Why is it that every time I read of the grim designs held by the international terrorists of the present I think of the uncelebrated and mostly unremembered Admiral Sir John Fisher? The barbarism committed against the Wall Street Journal‘s Danny Pearl would not have surprised the Admiral.
I thought of him the other day while reading Robert D. Kaplan’s Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos and I thought of him this morning when I heard of Pearl’s cold-blooded murder. Both are among the best journalists America has. Unlike the stuffed-shirts who wheel around Washington pretending to a knowledge they do not have, these “foreign correspondents” go out in the field and apprehend what they did not know. Kaplan has been one of the best journalists covering terror and barbarism in foreign parts for years, partly for The American Spectator. In Warrior Politics (now a bestseller) he makes the point that America’s role in the world today is not unlike that of Britain at the end of the 19th Century –back in Fisher’s day. We have to stomp on barbarians “with nasty little wars in anarchic corners of the world.”
I remember Kaplan well. Well over a decade ago he wandered into the office of The American Spectator with manuscripts and plans for reporting on hell from the actual hellholes. We encouraged him. In fact, friends at a foundation bankrolled one of his first books. Now Kaplan is reporting the glum news about terrorists to members of our government. He even has chatted with our debonair President.
Well, he would not have all that much to report if the British had taken Fisher seriously back in 1915. He knew how to handle the terrorists of his time. He served as First Sea Lord under First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, and was nothing if not action-oriented. The world was turning toward warfare without rules, terrorism, if you will; and Fisher knew how to deal with it. Late in 1914 British intelligence brought Admiralty news that the Germans were going to commence bombing London from the Zeppelin fleet. “He proposed to me,” writes his boss Churchill in The World Crisis “that we should take a large number of hostages from the German population in our hands and should declare our intention of executing one of them for every civilian killed by bombs from aircraft.” Churchill declined the advise and Fisher resigned.
Okay, okay, the old boy’s suggestion sounds a bit rough. And anyway there is no one in the American government today, not even Paul Wolfowitz, likely to round up our population of Muslim graduate students and hold them as prospective hostages.
Yet stop and think back to World War I. If the limits of the tolerable had been set then by the likes of Admiral Fisher, would even Hitler have been so heedless of public opinion as to eventually order the “blitz”? Would Muslim terrorists have any sympathy at all back home today if it were understood that by blowing themselves up they would be ensuring the deaths of many of their own? More to the point, if something like Fisher’s expedient had been followed would the world have come so far down the road to barbarism that there would be tolerance shown to savages who kill innocent people in cold blood?
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is editor in chief of The American Spectator.