Perhaps this joke is a mite crude, but it’s indispensable to the matter at hand. A man is looking to get his watch repaired. He cruises the street for a likely establishment. Then he spots a store with no sign but many clocks in the window. “Do you repair watches,” he asks the owner. “No, I do circumcisions.” The customer, shocked, sputters: “So why do you have these clocks on display?” But the storekeeper is ready with his answer.
“What else do you want me to put in the window?”
The Number Three man in al Qaeda, Hamza Rabia, has just been gunned down by two unmanned planes and a guided missile. Fragments of the killer ordnance read: “Guided Missile. US.” The United States government denies any knowledge or involvement. In other words, they’re hanging out clocks at the entrance to the CIA building in Langley. Yep, we don’t need to be hams in Arabia to nail Hamza Rabia. We want to say we don’t know but we want al Qaeda to know we know.
That settles the journalistic questions of what, where, why, how and even, in a shrouded but translucent way, who. All that remains for us to determine is: good idea or bad idea? Should we be out there bumping off terrorists with pot shots? We know this is the Israeli way; should it also be the American way?
I VOTE YES. To me it seems like this is the War on Terror in its most natural mode. Remember, we were not attacked by a sovereign nation but by a sort of NGO (for the uninitiated, NGO is diplomat-speak for non-governmental organization, and it’s applied to such crepuscular entities as Greenpeace). When we declared war, in a manner of speaking, against al Qaeda, we rewrote the rules of engagement.
Still, the easier steps have been to return to the familiar where possible. If we could attack a whole country like Afghanistan or Iraq, that was much more comfortable. Country-versus-country war is an old game and the rules are already encoded in our genes. In a sense we were imitating the drunk who looks for his lost wallet under the lamppost, because the light is better there than in the dark corner where it actually fell.
The real War on Terror may be kicking in now. Now we have to get individual al Qaeda members who may be lurking in attics and cellars anywhere and everywhere. At this point the logic of war between the United States of America and a private-sector gang involves bestowing upon them a sort of honorary sovereignty. They are the government-in-exile of the sovereign nation of al Qaeda and every one of them is an ambassador. Their home, in whatever host country, is a piece of enemy territory. The principle of embassy status and diplomatic immunity is applied in reverse.
Look, they came here and bombed us with their Air Force. Does it really matter that their fleet was acquired through piracy of commercial air craft? In the same way, we view Hamza Rabia’s house in Pakistan as occupying a legal status distinct from the rest of that ally country. His house is an al Qaeda embassy with discrete sovereignty and as long as we don’t mess Pakistani lawns too badly with shrapnel and body parts, we reserve the right to act on our declaration of war. Or better said, on our engaging of their declaration of war.
If this sounds like a creative new principle of international law, indeed that it just what is intended. It is an approach that responds to the new postmodern reality of war so mobile that it can strike anywhere despite its lack of a sovereign author or even sponsor. We cannot be forced to observe classic restrictions such as borders when the enemy is neither defined nor fettered by same.
Will liberals ever agree to such a premise? To answer that we can revisit our opening theme. Conor Cruise O’Brien was the Irish ambassador to the U.N. in the 1960s and the seating was arranged by alphabetical order, so he sat next to the delegate from Israel. When the U.N. called a special session to decry the Bay of Pigs invasion, Adlai Stevenson, representing the United States, made a long stumbling speech in defense. At the end, he said: “…in the situation, our options were…circumscribed.” At which point the Jewish ambassador leaned over to O’Brien and whispered: “I knew it was only a matter of time before we were blamed.”
We will never please everybody and there are some folks that we can never please at all. Meseems that these missiles do not misseem us. And as we say in the circumcision business, you can’t turn back the clock.
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