TCS Daily

The Lesson of Fallujah

By Lee Harris - April 2, 2004 12:00 AM

The Bush administration has promised to respond to Fallujah. But how can a civilized nation such as our own respond to what had happened there this week? We cannot do to them what they did to us. They know that, and we now know it too. We cannot dismember bodies, and hang them from telephone lines. We cannot cheer and yell when men who have done nothing to hurt us are butchered like animals. We cannot do to them the things that they have done to us. We cannot pay them back in kind.

Yes, we can declare our intention to hunt down those responsible for such atrocities. We have announced that we are determined to bring the culprits to justice. But what does justice have to do with Fallujah? Where do any of our civilized ideas of justice fit into a world in which such things not only happen, but are celebrated?

I have only heard verbal reports about what happened. I have not been able to bring myself to look at the pictures of what was done there. I have to keep it at a distance from my consciousness, as I suspect many other Americans must do as well. But those who set out to reconstruct Iraq from the ground up need to stare at those ghastly images for as long as it takes for their message to sink in.

There are laws that govern the development of civilized life, just as there are laws that govern the natural order, and those in the Bush administration who supposed that democracy would spontaneously emerge from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein chose to ignore these laws because they did not fit in with their ideological illusion. Over and over again, we heard from the administration that all human beings are alike, and that we all want the same thing.

The American engineers whose bodies were torn apart did not want the same things as the mob that savaged them. They had come to Iraq to lend a helping hand, and perhaps to make a few bucks. They wished to do no one any harm. Like the brave American soldiers who have given up their lives in the defense of the Iraqi people, they expected to live out a full and rather ordinary life. They never imagined that their deaths would occasion dancing in the streets and delirious shouts of joy.

The Bush administration says that it will bring the culprits to justice. Does that mean the ones who hacked the bodies, or set them ablaze, or the ones who hanged them from the bridges? Does it mean the ten year old boys that cheered and bellowed in the streets of Fallujah, or the other boys in the Arab world who sympathized with them, and who would have loved to have been in Fallujah to share the fun?

Does the administration have a clue what it is dealing with? Does it really think that anything we can do to avenge the American dead at Fallujah will make the least impression on those who committed acts of such a nature?

We are trapped. Our enemy knows now that no matter what they do to us, we will not do it back to them. They know now that no matter what insult they offer us, or how deeply they violate us, that we can never bring ourselves to descend to their level of de-civilization.

Fallujah should spell the end of the neo-conservative fantasy that all human beings want the same things. It should awake the Bush administration from its dream that what the Arab street really needs is democracy. Fallujah represents the end of the road for that kind of thinking and that kind of talk. And if it doesn't, we are in serious trouble.

That is the lesson of Fallujah.

Lee Harris is the author of Civilization and Its Enemies. He recently wrote for TCS about Criticizing America.


TCS Daily Archives