Watching the Presidential debates of September 30th, and the subsequent reactions to them, has left me once again with the sad realization that there are many millions of people who prefer a man who says the wrong things well over one who says the right things badly -– and in the case of the first debates we are talking about saying very, very stupid things well and intelligent things very, very badly.
Now I don’t mean stupid in a bad way. I fully credit John Kerry with the intelligence needed to analyze, dissect, and evaluate a position, and without mechanical aid, quickly and accurately use advanced trigonomic functions to determine the most popular position on a wide range of complex issues -– a feat that requires a very quick mind indeed.
So it’s not dumb stupid, those statements he made in the first debate. It’s more of an entirely understandable, eminently defensible, very common fossilized kind of stupid that we saw from the Senator. It was the stupid of a man claiming to have new ideas and new plans based on shared assumptions and models that no longer apply to reality.
President Bush seemed stupid in comparison because he seems to only know three things in all the world -– and it is our great good fortune that he is right about all three.
In a moment, we’ll look at what both men said, and through a very specific filter: not their Aggregate Presidentiality, or their respective Molar Charm Ratio. We’re going to look at what both men believe in respect to deterrence: whether their positions increase or decrease the likelihood of further attacks on the US.
That’s it. That’s all. That’s the sum total of this election for me. We’ve survived boobs and crooks and idiots and charlatans of all stripes and colors, struggled through booms and recessions, surpluses and deficits, and wars on poverty and drugs and crime and General Public Lasciviousness and come through just fine, and we will again.
But the nuclear destruction of the heart of Manhattan, or Long Beach Harbor, or the Capital mall -– these things are serious business and as Sam Johnson once said, the prospect of being hanged in the morning tends to focus the mind.
As I have been willing to accept that George W. Bush is no longer a hard-drinking frat boy but rather a sober and responsible adult, then so too am I willing to allow that John Kerry has matured since his secret meetings with enemy leaders during a time of war. I myself cast my first presidential vote for Walter Mondale. There is no decent excuse for any of these behaviors; and I only wish that my own lapses of judgment had been less embarrassing and more explainable… cannibalism, say, or something of that nature.
So I am willing to put the Moonbat and Wingnut nonsense aside for the moment, and grant that both men -– and their supporters -- have in mind the same objective when they talk about national security.
We both look at this:
And we both want to make sure that it -– or worse -– does not happen again.
We don’t want it to happen again.
We want to deter it from happening again.
And all of this rage and fury and spitting and tearing up of signs, all of these insults and spinmeisters and forgeries and all the rest, seem to come down to the fact that about half the country thinks you deter this sort of thing by being nice, while the other half thinks you deter this by being mean.
It’s really just that simple.
Now if sociology were a real science, we could set up experiments. We could, in fact, do what just about every one of us -– Liberal or Conservative -- has, in our heart of hearts, secretly wanted to do: send that 50% of idiots on the other side packing -– I mean, really packing, as in, out of the country, for good -- and let history show we were right after all.
We imagine an America made up exclusively of tough-minded Conservatives would be a far better, a safer and stronger place, than an America composed of nothing but compassion-filled Liberals.
They, of course, think precisely the opposite. And I have, over the past two years, determined that internet comment threads do not hold the answer to this predicament. Theirs, and ours, are usually just cheerleading sessions, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing but a soothing reduction in blood pressure brought about by the narcotic high of being agreed with.
We can’t, alas, deport all the left wingers and they cannot, damn it, silence all the right wingers. We are stuck with each other. Each sees the press as biased toward the other, and each gapes in awe and amazement that the other side could possibly feel the same way.
And although we cannot run an experiment to look into the alternate futures to glean the best result, to determine the relative benefits of being nice or being mean -– for those, ultimately, are the choices, believe it or not -– we can at least look back to see which seems to have produced the best results in the laboratory of history.
It all comes down to carrots (liberals) or sticks (conservatives). By the way: if you’re in a rush and need to run, here’s the spoiler: you can offer a carrot. Not everybody likes carrots. Some people may hate your carrot. Your carrot may offend people who worship the rutabaga. But no one likes being poked in the eye with a stick. That’s universal.
I’m a stick man. I wish it were different. But part of growing up -– in fact, the essential part of growing up -– is realizing that wishing does not make it so.
Folks, it’s time to reach down deep and get in touch with our inner adult.
