Common Enemies

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018

By Robert Koehler

(Originally published April 10, 2003)

This is the drumbeat of “the other superpower”:

“Never before in the history of the world has there been a global, visible, public, viable, open dialogue and conversation about the very legitimacy of war.”

Words with lesser resonance wouldn’t pull the world out of its torpor. Equivocation — carpet-bombing civilians is OK if it’s done legally — wouldn’t wake up and bring active hope to so many people on so many continents, all at one time, in wave after rolling wave of vigil, demonstration, sit-in, takeover and mute, peaceful witness against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The speaker was 80-year-old Dr. Robert Muller, a former assistant secretary general of the United Nations and now chancellor emeritus of the University of Peace in his native Costa Rica. He recently astounded an audience in San Francisco, which was honoring him for his service to the U.N., with his optimism about the state of today’s world.

It’s “a miracle,” he said. “This is what waging peace looks like.”

It’s no less of a miracle because the voices of peace didn’t stay the missiles or quench the Bush war agenda — this time. The administration, after all, had rallied the media and much of the American public behind it and played enough of the right notes — fear, mockery, history, blood sacrifice — to summon powerful us-vs.-them feelings.

The human race has been organizing itself around common enemies, imagined or real, since its dawning. A good enemy, you might say, reminds us of our humanity.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War,” said in an online interview on “What’s deeply engrained in our emotional makeup is something that’s very positive — the capacity to band together to experience a kind of euphoria from collective defense against a common enemy. … Those are the emotions we bring to wars and (they) are very noble and generous and altruistic.”

That’s the paradox the antiwar movement has to confront — that to argue against war is to trouble the mobilized public at its level of deepest bonding, to sew doubt in the psychic well of patriotism.

But as Ehrenreich points out, it must be done. The altruism and generosity that become aroused for the sake of our collective defense have been yoked to a predatory beast that is, itself, more dangerous than the various enemies who come and go.

The arguments you hear, for instance, for the “removal” of Saddam Hussein have a linear, almost video-game feel to them. Whereas he has a secret WMD stash and he gassed the Kurds and invaded Kuwait and tortured his political opponents, now therefore: zap, splat. We must kill x-thousand Iraqis. We must blow the arms off 12-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas.

Pro-war logic ultimately undergoes a mysterious transformation — from a moral absolutism condemning Saddam to a moral relativism justifying the use of MOABs and daisy cutters and even first-strike nukes, if necessary, to get rid of him. Some of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet have no problem with the slaughter of civilians.

Waging war is the ultimate coarsening of the human heart and because it is permissible — because we have made our peace, so to speak, with a two-tiered moral structure in the conduct of human affairs — atrocities of every sort and scale can, and do, find justification.

Anyone who is sufficiently ruthless can manipulate that two-tiered structure to the advantage of his own agenda. Saddam, and Hitler, did no more than that. Without recourse to an alternative morality, they would have nowhere to hide.

The poet Paul Valery said: “Politics is the art of making people indifferent to what should concern them.”

The most egregious indifference of the body politic is an indifference to human suffering. Muller’s miracle is the worldwide waking up from this indifference. It’s the assertion of what you might call transpatriotism. National interests must not be allowed to be in conflict with mankind’s interests, the people of the world are saying.

The candles that flicker in the night around the world, in counterpoint to the flames of Baghdad, signal awareness that we are not one another’s enemies. They will not go out.