As a little boy, six or seven, I had an illustrated book of jokes, where all the punchlines had been dramatized by a cartoonist. There is one image that I have never forgotten. A boy is standing, leaning casually against a tall building, looking like a little wastrel up to no good. A respectable looking man passes and says, “Hey, kid, what are you doing here?” The snotty answer: “Holding up this wall.” When the man tells him to scat, he shrugs and obliges. Sure enough, the house comes tumbling down around his feet.
This scene is replayed many times in life. People drop some small activity that they thought was peripheral to their life and suddenly their whole world unravels. Some small rule is dropped in a school and it changes the entire atmosphere of the place. A society abandons a seemingly minor element in its culture and unwittingly attenuates its essential character.
And then there’s the good side of the coin. Forces of great malevolence and danger are sometimes brought down by something relatively neutral. The classic American example was the undoing of major gangsters, masters of murder and mayhem, by convicting them of tax evasion. In like fashion, I would venture to assert that the weird and wicked Mr. Ahmadinejad will be brought down before very long, and not because of the great dangers that he truly poses.
His regime signed its death warrant this week. Not by developing nuclear weapons, which is a real fear. Nor by dispatching Hezbollah terrorists to badger the civilized world, also a legitimate threat. But by passing a breathtakingly imbecilic law to require Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians in Iran to wear colored badges on their clothing. Once the law is signed and enforced, Iran will cross over into a zone of pariahdom that will leave it morally defenseless against whatever sanction or force we throw its way.
This is a great irony of our era, but no less true for all that. We suffer from a lack of consensus about ends. The world has no sense of shared mission in a spiritual way. It cannot be said that there is a shared vision of the future that unites, say, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia. The last vestige of such a commonality exists in a loose extra-national confederation between serious Jews and Christians, who have a very similar moral sense and whose sharpest point of divergence concerns the identity of the Messiah — a debate that both sides have agreed to let God settle in His own good time.
Beyond that, we seem to be surrounded by a strange agglomeration of secularists and killer fanatics. And, perhaps unpredictably, the secular types have proven to be finicky about condemning the beliefs of even the worst offenders. Their virtuous side of “Live and let live” makes a gruesome merger with their vicious side of “There is no truth worth our lives” and leaves them in passivity, even paralysis. They are too discomfited by the role of having to draw lines between ideologies. It emerges that there is no unity in action against the spewers of evil because there is no unity of commitment to good.
There has been one fragile area of universal agreement that has held up for a century or more, often under severe strain. It covers the spectrum of tactics rather than purposes. The Geneva Convention is its highest embodiment, while its sparks provide what life still stirs in the carcass of the United Nations. This concord between nations holds that whatever it is that you’re fighting for, however noble, you have to figure out how to get it done without hacking off limbs of soldiers or harming civilians or burning people’s homes down indiscriminately or starving them. Without challenging purposes, we eschew these tactics.
We see this dramatized in the War on Terror. It is desperately difficult to get anyone to join a battle against a particular combatant. But they can be enlisted in a campaign against a tactic. The War on Terror is not a war against anybody; it is a war against a tactic. It presumes a doctrine that declares terrorism to be an invalid tactic for achieving any desideratum. This accounts for all the anomalies in public opinion; everyone agrees we must fight “terror,” but they are reluctant to identify particular groups or nations as targets.
One tactic that has no defenders outside the asylum is decorating people with colorful badges singling them out as abhorred castes. Iran had a chance at bluffing and posturing its way into the club of nuclear powers with a strategy of weaving between exaggeration and denial. But no one will tolerate color-coding. Those badges are a red flag, an Amber Alert and a black mark all at once. Its house must come tumbling down.