(If you're new here, welcome. The regulars usually grab some coffee and relax. This will take about an hour, and, as usual, the end point of our journey is not visible from the beginning.)
UPDATE: I added an additional argument that I deeply wish I had thought of when I first wrote the piece. If you just got here, you get the improved version at no additional charge.)
What’s worse than crawling under your beloved house and seeing the foundation's rotten with decades of termite damage?
NOT crawling under your beloved house and seeing the foundation's rotten with decades of termite damage.
I’ve been away for a while, doing a little thinking. Usually, my thoughts for these past few years have started at home and then taken me to Iraq, and the war. Lately, though, I have been thinking about Iraq, and my thoughts turn more and more to home.
I started thinking along these lines six months ago, after a young Marine shot and killed a wounded Iraqi in a mosque in Fallujah
The ideas behind this little adventure we are about to embark upon have changed enormously since then. I have, quite frankly, been at a loss to know how to put so many wide-ranging snapshots together into this montage, this image, this idea of Sanctuary that I think holds the key to many of the problems we face today.
Stay with me -- our first stop is not our destination, but it is a necessary one. So let me first take you on that original journey, and show you how events in Iraq can show us how to fight and win a much wider and deeper conflict, right here at home.
Now to hear some fellers tell it, the entire idea of “Unlawful Combatants” came to Sith mastermind Darth Rover in a vision, and he instructed his familiars Chimpy McBushitler and Torture Master Rumsfeld to use it as an excuse to begin the unjustified savagery that is such an essential part of the American character.
Absent from this worldview is…well…just about everything.
During the actual Major Combat Operations of Iraqi Freedom, US generosity and grace toward defeated elements of the Iraqi regular army was in the highest tradition of the US Military, which is justifiably well-known for its benevolence toward a defeated adversary on the battlefield. Surrendering Iraqi regular units were given rations and medical care, and their officers were allowed to keep their sidearms as a show of respect and authority. I have not seen or heard of a single case of anything less than exemplary conduct regarding enemy regular-army soldiers.
So why were the Taliban and Al Qaeda and Fedayeen insurgents treated so differently? Why the hoods and shackles? Why the humiliation at Abu Graib?
It is not because these men shot at US soldiers. Regular Iraqi units, NVA units, North Korean Units, Germans, Japanese, Confederates and Redcoats have shot at American soldiers and upon their surrender their treatment has been, on the whole, exemplary. Why are these different?
It is not because they are opposing us. It is – to put it as bluntly as possible – because they are cheating – cheating in a way that none of the above ever did.
They have willfully and repeatedly broken the covenant of Sanctuary.
Let’s speak to the Perennially Outraged as if they were the fully grown, post-pubescent children they pride themselves on being.
What is the obvious difference between an enemy Prisoner of War, and an Unlawful Combatant? Suppose two of them were standing in a line-up. What one glaringly obvious thing sets them apart?
That’s right! One is wearing a uniform, and the other isn’t.
And why do soldiers wear uniforms?
It certainly is not to protect the soldier. As a matter of fact, a soldier’s uniform is actually a big flashing neon arrow pointing to some kid that says to the enemy, SHOOT ME!
And that’s one of the things a uniform is for. It makes the soldier into a target to be killed.
Now if that’s all there was to it, you might say that the whole uniform thing is not such a groovy idea. BUT! What a uniform also does -- the corollary to the whole idea of a uniformed person – is to say that if the individual wearing a uniform is a legitimate target, then the person standing next to him in civilian clothes is not.
By wearing uniforms, soldiers differentiate themselves to the enemy. They assume additional risk in order to protect the civilian population. In other words, by identifying themselves as targets with their uniforms, the fighters provide a Sanctuary to the unarmed civilian population.
And this Sanctuary is as old as human history. The first civilized people on Earth, these very same Iraqis, who had cities and agriculture and arts and letters when my ancestors were living in caves, wore uniforms as soldiers of Babylon. This is an ancient covenant, and willfully breaking it is unspeakably dishonorable.
Now, imagine you are involved in street-to-street fighting…
We should actually stop right here. No one can imagine street-to-street fighting. It is a refined horror that you have lived through or you have not, and all I can do with the full power of my imagination does not get to the shadow of it. Nevertheless, there are men who have peered around corners in Fallujah, and Hue, and Carentan and a hundred unknown places; places where the enemy’s rifle may be leveled inches away from your nose, awaiting the last split-second of your young life.
Most of the time, you do not have time to think. A person jumps up from below a window three feet away. If he is wearing a grey tunic and a coal-scuttle helmet, it’s a Kraut and you let him have it before he kills you and your buddies. But what if he is wearing street clothes? What if he is smiling at you?
For brutal soldiers – like the Nazis those of the far left accuse us of being precisely equal to – this is a moot point. The SS killed everything that moved. They executed prisoners in uniforms, partisans, hostages and children. They were animals.
Our soldiers are civilized, compassionate and decent citizens doing a tough, horrible job. That means when they see someone who might be a civilian, they hesitate. That hesitation can and has killed them. And some people wonder why enemy soldiers without the honor and courage to wear a uniform are treated less than honorably after being captured by men full of courage and restraint.
Worse – worse by far – than the artificial safety given to enemies not wearing a uniform is the additional horror such behavior will inevitably inflict upon their own civilian population.
And it doesn’t hurt to point out – repeatedly – that the people they are putting at infinitely greater risk are supposedly the very people these so-called Muslim Warriors claim be trying to protect: their own women and children. Michael Moore has called these ruthless cowards the moral equivalent of our revolutionary Minutemen. I would point out to Mr. Moore that when confronted by an overwhelming enemy force, our Minutemen grabbed their guns, put their elderly, their women and their children behind them, and went out to face their adversary as far away from the weak and vulnerable as possible. These people do precisely the opposite. Our Minutemen fought for Freedom and Liberty; these fight for repression, state torture, and the right to force everyone to behave as they see fit. Am I surprised that Michael Moore cannot see this difference? I am not. The man has not seen his own toes for two decades, and they are a good deal closer to him than the streets of Fallujah.
Do those protesters ever wonder why prisoners of war in World War II movies – soldiers -- trying to escape in civilian clothes would be shot as spies? A soldier out of uniform, a soldier trying to hide in the civilian population is gaining a one-time personal advantage, but that's not the real sin. The real sin is that he is endangering the non-combatants. He is using civilians as cover. He is breaking down the barrier between the armed and the unarmed, the threat and the non-threat. He is trying to have it both ways.
Whenever there is war and invasion, there will be terrified civilians trying to get from one place to another. In the very early hours of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when we expected to be fighting the same Army that in the Gulf War fully honored the idea of uniformed troops, our soldiers discovered large numbers of unarmed, military-aged men in civilian clothes making for the rear. Many of these men were let through, and promptly took up arms and caused immeasurable damage before blending back into the population.
But they did much worse. Because after a few suicide bombers in civilian vehicles drove up to checkpoints and blew themselves and honor-abiding Coalition soldiers to bits, we have found ourselves having to treat all speeding civilian vehicles as hostile. We simply have no choice anymore. We did not simply decide to open fire on civilians; rather the enemy, in a cold and calculated decision repeated many, many times over, decided to violate the Sanctuary given to civilians to wage war on an American and British Army playing by the rules. They have made the line between civilian and soldier nonexistent. They did this, not us. They did it. They gained the benefits from it, and it has cost us dear. And so perhaps, in a world with less ignorance and more honesty, Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena – who sped at a US roadblock, weaving, at more than 60 mph and in violation of warning shots -- would be pointing her finger at the people who violated this Covenant of Civilization, and not those being forced to make terrible decisions in order to preserve it.
War is hell, and soldiers have to live there. It is an unbearable burden; unbearable in the sense that not a single man and woman who has been fully exposed to war has ever come back home. Someone else comes back home. Sometimes, it is a better person. Sometimes a worse one. But they are different, all changed in the horror and crucible of war.
And so from the beginning of war, there exists between soldiers a bond that cannot be described. There is the obvious connection of a soldier to his comrades, but there is too a strong sense of respect and kinship with the soldier on the other side of No Man’s Land, shivering in cold wet places just the same, under orders and doing his job, too – just wanting to get the thing over with and go home.
