“The period between 9/11 and (invading) Iraq was not a good time for America. There wasn’t a robust discussion of what we were doing. If we stop trying to figure out the other side, we’ve given up. The person on the other side is not evil. They just have a differentperspective.” –MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, speaking to college students in Ottawa, Canada last week.
A few years ago, I was robbed at gunpoint in the driveway of my Columbia, S.C., home. The robber, an African-American gentleman who appeared to be in his 20s, had hidden behind a truck parked on the street. When I pulled up in front of my house, he leapt out, flung open my car door, shoved a revolver in my face, and made a very compelling case that the wallet in my pocket actually belonged to him.
I found his argument persuasive.
As he fled into the night with my driver’s license, credit cards, and cash, perhaps I should have pondered the broader questions. Was he in fact entitled to my wallet? What about the misery and injustices he had no doubt suffered in his life? I am white and he is black — what of the very real oppression inflicted upon black Americans by the white majority? Hadn’t I, theoretically at least, benefited from this injustice? Was this not a wrong crying out to be righted? Was he really “robbing” me, or was this a case of the improvised redistribution of wealth?
As Chris Matthews might say, it’s all a matter of perspective.
My liberal readers (and I’m flattered to report they are legion) often remind me of my limited perspective. They express their disappointment in my binary, good-bad, right-wrong world view. What of nuance? What of context? Yes, what of “perspective?”
Well, these readers are right. I do lack perspective. I look at “the person on the other side” in the war against terror, and what do I see? Terrorists. Reuters, the international news agency, specifically rejects that label. As one of their senior editors put it, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
Now that’s perspective.
When you can look at a husband and wife who strap on explosive belts and walk into a wedding party and see something other than terrorists, you’ve got way more perspective than I do. If you can call a guy trying to blow up his shoes on a passenger jet in order to murder a bunch of tourists a “freedom fighter,” you’ve definitely got me beat when it comes to nuance and context.
And anybody who could watch a skyscraper collapse onto 2,000 innocent New Yorkers and not immediately see that as an act of indefensible evil — well, you’ve achieved a level of perspective I could never reach. Nor would I want to.
Some of Chris Matthews’ defenders argue that the “non-evil guys we just need to do a better job of understanding” weren’t Osama and Al-Qaeda, but rather Saddam and the Baathist insurgents. Sure, everybody knows the 9/11 terrorists were evil. But the enemy our soldiers face in the field today, well, they’re just like us: using force to achieve political objectives.
Sure, Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, but haven’t we killed Iraqi civilians, too? Yes, Saddam had torture rooms and rape rooms, but what about Abu Ghraib? And what’s the real difference between the insurgents fighting to drive America out of their homeland and the Minutemen of ’76 trying to drive the British from our shores?
Really, Michael, what’s the diff?
And if you argue, as pacifists do, that all force is illegitimate, then there really is no difference. And if that’s what Chris Matthews was suggesting, then that would be at least logically consistent.
However, most Americans — including Chris Matthews — reject pacifism as overgrown childishness. They are unable to accept the idea, for example, that it was wrong to take up arms against Hitler and the Nazis. Instead, we differentiate between the legitimate and illegitimate use of force.
That’s how it’s possible to see a difference between, say, Saddam gassing thousands of Iraqi civilians in order to maintain a dictatorship vs. coalition soldiers shooting Iraqi soldiers in order to topple one. Yes, American soldiers in Iraq and the terrorists they’re fighting both blow things up. But Americans are pointedly trying to blow up the terrorists themselves, while they in turn target hotels, office buildings, and schools.
And some American soldiers have mistreated Iraqi detainees. For that behavior, these soldiers are receiving prison time. Meanwhile, the “other people” in Iraq — you know, the ones with the different perspective? — they’re cutting off people’s heads on videotape. What do these “freedom fighters” receive from their leaders?
The chance to cut off more heads.
I suppose the issue of who was going to govern France in 1940 — the Nazis or the Allies — really was just a matter of perspective. One could argue in 1980 — as many of the current anti-war activists did at the time — that the Soviet Union vs. the Free World in Eastern Europe was merely a matter of perspective, too. Remember how they mocked President Reagan (talk about a guy with no perspective!) for his “evil empire” talk?
And really, be honest: Wouldn’t the people who live in Israel today be just as well off if the Iranians and Syrians were in charge?
Perspective, my friends. It’s all about perspective.