TCS Daily

The Attack on One Man That Was Bigger Than the Clash of Civilizations

By Carroll Andrew - September 30, 2004 12:00 AM

An American serviceman was ambushed last month. This ambush was especially noteworthy because it did not occur in Iraq or Afghanistan; it occurred within the borders of the United States. PFC Foster Barton, recipient of the Purple Heart, was on a two-week leave, recuperating from injuries sustained while on duty in Iraq. While leaving a concert in Columbus, Ohio, he was attacked. According to a local television report, his attacker reportedly "was screaming profanities and making crude remarks about U.S. soldiers."

I suspect that PFC Barton does not want to be part of any larger story or lesson about the war on terrorism. He is, most likely, a soldier who wants to do his job well, carry out his mission, and protect his buddies as best he can. However, a soldier does not always pick the battles in which he is involved. Circumstance has placed PFC Barton front-and-center of the war that transcends even the "clash of civilizations." Foster Barton was attacked by the common enemy of all civilizations.

Within every society, everywhere in the world, there exist individuals willing to use violence to get what they want. Saddam Hussein terrorized the Iraqi people to make himself rich and powerful. Foster Barton's attacker terrorized an American soldier to make himself feel good. They may not be linked by a common command-and-control structure or political ideology, but they are certainly linked by common, warped view of humanity. They share the belief that they are free, whenever they can get away with it, to make others the object of their violence. The current war against the network of dictators and terrorists, even more fundamental than a clash of civilizations, is a part of civilized society's ongoing stand against violence-for-personal-gain-and-fulfillment. The attack against Foster Barton was part of that same war.

At the moment, there is no doubt that any threat in Columbus, Ohio is minimal compared to threats in Iraq or Afghanistan. This does not mean that the threat of violence is not real, just that it is not organized. Suppose that PFC Barton's attacker had not acted alone. Suppose the attacker had access to a weapon on the night of September 19. And suppose that he organized a group of just 100 like-minded friends to carry out systematic attacks against American servicemen in Columbus. How would Columbus -- and the rest of the country -- respond to a group of similar attacks? Would the best strategy be to reduce the possibility of future attacks by avoiding conflict? Would they follow the example of Iraq and declare Columbus a no-go zone for the armed forces?

I doubt that the people of Columbus would accept this. A local government that announced its intention to tolerate such anarchy would quickly be replaced. Iraq, however, is different from Columbus. Iraq lacks the established civil society needed to check the threat of violence originating from a tiny percentage of violent individuals. The inability of Iraqis to instantly organize such a society has become a point of despair.

People outside of Iraq need more understanding of why it is difficult for the peaceful majority inside of Iraq to organize themselves. The legacy of multiple decades of totalitarian dictatorship hinders the process of civil organization. Trusting your fellow countrymen does not come easy in a place where, in the past, criticism of the government invited a raid by the state's secret police. In such an environment, keeping your head down and hoping the thugs ignore you -- maybe because they are too busy attacking someone else -- becomes a frighteningly rational survival strategy. It will take time for the people of Iraq to learn to rely on one another.

In the meantime, to build a stable, peaceful society in less than a generation, experience with civil government will have to be brought in from outside. Unfortunately, the people of Iraq justifiably lack faith that anyone outside of their country is willing to help them. They have little historical reason to believe that help is coming. From George H. W. Bush's abandonment of Iraqi uprisings after Gulf War I, to the United Nation's continued attempts to paper over mass murder and oil-for-food corruption, to John Kerry's most recent statements implying that the government of Saddam Hussein should have been left in place, the outside world has consistently conveyed a message to the people of Iraq that they are beyond help. The message has been that the average Iraqi citizen must accept the threat of violence -- from a dictator or a warlord -- as a part of their way of life.

No rational American, on the other hand, will tell PFC Barton that violence against him is inevitable, that he should pretend that no attack ever happened, and that there is nothing that can be done to stop such attacks from happening again. But kindred spirits of PFC Barton -- from the men lining up to take jobs as Iraqi police officers, to the average Iraqi citizens going about their daily lives -- are being told just that. The we-never-should-have-liberated and the cut-and-run crowds are telling Iraqis that the world was better off when the violence against them, violence under the control of single individual, was unchecked. We understand that it is both wrong at the moment and dangerous in the long run to ask a Foster Barton or the people of Columbus to ignore the threat of violence in their homeland. We should not ask the people of Iraq -- or the people of any country -- to accept a constant state of threat in theirs.

The author is a TCS contributor. He recently wrote about the elections in Venezuela.


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