Ground Zero
by Scott McConnell

December 4, 2001

Genocidal Thought in the Land


We are in at a strange and pivotal moment in America's history. As the Christmas season commences there are reasons for hope: the early success of our forces in Afghanistan, and the fact – anticipated by few in September and October – that that the Taliban's grip on the Afghan population's loyalty was minimal. There is much that is hellish about this war, but the smiles of women who are suddenly allowed to show their faces, the kite flying, the music, the images of a people undergoing genuine liberation make up for a lot.

Yet there are signs that that this victory could soon turn rancid. One can hear the beginning of murmurs for fresh blood – for campaigns directed not against those who plotted and abetted the 9-11 terror, but against all Arabs, even all Muslims. They are, so far, only murmurs. But they come not from the America's patriotic working class or vast middle class, but from the society's highly educated elite. Were they ever to be translated into American policy, they would set this country on a course that in another time and place led those in charge of a nation similarly filled with a belief in its own destiny and the need for strong measures to be put on trial at Nuremberg.


The other day a friend described to me a dinner party he had attended. Present were prominent editors, publishers, businessmen – some with names easily recognizable to the general public. In the course of the evening a guest suggested, as a joke of course, that American planes could bomb the Aswan Dam, flooding and killing millions of innocent Egyptians. Chuckles all around. One hopes that at least one person spoke up to say that it was not all that funny, or even point out that many of the millions of Egyptians who would die have no more connection to the 9-11 attacks than Gilligan and the Skipper. But if so, it didn't penetrate the mood of general amusement and chin-stroking satisfaction that contemplation of such an attack afforded the guests. And the company, remember, was not tattooed yahoos from the American heartland – those whose moral imagination is so often sneered at by Manhattan sophisticates – but men who would be welcome in any New York City boardroom.


I participate in several e-mail lists. One of them is particularly ideologically diverse. Its participants include several prestigious, even famous, professors, most men far more learned than I. The other day, someone, in a fit of irritated sarcasm, posted a retort to someone else who was making the case for a wider war – "Phase 2" as it is now known. Arming the "Iraqi opposition" and overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the satirist wrote, wouldn't be nearly enough. Instead we could use nuclear bombs over much of Arabia, and then smallpox to thin out the major population areas – a small price to pay for gas at 25 cents a gallon.

In satire, almost anything can be said. But what was shocking to me was that some on the list apparently did not recognize the post as satire. They responded – "well, maybe we don't need to go so far, but..."


Saturday evening, I am descending in my apartment's elevator. Another family gets on, a young guy with his wife and two kids in tow. He is talking excitedly. "Wipe out all the Arabs," he is saying to his wife as he enters the car. "I heard Netanyahu on TV," he goes on, in a softer voice now that he sees he is not alone, "and he said we could do just like America does." I stifle the rebuke rising in my throat, at least until the young man and his family are out of earshot.


The two streams are now flowing closer and closer together in the minds of much of the American establishment: America's war against terror and Israel's war against the Palestinians. Combined, they are generating a synergy of emotion, in which anger, adrenaline, the senses of hubris and self-justification are not doubled, but squared or cubed.

But the two wars, Israel's and our own, are not symmetrical – not logically, not morally. Indeed, if there is a moral symmetry, it is to be found in Israel's war on the Palestinians and the Palestinians' war on Israel.

While General Zinni is right to describe Saturday's suicide bomber attacks on Jerusalem and Haifa as absolute evil, what words adequately summarize the Israeli antipersonnel booby trap which killed five Palestinian boys on the way to school in Gaza a few days earlier? The death toll was only five, not twenty-five – not nearly as bad. Indeed, the children were probably not the intended targets of the Israeli weapon, simply the people most likely to be destroyed by it, if you took a moment to think about it. And, who knows, perhaps the kids might have, in the past, thrown rocks at the Israeli guard tower that oversees the settlement planted in their midst. It is clear that their parents, friends, relatives will never be convinced that their death was justified. Israel has not apologized for the killings, denounced them (it could hardly denounce itself) or admitted error. The moral calculations become more difficult.

Difficult enough, that the best one might do is to pray for the wisdom of President Bush and his advisors in the weeks to come – pray with the full knowledge that they are hearing now, and will continue to hear, plenty of dark and morally obscene counsel from some of this country's most influential citizens.

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