gulf War, kicked out Noriega, and bombed in Serbia. In short, when I made it clear that Europe is irrelevant, he was shocked — and, mon dieu!, of all things, hurt! Europeans, I think, are going to learn that their real fears are not that we wish to control them, work with them, influence them, or corrupt them, but rather that we simply prefer to forget about them. They are rapidly becoming little more than an old windy Nestor — wordy, impotent, and full of empty advice about a glorious past in someone else’s busy present.

And the future? I would imagine at the end of the year there will be a reckoning with Iraq. And sadly, after much disruption, recrimination, denunciations, unexpected terror, death, and more mayhem, we will see something like the current chaos of Afghanistan, gradually settling down to something far better than what was there before. If we prevail, there may well be upheavals in many a surrounding country akin to the revolutions in Eastern Europe that ended communism. None then — as pessimists now — predicted such a thing. Yet like communism, Middle Eastern fundamentalism, theocracy, and autocracy also cannot appeal to the human desire for freedom and security — especially when the alternative is not thousands of miles distant and cloaked, but the flip of a switch away and readily apparent on the computer and television screen. And so like the twilight of communism, the day of the Arab strongmen is nearing an end.

Let the Europeans be toadies and fear these abjectly bankrupt regimes; let Americans worry more about the poor half billion people who have had to suffer and endure under them. Europeans, not us, are on the wrong side of history — and it is more embarrassingly apparent each day of this present crisis. Like the weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, what is ahead is fraught with uncertainty and fear, but it is also, in some strange and macabre way, full of rare hope as well.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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