My dog does not understand cars. An alarmist where a vacuum cleaner or thunder is concerned, a realist in regard to tomcats and other dogs, she simply lacks any concept of this genuine menace to her mortal tenure. If you let her, she will dash across a street the instant the impulse takes her, absolutely without reference to the traffic. Millions of years of evolution have pulled her eyes to the front of her skull and riveted her attention dead ahead, filling her with the predator’s cheery—and, it turns out, entirely false—assurance that nothing important can be crossing at right angles.
Of course, it is not just dogs that have this difficulty in understanding where their danger lies, in this unnatural modern world of ours. Insects cannot cope with point-source radiation, which fouls their navigation systems and makes them fly by the millions into porch lights and street lamps. That moth spiraling toward the candle flame, to the fascination of poets, understands itself to be traveling in a straight line. Evolution is slow and has not yet conjured into existence the cognitive resources (or sheer terror of candles) that might allow it to escape the trap. Perhaps evolution never will, because insects breed so extravagantly, hatching out in billions and then dying on a vast assortment of pretexts, that the toll of porch bulbs and bug zappers may not really amount to much. Likewise, the emergence of a properly car-terrified dog has undoubtedly been delayed by the dynamics of dog reproduction. A mutt that dashes under the wheels of a Jeep Cherokee in its seventh year could easily have passed on its genes to 50 offspring by then, assuming ideal breeding conditions. That’s 50 chances to send the DNA for car-stupidness on to eternity versus no chances at all for a seven-year-old Homo sapiens with the same inclinations. Another way of putting this is that, from a dog’s own point of view (or, anyway, from evolution’s), getting run over and killed is no big deal.
Less insouciant but far more clever, we humans have invented culture, the trump card we play against evolution, accelerating a thousandfold the process whereby we acquire new traits, new strategies, new equipment. But even for us, there is a lag time, a learning curve to be mastered before we shiver and shudder at the right things. In the world I remember from the 50’s, everyone drank, everyone smoked, no one worried about cholesterol. Cars did not have seat belts, and car seats were trifling affairs of vinyl and aluminum that hooked over the tops of seats, suspending the baby in more or less the ideal position to be launched through the windshield in a crash. At the end of a dinner party, it was not thought strange to let your guests stagger off across the lawn, barely able to find their cars. At least some of this was owing to the sheer newness of mass automobile ownership, the lack of time needed to fine-tune the collective perception of danger. Cultural evolution may be fast, but it’s not instantaneous.
Moreover, evolution has a way of trumping culture back, when our clever solutions become, in their turn, the chief dangers confronting us: Witness drugs, pollution, and weapons. With weapons in particular, so much our current concern, our intuitions seem decidedly deficient. In World War I, infantrymen consistently reported artillery as the most lethal of the many dangers in their nightmare existence. Why wouldn’t they, after all? The big shells shattered eardrums, splintered trees, cratered the earth, and turned flesh to mincemeat whenever they encountered it. By contrast, the rat-a-tat of machine guns must have seemed almost comforting, a hazard on a human scale at which they could, at least, shoot back. But instinct and feeling were poor guides to battlefield reality, for machine guns took far more lives than artillery did. And, of course, such misperceptions among the rank and file were nothing compared to those of the men at the top. With their archaic notions of combat and strategy—underevolved cultural equipment, you might say—their famous inability to grasp the deadliness of the arms they commanded, the blundering generals and statesmen in charge of World War I furnished a rather precise analogy of the dim brain that guides the moth to a flame. A gruesome coda to the butchery came when soldiers returning from the front caused a worldwide flu epidemic that proved the deadliest weapon of all, inflicting more casualties in six months than the rest had done in five years. Dashing across the street to claim its prize at last, the dog of war was flattened by the speeding truck of plague.
