TCS Daily

Europe, Lost.

By Jack Birnbaum - March 16, 2004 12:00 AM

"Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor. They chose dishonor. They will have war."

-- Winston Churchill after the Munich conference, 1938.

And so the Spanish have chosen; and so they will have. The lessons of history are too old, covered with cobwebs, stored somewhere in the attic of memory, belonging to generations whose time has passed. Now, again, it seems that all one has to do to ensure a bright, safe future is to hold up a sign saying "Paz", and peace it will be. Peace in our time. The dead of March 11 not yet cold in their graves, the burned and disfigured survivors still in hospital, and the blame has been assigned. Not to the ones who build the bombs and fly the planes into buildings to give themselves meaning in some internalized historical mythology; they are the mechanism, you see, not the root cause. The cause, the criminal, is to be found in those who resist too robustly, who go beyond holding up signs and passing resolutions and try to prevent the slaughter.

On September 12, 2001 they were all Americans, for a day, anyway. But then things began to get uncomfortable. America determined to not just honor our dead and rebuild (that would have been alright), but to take action to ensure that the horrors would not be repeated. The first wave of the left, the hard core, the ones without shame or a good feeling for public relations, even then, while the dust of the Twin Towers still swirled, worried about what America would do. They marched against the "Bombing of Afghanistan" as if it were to be some indiscriminate murder of innocents from above, instead of what it was, a professional campaign to eliminate the Al-Qaeda sanctuary and liberate a terrorized people from the religious fanatics of the Taliban. But their propaganda didn't really catch on, didn't penetrate the mainstream. The attacks on New York and Washington were too fresh. NATO supported the Afghan campaign, and the United Nations didn't object. They weren't all Americans anymore, but they still saw themselves as part of the same civilization, under attack by something alien, for reasons they didn't quite understand.

But the images fade and the old instincts work their way back into consciousness. The need to consider oneself different from the victims, to create a convincing reason it can't happen to me. And the sense of justice we all carry, that so easily mutates into a conviction that a victim must have somehow deserved his fate, if not from moral failing than at least from not taking proper precautions, from having made a wrong judgment, a bad alliance. An explanation is needed, and an amulet.

A meme. A unit of cultural information, transmitted around the world, from media outlet to politician and back again, until it has permeated the collective consciousness so that it is just known to be true, a starting point for thought rather than something to be questioned.

  • Bush is the problem. (A convenient stand-in for America, which is more uncomfortable for some to criticize.)
  • The war in Iraq brought this on. (Not the war on terror, that we all agree on. Just that particular mass-murdering dictator removed, just that particular crooked oil-for-food program exposed.)
  • (Fill in the blank) lied! (And how long did it take for that part of the meme to start circulating after the carnage in Madrid?)
  • If only not for Bush and Iraq, they would leave us alone. If not for that, our children would be safe.

So they have their amulet, the Spanish. They can take their comfort in the meme they share with so many others. I wish them well, from the depth of my being, and I hope they never again have to see the body parts of their loved ones scattered around their cities like so many Israelis. And I know it isn't all of them, but just enough of them to turn an election. But they have made this clear to the world: the threat of indiscriminate terror can affect the outcome of a democratic election. This is not a small thing. This is a major defeat in the war for civilization.

They have chosen dishonor. And I fear what we will all have.

Jack Birnbaum is a physician and the author of the recently published novel "The Winter of Visions and Forgetting." This is his first appearance in TCS.


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