Surrender is a mercy in such a place. The idea that certain death may be avoided, that one might be willing to simply give up fighting and still survive, is mercy of the deepest blue. Surrendering enemy soldiers are often greeted with a warmth and understanding that friendly civilians do not receive, for they have shared in the misery and hardship of war in ways that we comfortable and safe civilians can never know.
Surrender, in war, is perhaps the ultimate of Sanctuaries. It is a way out when hope and rescue have fled the field. Honorable surrender has never been treated with shame by any American unit I have ever heard of.
And so, when groups of un-uniformed enemy soldiers waving white flags suddenly drop and open fire on unsuspecting, generous and honorable Americans, then the masters of these men have made a terrible bargain. They have destroyed the Sanctuary of Surrender, and eliminated for their own men a deep and abiding refuge in the nightmare of the battlefield.
They have done this to their own men. Not us. We have known of the brutality of the Iraqi army regarding prisoners from at least as far back as those taken and beaten during the first Gulf War, and as far as improvements over the intervening years, we might perhaps call Jessica Lynch to tell us of any newfound magnanimity on the part of the Ba’athists.
False surrender as a weapon of ambush is an abomination. When it is repeated, it is obvious that is not an aberration; it is policy. It is, like the abandonment of the uniform, a tactic to gain a short-term advantage that leads to long-term hardship and misery for their own troops. It is a Devil’s bargain, and they have had the Devil to pay for it – as have we.
They violate the Sanctuary of the Uniform. They violate the Sanctuary of Surrender. And the most reprehensible of all is the violation of the Sanctuary of Mercy.
Throughout the insurgency, and especially in places like Fallujah, enemy fighters with real or feigned wounds have called for aid. Not often does a soldier who has been in combat look down upon the wounded of either side without horror and sympathy. In places like Fallujah and Iwo Jima and Antietam it is an easy thing to see one’s own reflection in that grimace and that agony.
So when a soldier out of uniform, who may have faked surrender to kill unsuspecting Americans, calls for aid and then willfully kills medics with a concealed grenade… where does that leave us? What unplumbed depths remain? When mercy is used as a weapon against the merciful, what horrors and abominations remain unplayed?
THAT, dear left-wing Citadels of Conscience, is what we are up against. That is what you support against the decency, honor and kindness you mock in your own countrymen as they build schools and hospitals and, indeed, an entire democracy. That is the definition of “Unlawful Combatant.” It is not a legal nicety, and it is not a rhetorical flourish. It is a pattern of ruthlessness, deception and murder. And regardless of your motive, it is the side you find yourself taking.
These are the kind of men in Guantanamo. Who controls such men? And when busloads of men from Afghanistan and Syria and Jordan and Egypt and Iran, men without uniforms, men not under the control of any officer, men who follow no code of conduct other than an oath to kill any American, anywhere – who among us with a gram of understanding and perspective can be surprised when such men are hooded and shackled on air transports? And being left to sleep in the open air is one thing in Northern Germany in the winter of ’44, and something else entirely in the middle of the goddam Caribbean! I mean, for the love of God, some of the people screaming themselves into a lather over such an outrage will pay tens of thousands of dollars for the same privilege a few miles away on a catamaran anchored off the coast of Jamaica.
And when people acting on the stage of their own moral outrage wonder when such men will be released, what do we say to them? When Osama bin Laden officially surrenders Al Qaeda on the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan? They have no government, they have no command structure, they have no objective but death. That is their great strength, and by God, it is also their weakness, and we would be fools – absolute drooling idiots – to let them have it both ways.
These fanatics have been rigorously coached to lie about mistreatment and torture, and despite this transparent fact, every utterance they make is breathlessly quoted and trumpeted by the press as absolute truth. The naked human pyramids, intimidation with dogs, sexual humiliation and threat of electroshock torture that marked a day or two of mistreatment at Abu Graib were the tools used by immature and untrained individuals precisely because the methods previously employed at that location – removal of fingers and tongues and genitalia, electrified wire brushes, and the rape and murder of relatives before the eyes of the prisoner – are so far beyond the horizon of what American interrogators are able to imagine doing that any comparison between the two betrays the moral blindness of those making the comparison.
Is humiliation the same as torture? It is not -- that's why the words are spelled differently. To get to the heart of the difference, assume you were a prisoner at Abu Graib, and your interrogator started to remove your fingers one by one with bolt cutters. How long would it take you to beg to be posed with women’s panties on your head? Yeah, I thought so.
This is not to excuse in any way the shameful behavior committed there by a few individuals who clearly are not fit to wear the uniform of the United States. They have disgraced us all and done incalculable damage. But if producing humiliation and fear is now to be defined as “torture,” what international human rights organization will be appointed to help the surviving readers of The New York Times?
No system built on human behavior is perfect; they can only be good. What's a reasonable guess as to the number of sadistic, brutal and infantile Americans who so dishonored their uniforms at Abu Graib? Shall we say, perhaps fifteen? Fifteen who knew about what was happening, and countenenced it? So those fifteen, out of a total force of 150,000, completely negate the hard work, restraint, courage and compassion of the rest of the American presence in Iraq?
That is not ten percent bad apples. That is not one percent. That is not one-tenth of a percent. It is, in round numbers one percent of one per cent. What is the percentage of criminals in the general population? A hundred times that? A thousand? Can college professors boast that kind of quality control? Can reporters? And yet this is all the press can obsess about, for over a year...the behavior of .0001 of the U.S. forces employed to liberate Iraq?
But remember, there is no bias in the media.
And by the way, has it not occurred to anyone that during the years since 9/11 there has not been a single terrorist attack on the United States? Do you think they simply stopped trying? Or have we been winning a secret war of information in dark rooms in Langley, Virginia? How many failed attempts have there been to kill you and your family in the past four years? Two? Twenty? One Hundred?
If we cannot use torture to get that information -- and we most emphatically should not and have not -- then what can we use? Anything? No intimidation? No sleep deprivation? No threats? No coercion? No drugs? What are we left with to persuade these killers to talk? The comfy chair?
It is not only possible, but likely, that many of the press elites who consider bright lights and harsh language as a form of “torture interrogation” are alive today in places like New York and San Francisco precisely because of information gleaned from inmates at Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay. I have no doubt of this whatsoever. What would their response be, I wonder, if standing at the funeral of their friends and children they discovered that the information needed to save their lives could have been obtained not through torture, but through fear of torture, or through humiliation and intimidation?
As you sit here reading this, there are men and women working around the clock using information obtained – not just without torture, but humanely – to keep us safe at night. They do this without any recognition or fanfare. But there are no less than ten televised award shows each year honoring those who do the best job at playing make-believe, and more often than not, the heroes they pretend to be are the soldiers and intelligence agents and policemen they so spectacularly spit upon the second the camera stops rolling.
We worship the wrong people. More on that in a moment.
There is one final layer of atrocity, a violation of the very core idea of Sanctuary as a place of safe haven that the insurgents in Iraq practice with abandon.
These religious fanatics, who will form a mob and tear a person limb from limb if he (or especially she) so much as looks askance at a copy of the Quran, routinely and methodically have used mosques – even their most sacred mosques – as ammunition dumps, staging areas and firing positions, viewing our decency and restraint as foolishness and weakness.
These acts have been recorded so many times that it has become banal. It’s just a fact. It’s what they do.
If they had genuine respect for their own religions and holy places they would give them the widest berth available, not turn them into command bunkers, ambush sites and staging areas.
Here is a violation of Sanctuary written as plainly as the eye can see. They use safe havens -- hospitals, hotels and places of worship -- as military fortresses because they are counting on our decency and honor to spare them from retaliation.
Actually, it is deeper than that. I suspect what they are really counting on is that sooner or later, such provocations have to be answered. And then there will be armies of useful idiots with television cameras and microphones and Expensive Hair, who will rally the full weight of recrimination and guilt and defeatism and accomplish for a few bearded lunatics what entire armored divisions could not achieve for them on the battlefield: Victory over the Americans.
