The last week has been not so much a case of national déjà vu as a Philip K. Dickian time-slip where the past bleeds into the present and transforms it. Syria is potentially the frankenstein of foreign-policy crises, made up of the parts of dead blunders: Vietnam, where we learned that firepower won’t overcome the unquantifiables that make for a quagmire; Iraq, where we learned that intelligence may be faulty or manipulated; Libya, where we learned both the combat possibilities and limitations of no-fly zones; Afghanistan, where a quarter-century ago we armed freedom-fighters who became accomplices in the murder of 3,000 citizens on American soil; Kosovo and Rwanda, where we ignored mass slaughter at the cost of our collective conscience; and Somalia, where we answered the call of conscience to disastrous end. Syria surpasses them all. With a warring population becoming ever more kaleidoscopically sectarian, and an air-defense system as sophisticated as any in the non-Israeli Middle East, it’s an unfolding horror show that morally demands a response from the greatest nation on earth even as we face a void of viable military, political, and diplomatic options. This was true before the looming holocaust that would be wrought by chemical weapons. As the president of the United States noted yesterday in his press conference, Syria was a cataclysm of mind-boggling dimensions before the conversation ever turned to red lines.
In the 21st century, American malevolence comes in twos. Just as people couldn’t begin to grasp what was happening until a plane hit the second of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, the full impact of what took place Monday in Boston didn’t sink in until, 13 seconds after the first explosion, another immediately confirmed the true implications of this particular horror. Tellingly and understandably, the initial response by all of us was to wrestle with the word “terror,” because as much as any word “terror” has become the rorschach of our modern rhetoric, a characterization that transforms the dimensions of an event even as the facts remain the same, when instead we might call what happened merely a “crime.” Was the explosion that took place at the Atlanta Olympics in the summer of 1996 less an act of terror because it came not in twos but ones? For many, long after the political motivations of Timothy McVeigh became evident, the single detonation in Oklahoma City in 1995—even more terrible than the one in Boston—remains a “bombing.”
The current yelling match about guns is distinguished by two truths disconcerting to each side. As loony as the argument sounds after a history of 224 years, the faction that opposes any oversight or management of gun rights is correct about one thing. The Second Amendment doesn’t exist to protect people’s right to hunt. It doesn’t exist to protect people’s right to shoot a thief or intruder. Derived from a similar stipulation in the English Bill of Rights of the 1600s, the Second Amendment exists for the same reason as the rest of the Bill of Rights—to further define the relationship between individual freedom and state power, and in this case to prohibit the state from unilaterally disarming the citizenry.
In the Bible, the Devil doesn’t show up until relatively late. Most people assume he’s the snake in the Garden, but actually the Devil’s first appearance is around Chronicles, the two books that sum up the rest of the Old Testament. While it wouldn’t be accurate to say that the Devil is an invention of Christianity, it would be fair to suggest that he doesn’t have the kind of mythic resonance for Jews that he has for Christians or, for that matter, Muslims, perhaps because in Judaism no single figure embodies God in the way that Christ and Muhammad do in the religions founded in their names. Over the millennia, as Christians have revised Jesus himself from the at-once historical and obscure figure in Mark (the gospel actually written before Matthew, whose more fantastical and spectacular take on Jesus and particularly the resurrection upstaged Mark and thus became definitive) to the judgmental, fire-and-brimstone Jesus of John, the Devil has become more charismatic as well.
Like the roomful of monkeys who eventually write Hamlet if given long enough, or the broken clock that’s on time twice a day, sooner or later an otherwise dubious political figure will find his moral compass pointing true north if he keeps spinning in place. Or maybe it’s Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky who stays in one place as the world spins, with north finally swinging into his sights. Whatever the motive, whatever paranoia fuels the worldview that drives him, whatever withering scorn he invited yesterday from fellow Republicans who found themselves in the strange position of defending a Democratic president, Paul’s filibuster of the last 48 hours was an act of patriotism more authentic than we usually see from a right that so ostentatiously professes to love a country it refuses to understand. If nothing else, Paul returned to the tradition of the filibuster some semblance of the heroism that his minority party has left in shambles the last few years with no small assist from Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, the eminent hack who had the opportunity to rescue that tradition a couple of months back and declined. Thus we’re left with Paul as unlikely savior of not merely tradition but the filibuster’s intent, which is to provide a venue for the expression of lonely principles. Sometimes those principles are profound enough that stopping the country in its tracks to ponder them is worth the inconvenience, before such principles are flattened by the steamroller of national consensus.