Desperately Seeking An Enemy

David Barash reflects on our primate need for foes and our tendency to be “especially prone to exaggerating them”:

“Whoever lives for the sake of combating an enemy,” wrote Nietzsche, “has an interest in the enemy’s staying alive.” It is reported that at the end of the Third Punic War, after Carthage had finally been destroyed and pillaged, her people killed or enslaved, her land sown with salt, a kind of sadness came over the victorious citizens of Rome, an awareness that with their defining struggle behind them, they would never be the same.

All too often, nationhood, or even selfhood, is defined by one’s opponents. Imagine: Ahab without Moby Dick, the Hatfields without the McCoys. As each has been defined by the other, enmity has subtly been transformed into dependence. If Moby Dick had died of old age, or in the sweet embrace of a giant squid, or by someone else’s harpoon, Ahab would probably have mourned rather than celebrated. But Ahab was a fictional character, while the rest of us­—and our enemies—are very real. Equally real is the fact that sometimes these enemies go away, leaving us frustrated, empty, and strangely alone.

This is especially true about Americans and terrorism. The reaction to the home-grown pressure-cooker bombs by two losers in Boston reveals the degree of the 9/11 PTSD the country is still reeling from. And the panic and hysteria doesn’t actually help the war on Jihadist terror. We gave the Tsarnaev brothers what they craved: full metal media orgasm. They may have killed three people in a horrifying attack – but it led to saturation coverage (yes, we joined in) and to the publicity post-Qaeda Jihadists live for.

In that sense, Pete King is as big an unwitting recruiter for Jihadist terrorism as he was a very witting supporter of Irish terrorism against innocent civilians. He once gave mass-murderers money; now he gives them publicity. What we haven’t yet figured out is that once we have disabled the organized terror groups like al Qaeda, the best thing we can do with rogue Jihadists is to treat them with withering contempt.

At times, many Republicans like King almost seem unconsciously to want there to be another 9/11 – to justify their inability to move past that event.

And so they unwittingly go apeshit over any hint of terrorism – from Fort Hood to Benghazi – as if merely calling it that will do anything but help the terrorists gain publicity and attention. I’m not saying we shouldn’t cover these attempts at mass murder or fail to call them what they are; I’m saying we should also put them in better perspective. Take what happened over the weekend in New Orleans. A Mother’s Day parade, of all things, was assaulted by three men with guns. Nineteen people were injured including two children. If there’s a definition of terror, it would be attending something as routine as a parade and find it turning into a potential bloodbath. And yet, this news is nothing compared to what it would be if the perpetrators were Jihadists.

It’s that disproportion that troubles me – because it gives terrorists more incentives. Sometimes the best way to defeat terrorists is both to prevent them by law enforcement, surveillance, etc, as we are doing, but also to ignore them when necessary, to refuse to change our way of life (like putting an entire city under curfew), and to be less afraid of the boogeyman.

And the point of this kind of strategy is to hit terrorists where it truly hurts: the oxygen supply of hysterical reaction and coverage. I have not changed my mind about the seriousness of the threat of religiously-inspired terror. But I have changed my mind about how best to defeat them. As a country, we began the journey back from Cheneyism in the last years of Bush. Obama has done a huge amount to both defeat the Jihadists and to defuse their message. But the rest of us need to do more.