That is a glimpse into a door we will fully open in a moment.
Now back to the beginning: a Marine, in a mosque. He is wounded from the previous day, and has seen with his own eyes how a faked surrender cost the lives of his friends. He has seen all of the values, all of the Sanctuaries of War, all shreds of grace and mercy in the face of war violated at every turn. His innate decency and restraint have been used against him and his fellow Marines, and it has cost them hard.
The enemy – he is not a “prisoner” until he surrenders – is playing dead. That Marine has seen this before. Other men in the room surrender with outstretched hands. They not only are not shot; they are cared for. But not this Jihadi. He has been firing from a mosque – out of uniform, of course – and now he is playing dead in a room full of exhausted Marines. If today is anything like yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that, then very likely he is concealing a grenade that will send this kid home in a box, and perhaps his best friends, and the company medic, and God knows what else.
If that man playing dead is hiding a grenade, then this is a split-second, life-or-death decision. The camera, of course, did not record the countless times these savages have pretended to surrender and opened fire, pretended to be civilians and then launched an RPG, pretended to be wounded so they could kill a doctor risking his life to treat them.
No, that part is conveniently left out of the story. You see, it’s much more difficult to whip up anti-American frenzy when there is a shred of context. The Marine makes his decision and pulls the trigger. Neither the Marine, nor the insurgent, were conscripted. Both made a conscious choice that brought them to that room.
The other Jihadis in the room are not gunned down. They raise their arms in surrender. They are not pretending to be dead.
I have talked to several combat veterans about this incident. The results did not surprise me, but I am sure jaws would drop among members of the Democratic Underground who naturally assume that these inhuman baby-killers would stick together.
To a man, I heard that they simply couldn’t judge this young Marine because they weren’t there. This is a long way from the armchair quarterbacking from both sides here at home. You weren’t there, and I wasn’t there either. I am enormously proud, and not in the least surprised, to hear from Marines that if the guy was in the wrong he should be court-martialed and sent away – perhaps forever. No one has a more vested interest in the reputation of the Marine Corps than – I almost wrote “former Marine,” but there is no such thing – than a retired Marine.
I am convinced, in my soul, from conversations with the men and women of the Marine Corps that they take both sides of the “no better friend, and no worse enemy” motto very seriously. These are decent and kind people. They’re Americans. They have been put into some of the most horrible ethical and moral positions any soldier has had to face; quandaries of conscience, ethical decisions made in the split-second between life and death that would have knocked their parents and grandparents on their heels in Bastogne and Guadalcanal. The mere fact that we are even discussing this one incident puts a gulf light-years across from the Nazi murderers that overblown, overheated, narcissistic, arrogant and undereducated critics on the left have slandered them as.
That Marine, like any other civilized person, deserved a trial by a jury of his peers, and in this case, of his peers means members of that small, highly-tempered group of people who have, in some sense, been in that room: combat veterans. Not newsmen, not college professors, not professional activists and certainly not guys like me, sitting in their pajamas writing on the internet.
That combat veterans found him not guilty of misconduct surprised me not in the least, given the circumstances. If it had gone the other way, he might have faced a long prison term, or even the death penalty, for responding as he did to the many Sanctuaries violated by his enemies.
He might even have faced a fate worse then death. They might even have thrown him out of the Marine Corps.
That was the essay I thought I would write. But that’s not the half of it. That’s not even the beginning.
I mean, after all, such things seem transparently obvious to me. I expected no more than the savagery shown by these terrorists, and no less than the professionalism and restraint, not to mention unprecedented military prowess, from our men and women in uniform.
But what has shocked and dismayed me, way beyond the sadness and regret of our losses, has been the willingness, even the eagerness, among many on the left who want nothing more than to see our side lose.
Our soldiers are fighting and dying to install what any sane person can see is a widely-representative democracy, heroically elected at great personal risk. Opposing them are a shadow army of former secret policemen, state torturers, and foreign invaders of every stripe who kill Iraqi policemen, behead innocent Iraqi cabdrivers, and detonate car bombs at the opening of new schools and children’s centers. There may be an explanation for this support I am not seeing. I, for one, can not get past the idea that millions of Western Progressives would rather see a nation re-enslaved, or erupt in civil war, or have twenty thousand of their countrymen come home in boxes than admit that they were wrong.
And they have the audacity, the unmitigated gall, to claim the moral high ground?
I am trying my level best to understand how and why someone who professes to be for freedom for artists, homosexuals and women – not to mention unlimited personal expression of every stripe -- can take the side of 8th Century religious fanatics who brag about murdering writers, stoning women, beheading homosexuals and instituting moral policemen at every street corner with unquestioned authority to beat, jail or execute anyone suspected of being insufficiently pious.
I used to wonder why civilizations fell. No longer. I see it now before my eyes, every day. Civilizations do not fall because the Barbarians storm the walls. The forces of civilization are far too powerful, and those of barbarism far too weak, for that to happen.
Civilizations fall because the people inside the Sanctuary throw open the gates.
Look around. Tell me what you see. Look at how the entire idea of civilization is under attack. Abandoning the ideas of civilization and savagery is tantamount to throwing open the gates. Maintaining a civilization takes work – savagery, not so much. If both are equal then what’s the point?
Don’t think there’s any difference? Then here’s a little show-and-tell for you, Scooter:
When Newsweek runs an unsubstantiated rumor about flushing a Quran down the toilet, entire nations erupt into riots that leave many dead and more, likely, to follow. That is savagery.
Trained teams of Islamic murderers hijack four airliners, slit the throats of their crews, immolate their passengers as flying bombs and destroy the heart of a city and worse, and the most powerful people the world has ever known sit patiently trying to identify the perpetrators and then sacrifices its own children to reform a diseased and despotic region with overwhelming restraint and discretion – that is civilization.
Really, all I’m trying to do here is prevent the fall of Civilization. Now far be it from me to be so arrogant as to think I can prevent the fall of Civilization with a single essay! It may take several essays; in fact, if things are worse than I feared it might take an entire book.
Here’s my thesis: Civilizations fall because they become so successful that their citizens become, over many generations of increasing security and prosperity, further and further away from the reality of the human condition. The quest for “better” becomes so successful that after a few generations of hard work and ingenuity we have nothing left but the quest for “perfect.” More and more effort produces fewer and smaller results, because the quest for perfection is asymptotic. Perfection is unattainable.
But when things are this good – and relative to human history, life in 21st Century America is far, far better than it has ever been, anywhere or at anytime – then merely being very good is, well, kind of disappointing to some people. There was a time when the voices of dissent came from the poorest and most downtrodden. Not any more. America has gotten so rich and successful that our poor and downtrodden live like kings relative to most of the rest of the world. The standard of living for the poorest American states are de facto better than those in Sweden, to say nothing of Egypt or Somalia or Haiti. No, today the loudest criticisms of the West come not from the bottom, but from the top: millionaire filmmakers and Harvard University professors and columnists who live in luxury skyscrapers. These people have never met real savagery, but they’ve seen it on Hogan’s Heroes! Anyone who can compare the US Marine Corps with the German SS has obviously never had to deal with either. There are millions of photos of people protesting President Bush. There is not a single photo of people in the street protesting Hitler. This tells me something. This should tell the Bush=Hitler crowd something, too. But it doesn’t.
Reality has left their building.
The inability of external reality to become perfect is a profound disappointment for people who live in their own fantasy worlds where everything is perfect. Such people expect the external world, the world beyond the boundaries of our Sanctuary, to behave like a celebrity awards show dinner or a faculty lounge. Of course, only very, very small areas of the world behave like a celebrity award show dinner or a faculty lounge. But when enough people experience nothing else, and when those pampered, bored, hollow and guilty elites control the way information is reported, run the schools and universities in which reality-free theories are taught, and hold the keys to the manufacture of a society’s myths and stories and culture – well, then the disconnect between the Civilization and reality becomes so acute that the wing stalls and what was once a soaring airplane becomes a few tons of metal plummeting earthward.