I used to be a carrot man. Like most larval liberals, I grew up in a life that would be unrecognizable to all but the thinnest sliver of humans that have ever lived on this great rock in space -– that thin, thin sliver being everyone and everything you and I know and take for granted.
Reality -– meaning the wolves -– has never been so far from the door as it is today. So believing in the power of goodwill and friendship, of handshakes and agreement and compromise, of trusting to the good and noble in mankind was easy for me, for the consequences of being wrong in that belief cost me nothing at all. I’d never been robbed, raped, beaten or victimized in any way. That belief in goodwill, compromise, concession and trust grew as a result of being surrounded by decent people in a well-ordered, lawful society, with a long history of compromise and cooperation.
I can remember saying, in college, that if someone broke into my house and stole my television, well that was fundamentally just, because after all, I was white, male, educated and could make enough money to afford an endless line of televisions.
This view of the world was tempered somewhat, when, a few months later, I awoke to the sound of my window being opened and the sight of the upper torso of a man climbing in over the sill. By the way, it was only later that I realized that it wasn’t my TV he was there to steal. He was there to steal my dad’s TV -– he paid for it, not me. Once I had to go to work and earn money to pay for things, my mood changed somewhat. I put in forty hours of misery, boredom and early mornings for that TV, and some yayhoo just walks right in and takes it? Screw that! You want a TV? The McDonald’s on 13th and University is hiring.
Folks, some people who steal and rob are not fundamentally bad people. Some of them are desperate, some of them are stupid, and some of them are just plain lazy. Some of them, though, are psychopaths who’d kill you for a nickel and think nothing more about it -– they’d trade your life, and the life of your spouse and children, for two hours of getting high and it would not bother them in the least.
Nations are governed by people. People are noble and base, honest and corrupt, brutal and gentle and all the adjectives in between. Yes, even Americans! The success of democracy, it seems to me, is that there is always a counterweight to the most mendacious and the most harebrained of human activities. It’s harder to fool all the people all the time.
Dictatorships, on the other hand -– well, you’re down to the limits of one man’s sanity, ego, vanity and judgment. And when you consider the kind of person it takes to rule absolutely and totally the lives of millions of others -– many of them more intelligent, educated and capable -– then what you are left with is an enormous, destructive Iron Giant -– a state -– with a tiny, desperate, paranoid, perpetually fearful psychopath pulling the levers. Dictatorships put the power of millions, the muscle and capability of entire nations, behind the guy with the gun in that dark alley.
It is a prospect to make sane people shake with fear. Surely we can agree on this much. Surely we can agree, no matter our political persuasion, that there are mean, bad, violent people who care nothing about inflicting violence on the innocent in order to get what they want. And since those people exist, we should also be able to agree that such people can -– even in the heart of people as civilized as the Germans -– ride to power and employ that hatred and reckless disregard for human happiness multiplied by a hundred million.
That’s reality. It’s undeniable. I wish it were not true… but wishing does not make it so. Paging the Inner Adult… white courtesy telephone, please.
It would be nice to live in a world full of liberals. I say that as a staunch conservative. It would be nice to live in a world that behaved like a Hollywood party or a university campus, filled with kind, educated people with lots to lose, who cherish art and culture and are incapable of brutal, violent acts. If all the world were filled with decent, compassionate, rational people, life would be a bouquet.
But it’s not. There are bad people who do bad things, and there are bad countries run by bad people who do bad things, who eat the kind and gentle people for breakfast. There is no denying this. Therefore, liberals are insane. I speak from experience here.
It’s a damn shame, it really is.
Reasonable people can take the most cursory look into the world -– the Western world, anyway -- and see successes everywhere, but perfection nowhere to be found at any price.
Because I try to be a reasonable person, I don’t fault the government for not preventing 9/11 only because ultimately the government is made up of ordinary people, and ordinary people, like me, could not fully imagine or grasp what we were seeing that day even while we were seeing it.
I tuned in when the first tower had just gone down. The first images I saw that morning were of one tower and a cloud of smoke. Funny, I remember thinking, I thought there were two World Trade Center towers. I was sure I had remembered wrong. I didn’t see the first tower go down. Skyscrapers don’t just disappear.
When I saw the replay of the first plane hit, the first words I said that weren’t mumbled, awestruck and unpublishable were simply these:
There’s no way airline pilots did that. Those were not our pilots.
