A parent's worst nightmare is the death of a child. Or is it? What if you have two sons, and one murders the other? Wouldn't that be the worst thing? But what, then, if you and your spouse recognize that you yourselves are the cause of the one son's heinous act, and of the other's victimhood? Who could stand such knowledge?
That chain of circumstance, in fact, describes the universal tragedy, and it was given masterpiece expression in the story of Adam and Eve. The terrible consequences of their banishment from Paradise are usually identified as the pains of childbirth and the burden of work, but what are those griefs compared with what that couple surely felt upon learning of the murder of their son Abel by their son Cain? From then on, savage fratricidal war would define the human condition. Imagine the steely glances that Eve and Adam must have exchanged at the news. And imagine with what self-accusation they must have turned from one another. We did this.
Or perhaps not. Was the first act of war followed by the first act of denial? The story of Cain ("a tiller of the ground") and Abel ("a keeper of sheep") is a parable of primordial conflict between settled farmers and nomadic herders, and the lessons are timeless. Each warring group claims to have justice on its side, and believes that the way to peace is through conquest. War is always fought in the name of justice-and-peace. But peace achieved through war inevitably leads not to justice, but to conditions that cause the next war. History is the record of that succession. Victory through violence is the way to further violence. From Cain and Abel to the fratricidal wars unfolding today the line is direct. That the territory in which those wars unfold is the Levant crescent from which Genesis springs is enough to make its author weep -- again.
Instead of the originating sin of parents, the Cain-and-Abel combatants of today's Middle East (from the insurgent parties in Iraq, to the warring factions of Lebanon, to the antagonists in Israel and Palestine, now including the fratricidal Palestinians) are burdened by the fatal flaw of the United States of America. The indispensable nation, it turns out, proves indispensable only for the spread of chaos. The grievances of the Middle East are ancient, but so is the capacity for fragile balance, now upset. Iraqis, Lebanese, Israelis, and Palestinians all make violent choices and bear the weight of violent consequences, but the immediate context within which those choices are being made has been overwhelmingly established by violent choices made in Washington.
The Bush administration embraced the cult of war when it did not have to. Bush re-legitimized that cult, and sponsored it anew. In this, he was supported by the American people, its press and its political establishment. In the beginning, the nation itself re affirmed war as the way to justice-and-peace. We did this. The first fallacy lived. By now, even Washington's one self-proclaimed "victory" has led to further defeat. The "good" war in Afghanistan put in place structures of oppression that promised an inevitable resumption of savagery, which has begun.
After murdering Abel, Cain justified his act, and his parents denied their responsibility for it. Otherwise, the dread pattern of accusation and recrimination would have been checked right there. Humans have been enslaved by this dynamic ever since. Does that vindicate the United States with a "realist" claim to inevitability? No. Because historic moments of ethical recognition regularly present themselves, and one just did. The Baker commission, whatever its faults, defined the folly of any further American pursuit of "victory" in Iraq. Yet, with Bush's mantra of "prevail," other "studies" commissioned to dilute Baker's, and fresh Pentagon talk of brutal escalation, the aim of victory through mass violence is being reaffirmed. The unoriginal sin, by now, but more deadly than ever.
This column began with an eye on the far past. Because of the destructiveness of modern weapons, there will be no distant future unless humans, having seen through the congenital illusion of justice-and-peace through violence, come to the rejection of war. That must begin now. Democrats, take heed: Bush must not be allowed to further the chaos. Having led the world into this moral wilderness, America has a grave responsibility to lead the way out. We have to cease killing other people's children, which is the way to stop them from killing ours. Stop the war by stopping.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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