This awful and necessary war has done a lot more than show us the nature of the barbarism we face when confronting this death cult…and make no mistake, the men we face now in Iraq – not the poor regular army conscripts, but these beheading, civilian-murdering bastards -- are cut from precisely the same cloth as the 9/11 hijackers, and hail from the same places, too. I, for one, would rather face these people in Fallujah and Mosul with the U.S. Army and Marine Corps than deal with them in Times Square and the Rose Bowl with Firemen and Paramedics.
But this war has done much more. It has shown us just how many people here inside the walls of our Sanctuary wish for – work for – its destruction.
And we just simply can’t let that happen.
This is an odd disease: the cure is simple, but the diagnosis is acutely complex and we will have to cover an awful lot of bases to get to the point. The rest of this journey may seem a little chaotic, but there’s a strange attractor underneath. Don’t look for it, for it will reveal itself in due time.
But as we continue this circuitous journey, we might take a moment to observe that those who call themselves “Progressives” have indeed progressed, all right: they have left irony far behind at the gate and are deep into full-blown hi-larity when they claim to be members of “the reality-based community.” These deep-thinking elites, whose political philosophy seems to be limited to what can be fit onto a bumper sticker, telegraphed with giant paper-mache’ puppets or expressed in nude street dancing, are a long, long way from reality. For these highly nuanced deep-thinkers like Ward Churchill and Kos and Howard Dean and all the others, the world is divided into Progressive People Who Naturally Agree With Me on one hand and Jesusland on the other.
Reality has not been kind to far leftists, historically, as we shall soon see. Like many in the deepest, most pleasant and safe confines of our Sanctuary, they have never had a chance to see – or have chosen not to see -- the reality of human nature up close and personal. Reality told them it was just going to the bathroom, when in point of fact Reality left these Leftists alone at the table without paying the check, and it hasn’t returned their phone calls, either.
So they just don’t even bother any more.
I wish these people no personal harm whatsoever. As Americans, they are free to have their own opinions. But I do think their ideology is overdue for a damn good thrashing.
I don’t normally “work blue.” So pardon me; I know this next stop will shock some of you. But it’s necessary.
I live in a blue state. I live, actually, on the corner of Santa Monica and Venice: two of the bluest cities in America. And what I saw recently was…well…kind of…pornographic. This degree of obsessive self-stimulation requires electroshock therapy.
The story I’m about to tell you is exactly true. It’ll get better in a few years, but right now, it’s so recent that this is pretty much how it happened.
Not long ago, I was standing in line at LAX undoing my shoelaces, emptying my pockets of coins, cell phones, iPods, keys, assorted aviation-grade bolts, nuts and washers, auxiliary fuel pumps, Buick transmissions and anything else that would cause the metal detector to explode in a shower of sparks. Directly in front of me was a greasy man with a gray ponytail wearing a sweatshirt that seemed to be covered in yellow fluff, as if he had spent the day removing insulation. I paid him no attention whatsoever.
The TSA guy said “remove your shoes and any metal objects, have your boarding pass and ID visible, and step through the metal detector in an orderly fashion.”
And just as I was about to push the grey plastic stuffholder over the rollers, I, and the 200 people directly behind me, realized that the man in front of me was not proceeding through the metal detector in an orderly fashion. He was, in point of fact, not moving at all.
“Step forward, sir”
“Not until you say please.”
Ah, here we go. I took a closer look at the guy. He had a carry-on “suitcase” that consisted of a cardboard box wrapped in plastic tape, but he wasn't poor. He was just rumpled – and not merely disheveled, either – point of pride rumpled. He was wearing the kind of expression that allows you to see what he’s watching in that private screening room inside his head. It was the same expression he’d have worn if he were that Chinese Tiananmen Square guy holding up that line of tanks. The Standing Up To The Death Machine expression. (Of course, Ponytail knew in advance that the tanks would stop, which is a lot more, and an awful lot less, than what that brave Chinese student had to work with.)
“Sir, I need you to step through the screening device.”
“I demand you say please. It doesn’t take any extra effort to say please.” And while that was true enough, now we were dealing with the issue of who was in control here: security personnel, or The Delicate Sensibilities of the Perennially Offended.
A supervisor materialized and motioned me through. He pulled Ponytail over to the side as well. I could hear them going at it not two feet away as I regained the thirty pounds of ferrous compounds I had placed on the conveyor belt. I was trying to ignore them and get to the gate because this guy was starting to get on my nerves.
“Your job is to provide good customer service,” smirked Ponytail, checking the audience for approval.
“No sir. Our job is to provide a safe travel environment. We try to provide good customer service while doing so, but our main goal is to move people through here as quickly as we can while maintaining safety standards.”
And so on. And so on. The Man asked Ponytail for some identification. And just as I was turning to leave, just as I had my carry-on in hand and was walking away, I heard ponytail say, for the benefit of the oppressed masses behind him:
“You people are just like the Nazis!”
And then something happened that I cannot remember ever happening to me before. I’d had that cork in my mouth – you know, the cork you put in your mouth when you see children being dragged nonchalantly down a supermarket aisle, collapsed in a tantrum because they didn’t get the candy bar they wanted; or the cork you put in your mouth when a couple is having a knock-down, drag-out yelling match in a quiet restaurant, or the one you stuff in your mouth to avoid screaming at the guy talking on his cell phone in the movie theater. The it’s not worth it cork.
Well, the millisecond the “Z” sound from “Nazis!” entered my ear, it built up an overpressure wave so intense that it blew the cork out of my mouth, sent it flying through the plate glass windows, through a large avocado green American Tourister hard-sided suitcase and embedded it three feet deep in the reinforced concrete tarmac.
“NAZIS!! Are you out of your goddam mind?! How dare you!” said I.
Now one thing I have learned about the North American Greybacked Strutting Trumpeter is that it is, in fact, a rather easily startled bird.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve, man!" I continued, "A lot of nerve! This man is potentially risking his life for your personal safety, and you have the gall to call him a Nazi?!”
Ponytail was looking around, confused now. He was the one who was supposed to get murmurs of agreement and nods of support, not the right-wing warmongering reactionary who he had the misfortune to be standing next to when he made The Stand.
“Just like the Nazis!” he screamed, and then, to my utter astonishment, he did a bad Major Hochstetter German accent and said “Show me your papers!”
Then, moral trump card: “I had family taken away by the Nazis!” Well, that ought to shut me up!
“If that’s true they must be pretty goddamned ashamed of you, you goddam idiot! If you can actually compare someone not saying please to having family members murdered in front of your eyes then you have some serious reading to do! My GOD, you’re disgusting!”
There was a lot of nodding and murmuring, and a half-corked “Yeah!” or two.
Actually, I think I placed an additional adjective prior to that last “idiot,” but this is a family website.
Now I know some of you are having a hard time believing I came up with all this right off the cuff. And you’d be right. Unfortunately for Ponytail, I’d been practicing this speech in my head for years now; every time I see one of these people with their American flags with swastikas in place of stars, or their BUSH=HITLER signs. Looking back on it, I have a tinge of guilt, quickly dispelled when I realize that he’d been rehearsing his speech pretty much all his life. If he’d kept his cork in I was certainly happy to bite down on mine. But nooooooooooooo.
Then the Supervisor stepped up, and I thought I might be in a little trouble now myself. But he turned to Ponytail and said, “Sir, now we have a problem. Now you are disrupting security procedures. Am I going to have to ask you to step into my office for an interview?”
“Have a safe trip.”
The man disappeared, no doubt ducking through the terminal to find the nearest internet access so he could post his heroic exploits on Democratic Underground.
Just as I was walking away, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the Supervisor.
Oh well. I guess I’ll catch the next flight. It was worth it. I guess it’s time for my interview now. For disrupting security procedures. Which I did.
“I just wanted to thank you for sticking up for us like that,” he said. “We get that all the time.”
I never really thought about it before. I guess they do. The original screener, the Nazi Latino in his mid fifties, thanked me for defending him. So did a young black woman Nazi in her mid twenties. “We really appreciate it when people get what we’re trying to do. We get stuff like this all the time.”