That was the only coherent thought I had for six hours.
We like to say that the world changed that day. What a ridiculous, self-centered thought. The world didn’t change. Our illusions about the world changed. The scales had (mostly) fallen from my eyes in the years leading up to that morning. My travels (and travails) through the Dark Realm called "Reality" had almost completed my conversion. But many, many conservatives were born precisely at 9:17 am EDT, when United 175 flew past the burning North Tower -– an accident? -– and exploded through the second, on the morning of September the 11th, 2001.
And everything we thought we knew about deterrence changed at 9:17 too –- although I am sorry to say it hasn’t fully sunk in on certain people.
Nineteen people -– some barely literate -- killed almost three thousand of the most highly skilled and productive citizens on the planet. I told my Dad that morning I just saw our Pearl Harbor. He immediately replied, “No you didn’t. After Pearl Harbor we knew who to attack.”
He was right. That’s the point of terrorism, of course. Deniability. 9/11 was an attack on the US by Islamicist fanatics, orchestrated by Egyptian strategists, staffed with Jihadists recruited from around the Arab world, and paid for largely by Saudi religious zealots. So why didn't they launch the attack with elements of the Egyptian and Saudi air forces? Because within six hours there would have been no more Egyptian and Saudi air forces, and within six weeks, no Egyptian and Saudi governments, either. Our deterrence against conventional attack, or even nuclear attack from a nation-state, is so credible and muscular that such a thing has become literally unthinkable.
But how do we deter people who want to die? How do we deter people who need only the skill and the means to push a button on a briefcase, or open a box cutter and be prepared to do bloody work with it? How do we deter the assassin lost in the crowd at the Superbowl? How do we deter enemies who are so dispersed, so ethereal and fragmentary, that hostile governments can arm and shelter them knowing full well that we will not retaliate with a nuclear attack against millions of genuine innocents in Cairo, or Tehran, or Riyadh?
If a suitcase nuke detonates in Times Square, or Long Beach harbor, or outside the Capitol building, what do we do? Nuke Mecca? Incinerate Damascus? Because -– so help me God, I tremble to say it -– that is exactly the response our enemies would hope for. They care not a whit about their own people because they have no allegiance to anyone but themselves and their vision of a vengeful and bloodthirsty Allah. A million, ten million innocents under American mushroom clouds are just that many more martyrs gone to paradise. It is they, not we, who dream of a clash of civilizations, with its promised sweeping away of the decadent and godless by the blood and faith of the Believer.
We might yet be able to stop this on the cheap. If we do not, I fear the day will come when 3000 civilians and 1000 American soldiers will look like a very, very small bill to pay.
What we learned on 9/11 is that there are people out there who are not deterrable. Given the chance -– given the weapons -– these people will strike without any regard to consequences. The ultimate horror of a world enveloped in nuclear fire is just peachy keen with them if it will bring about the New Caliphate. We love death the way you Americans love life, they say. They are not kidding. They are serious. You can pretend otherwise, but that will not make it change. There are people who are determined to kill us for who we are and what we believe. They can not be deterred.
But they can be defeated. And the people they depend on for survival can be deterred.
I initially had many doubts about George W. Bush. Actually, that’s not quite fair. The truth is, I despised the man. But then something happened.
I was walking across the studio lot to my car on the night of September 20th, 2001. I ignored the NOT A WALKWAY! signs in the grip and lighting department: cutting through the building saved me having to go around three giant sound stages to get to my car. Barricades had been put up on the back gate, and security guards were checking our trunks for explosives and running a mirror under every vehicle that drove onto the lot. And you couldn’t hear a jet fly over without wondering... what if? What now?
You may remember those days. I do.
It was getting dark as I walked down that narrow corridor, flanked by enormous movie lights and innumerable c-stands. And there, at the desk, was a group of six or seven grips watching a small color television in perfect silence: an ancient TV, the greens and oranges radioactive and bleeding -- the Acid Channel.
I watched George W. Bush give the best speech I have ever heard: better, by far, than FDR’s Pearl Harbor address. Better, even, than the tinny, lilting, lisping sound of Churchill’s immortal call to fight them on the beaches.