From all this, I draw a grand historical and epistemological principle: It’s Hard To Know What To Be Afraid Of. The principle seems crucially relevant, just now, because of the grand, grim national adventure on which we embarked in September 2001. Since then our taciturn, dogged, apparently sincere President has taken us through Afghanistan, quite successfully, and has all but guaranteed that Iraq is next. North Korea looms in the middle distance, however gratuitously, and Iran beyond that. After that, who knows? Pundits have at least suggested that interventions in such places as Colombia, Pakistan, and the Sudan are thinkable for a variety of apocalyptic, what-choice-do-we-have rationales. Comparisons to Napoleon at the Russian frontier, to the Athenians disembarking before Syracuse, would no doubt be excessive. But we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, launched on a grand expedition whose ultimate aim (Hegemony? Mere security? Is there a difference?) lies shrouded in mist. This is worrisome, even if, to this point, casualties remain low and confidence high.
George II, our leader on the expedition, has been widely praised for his instincts, which are held to be as sound as his everyday speech is dubious and faltering. “Far better grounded than Clinton,” David Gergen described him the other night, going on to recall Isaiah Berlin’s reflection that, in politics, the hedgehog often succeeds better than the fox, by dint of better focus. Critics complain that the rationale for invading Iraq is unclear, but it may actually be too clear, too simply from the heart, an argument that can be reduced to its core aphorisms in a single PowerPoint session:
?Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
?Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
?Inaction is a form of action.
?He who hesitates is lost.
?You don’t get the job done if you won’t get your hands dirty.
?Go it alone if you have to.
?Play the hand you’re dealt.
?Sooner or later you have to stand up to a bully, so it might as well be sooner.
To give credit where credit is due, in the State of the Union Address Bush articulated the logic of preemption as well as anyone could. “Since when do terrorists serve notice that they are going to attack?” he demanded. “Imagine those same nineteen hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take just one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring about a day of horror like none we have ever known.” There, in a nutshell, is the tactical, technical side of our dilemma: the terrible power of the weapons; the disproportionate ease of making, concealing, smuggling, and finally using them.
My problem, however, is the strange absence of two other aphorisms, formerly beloved of the American right:
?Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.
?When guns are illegal, only criminals will have guns.
When did disarmament, supposedly unworkable here at home, become the Holy Grail of our foreign policy? If we can’t keep Saturday-night specials off the streets of Washington, can we really hope to keep backpack nukes out of the country?
I count it all to the good that the debate over Iraq has been framed so much as a contest of fears, as in, “What is really more dangerous here—acting or waiting?” Fear, these days, is sensible, salutary; fear is good. But I am afraid that we will fear the wrong thing. When it looks overseas, the Bush administration seems to locate our danger in the weapons, not in the people, and it proposes to control or destroy the hardware while it takes for granted that an enterprising imam can always find 19 more suicide troops. Finally, though, as September 11 proved, almost anything is a weapon if you want it to be. What if we imagine those same 19 terrorists, armed any way you like, but now multiplied to legions? Which scenario is truly more dangerous?
Like many English teachers, I learn too much of my political theory from Shakespeare; so, at the end of these rambles, I find myself thinking, unfairly but insistently, of another great “misunderestimator”—Macbeth. Early on, the ambitious Thane is persuaded that a single resort to violence—limited, surgical, soon over—will solve his problems. Instead, of course, he finds that one murder requires another and then another, until he finds himself fatally isolated, all Scotland suddenly on the march against him, including many of the trees. In place of the “hon-our, love, obedience, troops of friends” that he might have enjoyed in old age, his obsessive pursuit of security has brought him “Curses not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath, / Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.”
Curses not loud but deep: There lies, I think, the real danger, the preeminent one, in this age when the weapons themselves have grown so terrifying and made the logic of the offensive so compelling. I scorn appeasement, procrastination, and wishful thinking as much as the next cowboy. But the fundamental problem confronting the nation is political and diplomatic, not military: how to retain the world’s respect and its good will. Without both, Shakespeare seems to hint, you eventually face more secret adversaries than you can ever root out, more fanatical enemies than you will ever keep away.