And I stood there, looking around at the multi-racial, multi-cultural menagerie swirling around me, and I thought to myself – yet again – that this whole thing works. Not perfectly, but it works, by God. And I thought that this greasy, grey little one-man phalanx of narcissism and protest should in fact bow his head and take a knee to simply be allowed to walk through this gate of miracles and fly six miles high at nearly the speed of sound and nurse his grievances against the people who are in fact protecting him, while he fetishizes and romanticizes those that would kill him in a heartbeat.
I know what I did. I thanked those men and women for what they have done and are doing and continue to do to make my life the safe, pleasant and prosperous affair that I am so accustomed to.
Sitting there, drinking my $2.00 aviation-grade bottled water, I wondered how someone could seriously make such a comparison: remove your shoes versus forcibly removing your gold fillings.
Well, these are the consequences of not knowing about what life is really like, outside of the Sanctuary.
I was on my way to Aspen. It’s all part of what we in Show Biz laconically refer to as “Kudos Season,” which, like Hurricane Season, is a three-month barrage of violent, impenetrable, unpredictable fortresses of hot air with names like Sean and Barbra and Martin; vast quantities of sound and fury in orbit around themselves, laying waste to entire populations wherever they go. Spirit Awards, Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Sundance, People’s Choice, Critic’s Choice… an entire season of self-congratulatory orgies culminating in the Oscars, which, for some reason impenetrable to the Hollywood mind, has experienced free-falling ratings for the last several years. The same people at the same tables saying the same things about the same movies, again and again – that big, empty, hollow middle underneath that pretty or handsome or Michael Moore face that makes most of these people seemingly insatiable: not hurricanes, but black holes in gowns and tuxedos. There’s not enough adoration and approval in a hundred such shows, or a thousand, to fill that kind of emptiness.
There. I’ve said it. That’s my opinion of most of Hollywood, having lived it. I was one of those lost souls, too. But I digress.
I was on my way to Aspen because the show I work for was shooting two episodes at the Comedy Arts Festival. We were taping downstairs at the ballroom in the St. Regis hotel. As the editor I didn’t have anything to do until the following night, so I headed over to have a look at the location. As I entered the lobby I saw a sign for Air America, the liberal talk network presumably not named after the CIA anti-communist private airline so effective in Southeast Asia and South America. Self-lambasting Irony or Historical Obliviousness?: You Make the Call.
Looked like Janeane Garofalo was going to be taping there in the lobby. Well, that was interesting. I’d wanted to have a word with Janeane. A few days earlier, during the President’s state of the Union address, she'd commented that the Republicans holding up inked fingers in support of the overwhelming Iraqi elections looked like they were making the – wait for it! -- Nazi salute “…as if they have solidarity with the Iraqis who braved physical threats against their lives to vote,” said Garofalo, “as if somehow these inked-fingered Republicans have something to do with that.”
As if! Of course, they have everything to do with it when it is a disaster; if a rest room in a bus stop in Tikrit ran short of toilet paper, that was due to a direct order from the Rumsfeld Torture Machine designed to humiliate and degrade the population; but the entire point of the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq, the event that President Bush staked all of his political capital on... you know, freedom…what do the Republicans have to do with that?
So I was looking forward to having a word with Miss Garofalo, and that word was EVERYTHING.
There were three or four people in the lobby, and some microphones, behind one of which sat a douchebag in a bow tie calling for – you’ll never guess! – higher taxes…and uh, Janeane Garofalo. There she sat. Right in the middle of her radio show: Majority Report, named again no doubt free of the irony caused by the Bolsheviks naming themselves “Majority” when they were a minute fraction of the pre-Soviet revolution. A little wishful-thinking there with Lenin; history repeats itself today. Bolshevik is a literal translation of “majority.” Presumably, The Bolshevik Report is a little too on the nose. The word is a relic of the same Soviet Union that Janeane pines away for, calling them a necessary counterbalance to the horrors of the United States. The same Soviets that murdered fifty million – a hundred million? – people and led a fifty year guerrilla war that engulfed the world. This is the woman who explains that the reason she didn’t protest Bill Clinton’s unsanctioned, unilateral cowboy warmongering in Bosnia was because “protesting Clinton wasn’t hip." It’s hip now! Pile on, you terribly-deep hipsters!
Seeing Janeane Garofolo in the flesh induces a sort of slack-jawed awe. One must go back all the way to Vanilla Ice to witness so much attitude in front of so little talent. None of the three or four people in the lobby seemed to be paying her much attention – there’s a shocker! – as she cut to commercial break.
I stared at her for a very long time. She noticed me; must have thought I was one of the two or three star-struck admirers she presumably has. Actually, I was fixing her with that solemn, introspective, deeply serious gaze I reserve for those moments when I am trying decide whether or not to strangle someone with their own entrails.
After many long moments of weighing the pros and cons, I decided against it in the end. Given the bias of the news media these days, the headline was more likely to read RIGHT WING LUNATIC DISEMBOWELS FAMOUS COLLEGE DROPOUT, rather than the more fitting OVERDUE JUSTICE METED OUT TO BITTER CELEBRITY MORON. Besides, my inner adult was telling me that this was right in the middle of her radio show. There were scores, perhaps hundreds of people listening. One or two of them may have been old enough to drive and I did not want to be responsible for any accidents, so I merely sighed deeply and took my leave of the angry, miniature apologist for communists and murderers across the ages.
Oh, and mark my words: there were more people at the Wednesday matinee of Bob Saget sings The Sex Pistols Greatest Hits in the Dubuque Little Theatre than there were in the lobby of the St. Regis listening to Majority Report on the first day of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. I was there. Well, for the genuinely painful one, anyway.
One last horror before we, if you will pardon the expression, Move On.
I had picked up a program. We were there for the Cheech and Chong reunion. But a centerpiece of the event was the dedication of this year’s Freedom of Speech Award, given to the individual who presumably has risked more than anyone else -- torture, beheading, prison – all to exercise the precious right that we all take for granted: the ability to say what we damn well please.
And the winner of the Annual Freedom of Speech Award? None other than that immortal beacon of freedom, that shining example of courage: Garry Trudeau.
Now I had met Muhammad and Omar, two of the brothers from Iraq the Model when they appeared at Roger L. Simon’s house in Los Angeles. These two ordinary men faced murder and beheading in their defense of freedom in Iraq, a nation awash in Ba’athist murderers, Al Qaeda savages and former Saddam secret policemen. These men stood openly for democracy in a land where simply being a policeman is likely to get you killed. Of course, this is merely physical and moral courage; the sort of thing easily dismissed in the sanctuary of Aspen, Colorado. No, real courage is ehibited by the man who has taken the biggest pay cut in defense of free speech, and so the real honor must of necessity flow to Garry Trudeau -- a man who has dared criticize the President of the United States! A man whose endlessly repeated panels of the White House antenna farm reminds us of the true meaning of freedom and courage, for he, supported only by tens of millions, the entire celebrity universe of stars, the mainstream media and his multi-millionaire TV star wife, has selflessly risked …
I’m sorry, I drew a blank – I completely spaced!
Oh! I remember. A man who courageously allowed his secretary to selflessly risk irate e-mails in order to attack Chimpy McHitler, and who asked for nothing in return but a few tens of millions of dollars… that, my friends, is the standard-bearer for the modern liberal’s idea of courage.
Frankly, it’s an insult. A measly bowling trophy for such a beacon of bravery? I suggest – no, I demand a bas-relief of the great man’s head, about the size of a large conference table, set in the floor of the Capitol Rotunda so that fresh generations of school kids can gaze in wonder at the kind of courage we of The Least Generation can produce.
(Part 2 continues below, or click here)
How in the Sam Hill have we gotten this stupid?
