On September 11th Eve, or—excuse me—Patriot Day’s Eve, the President announced a new plan, a campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy the ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorist strategy.” To me it sounds much like the last plan to degrade and destroy the terrorists and the plan before that, but, then again, I’m not a plan maker. I do like plans though. I like them very much. Conservatives like them. Liberals like them. Jihadists like them. Buddhists like them. Most everybody does. No one wants to go through life in a state of moral and existential ambiguity. We vote a man (or woman) into office to make plans for us to follow. For all the faults of the last President, he at least had the intelligence enough to know Americans like plans and to give them to us at regular intervals.
Orwell’s Big Brother had a plan too. The plan—which everyone who has been to high school in the United States understands and everyone who writes takes much pleasure in referencing—required perpetual war to be effective. Oceania had to be at war with someone otherwise they would begin to see what the world around them lacked. But what people who claim to be experts on 1984 don’t understand is that O’Brien only gives the people of Oceania what they want. O’Brien is the victim here, one of circumstance and fear. The people need war as much as war needs people. O’Brien tries to explain to Winston that this was what the people wanted, not him, and he simply provides them happiness, which is really just another word for fear. Does this make him a criminal? Giving people exactly what they most desire? He offers his people peace with his plan of war. He makes them fall in love with Big Brother, and in the end they do. The people cheer the bombs. And why wouldn’t they? The bombs hurt no one but those they don’t know. They lead to nothing but the elimination of their unease. They are imminently necessary given geo-political conditions. They do not use them; they simply stand back as the bombs do what they need to do.
So we finally have a plan, a plan with our bombs, like we had in Dresden, North Vietnam and Afghanistan, but more precise and with especially evil enemies (I mean really evil, no joke, super evil) this time around. This makes me feel better, for, in truth, I have been unusually upset lately. Unlike most people, I appreciate the fact that we, in order to survive, have an empathy quota, a certain amount of violence we can stand or rationalize before we must simply shrug our shoulders. I admit I shrug my shoulders often. People are dying everywhere, every day, and such are the facts of life. We simply do not have enough empathy to waste on another bombing in Baghdad, an Ebola outbreak in Liberia or Central American children starving on trains. I’m a busy man. Or at least I was. Then I saw the video of the American journalist. As John Bradford once said when he saw someone who looked just like him—white, middle class, bookish—killed in a horrible and demeaning way: “but for the Grace of God go I.” Indeed. Except for I’m not relying on God’s grace any longer, no sir, not with knife-wielding psychopaths sending videos to my Youtube account. I’m not going anywhere near this. I want a plan. And I want one now.
I went to Iraq as a soldier. I had seen people die in various ways and those deaths made my knees weak but this journalist death made my knees weaker. I put this in a category above and beyond the others. What happened to Foley wasn’t just death. This was death death. Blowing up someone as they sleep with their families or shooting them from a distance as they walk down the street speaks to civilization, a certain, perhaps quixotic, sense of chivalry. A gentleman does not decapitate; a gentleman degrades. A gentleman does not wield knives; he pushes buttons. A mark of the civilized person is that he in no way luxuriates in his violence. Violence for this man is clinical, a surgical procedure that blows up entire blocks of apartment buildings and everyone in them for fear of a few men or fights a war in a far-away country so long its own people forget they are fighting a war there. We did many things I’m not proud of while abroad but we never trafficked in death death. This we left for the monsters, the psychopaths and thugs.
We are a nation inspired by symbols. We are strong in our accomplishments, yet by some cruel irony we possess soft sensitive bodies and extraordinarily tall buildings. Knives terrify me. Towers make me patriotic. But man is a symbol-making creature, so what is he to do but make a plan that makes use of these symbols? What do the bombs ceaselessly falling represent but strength, science and God? What does the preciousness of our white flesh represent in contrast to burnt brown bodies created by our bombs? I see the black flags waving above the tan Humvees that I drove through Iraq—maybe the same exact Humvee—and I feel that the threads of our multiple grand narratives have become knotted. I feel the necessity of unknotting them through a grand defiant action, a symbolic gesture of brutality and magnanimity, some sign in the desert, a way forward.
The President, yesterday, at a Patriot Day ceremony, tells me never to give into fear. I won’t Mr. President. I kneel with the journalist in the sand, my face stoic and yet terrified, crying, knowing that I can do nothing but wait. Winston tells us in the end that he loves Big Brother. And I believe him. I am with him. How cannot I love myself? It would be nonsensical. I pray for a plan. I pray for the cavalry. I pray for bombs. I want it to rain throughout the desert with all my money and rage, a thunderous chorus of my just and indefatigable innocence, my infinitely righteous vengeance. I want everything I ever believed to mean something and all the psychopaths, monsters and thugs of the world to know this. I want a plan. Lucky for me—the President who in the end answers to me and reflects who I am—always delivers; we are, if nothing else, a democracy.