The downward spiral

The story of Nicholas Berg, the American civilian beheaded by terrorists in Iraq is almost too awful to bear. It's the kind of thing that makes you want curl up in a ball and never read the newspaper again.

But the hawks' collective reaction to this atrocity portends worse things to come. Many conservatives were quick to point to Berg's slaughter as an example of "who our real enemies are", i.e., that the uproar over the Abu Ghraib scandal pales in comparison. James Robbins at NRO has a particularly in depth explanation of how, between the prisoner torture and the beheading, the beheading is most definitely worse.

To quote Atrios, "What a fucking standard we've set for ourselves."

I'm sure there are some people on the left out there who need explaining as to why America is better than a band of fanatical homicidal maniacs, and in fact, we all might be better off if Gibbons, et al., went out and tried to reason with the teenagers carrying the Bush is Hitler posters they are so obsessed with debunking.

Part of the problem is that conservatives have spent a lot of the last three years fretting over their ownership of September 11. Many on the right feel that September 11 was their own personal epiphany in which good was separated from evil and the United States was anointed as the only country tough and ass-kicking enough to do something about it. This is the grand dramatic narrative which has infused the conservative line on everything from Iraq to Israel to Guantanamo. Liberals, especially those in New York who actually witnessed the attack, have difficulty understanding just how personally precious outrage over September 11 is to conservatives.

The danger now, as in any case where policy is dictated by thrall rather than sobriety, is that the hawks providing the intellectual and spiritual fuel for this mission will lose any sense of nuance they had to begin with, as they move inexorably towards the global showdown they anticipate. The democratizing portion of the Iraq mission was really always a second string excuse, brought to the fore when the self-defense rationale failed. And it has enjoyed a good run: conservatives triangulated to pretend that was their intention the whole time while liberals agonized over the part of the mission they always felt sympathy for.

But the reaction to Berg's death should clarify how little that has to do with the real impetus for our involvement there. Right wing conventional wisdom is now firmly set that outrage over the Abu Ghraib scandal is trivial against horror at Berg's death, and it suggests what was perhaps always our fate in this adventure. That we would be sucked into a lonely, bloody war of attrition, in which our army fights civilians in the Middle East while al Qaeda and other terrorists become ever more provocative. Check out the Freepers today. There is no love lost with the idea of 'nuking' 'them', I can tell you.

The real test of resolve was never whether we could crush a lot of people in the Middle East. That's not resolve, that's just what we're capable of. The test of resolve was how long we could keep the charade of Wilisonian goodness alive in the face of a political mindset that lacks the will to discriminate between terrorists and our objects of liberation.


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