And why is it that during my four days in the crowded streets of Aspen, Colorado, during this Leftfest, at a time when the town was so blue as to be ultraviolet and visible only to bees, did I see one – one! – black person, and him driving a cab? How long are we going to let these celebrity millionaires, these limousine liberals, these champagne socialists, tell us they are the party of the people, of working people, of the middle class? How many times are we going to let someone who makes 25 million dollars for two months of standing around making faces tell us we need our taxes raised and that they’d be willing to give up a million or two to show what good sports they are? How long are we going to tolerate being called racists by professional race baiters and how many Uncle Tom / House Nigger insults will Colin Powell and Condi Rice have to endure from these self-appointed champions of African Americans? How many times is a suspender-wearing gasbag going to wish me “Courage!” before he realizes that he and the rest of his defeatist ilk are doing their level best to destroy every last semblance of courage in this country and are in point of fact the exact last place we look to for encouragement? How many times are we going to hear from famous high school dropouts how stupid the President of the United States is? And how, dear God, how immeasurably far is the fall from Winston to Ward Churchill?
I, for one, have had enough of it, as Ponytail discovered in LAX a few weeks ago. I’m done. I’ve had it. Even at my most liberal, I was enthusiastically pro-capitalism and pro-military, and even so it just floors me when I think about how many opinions I had assembled on top of a foundation of near-total ignorance.
The kind of willful corrosive rot eating at the foundations of our Sanctuary cannot be explained away by mere stupidity – much as I had hoped these past few years. So we’ll have to take a close look at this world of ours, and a deep look at the kind of creatures that have built it.
Not too long ago, I was watching a documentary concerning large numbers of adolescent bottlenose dolphins that were washing up on shore. The cause of death was unlike anything seen before. Each had suffered a severe blunt trauma injury to the midsection, like they had been rammed with a broomstick. Similar deaths were occurring among harbor porpoises across the Atlantic.
Naturally the first thought was to blame ourselves. Perhaps the Navy was responsible. US sonars are astonishingly powerful when they need be – they boil the seawater surrounding the emitter with just the strength of the sound they can generate.
But that would have resulted in the compression and damage of the air-filled areas of the baby dolphins – the lungs, mostly – and this was not the case. This was a sharp, pointed impact. They tried to string this out into an hour-long mystery, but I knew from the first few minutes who the real culprits were.
I grew up on Flipper. As a kid I completely freaked out at the end of the movie when the blood trail in the water led to Flipper dying on the beach. I have written science shows on dolphins, swam with dolphins, worked with dolphin researchers. And so I knew, almost immediately, what was killing these dolphins. I’d seen Flipper ram that same damned drugged tiger shark right in the gills something like fifty thousand times. I knew what was going on.
It wasn’t humans. It was other dolphins. Males were killing the children that they had not sired. This is common in the animal kingdom. It is a survival trait among mammals, ensuring that the strongest, most dominant bloodlines survive.
I mention this because while I love and admire dolphins, I don’t fetishize them. They are highly intelligent, very social creatures, but I do not think we will find them at the edge of the galaxy as astral travelers propelled by advanced spiritual auras.
Some people do. Some people think dolphins are the most advanced life form on the planet – far beyond we filthy killer apes and our evil, planet-spoiling technology. To many people, being a dolphin is as good as it gets: the pinnacle of gentleness and insight and playfulness and non-violence.
So it’s a little hard to watch the video of grown dolphins ramming these sleek little infants hard enough to send them flying across twenty feet of open sea. And make no mistake about it, these killers are indeed playing with their prey: tossing them, chasing them, and bashing their little perfect bodies again and again, long after they are dead. We know that female dolphins that lose infants in captivity become morose, depressed – practically suicidal. What were these female dolphins feeling as I watched this video in horror? Who could they call for help? What price would these young males pay for this act of torture and murder? How could they be sure that these killers don’t kill again?
The Simulated Progressive I keep in a little mental cage for moments just like this wanted to know: who taught these young killers the cycle of violence? What part of dolphin society was responsible? How do we break this cycle of violence? What are the root causes of this aggression? What governmental agency can we form to prevent such deaths in the future? And most importantly, how was Karl Rove able to issue instructions to these killer dolphins so that I could use them to advance the Right Wing Agenda?
Of course, this wasn’t really murder. This is nature. These are animals. This aggression is instinctual; dolphins share it with all other mammals. We don’t think twice when we see a male lion murder a rival’s cubs, or when two mountain goats battle for dominance, or two elephant seals, or two gazelles. It’s nature. Mnnnnn…nature….
I have seen footage of the gentle chimpanzee, Man’s closest relative, with whom we share 98% of our DNA, nuzzling their parents lovingly, eating fruit and playing tag with their siblings. I have seen a chimp die of a broken heart after the loss of his mother. I have also seen a platoon of chimps split up into teams and herd a terrified, screaming monkey into a kill zone, and then watched as these playful, gentle cousins tore that shrieking animal literally limb from limb and gorged themselves on bloody little hands and arms.
What’s the difference between a Chimp digging a small twig into a termite’s nest, and a scientist firing a high-energy proton to split an atom?
Practice. Nothing more.
Like humans, chimps are intelligent, social, warm-blooded mammals, just like bottlenose dolphins, just like the Killer Whales that likewise torture and play with sea lion cubs and often leave them floating, uneaten: murdered for sport.
This is what intelligent, social, warm-blooded mammals do: they kill things. Sometimes they kill their own. Wolves do it. Lions do it. Chimps do it. Even the gentle dolphin does it.
But when we do it, it’s murder.
Progressives will see me using this argument to defend murder and killing as natural and unavoidable. They will, as has become routine for them, be precisely, 180 degrees wrong.
Murder and aggression are indeed a natural, inborn quality that often manifests itself among the young males of social mammals. It lurks there in the R-complex of each of our big brains, just waiting to be cut off in traffic. You could make a case that humans deserve the same break that chimps and dolphins and all the others get: that killing is part of nature, and that underneath all the Old Navy lurks what is essentially an animal – an animal of a species at least one million years old, wearing around it the thinnest veneer of civilization for about one-half of one percent of its existence. I’m not going to make that case at all. THAT is where the road to Nazism lies.
Why have so many people become so ashamed of themselves? Murder and rape are universal in the animal kingdom: only one species even tries to prevent such things and punish the perpetrators, and that species is us. We are not the only animals that kill. We are not the only ones that hunt terrified prey, we are not the only ones that murder our own kind (freaking dolphins, people!), and we are certainly not the only ones that destroy ecosystems – far from it.
We are, however, the only ones that try to do something about it. We should be taking the energy we use to beat ourselves up and spend it patting ourselves on the back, for human history is nothing but the upward, halting, tentative progression out of the world of death and misery and into a world of law and decency.
In 1651, Thomas Hobbes wrote of such a natural state in Leviathan:
…No place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.
All Hobbes could imagine to remedy such an existence was an absolute monarchy. I believe if he could have read Jefferson and Paine he would have amended his solution.
The world Hobbes describes may still be found in a few places in the world, places like the rain forests of the Amazon and New Guinea. Progressives speak of such places as Nirvana. As Nirvanas go, the rents are very reasonable, and the people who speak of such primitive cultures as such could pocket some serious change should they sell their houses in Connecticut or the Marina District or the Hollywood Hills, and do what any sensible person would do upon discovering Nirvana: move. They certainly have the means to go. And yet they do not. Why? If our society is so poisonous, and their primitive one so authentic, then why do they not go? Could it be that deep down they understand that the only thing truly authentic about hunting dinner and gathering firewood and carrying water and wearing leaves is that such authenticities are an authentic pain in the ass? But if such people are seen wearing cotton, or wishing for indoor plumbing, then somehow their lives are judged to be ruined by these same avatars who would no sooner live like that than do any other species of hard, relentless, grueling work.
We are related to nature – we carry those killer genes, and they have brought us a long way. But we are more than genes. Laws and Justice and Freedom and Sanctuary are inventions like fire and the wheel, and like fire and the wheel we have been improving them steadily with each generation. Science and art and literature – medicine! -- human inventions, unique to us.
Why then, do so many people – most of them on the far left – so fundamentally hate humanity?
I think it must be the constant frictions between what they hope people are and what they really are. The French Revolution produced the New Man, free of religion, and fully decimal. The streets ran red with blood for a decade – then came Napoleon, and then back to the Bourbon kings that they rebelled against in the first place. If I shared that history, I’d be a cynical, defeatist, Frenchman too. The New Soviet man was to be different: communal humanity Mark II with all the latest improvements. 50 million died, shot in the back of the head in basements and forests, or starved in frozen camps and coal mines, followed by collapse, ecological ruin and endless misery. And still these leftists push the same ideas. Poor bastards. No wonder they are so damn cynical and depressed.
