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Two Crises and One Obscenity

The post-9/11 era comes into focus.

By 7.21.06

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I. NORTH KOREA

Let's stipulate, at the outset, that as loony as North Korean President Kim Jong Il seems to be, he almost certainly wouldn't lob a hydrogen bomb at Los Angeles knowing that the next morning his entire country would be a smoldering hole in the ground. Thus, as we debate the significance of North Korea's recent decision to test fire a missile potentially capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the continental United States, the critical question should be whether Kim does indeed still recognize that smoldering-hole-in-the-ground outcome.

This isn't idle psychologizing. The idea that "9/11 changed everything" has become a cliche, but the truth behind it, as I've written before, is this: On the day they killed 3000 Americans, Islamic terrorists effectively called our nuclear bluff. If you cannot grasp that basic concept, then, to be blunt, you cannot engage in intelligent debate about American foreign policy. From the end of World War II until 9/11, America's national security rested, first and foremost, on the belief that a direct attack on the United States would be answered by retaliation on an epic, unimaginable scale. But after Osama bin Laden hit us, and even after the Taliban government in Afghanistan refused to hand him over, we didn't incinerate Kabul. It was with a scalpel, not a terrible swift sword, that we deposed the Taliban and proceeded to hunt after Osama. The sheathing of America's terrible swift sword -- or, rather, our enemies' perception of that sheathing, is the essential change in the international landscape since 9/11. It's the current against which we now swim.

Nevertheless, leading Democrats continue to speak and act as though our deterrence were undiminished. On Meet the Press last Sunday, Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.) insisted that we can send a "real simple message" to the North Koreans to prevent their involvement in a direct or indirect nuclear attack on the United States: "You do something like that, we will annihilate you." He then added, to Tim Russert, "We have the complete capacity to annihilate them."

Well, yes, we have the capacity. But there's no longer reason to think we have the will, regardless the provocation.

Indeed, the war in Iraq, of which Biden is now so critical, was triggered by this new reality -- and, again, if you cannot get your mind around this idea, you're never going to understand President Bush's decision oust Saddam Hussein. Without the prospect of sudden annihilation to deter attacks on the United States, Bush decided that the threat posed by Saddam passing along Iraq's WMDs -- the continued existence of which, it now turns out, even senior Iraqi officials were unsure of -- to foreign or home-grown terrorists was no longer tolerable. The fact that Saddam stood in breach of the 1991 cease fire agreement that kept him in power after the first Gulf War provided the necessary fig leaf for Bush to take him out without violating international law.

North Korea, of course, is another kettle of fish. But the underlying reality remains constant. Even though Kim Jong Il's much-hyped Taepodong II long-range missile failed less than a minute after launch, Kim's decision to fire it off confronts us again with our post-9/11 state of diminished deterrence. Perhaps Kim is, like a cranky toddler, only rattling his playpen, demanding more attention. Or perhaps he's calculated, in the way crazy tin pot dictators often calculate, that the moment is right for his ascendancy, that he can become a major player on the world stage, that nothing can hinder him at this point, that America, the only cop left on the beat, would be unwilling to grind out another Iraqi-type war in North Korea...even with a mushroom cloud settling over downtown Los Angeles.

These are perilous times. This is the Post-9/11 Era.

You either understand the connection, or you don't.

***

II. THE MIDDLE EAST

Suppose, with one hand, I grab my two-year-old daughter and clutch her to my chest, and, with the other hand, I grab an AK47 and go on a shooting rampage in midtown Manhattan. Now suppose, in order to stop the shooting rampage, the police return fire and wind up killing both me and my daughter. Whose fault is the death of my daughter?

If you answered "the police," congratulations, you've got a future as a terrorist apologist.

After Israel ended its occupation of the Gaza Strip last September, ceding control to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for the prospect of a lasting peace agreement, Hamas terrorists immediately began using the territory to fire Qassam rockets across Israel's southwestern border and into Israel. The terrorists intentionally launched the weapons from between civilian homes in order to make Israeli retaliation more difficult. Then, two weeks ago, the terrorists staged a kidnapping from Gaza, grabbing an Israeli soldier on border patrol, and demanding the release of thousands of terrorists for his safe return.

To retrieve the solider and end the rocket attacks, Israel sent its military forces back into Gaza -- at which point, Hezbollah terrorists, operating out of southern Lebanon, staged their own kidnappings of Israeli soldiers and began firing rockets across Israel's northern border. Israel is now responding with targeted missile strikes and precision bombings of known Hezbollah locations, which, like Hamas strongholds in Gaza, are intentionally embedded among civilian homes. In the course of Israel's actions in Gaza and southern Lebanon, hundreds of terrorists have been killed -- but so have scores of unarmed civilians.

So whose fault is the death of those civilians?

Here, then, is a microcosm of the struggle between Israel and its enemies over the last 50 years: One side conceals itself among local populations, deliberately targets civilians, and seeks to maximize casualties; the other side retaliates with uniformed military personnel, deliberately avoids harming civilians, and seeks to minimize casualties.

Not all stories have two sides. The current crisis in the Middle East is one such story. The Israelis are morally right. Their enemies are morally wrong. If you can't figure that out, you're morally lost.

***
III. CHE MANIA

Che Mania is upon us again with the New York premiere last week of Jose Rivera's play School of the Americas, a loose concoction of Cliff notes agitprop, walleyed hero-worship and prison-cell romance that re-imagines the final days of murderous Communist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. This follows 2004's critically acclaimed movie The Motorcycle Diaries, which Rivera also wrote, an account of the evolution of young Che's political consciousness -- which, in turn, spawned a flood of academic papers on the Guevara Marxist legacy as well as a tacky tee-shirt craze among heavily pierced adolescents anxious to rebel against their bourgeois parents.

For anyone with even a slight acquaintance of Guevara's body of work, of course, Che Mania is no more morally justifiable than, say, Joseph Goebbels Mania. Indeed, one of the ongoing mysteries of American culture is why Communists do so much better in the P.R. department than Nazis. Both Communism and Nazism are utopian in their conception and genocidal in their execution. The latter justifies its mass exterminations in the name of ethnic purity; the former, in the name of socio-economic purity. Either way, the shallow graves get filled.

Once you recognize that Communism and Nazism are moral doppelgangers, your perspective begins to shift. For example, former Senator Joe McCarthy morphs from the arch-villain of George Clooney's Hollywood imagination to a kind of cross between Simon Wiesenthal and Ted Kennedy, an obsessive boor who might be forgiven his quirks and excesses because, in the end, he was on the side of the angels. On the other hand, the graying ponytailed leftists skulking around the faculty lounge at the local university morph from endearing cranks to the Boys From Brazil -- stubborn holdouts in the cause of ideological holocaust.

It's worth remembering the true nature of his mission as Che Mania rolls on.

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About the Author
Mark Goldblatt teaches at Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY). His latest novel, Sloth, was published last year by Greenpoint Press.