TCS Daily

A New Screwtape Letter Emerges

By Douglas Kern - August 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Dear Obscure Legal Guy:

I'm a senior-level administrator for a multi-national human resources consulting firm ("Hell"), and I have a problem. I'm trying to prevent my nephew, whom I'll call "Wormwood," from making what might be a terrible mistake. "Wormwood" is a junior tempter, newly assigned to our Department for the Inculcation of Political Stupidity. Unfortunately, "Wormwood" is a nincompoop whose idea of subtle demonic temptation seems to have come from re-runs of "Bewitched" and Ozzy Osbourne records played backwards. Consequently, I have taken it upon myself to guide the little twerp in the form of charming letters that instruct him in the finer points of human evil.

Anyway, "Wormwood" has recently been assigned to build stupidity in the mind of a fellow who supported the war in Iraq, but who now questions the war's validity. In his last letter, "Wormwood" tells me that he plans on rubbing his target's face in the recently-documented failings of the CIA and other American intelligence organizations -- with the recent New York terrorism false alarms as a case in point. In this manner, "Wormwood" intends to convince his target that America stumbled blindly into an unjust war -- unjust because the threat from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was not imminent, and perhaps not even real. In the long term, "Wormwood" thinks his plan will corrode his target's faith in America's moral competency to fight wars against anyone, ever. Something about this plan seems wrong, but I can't put my claw on it. Can you help? I've got a book deal riding on my elegantly crafted responses to problems like this.


My Dear Screwtape:

You're exactly right to be suspicious of your nephew's plan. No one who believes in the propriety of the war in Iraq should fear the revelation that our intelligence agencies are in disarray. The question of a just pre-emptive war, however, is another matter entirely. Your half-wit nephew has stumbled upon an excellent means by which thoughtful people can be turned to the path of great stupidity. But let me explain.

If your nephew's target initially supported the war in Iraq, it is clear that he is not a fool or a pacifist. He doesn't believe that a bag of cash and a few rousing stanzas of "Kum Ba Yah" will transform Al Qaeda into the Shriners' Club. Nor is your nephew's target a glutton for punishment in the name of principle. If a mushroom cloud were to erupt over Los Angeles, he would probably agree that the government waited just a teensy bit too long in determining if a WMD threat was imminent. "Megadeath = Bad" is more than just an expression of musical preference. But your nephew's target would also agree that America ought not to attack rogue countries simply because satellite photos show a white powdery substance near their sugar factories. There's a happy medium between fussy restraint and overzealous paranoia. But where is it?

Before the war in Iraq, opponents of the war claimed that we didn't need an answer to that question, because America's intelligence agencies would certainly be able to tell us if a WMD attack was imminent. Warmongering obscure conservative legal guys rejected that argument, claiming that the risk of an intelligence failure was too great to be endured. In light of the recent evidence documenting the failing of American intelligence agencies, whose argument looks better? No one can say with a straight face: "We'll just wait for those highly-trained, nigh-infallible CIA experts to tell us when a genuine threat of WMD should distract us from our Madden 2005 game." If your nephew's target spends too much time reflecting on intelligence failures, he may realize that American intelligence can't be trusted to provide a reliable, timely head's-up for terrorist attacks. And if your nephew's target determines that perfect certainty in the realm of intelligence is impossible, he may realize that it's sometimes necessary to risk pre-emptive action against indisputably evil, inspection-defying, WMD-dabbling regimes -- even if the anticipated threat later proves to be false. But this kind of thinking is wise, and the inculcation of wisdom will not win your nephew any "Atta-Boys!" from the infernal management.

How might your nephew distract his target from clear thought in this regard? Two words: Howard Dean. The recent terror threat in New York and New Jersey was pretty sobering for your nephew's target, wasn't it? Well, fear not. Governor Dean's accusations of conspiracies and politics provide a strangely comforting explanation for such false alarms -- an explanation that conceals the intrinsic limitations of intelligence. And if Dean's remarks have the further effect of poisoning the well of trust for all public officials trying to combat terrorism -- up to and including the luckless bureaucrat who acquires the hopeless job of "intelligence czar" -- so much the better! Mindless suspicion of friend and foe alike will surely please your employer. Actually, pretty much everything about Dean is pleasing to your employer.

If your nephew wants to lure his target into a particularly vicious and tenacious form of stupidity, he needs to bludgeon his man with lots and lots of just war theory. Now, stop screaming! I know perfectly well that just war theory is a tool of what you call The Enemy -- that three-faced fellow with the book and the white d├ęcor and the winged people in His entourage. We're going to use The Enemy's tools against Him. Calm down.

As you know, the primary worldwide pro-Enemy guerrilla movement -- known as "The Roman Catholic Church" -- has championed a conceptual protocol for assessing the validity of the use of military force. This just war theory states (among other things) that pre-emptive military attacks are justified only when an attack from one's opponent is imminent. The usual example of an imminent attack is when your enemy's troops are massed on your border. Just war theory does not require one's enemies to cross an imaginary line of property division before a defensive attack can be initiated. But it does not permit a pre-emptive attack unless it is effectively certain that one's enemy intends to attack first.

Surely you can see the ways in which this doctrine can be turned to the purposes of your employer. When biological warfare agents can be mailed in an envelope and nuclear weapons contained in a briefcase, how can any imminent WMD attack be "effectively certain?" Moreover, a theory that makes a justificatory fetish out of "certainty" is a theory that transforms uncertainty into the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Uncertainty is easy to create. A bribed U.N. inspector here, a planted story in the media there, and suddenly you can't say with certainty that an attack is imminent. To give our enemies such an obvious tool for deterring pre-emptive attacks would be to ensure that evil regimes have the maximum amount of time to perfect WMD and their deployment mechanisms, without irritating interruptions from Tomahawk missiles and the 82nd Airborne.

That would be stupid. And stupidity and demonic evil are like peanut butter and chocolate -- two great tastes that taste great together.

It is true that certain visionaries in the camp of the Enemy -- such as George Weigel, Michael Novak, and Jean Bethke Elshtain -- argue that the Church should re-assess just war criteria to reflect the realities of asymmetrical warfare and unconventional weapons. But the Vatican's critical response to the war in Iraq suggests that the Church won't be listening to any of those awful nasty neoconservatives anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, just war theory will reflect the cutting edge of 14th century warfare. Tell your nephew to keep his target from jousting.

Your nephew won't tempt his target to any memorable form of stupidity if he allows his target to frame the question of pre-emptive warfare as "Should my country refrain from pre-emptively attacking tyrannical regimes that desperately want to kill me with horrific weapons and have the means to do so?" But great stupidity can spring from the question of "Is it moral for me to support a pre-emptive war against a country that hasn't attacked me and might never attack me?" If your nephew can manipulate religious arguments to guide his target to the second question, your nephew will be promoted without fail.

Thanks for writing. And the next time you see your boss, congratulate him on "Fahrenheit 9/11." The Oscar will look good on his mantle.


The Obscure Legal Guy

The author is a lawyer and frequent TCS contributor. He recently wrote for TCS about why the Lord of the Rings Will - and Must - Be Remade.


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