Here they sit, surrounded by laws and medicine and art and culture: despising themselves. Remarkable, isn’t it? These people, who pride themselves on nuance, see no difference between a naked human pyramid of ten prisoners lasting two minutes and piles of corpses six million deep. Both shameful, therefore, both equal in their eyes. And we are the ones who only see things in black and white?
I believe that in general, humans are good and kind. But some of us are beyond the laws and civility we have created inside our Sanctuary, hidden from the brutality of nature and lawless men. If there are killers spawned anew each generation among the gentle dolphins, then there are killer humans, too – and this will not change no matter how deeply we may wish it. And that is why I continue to argue for what to so many of us is plain to see: no people are perfect, but some societies behave better than others. It is one thing to kill to oppress people and make them do your bidding, and something else again to kill those oppressors and expand the bubbles of safety and security that are so pervasive in the West that many cannot possibly imagine what the natural state of man is like.
I wrote, “can’t imagine,” but can’t remember is much more on target. Our parents knew more about the reality of human nature than people my age: they saw what the Japanese did in Nanking and what the Germans did in Poland. My grandmother grew up in an America without electricity, running water, or an indoor bathroom. Depriving a convicted murderer of these things today would be considered a human rights violation. The whole idea of “Human Rights” is an invention that we basically gentle and kind apes have made to protect us from the horrors and savagery of our ancestors’ existence. Our parent’s grandparents knew death and pain up close and personal; they slaughtered animals with their own hands, lost half or more of their children before they became teenagers, and lived in a very hard world where stealing generally meant that someone would die as a result of what was stolen from them. These people had no problem discerning victim and perpetrator, and determining where the blame and the responsibility lay.
Such a world becomes ever more distant and fantastic. We will have hell to pay if we don’t remember such times, and many that were much worse, as a measure of how far we have come. The hell we will have to pay is that we will have to go back there, as a species – again. And again. And again. Until we remember what we have built for ourselves, and what it has cost, and what it continues to cost us to maintain.
So why -- someone? anyone? – why do otherwise intelligent and educated people so despise American society, which has achieved more in the way of individual rights, science, arts, medicine, diversity, cooperation and prosperity than any other in history? Why would they oppose such a society when it is trying to bring these blessings to people who have spent thirty years cowering in dark places, fearful of letting the slightest word slip, or betraying their entire family with an askew glance or unguarded moment? Why would someone so viciously oppose freeing a People who have lived for a generation in total, abject fear?
It’s because they have never lived it. That is what I mean when I say reality has left their building. How many people would be opposing the war in Iraq if they had to watch, actually witness, three or four hundred thousand people being shot in the head in front of their families? At the rate of one life taken every single second, with one unique and irreplaceable person being extinguished every tick of the 60 Minutes stopwatch, going without sleep or rest, you would be at it for three and a half days. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Every face unique, every one someone’s son or mother or precious grandchild. Bang. Bang. Bang. All night and all day, every second for three and a half days. How long to wipe out your entire family? Four seconds? Eight? Thirteen? We have found that many in Iraq, more will follow, believe me.
How many children – four or five year old boys and girls – do you need to see raped in front of you before you change your mind about Iraq? Fifty? Fifty thousand? Will that make a dent in your stainless steel belief system? How many cries for mercy in the muffled corridors of prison basements? Ten thousand? Ten times ten thousand? They were there. They happened.
They just didn’t happen to you. Not in Berkeley. Not in Manhattan. Not in Santa Monica, or at Columbia University. Not in your Sanctuary. If they did we wouldn’t be having this discussion, would we? You’d be dead, and it would be your relatives begging for good and powerful people to come to their rescue to stop this horror.
There’s nothing “progressive” about what these people believe. It is refined selfishness and moral cowardice. I can understand not wanting to go overseas and lose blood and treasure to solve other people’s problems. I can at least understand that. But these “progressives” should be thanking whatever they take to be sacred – which is nothing – and hit their knees in gratitude that better, braver people have built them the kind of Sanctuary where torture and state-sponsored murder are so far from their closed eyes that even the act of imagining such horrors is beyond them.
How far from the reality of human nature do you have to be to see our culture as a curse on the Earth, rather than being the only ones willing to roll up our sleeves, shoot the wolves that are eating our kids, go out into the blizzard to collect some firewood and then paint the goddam house?
So what can we do? We can stop, in little ways, taking so damned much for granted.
As an exercise in perspective, let’s briefly compare our civilization to another. Let’s compare our supposedly soulless, banal, hum-drum society to the splendors of ancient Egypt.
And let’s tie both hands behind our backs while we do so. Let’s not compare the Great Pyramid to one of our skyscrapers, or airports, or hospitals, or even our shopping malls. Let’s take a moment to compare the Great Pyramid of Cheops with the most common and drab and ordinary structure on the block: The Great Pyramid vs. the 7-11.
Assume that we could transplant a corner 7-11 to the Egyptian desert, with all of the support systems that make it what it is. It is a tiny speck compared to the gleaming white marble sides of the pyramid. It looks small and poorly made. From afar.
Pharaoh comes by barge and litter to inspect the competition, laughing at the mismatch. He and his princes and a retinue of servants approach the plain, unadorned metal doors and step inside.
By the Gods! It is cool inside! As cool as the desert night, here, in the middle of the relentless day! Outside the servants sweat and minor officials fan themselves, but Pharaoh is, for the first time perhaps, comfortable in the middle of the desert sun. He turns to exclaim this wonder to his underlings, and -- By the Ghost of Osiris!! The walls! You can see right through them!
Ten seconds into the contest, and already Pharaoh has been rendered mute by miracles.
He commands endless lines of bucket-laden servants to throw water upon this transparent wall, flinching and then laughing endlessly with his children as the water stops in mid-air and slides to the ground. It is called, glass, Great King. It’s cost? No, hardly a years harvest. It is a trifle, the cost a nuisance should it need replacing.
After an hour or so of pressing hands and faces against the glass, of running inside and out, of feeling the smoothest surface they have ever experienced, Pharaoh reluctantly moves on to the magazine rack. Glancing at one, he recoils in horror, making a sign of protection against evil. There, like a tiny row of jail cells, sits face after face of imprisoned souls, bound into small rectangles. What else can they be? We have all seen Egyptian hieroglyphics: they are entrancing, but photorealistic they are not. How many monuments, how many man-years of backbreaking labor, how many deaths could be averted for a man obsessed with being remembered, if only Pharaoh had been able to be photographed? Immortalized! Captured with a precision and nuance greater than that of all of his artisans working together for a thousand years?
And there, on the rack beside the magazines: newspapers, pictures and text detailing the most significant events across the entire globe, covering an area that makes the Egyptian empire look puny and insignificant. How to explain to a king who must wait weeks or months or even years for critical information, that each bundle of paper contains news no later than a day old from every remote corner of the Earth, and sells for about a tenth of what our most poorly paid laborer makes in a single hour? Now he begins to think we are mocking him. Yet there is much more to vex and amaze Cheops.
Toilet paper. Draw your own picture of what the highest-born Egyptian must do in those circumstances. Down the aisle to the back – wonders on either side. And then: Ice.
Likely Pharaoh has never seen ice, let alone touched it. At first he recoils, thinking he has been burned. You grab a handful, and gesture for him to put a cube in his mouth. Pharaoh grows enraged – you are trying to kill him! You do so first, sucking on an ice cube. Tentatively, he tries, for the first time in his life, something cold – a diamond that turns to perfectly pure water in his hand.
Think, for a moment, that you have drunk river water for your entire life. Think what a taste of cool, clear water would taste like. Just imagine that one, garden-variety wonder. Then beers and wines, refined and brewed and filtered, not the murky swill he will have known. And as Pharaoh hesitates with each can and bag and box of food he opens, you will have to reassure him, time and time again, that even though you have no idea where the food was made, or when, or by whom, you know it absolutely to be safe to eat. Corn flakes and potato chips – how many lives would a bag of Ruffles be worth to this man, he who has never seen, let alone tasted a potato? How many men would Pharaoh send to die to obtain another box of Oreo cookies for his sons? An army? An entire fleet? Cans of ravioli. Peanut butter. Eggs and milk, of course, but of a quality and size unheard of.
