Dissent or Assent? | The Nation


Dissent or Assent?

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This evasive maneuver is characteristic. Frequently, what is most important--and objectionable--in these essays is what is taken for granted, implied, mentioned only in passing. Important questions are deftly closed off or passed by; dubious or indefensible premises go unstated but are somehow insinuated; opposing positions are subtly deprecated as implausible or irresponsible without quite being formulated or even attributed to anyone. Consequently, much of what I want to argue with in Arguing About War must be dragged out from between the lines.

About the Author

George Scialabba
George Scialabba is the author of Divided Mind and, most recently, What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern...

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In our new Gilded Age, the worst are not only full of passionate conviction. They are also damnably clever.

Instead of rescuing forgotten truths, neocons like Charles Krauthammer devise novel fallacies.

"Terrorism: A Critique of Excuses" shows Walzer at his shiftiest. "We live today," he announces, "in a political culture of excuses" for terrorism. This seems to me highly questionable, but Walzer pretends it is so obvious that "there is no need" to cite examples; "my readers can make their own attributions," which is very convenient for him. Still, a footnote informs us, two essays are such flagrant offenders that he "cannot resist" naming them as prime specimens: one by Edward Said, the other by Richard Falk; both appeared in The Nation in June 1986.

This is a disgraceful slur. To "excuse," according to Webster's Second International, means to "remove or lessen blame for," "seek indulgence for," "extenuate," "exculpate," "pardon, forgive, overlook." There is not a hint of a breath of an excuse for terrorism in either Falk's or Said's essay. Nor does Walzer attempt to show that there is. He simply slanders two political opponents, presumably because they point out that after one has condemned terrorism, more remains to be said.

What more? First, that by the ordinary definition of terrorism--deliberate violence against civilians for political purposes (apart from war crimes, which are equally abhorrent)--both Israel and the United States have been guilty of terrorism: the former during its 1978 and 1982 invasions of Lebanon as well as for many of its bombing raids in that country at other times; the latter far more extensively, through its support, training and arms sales to many brutal regimes and insurgencies. Second, that the definition of terrorism should perhaps be broadened to include reprisals that can hardly fail to produce civilian casualties, like the bombing, strafing and bulldozing of inhabited areas where guerrillas are hiding; or that cause a grave deterioration in the life of an entire society, like large-scale jailings, house demolitions, curfews, roadblocks, checkpoints, school closings, border closings, import restrictions, destruction of cultural, administrative and agricultural resources, and more. Third, that those responsible for a massive, flagrant, persistent injustice, which they could remedy without grave detriment to their own security, and which terrorists claim to be protesting, deserve some blame for the terrorists' crimes (an allocation that does not at all diminish the terrorists' blame, obviously). There are also fourth, fifth, sixth and many more things to be said on this subject. Walzer wants to prevent them all from being said by labeling them in advance as "excuse," "apology" and "appeasement."

"The Four Wars of Israel/Palestine" is the book's main essay on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Against the "great simplifiers" (i.e., his political opponents) Walzer argues bravely and complexly that there are rejectionists (bad) and accommodationists (good) on both sides. One might think this would not be news even to many of the great simplifiers, and that repeating what nearly everyone knows can hardly be the purpose of a medium-sized essay. In fact, I think that, notwithstanding some reasonable (though not very bold or controversial) things said in this essay and in "The Intifada and the Green Line" (the book's other essay on Israel/Palestine), the point of both lies in some other, less reasonable things lurking between the lines.

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