Terrorists have turned down the heat in my office. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the economy took a header, tax revenues in Illinois declined, and my university’s budget was cut. One of our cost-saving measures has been to turn down thermostats all across campus. Supposedly, this heat recision is targeted to just 68 degrees, but the register in my office, perhaps in an excess of patriotism, has taken us as low as 63.
So when my grandchild—sex still unknown, due in three weeks or so—gets old enough to ask, “What did you do in the War on Terror, Granddad?” I will know just what to say: “Kid, I hope you never have to go through it. I sat in my office and shivered. There were days when I never took off my sweater-vest.”
Of course, I may have opportunities for more substantial heroism before then. I may be within 50 miles of ground zero when someone finally sets off a backpack nuke. I may be on the wrong airplane, anywhere in the world, at the wrong time. Biological weapons may finally reach the steep part of their development curve, the way computers did 30 years ago, with the result that North America becomes safe once again for the wolf and the buffalo. In any of these cases, unfortunately, I will not be around to brag.
If I can joke about such things, however lamely, it is a measure of the relative calm and good fortune that have prevailed since September 11. The Taliban has come down like a rotten house of cards. Our bombs have mostly hit the bad men with bandoliers and turbans, not the hungry children in hospitals. Despite several mysterious national alerts, no further attacks (unless we count the Washington, D.C., snipers) have taken place in the United States, encouraging the cheery thought that the CIA or FBI must actually have thwarted a plot or two. Nuclear weapons have not been detonated in Islamabad, New Delhi, the West Bank, or Detroit. Most of the world is still mostly on our side. Normalcy has so far resumed that a single death—Daniel Pearl’s—can preoccupy us for weeks at a time.
Any tendency toward celebration, however, gets cut off at the knees by the macabre unpredictability and disconnectedness of this postmodern “war”—and by the suspicion that security itself may be the most dangerous of emotions. Secure self-confidence is what we felt on September 10, 2001, and on December 6, 1941. It is what Europeans felt in the spring of 1914, on the brink of a two-stage apocalypse, after a century of peace. Feelings of security are dangerous. Much better to invest in paranoia, which has performed splendidly since August 6, 1945. My generation grew up with the ghastly, unspoken conviction that World War III was past due any time after 1966 and that, when it came, it would be over in an hour or two. As long as we believed this, it didn’t happen: faith-healing in reverse.
But if we no longer believe it, will it happen after all? And is paranoia really paranoia if you hope it will protect you?
As the splendid little war in Afghanistan continues to wind down and another one gears up, the question suddenly upon us is, “What next?” In last year’s State of the Union Address, President Bush seemed to answer all too clearly, defining Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—in a phrase certain to appear in future history textbooks, if there is a future—as an “Axis of Evil.” As Hendrik Hertzberg noted in the New Yorker, this very calculated language tropes on both of our last two major wars—the short hot one that defeated the Axis powers from 1941 to ’45, and the long cold one that vanquished the “Evil Empire” of global communism from 1945 to ’89. Just short of an ultimatum, it is language to threaten foes with, language to rally your own troops by. Tough, tough talk, the merits of which, frustratingly, can be assessed only in the light of information not publicly available. Jimmy Carter has said it will “take years to repair the damage” done by the phrase; since September 11, however, it is hard to question the wisdom of preemption. If Saddam Hussein really does have fully weaponized anthrax and sleeper operatives with access to crop dusters, the President’s language is not too reckless but too cautious. How is anyone to know?
What an English teacher can do, though, is appraise metaphors; and, from my angle, things don’t look so good. Mussolini’s original phrase referred just to Germany and Italy, making good geo-graphical sense in view of their midway position between Russia and the Western Allies. An “axis” is the thing at the center around which other things revolve. The figure no longer worked visually when Japan came into the war, but it persisted through usage, even among the Allies, who perhaps began to construe it differently, as referring to the centralization of power within the fascist states. (Conceivably, there was even a buried pun on the ax bundled up in the Roman fasces, from which fascism got its name.)
