The Autumn of the Patriarchs

Ever since we peaceniks lost the effort to stop the war, our liberventionist friends have been telling us to look on the bright side. We should all be pleased that a dictator met justice, they say, no matter why the war was fought or what its other results may be. It is in this optimistic spirit that I point out another good that may come of the war and even the terrorism it was supposed to eradicate: the death of the state. Palestinians take note.

Every state has the same advertised purpose: to protect its citizens. (This was no less true in the dystopias of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, though citizenship lost all legal fixity and became a measurement of loyalty.) Modern governments offer ingenious variations on this concept of protection (from nature, from inanimate objects, from oneself), but what people really want is protection from criminals, both the micro and macro varieties. Since states can no longer convincingly claim to provide this, the myth of their necessity fades. No one should understand this better than Iraqis, Americans, and Israelis.

Imagine an Iraqi who lost loved ones in the war, whose supply of electricity and potable water has fluctuated for months, who resents being policed by invaders. He has seen, in U.S. broadcasts, the Husseins’ palaces, with their garish American art, pet tigers, gold bidets, and other touches that would embarrass a Las Vegas pimp. Surely he wonders, with more rage than any Westerner, where the hell those weapons of mass destruction are hiding. Where was all that anthrax and nerve gas when foreigners attacked? While Saddam paraded his missiles about and fired shotguns off of balconies and growled that the neo-Mongols would die on Baghdad’s walls, he and his sons were partying the nation’s treasure away. In contrast, Kim Jong-Il doesn’t sit on the world’s greatest petroleum reserves, but he has kept North Korea’s adversaries at bay and trembling. (In so doing, he has also starved his subjects, but, hey, politics is a zero-sum game.) Why couldn’t the Iraqi government fulfill its one valid obligation?

Though all states feign defense against hoodlums domestic and foreign, what they really protect – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – are the interests of elites. Yes, U.N. sanctions are responsible for half a million Iraqi deaths over the last decade; still, you’ll notice that Saddam hasn’t missed any falafels. He wasn’t the one withholding food and medicine from "his" people, but he was damn sure gonna get his before they got theirs. Ditto for Dubya, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, et al. They don’t fly coach on Democracy Air, where the rest of us get a vigorous frisking before boarding planes no more secure than those departing on September 11, 2001. Bien pensants sneer at "Fortress America," but have you checked out the moats ’round the White House lately? God forbid the serfs desire a fraction of the king’s safety.

Not that the kings and tinhorns of the world could give their serfs safety, anyway. The World Trade Center somehow obeyed the laws of physics, despite America’s unequaled military prowess. (Trillions spent on defense and only thousands dead – at least it looks good in an actuarial table, eh?) The citizens of hyperpower U.S.A. and its scale model Israel sit helpless before invisible armies. U.S. and Israeli leaders fondle their nukes as nobodies with box-cutters and fertilizer and backpacks make paste of civilians. Quite a racket ya got goin’ there, boys, mopping up the carnage you provoke.

Too bad you’ve lost the power to prevent any of it. What have you done for us lately, Saddam, Sharon, and Bush? Politicians, consider this your pink slip.