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Right and Wrong: Talking Back to Trevino

Jul
25
2005

Well, I’m right about one thing these days. Josh and I are never going to agree. Says the conservative in his latest post: “Chris, I take it, rejects the clash of civilizations thesis; I do not.”
Yup. I’d say that’s the nub of the thing. I am leery – as I think we all should be – of calling the continuing conflict against random bombings a clash of civilizations. I think such terminology sets one type of civilization – one set of social or cultural mores – above another and I am not sure in this connected, always-on digital age that we can afford to draw such harsh lines. Why harsh? Well, in such clashes there is often an air of virtuous determination that I find dangerous. On both sides. In calling something “evil” you are, by definition, assigning an equally exaggerated sense of virtue to those who opposed it. But this is perhaps the deepest divide between my and Josh’s thinking.
I look at the bombings – from New York to London, from Bali to Sharm el Sheikh – as part of a inchoate religious war launched by a violent group of Muslims who see their faith as the only one that is true. And I think, as it’s always been, that it’s an excuse; an excuse to be a bomb-loving jerk who takes a sick and horrid pleasure in inflicting pain. The folks who bomb our planes and trains here in the West think of us as evil, that’s certainly true. But I think in making that same charge back to them – as actors and believers in their faith – we are affirming their point of view. To treat the “war” on terror as a police action is then, for me, the proper course because it both diminishes the threat by stripping it of its rhetorical virtue while at the same time taking it and treating it very seriously. (And oh, if you want a look at how that can be done effectively, have a look at the profile of Ray Kelly’s NYPD in this week’s New Yorker).
The bombings are not a new way of seeking vengence. They are the statements of the outraged, the disenfranchised, the scared, the denied, the confused. Like the poor, they are always with us: Ask an English cop about the IRA, a Spaniard about ETA, the Germans about Baader-Meinhof, the NYPD about the Weather Underground.


What’s new is the easy worldwide reach of the combatants. Terrorism in its current form is a dark, deep horrible side of the Wired Libertarian’s utopian vision of a state-less society, of individual actors empowered by the web of connections that is the Internet. International terrorism is a reflection of the ease with which all of us move to places where profoundly different ways of thinking and seeing the world – women without chador, men who do not pray, children who spend their timely idly watching television – can be accomplished by a short, few-hour-long airplane ride. Those are facts with which some of us are comfortable and some of us are not.
All of which tells me we are not engaged in a clash of civilizations; one way of living or managing your relationship with your God is not necessarily better than another. We are, instead, looking at a fight between members of a faith and a culture who are not troubled by the demands and uncertainty of modern life as it is embodied in the West and those who want to resist change to their culture. We are watching a culture grapple with change and we, here in the West, are not helping the side with which we should be allied.
With this recent set of bombings, in London and now again in Egypt, it’s clear we’re watching a culture at war with itself. Which is one good reason why none of us can – rhetorically or otherwise — start to parse out the “civilized” from those who would happily endorse random and mass bloodshed. Nor should we. It isn’t that it’s none of our business; it’s that we should assume that all Muslims condemn violence and bombings and atrocities. It is not clear to me – particularly when I look at the invasion and war in Iraq – that the U.S. has attempted to do this.
That’s why I think that the distinction that British Prime Minister Tony Blair makes when he talks about an evil ideology is an important one. No, as Josh points out, Blair and President Bush don’t share the same religious background. So yes, that might be part of the rhetorical difference. But I think Blair is a shrewder politician than Bush when he addresses this issue. After all, he has to be.
Blair, like many European leaders, has a large Muslim constituency, larger and more visible than the U.S. It is the indirect and not much desired result of the British colonization of India which, until 1947, included what we now call Pakistan and Bangladesh, two nations that have not done nearly as well, economically, as their larger neighbor, India, which has a majority Hindu population.
So, politically, Blair can not afford to parse out the good Muslims from the bad, the virtuous from the evil-doer. This is a worthwhile course to follow and one, in this always-on, connected age, that the U.S. should begin to espouse.

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