Right off, Bush’s recasting of the figure confronts us with two troublesome incongruities: the impossibility of seeing anything axis-like in the position of these three countries on the map; and the vast disproportion between such rogue states and the terrifying fascist empires of the early 20th century. Try to envision Saddam or Kim Jong Il in Hitler’s place, and you get Dickens: tiny feet in huge boots, sleeves flapping down past the fingertips. The whole thing has the feel of imprecision and anachronism, of misplaced and slightly meretricious enthusiasm. At worst, it looks like sheer scapegoating. In this frontless struggle against faceless infiltrators, this environment of random and sporadic but increasingly lethal violence, “bad nations” are no longer the essential problem, and I had thought that Bush, in September and October, was saying as much, when he warned us to prepare for a long, obscure, twilight struggle. Now, I fear that he may be reverting to the tattered script of World War II, with its compressed time frame, clear endgame, and satisfying catharsis.
We may be hunting for a nationalist solution in a post-nationalist world. Even before September 11, I would have argued that bad nations were not so much humanity’s worst problem, nor even such other promising contenders as racism, social injustice, environmental degradation, drugs, or religious fanaticism, but weapons, the worst demon in a horrific bunch. The shift has been a long time coming. From the first, really, weapons have imposed a terrible literalism on what sociobiologists call “threat behavior,” precipitating Homo sapiens into the role of killer when all he truly wants is to howl and pound his chest a bit. The problem has grown worse with each turn of the technological wheel, until finally it hardly matters whether we are filled with loving-kindness: We have simply grown too dangerous. After the Columbine massacre, someone said, “We have always had angry, crazy young men; the difference now is that they can get automatic weapons.” In just the same way, the cataclysms of the 20th century can be parsed as fundamentally technological rather than nationalist or ideological. The heart of the dilemma is not how badly nations or creeds have hated one another but the efficiency with which weaponry has translated such feelings into mountains of corpses. Of course, it is hard to account for the full bestiality of Nazism and Stalinism in such terms; those creeds and others like them, however, stemmed in part from the trauma of “excess lethality” on the battlefield, and their butcher bureaucracies played a role analogous to that of modern weapons, facilitating murder while diffusing responsibility for it.
All of this is old hat. But since September 11, it seems that the principle must be broadened to include not just weapons but technology in general, our whole modern way of life. It was not nukes that brought down the Twin Towers but box-cutters, airplanes, and, above all, what looks less like religious fanaticism in the old sense than a new technology, perhaps more fearsome than all the rest: I mean that set of repeatable methods whereby various modern organizations (including our own military) can now produce efficient, reliable, high-quality killers. Nuclear weapons have played a paradoxically beneficent role since 1945, but no matter. Nineteen programmed psychotics can still inflict 3,000 deaths. Not much earlier, it took just two lunatics to kill 166 in Oklahoma City. The line on the graph still seems to end in the world of Dr. Strangelove, where the only thing required to end everything is one man’s madness.
Forgive me my fears, my pettifogging. But it’s cold in here, and I find too little comfort in echoes of Ike and Reagan, in an effort to isolate problems of enormous scope and complexity in specific countries. Teeing off on these quaint, hellish little regimes may not stave off the un-imaginable and may even hasten its onset. What worries me worst, when the icy blast from the register really gets cranking, is not just that Bush and Cheney and Powell seem a bit stuck in the past, but that it may be the wrong past. In their sober, laconic, can-do, who’s-next approach to global terror, they seem, at worst, to have gone all the way back to Clausewitz’s mad dictum that war is only “the pursuit of policy by other means.” That, of course, is exactly what war is not: a comprehensible process, a tool that can be rationally applied, a means to foreseeable ends, or anything but a last resort. Do they understand this? Have they remembered how often splendid little wars have been prologue to ghastly debacles? Do they know the devil they are dancing with?