Grab a frozen lasagna and hand it to the Great King. Frozen, like a brick, and like a brick he gnaws on it. Delicious! Then across the room to a small black box, which opens with the same magic lantern that lights this palace of wonder day and night. A moment of conversation passes, and Ding! What was frozen is now steaming hot! Without fire, and in an instant!
The Princes have been exploring every nook and cranny, reporting back to their father: In back, water which flows endlessly, purer than any they have ever tasted, and some of it is hot! It flows from the walls, father! A stream unending! Behind the counter, scores of small, beautifully-colored cylinders which make fire! Made of – what? Not wood or metal – something smooth and hard and perfect! Soaps, of wondrous scents and soft as pillows! Father! Come and see this!
But Pharaoh hardly notices. He is staring up at a box mounted in the corner of the wall, and there, for the first time in his magnificent life, Pharaoh can see…Pharaoh!
Cheops raises his arm, and the small shwabti Cheops raises his! Pharaoh advances, makes a face! The imprisoned Pharaoh does the same! And there, in one of the four corners! The back of the slave Pharaoh’s head! And in another small square, the Crown Prince! He is not in the room, and yet Pharaoh sees him plainly! When he emerges from the storeroom Pharaoh hugs him as if he had returned from the dead.
Yes King, we can on such boxes see any event of significance around the entire world, as it happens. And we can see singers and minstrels and performers – not only those alive today, but those who may have died many years ago! Yes, as real as any other! Preserved forever in language and form!
What would that be worth to such a man?
Over there, in a corner, another magic tablet that communicates back to you, and upon following a set of instructions you give it, disperses money at your command, a seemingly bottomless pot of gold (although, it must be said, the only flash of disappointment Pharaoh has shown was for the quality of money – gold coins would have made a much better impression.)
The sun is setting, and yet the magic of the palace grows ever stronger. Light does not fade. Having read by candlelight his entire life, the idea of day during night is powerful magic indeed. The princes have fallen silent. They have discovered the Slurpee machine and mortgaged their birthrights, entire kingdoms to the clerk for another refill.
There, behind the counter: a machine that will do mathematical calculations to eight decimal places, flawlessly. Instantly. There sits a machine that can do in five seconds what it would take an entire court of astronomers and scribes five years to calculate. The eyes of the underlings, the Egyptian bureaucrats who must count and account for everything in the kingdom – by hand – begin to glaze over. What they could do in a single day with such a wonder! But Pharaoh now is transfixed by the metal of the countertop. Hard. Very hard. On impulse, he removes his short bronze sword and hacks at the steel. Impervious. Cheops’ prized sword is dented and useless. What a sword and shield such material would make – and it’s everywhere: in the doors, the cabinets…common as sand.
But Pharaoh is no longer happy. Like many of that era, he suffers from terrible toothaches. There is so much sand that even the grinding of flour produces bread that erodes the tooth enamel. Pain is a constant companion for him, and like many of his age – like many of every age, before our own – he suffers in silence. That is his life. This, the most powerful man on the planet, suffers just like the poorest. But here, in this bland, ubiquitous convenience store, there is mercy for rich and poor alike. Cold medicine. Medicines to reduce fever. Medicines for toothache, too. And medicine for pain.
In fifteen minutes, this Great Pharaoh will know a few moments free of pain. His children, whom he loves as we love our own – also free of pain.
What would the most powerful man in the world give for such a thing? How much gold? How much land? How many lives?
The pain subsides. And although perhaps not a good or a wise send off for a man with a toothache, the transcendental look of joy on Pharaoh’s face when he first encounters a Coke and a Snickers bar is a sight that his children will never forget. Even after he is long dead, they will always remember him thus, as they ride toward the river on the dark night of the new moon, the little palace glowing in the dark like a beacon visible for fifty miles and more.
Now, on the other hand, the Great Pyramid of Cheops is a massive, beautifully decorated and cunningly designed pile of stones.
We live in an age of miracles, and we just don’t see it. All of the magicians who stand on generations of other magicians – engineers, technicians, architects – go unnamed and unsung, while common actors, tradesmen whose art form has barely advanced since the days of Babylon and Egypt, are deified and rewarded as no living gods in history.
We, in our Sanctuary, who sleep in warm, dry, safe places without a second thought of the men and women who shiver in the cold to keep us free and secure, are getting very far away from the forces that have threatened us for millennia and threaten us still, as potent as the black rage of an incensed mob of religious lunatics killing people in response to some real or imagined slight.
And yet our elites – bored, pampered and without a glimmer of perspective – search the inside of our walls by night, looking for cracks to enlarge.
I can’t pretend to understand this. It is simply beyond my ability to grasp. Nor can I understand why so many rich people who so resent and revile this land do not simply move somewhere else.
Unless, of course, this is a giant game for them: a chess match of rhetoric to gain a little temporary political advantage, and the sullen petulance of someone deciding that if my candidate can’t be the one doing the liberating then entire nations can remain in darkness. This little thing for the price of destruction of all we have worked for. How can such selfishness face itself in the morning?
I don’t know why so many people can miss so many wonders and miracles that are laid right before their eyes. But I do know that their poison has cut deep in to the foundations of a country I love because I owe it my happy and comfortable life and all the opportunities – not guarantees, but opportunities – it has provided me and my family.
So we will fight this amnesia and ingratitude, you and I will, right here on these pages in the days to come. And I will do my best to fight the battle in the one place, the only place it can be won: inside of my own heart.
Recently, I was very frustrated at my job. I felt I was not being treated well. Well, actually, I felt I was being screwed, and hard. I was angry and sullen. I had been wronged, you see? Me! Taken advantage of! By the system!
Among my many complaints, I was upset that I did not receive as much extra pay as I felt I deserved for all the extra work. Life was bad and everything sucked. It just sucked to be me.
And then, on the way to my stunning girlfriend’s apartment to bitch about how unfair life was treating me, I saw a fairly common sight in Los Angeles. I saw a group of young Mexican men gathered on a street corner, waiting for any kind of work.
And there, through some act of grace that occasionally opens my eyes and reveals to me a better person in my reflection, I suddenly realized that these men are waiting – fighting -- to work long, backbreaking hours for next to no pay. They sleep in small, cheap apartments, hot-bunking it, working sometimes two or even three jobs and keeping nothing for themselves. They never eat out, never go to movies, and planning for a future is not an easy thing when every penny you make above what you absolutely need goes back home to Mexico to feed your family.
And I stopped at that light, and looked at these men. And I realized right there that I should spend an hour a day prostrate and thanking God I was born an American. How many struggle and die for this privilege?
But there is hope for us. We can change. I can change, and I am as stubborn a cuss as they come. And there is hope here, on these pages. Not my pages -- I’m but a speck of flotsam in an electronic ocean. But these pages, these ghostly pages pulled from the ether down highways of colored light. These pages may be able to save us.
Because now, for the first time in human history, a small person can talk to millions. The defeatism and cynicism of our betters is no longer the only voice we hear. Now, for the first time, we common people, we citizens, can speak directly to each other about life within the Sanctuary, and those unseen people, those builders and maintainers of decency and civilization have at their command a tool with which to make their voices heard. We can patrol and repair these crumbling walls from within and man the gates ourselves.
There are millions of us. Millions. And we do not have to go gently into that good night.
(If you would like to support essays like this one, you can purchase SILENT AMERICA: Essays from a Democracy at War, right here.)
Guys, I'm working on it. It's hard. This idea is just huge -- not so much in length (although that too), but in scope. SANCTUARY is just a huge, huge idea. Please hang in there. I've been feeling just sick with guilt over how long this is taking. But it is coming.
And apologies to all the unanswered e-mails. I'll be getting to those as soon as I finish this beast.
Your humble essayist,