The Right Coast

August 16, 2004
 
Reciprocity and Civilization
By Mike Rappaport

I see that Tom (immediately below) also found this post from the Belmont Club of interest. Here is a long excerpt (italics mine):

The principal damage inflicted by the War on Terror has not been to material objects or to human lives, although there have been enough of those. Compared to the tens of millions killed during World War 2 or the millions killed during the Cold War (more than 100,000 Americans in Korea and Vietnam; over a million NVA alone), the current losses have barely nudged the Satanic scale. But the damage inflicted against the fabric of civilization has been immense.

Civilization does not principally consist of bricks and mortar, but in a set of commonly accepted values and restraints. If the inhabitants of the sub-Saharan Africa and the United States could be exchanged instanteously; the one materializing in suburban homes and the other in wattle huts, the material imbalance would be reversed again within ten years, because the technology and civilization of Americans is carried in their heads and not in their possessions. There would be nothing Americans could not rebuild in Africa; and there would be nothing Africans could repair or replace in America.

So the most terrifying effect of the War so far has been in the slow destruction of taboos and imperatives which collectively allowed civilization to function. One writer observed that although Britain has possessed nuclear weapons for nearly 60 years no one worried about a UK attack on New York city. He might have added that no one in London lost any sleep over the prospect of an American nuclear strike on Picadilly Circus. The electronics, physics and rocketry check out fine; it was civilization that held them back. The concept of assymetric warfare was supposed to exploit the "fact" that transnational terrorist organizations operating in areas of chaos could strike at a civilization hamstrung by constraints. They could attack orphanages and then seek shelter in the Church of the Nativity; they could fly wide bodied aircraft into Manhattan, then seek shelter in "sovereign" Afghanistan; they could call for the death of millions from the pulpits of Qom; they could fire mortars from the Imam Ali Shrine and never expect the favor to be returned. But the logical flaw in this conception was that civilization could put aside these constraints in a moment. Hiroshima and Dresden are reminders that it could.