Bombs Over Baghdad

Personal Powerlessness in the face of the modern hyperstate


Tomorrow night, in all likelihood, it will all be over for many of the citizens of Baghdad. Shocked, awed, mutilated, and murdered by history's first hyperpower. And American reporters are there (for now).

The Washington Post's man exhibits all the usual signs of being captured by the mentality of his home paper's company town. The business of D.C., of course, is government. So in his prose—though this is not reflected in any of his quotes from actual residents—the Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran says the Baghdadis are nervous about "lawlessness" and the "anarchy that could ensue from the collapse of the government." Maybe. I suspect, and his own reporting buttresses this suspicion, that it's not so much lawlessness they fear as it is the death, destruction, and elimination of any peaceful commerce or provision of services that will come with the war the United States is bringing to them.

Undoubtedly, in the aftermath, many of the survivors will be glad to be rid of the tyrant Saddam. What he will be replaced with, ultimately, is still unclear. And maybe the new government will make the U.S. safer from the threat of terroristic Islam. History shows some signs that it is possible, using massive military force, to bomb certain tendencies and beliefs out of existence. After all, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan represented powerful ideological forces that were indeed effectively blotted from history by the waging of war. We haven't worried much since about Nazi terrorists or "freedom fighters" avenging the honor of the emperor. Perhaps militant Islam will prove the same. Still, trouncing secular socialist Iraq will far from end the problem. There are a few more countries (Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for two) that will have to be devastated before that's likely to happen.

But what is most significant is that whatever happens, most human beings—like the people of Baghdad, like the people of my home of Los Angeles, who want only to live their lives and not kill or dominate others or change the course of Middle Eastern or American history—will be objects, not subjects, means, not ends, when it comes to the geopolitical ambitions of states and terrorists. This is what comes through most chillingly in the bland objectivity of the reporting about the people of Iraq. Something that is, to most Americans, literally unimaginably horrible is about to happen to them. There is nothing they can do but stockpile, pray, or flee.

On Saturday night, in Los Angeles, I attended a debate about the wisdom of this war. Christopher Hitchens said we must go to war, because Saddam is bad. Michael Ignatieff said we must go to war, because there is a slim chance Saddam might harm us if we don't. Mark Danner said we shouldn't go to war because we don't have any international support and the threat was not real. Robert Scheer said we shouldn't go to war because Saddam used to be our friend and his crimes are all old hat.

It seemed, for a moment, almost important—like democracy, a free people debating the most vital issue affecting the polis. But no one said what undoubtedly many of us were feeling, like a nagging sickness: It didn't matter. The world will little note nor long remember what they said there. But it will never forget what George W. Bush's army does in Iraq. Americans argued, prattled, commented, editorialized, marched in the streets, waved signs. None of it mattered a whit to the hyperpower. To the hyperpower, we are subjects, not citizens. It doesn't matter what we think when it comes to war. Politics, after all, stops at the water's edge, right?

Why should it matter what we think? The people making the decision are not spending their money, their resources, or their lives. They can always make more and take more. That's politics, as real and earnest and serious as it gets. The people of Baghdad sound like they might be a little bit scared. Are you?