Entry from January 19, 2010

It hasn’t taken long for the shock of the appalling spectacle of the Haitian earthquake to wear off — at least enough for the appropriate liberal and progressive lessons to be drawn from it. That must be why we find in today’s New York Times this story by Marc Lacey, reporting from Port-au-Prince, about New York firefighters in Haiti headed: “For 9/11 Team, Haiti Brings It All Back” The story begins as follows: “A pile of rubble is a pile of rubble, whether it is Lower Manhattan or central Port-au-Prince. As a New York rescue team combed the wreckage of last week’s earthquake in search of long-shot survivors on Monday, some said one particular past disaster — the collapsed World Trade Center towers — was not far back in their minds.” Doubtless some did say it too, but that doesn’t mean that “a pile of rubble is a pile of rubble.”

But for most people today, as for nearly everybody a generation or two ago, there is all the difference in the world between a pile of rubble caused by a natural disaster and a pile of rubble caused by enemy action. Only a fool could fail to see that difference — someone with a vested interest in making the claim that there is no difference. The difference, that is, lies in the meaning of the pile of rubble. Pat Robertson aside, not too many people anymore try to divine the meaning of an earthquake or other natural disaster. True, it was easy enough for the media to find in Hurricane Katrina meaningful evidence of the incompetence of the Bush administration, but then where did they not find such evidence? Not so coincidentally, a lot of people have tried to find exactly the same lesson in the events of 9/11 and most of what followed them.

But the more usual media view, reflected today in Mr Lacey’s story, is to deny meaning to both things. In other words, progressives and their media allies have a powerful interest in making people believe that deaths from acts of war are exactly as meaningless as deaths from natural disasters — if only by meaninglessly calling them “meaningless.” The powerful visual imagery of human tragedy in Haiti is allowed to overwhelm us partly as a way of expressing the idea that human tragedy is always and only overwhelming to the reason and not something that must be responded to in the way that people used to suppose, more or less automatically and without being taught, an enemy attack must be responded to. Here as in so many other ways, the media reflect the progressive and liberal determination not only to ensure that the old honor culture from which people learned of this need to respond never comes back from the dead — as at times it seems to threaten to do — but that people begin to think it never existed in the first place.

Hence, too, the inversion of the honor culture in the same newspaper’s choosing to print a 2300- word profile on Sunday not of Mr Jasper Schuringa, the Dutch hero who saved the lives of 278 passengers and 11 crew-members aboard Northwest flight 253 — who remembers him anymore? — but the apparently endlessly fascinating Mr Abdulmutallab, the underpants bomber himself. In an article by Adam Nossiter headed “Lonely Trek to Radicalism for Terror Suspect” (the poor wittle thing, was him wonely?) we read that

behind Mr. Abdulmutallab’s journey from gifted student to terrorism suspect, accused of trying to bring down a plane headed to Detroit on Dec. 25 with explosives sewn into his underwear, is the struggle between father and son, between piety and radicalism, between an investment in this life and a disconnected young man’s apparent longing for the next. It is a struggle within Islam itself, not just in the Middle East or in centers of jihadist ideology like London, but also here in Kaduna, the northern Nigerian city where Mr. Abdulmutallab grew up and returned to on vacation. This is a place where the dividing line between devotion and extremism is often blurred, where Islamic police ensure that moral codes are obeyed, where scores were killed in religious violence incited by the Miss World contest in 2002, and where even a family as Westernized as Mr. Abdulmutallab’s has had contact with clerics espousing anti- Western and anti-Israeli ideals.

It’s all so complicated, isn’t it, so taxing to the intellect to discover why he did it? It almost seems as if it would have been a wonder had Mr Abdulmutallab not become a terrorist. Certainly, it can’t be anything so simple as a bad man trying to incinerate some 300 of his fellow creatures to win glory for himself or his bad cause. In the media’s view, everything must be over-determined by circumstance — or the mistakes of the Bush administration — so that acts of terror become like acts of God, both in their causes and in the limited and ad hoc way they demand to be dealt with. Insofar as questions of war and peace arise, it is only by way of demonstrating that war must be thought of as a struggle to understand the other side — the unspoken assumption being that there is always a way to get the enemy to stop fighting by understanding and sympathizing with him and without having to defeat him in battle — as the old, unmentionable honor culture would once have insisted. Got that? Whether you have or not, there’s sure to be another lesson to the same effect next week.

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