Columnists > Voices

Blurred battle lines

How can we know our enemies when we don't know ourselves?

Issue: "An evolving debate," May 21, 2005

Every few weeks, on my way to visit my grandchildren, I drive by the garbage dumpster where 24 months ago terrorist Eric Rudolph was finally captured after eluding the FBI for the previous five years. Mr. Rudolph, of course, has now formally admitted his guilt in the murderous bombings of the Olympic park in Atlanta, an abortion clinic in Birmingham, and a homosexual nightclub, also in Atlanta. He awaits formal sentencing.

I look at that garbage dumpster and wince. It is so normal, nothing like the big military tank that was so vivid a symbol at Tiananmen Square. It is not like the nuclear-armed ICBMs that scared the daylights out of us as kids back in the '60s and '70s. The dumpster obviously occupies a coordinate on somebody's Global Positioning System-but for years, nobody had a clue to punch in the x- and y-values that might have led to that particular dumpster.

Is this the new shape of warfare? Or should we call it the shapelessness?

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I was still a fourth-grader when I started watching the daily maps in the Des Moines Register, charting the ominous retreat of American forces down to the tip of the Korean peninsula. Then, little by little, the line inched northward again as the U.S. military found its soul, gathered its resolve, and forced the Communists back. The "front" was visible. We knew where we stood. The good guys were at the bottom of the map. The bad guys were at the top. Day by day, we knew who was winning and who was losing. The line on the map told us so.

Such a clear line denoting the battlefront in Korea may have been the last such marker in modern history to be journalized every day. By some accounts, Vietnam was the turning point. Some call it the first major conflict to be so totally wrapped in ambiguity. But indeed, the irresolution of the Korean conflict-with its poisoned fruit affecting us still today-may have done more to set the stage for Vietnam. For if Korea was a victory, who needs defeat? To be sure, Vietnam blurred for good the character of war. It prepared us agonizingly well for a frontless war zone, where the enemy is just as likely to be standing near the entryway to a Baghdad police station as he is to be holed up behind sandbagged barricades far off on the Syrian border.

Or-where he may be standing beside a dumpster in a small North Carolina town eating three-day-old produce.

What has really changed, however, is not the geography or the technology of warfare. What has primarily changed is the worldview of our culture. Ambiguity reigns. Relativism as a philosophy of life, and pluralism as a means of accommodating that relativism, sound wonderfully attractive until you stop to recognize this irony: The more we have adopted relativism and pluralism as laudable goals, the tougher it has become for us all to live together. The boundary lines that used to mark out the good and the bad are all blurred now, and keeping an up-to-date map of the progress of the allies and the defeats of the enemies has become all but impossible.

But then, no society is defined first of all by its place on the map-either in peaceful times or times of war. Other characteristics and other value systems are far more crucial. But we live in societies today that no longer know themselves and their own character. How then can they possibly know who their enemies are? So our enemies slip regularly and easily in and out of the places we used to claim as our own not because we're badly guarded at the borders-but because definable borders no longer even exist.

It would be one thing if modern multiculturalism taught only that you should tolerate A and B and C and D. But when it goes on to insist that you should espouse A and B and C and D as equally true and equally important-then get ready for confusion. When a society gets as mixed up in sorting out its own identity as our culture is today, we shouldn't be surprised that some of its citizens do the immoral and criminal kinds of things that Eric Rudolph did. We've concocted an explosive mixture of thinking-and when that explosive mixture erupts right in our own neighborhoods, it's hardly honest to pretend it caught us altogether off guard.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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