I was having dinner at a rather expensive restaurant the other night when a man I’d never met before threatened to kill me. He was a distinguished-looking fellow, dressed in a dark suit. I was walking by some appetizing desserts when he approached me, accused me in a harsh voice of bothering him repeatedly, cursed me and warned that he would kill me if I bothered him again. Then, briskly, he returned to his table. As I went back to my own table in a different part of the restaurant, I mentioned the episode to the maître d’, who promised to keep an eye on the guy.
The unpleasant encounter put me in a strange state of mind. I couldn’t help noticing, as I looked around the room, that people were coming in, they were being given tables without any questions being asked by anybody, and within about five seconds of sitting down, they were being issued with weapons that could easily be applied with lethal effect against nearby diners. Wielded with speed, even a fork can kill, not to mention a knife.
After a few moments, though, I calmed down. I felt relatively safe. I finished my meal and even enjoyed it.
The fact was that I was safe from most of the diners because most of the diners had no desire to kill me. That provided a sort of perfect security, in regard to them. As for the one man who clearly did seem hostile, he was frightening and unpredictable and his perceptions were inaccurate, but it was still unlikely that he’d try to kill me, because, excitable as he was, he probably knew in some way that threatening me, as he’d done, would cost him absolutely nothing, but that killing me would immediately ruin his life.
As I sit here now, reading the week’s newspapers–Iraq, Bush–do I feel safe, or do I feel frightened? Mainly frightened, because we’re living in a system of nation-states that is dangerous in and of itself. Like a restaurant, with its uncontrolled, unlicensed population of diners, our world of nation-states is a world of free atoms. The diners in that restaurant, though, had been basically friendly to one another, and the restaurant itself was securely planted inside a system of laws and customs designed to provide a quiet existence for the dining population.
For all their snarling at one another, nations have so much in common. All of them want to amass weapons. And one way or another, they all come up with some person to be on top of them, the “leader.” And the leader always believes himself to be a very reliable custodian of weapons. Meanwhile, every nation is tortured by its fear of the weapons and the leaders of the other nations. The system is awful! We’re all so frightened that we even tell our children frightening stories in school about terrifying leaders, all the “madmen” throughout history who’ve tried to “take over the world.” Is there no escape from this?
When the strongest, most successful and most ruthless person in a group claims to be taking some particularly nasty and aggressive action against another member of the group because he claims to be afraid of them, it’s sometimes hard to take him seriously–especially if, instead of looking fearful, he seems to have an excited smile on his face, as if he were having the time of his life. But assuming for the sake of argument that the US Administration wants to pre-emptively attack Iraq because of a genuine fear, then one has to say that this doesn’t make sense.
Bush claims to be frightened by Iraq. But it’s the restaurant that’s dangerous, not one diner. Heavily armed or not, Iraq is unlikely to attack either our country or any other country, for the very same reason that the man in the restaurant didn’t attack me–the fear of immediate consequences. But I’m not sure Bush understands the danger we’re in, apart from Iraq.
The United States, Bush and his associates believe, should preserve forever a status quo in the world in which most people are degraded and crushed for the benefit of a few–a few which happens to include themselves. At the same time, they expect our country to be liked by all nations. And they assume that if any nation does somehow dislike us, it won’t be difficult to disarm that nation.
Bush is right when he says that states can be more dangerous than terrorist groups, because they can use terrorist groups as one of their weapons. But he seems not to realize that when the United States flies into poor countries in its gigantic planes, hovering and attacking with shockingly powerful and merciless force, this inspires horror–and encourages people to build well-armed states, headed by leaders who hate our nation. So the pre-emptive attacks will have to constantly increase. There will be no end to them.
Our only hope lies, on the one hand, in diminishing the rage that people feel against us and, on the other, in strengthening the cobweb-thin matrix of international customs, laws and institutions to such a point that the whole chaotic system of atomized states with their “leaders” plotting to destroy one another would be replaced by something less terrible. In contrast to this, the Bush Administration’s attempt to prevent any possible threats against us, which amounts in practice to an attempt to “take over the world,” can only end in defeat–and in some sort of downfall for the United States.