Sunday, September 10, 2006

The shadow of our hand

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
-- W.H. Auden

If I had to find one word to represent the mood five years after September the 11th it would be resignation. Whatever the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have signified, they did not, as some on the Left might think, represent experiences which foreshadow a return to the 1990s. What they have proved is that the cracks in the world run too deep for anyone to predict where they may lead. Mark Steyn writing in the Chicago Sun Times looks around and finds that the combination of commercial globalization and cultural fragmentation has led, not as its admirers predicted, to a world joining hands but to a planet of tribes united only in their ability to watch, hate and destroy each other. Describing the men who attacked the Twin Towers Steyn said:

They had acquired at least basic skills in a profession that would guarantee a good life anywhere on the planet; they could be pulling down six-figure salaries instead of Manhattan skyscrapers. But instead they went to pilot school to make one flight one time one-way, into a tall building. And halfway across the world, on the streets of Ramallah, people filled the streets and cheered and passed out candy. They celebrated at Concordia University in Montreal, and in northern England and in Scandinavia, too, ...

"Interconnectedness" is the word used by the late Edward Said, the New York-based Palestinian grievance-monger and eminent America-disparager: A couple of weeks after 9/11, the professor deplored the tendency of commentators to separate cultures into what he called "sealed-off entities," ... National Review's Rich Lowry was unimpressed. "The line seems pretty clear," he said. "Developing mass commercial aviation and soaring skyscrapers was the West's idea; slashing the throats of stewardesses and flying the planes into the skyscrapers was radical Islam's idea." ... But that may be the only "interconnectedness" a large part of the world is interested in: state-of-the-art technology in the service of ancient hatreds. Edward Said was right: There are no more "sealed-off entities." The "modern world" and the "primitive world" are more like those overlaid area codes the phone company's so partial to.

Our tools have converged but our souls have diverged. And intentionally too, for if the multicultural policies of the last century meant anything it was that we got to keep our own prejudices. The result is that while we all have cell phones some use them to call their friends and others use them to set off IEDs; where we can all fly but some to earn a living and others to make a religious statement. And no way to judge between. Nor does the problem consist simply of Infidels versus Muslims. The years since 9/11 have exploded the idea of a monolithic West and a single complaisant Ummah; a Muslim Shi'ite might prefer an American infidel over a Sunni and an American liberal an Iranian Mullah over a conservative countryman. We have equal opportunity everything; including equal opportunity hostility. If the Christian hell is defined as a place devoid of love, then welcome to the 21st century, where the watchword, if not "hate your neighbor" is at least "a neighbor you can hate".

It's no surprise that some of the commemorative pieces are less focused upon the horrors that have passed than upon those that are to come. Stephen Schwartz, writing in the Weekly Standard devoted a lot of scholarly energy comparing Iraq to the Spanish Civil War, not as a battleground between factions but as an arena in which competing world powers engage in a test of strength.

But the analogy with the Spanish Civil War does not depend on the existence of an unrestrained military struggle between Iraqi factions. The Spain-Iraq parallel contains a deeper lesson for the present. The Spanish Civil War was the first major example of the modern phenomenon of proxy wars, in which local clashes are exploited, and third countries torn apart, in the competition between regional and global alliances.

It's always a bad sign when times are compared to the run-up to World War 2. Yet if anything Iraq's comparison to Spain is closer than Schwartz admits: not only is it a proxy conflict between international ideologies but an extension of a power struggle between competing factions in a Western cultural civil war. Iraq, no less than Spain is what you quoted to make a statement about home. Iraq's great misfortune lay in that it became a symbol that outside forces wanted to manipulate to their own advantage, where each event is given a meaning beyond itself, even as the ABC's Road to 9/11 docudrama became, by the same process, more than a docudrama.

But the greatest event of all of the past five years has been the slow hardening of the human heart, as each of us sets his face against the unknown, our household goods and gods sheltering pitifully behind; an event undetectable save for the slow, crepitating sound of walls setting solid across the expanse of our global and tribal world.

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

And with the pity, the hate. That was ever man's tragedy: an angel, but a killer angel.

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