As I watched that speech unwind, I knew, instantly and unequivocally, that this President understood what we were up against, the moment he said:
We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety. We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions -- by abandoning every value except the will to power -- they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way, to where it ends: in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies.
Yes, precisely: not desperately aggrieved parties, not freedom fighters, not anything more than thugs and murderers who want to impose their way of life on the world. Fascists. Ruthless, fanatical bastards sworn to our destruction.
Then, three paragraphs later, this:
Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.
This line, this doctrine -– either you’re with us or the terrorists -– has drawn nothing but scorn from the nuanced sophisticates from around the world. What they refuse to see is that in one brilliant stroke it cuts the camouflage away from terror, and in effect neutralizes the very lever that makes International Terror so effective a tool: deniability. More on this in a moment.
I sat amazed at the confidence and the vision President Bush outlined in that speech. I remember saying out loud, to no one in particular, “I was wrong about this man.” A few of the grips nodded in silence. None of us took our eyes off the TV screen.
It is my hope that in the months and years ahead, life will return almost to normal. We'll go back to our lives and routines, and that is good. Even grief recedes with time and grace. But our resolve must not pass. Each of us will remember what happened that day, and to whom it happened. We'll remember the moment the news came -- where we were and what we were doing. Some will remember an image of a fire, or a story of rescue. Some will carry memories of a face and a voice gone forever.
And I will carry this: It is the police shield of a man named George Howard, who died at the World Trade Center trying to save others. It was given to me by his mom, Arlene, as a proud memorial to her son. This is my reminder of lives that ended, and a task that does not end.
I will not forget this wound to our country or those who inflicted it. I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.
And there stood a man I had not seen before -– and sadly, have not seen often since -– holding the shield of a dead hero in his hand, promising not to tire, or falter, or fail, until this vague and mysterious war was won. And I swore to myself, right then and there, that I would support this President, come what may. And in the intervening years, as the criticisms and hysteria have risen in pitch to the point where only dogs can hear, I have stood by him and his policies, and I do so proudly, to this day.
But time and again I have wished and hoped to hear that music again, that calm, unruffled, determined voice. By now so many small people have carried so many lies so far –-BushHitler! Halliburton! Yellowcake! No Blood for Oil! AWOL! -- that we awake as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice to find that the broom shards have filled the cellars with an ocean of poison to debunk and to drain.
During the past two years I have been angry with the President; angry that common amateurs writing online in their pajamas (I favor a smoking jacket, fez and calabash pipe when I dash off these little gems) have to rise and defend the policies that we wholeheartedly agree with but which have been appallingly poorly defined and defended by the White House.
And then I had a bit of a revelation. Like Col. Kurtz, I felt I had been shot through the forehead with a diamond bullet. This happened last night.
I tried to enlist on September 12th, 2001. I knew a little about airplanes; maybe the Air Force would trust me to wash them or something so as to free up useful people. They asked how old I was, thanked me, and told me they’d give me a call if they needed me.
So here I am: feeling useless. But President Bush warned that this was going to be a different war -– something unlike anything we had ever seen. The front line now, at this critical time, is in the hearts and minds of our own people. That’s where the real battle is now. That is our weakest point, our breach, our point of failure. We have not made the case to enough people and time is running out.
So maybe now, at this absurd point in this new kind of war, we’re the crack troops, we old and useless pajama patriots reduced to printing up pamphlets to sell war bonds to the weary, to make the case for holding on to an unglamorous, uninspiring, relentless grind because that -– not Normandy and Midway -– is the face of war in this gilded age of luxury and safety and plenty.
Maybe that’s our job. Maybe we can help cover some small gap in the lines.
We’ll see. But for now, I will take up the sword of the pajamahadeen, and rise up: just another citizen-wordsmith, trying to put words and ideas where they are needed: into the stumbling gaps, exasperated expressions and defensiveness of a brave and exhausted man under a lot of pressure.
John Kerry has spoken now in front of the nation. We have, at last, a position that can be analyzed. I could use exerpts from their first debate to show that he is better spoken, or nicer, or taller than President Bush. I care about none of that. I am interested in one thing only from these two men: who will best deter the enemy? Who will best be able to stop a thousand 9/11’s in a millisecond of religious ecstasy? That’s all I care about.
We’ll review the debate in the order in which it occurred.
Posted by Proteus at October 6, 2004 3:02 AM
[Part 2 continues below]