Monday, August 16, 2004

The Last Taboo

News that the Iraqi police have ordered all journalists out of Najaf and are enforcing it, strongly suggests that an operation against the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf is imminent.

The bullet that whistled through the lobby of the Sea Hotel in Najaf yesterday, embedding shards of glass into a foreign reporter's cheek before lodging itself in an air-conditioning unit, carried an unmistakeable message: "Get out." ...

In Najaf journalists were summoned yesterday morning by the city's police chief, Ghalab al-Jazeera. It was said that he wanted to parade some captured members of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, who have launched their second uprising in four months. Instead the police chief delivered a blunt warning: journalists had two hours to leave Najaf or face arrest. ...

For good measure, Mr Jazeera also threatened to arrest Iraqi drivers and translators working for the press corps if we did not comply. The 30-odd journalists staying at the Sea Hotel decided to stay in Najaf. Shortly after the deadline expired, the first bullets struck the building. But the sniper was almost certainly an Iraqi policeman, given that the Mahdi army fighters were more than two miles away. Then armed police raided the hotel and tried to arrest the journalists, before imposing a new two-hour deadline to leave the city.

A deputation of journalists was denied an audience with Najaf's governor, Adnan al-Zurufi. The policeman outside his office was brusque. "If you do not leave by the deadline we will shoot you," he said. That was enough for all but a handful of British and American journalists who hunkered down in the hotel as the deadline expired.

The principal damage inflicted by the War on Terror has not been to material objects or to human lives, although there have been enough of those. Compared to the tens of millions killed during World War 2 or the millions killed during the Cold War (more than 100,000 Americans in Korea and Vietnam; over a million NVA alone), the current losses have barely nudged the Satanic scale. But the damage inflicted against the fabric of civilization has been immense.

Civilization does not principally consist of bricks and mortar, but in a set of commonly accepted values and restraints. If the inhabitants of the sub-Saharan Africa and the United States could be exchanged instanteously; the one materializing in suburban homes and the other in wattle huts, the material imbalance would be reversed again within ten years, because the technology and civilization of Americans is carried in their heads and not in their possessions. There would be nothing Americans could not rebuild in Africa; and there would be nothing Africans could repair or replace in America.

So the most terrifying effect of the War so far has been in the slow destruction of taboos and imperatives which collectively allowed civilization to function. One writer observed that although Britain has possessed nuclear weapons for nearly 60 years no one worried about a UK attack on New York city. He might have added that no one in London lost any sleep over the prospect of an American nuclear strike on Picadilly Circus. The electronics, physics and rocketry check out fine; it was civilization that held them back. The concept of assymetric warfare was supposed to exploit the "fact" that transnational terrorist organizations operating in areas of chaos could strike at a civilization hamstrung by constraints. They could attack orphanages and then seek shelter in the Church of the Nativity; they could fly wide bodied aircraft into Manhattan, then seek shelter in "sovereign" Afghanistan; they could call for the death of millions from the pulpits of Qom; they could fire mortars from the Imam Ali Shrine and never expect the favor to be returned. But the logical flaw in this conception was that civilization could put aside these constraints in a moment. Hiroshima and Dresden are reminders that it could.

There was a time before terrorism when passengers could walk right up to airplanes on the apron; children would be given the tour of cockpits; passengers could eat their food with real knives and body-cavity searches were something that happened to drug smugglers. That was before civilization addressed the assymetry and became, like Islam facing the Mongols, adept in the face of the enemy; able if you forgive the mixed metaphor, to out-Herod Herod. Two taboos are about to fall in the coming days. The first is the protective mantle conferred by one of the holiest Shrines in Islam upon those within. The second is the guaranteed access of the Western press to the battlefield.

A wag once suggested that the War on Terror could end in either of two ways. The Islamic fundamentalist could become like the infidel and within a generation acquire the material wealth and technology whose lack has been their weakness. Or the infidel could become like the Islamic fundamentalist for a day and the end the fight as the fundamentalist would. I thought it was funny once. Let's win this war soon or be prepared to pay the price.