There are at least two problems here.
One is that it is not nearly as obvious as Rushdie suggests that the possibility of a terrorist attack on the United States, using Iraqi weapons or somebody else's, is “remote.” The American government regularly sends chills down American spines by warning of just that.
The second problem is that if such an attack took place, it would not be of “secondary importance” to the Americans, possibly numbering in the thousands, who might be killed. Rushdie's is the sort of hawkishness that displays disturbing indifference to the prospect of other people's deaths. You'd think the man would know better, having himself spent considerable time skulking in the high grass after Islamic enforcers put out a contract on him for dissing the Prophet.
But his words do point to certain larger questions, of which the largest surely is this: Is attacking Iraq really a good idea? The American bishops' new statement on Iraq says they “find it difficult to justify the resort to war” in the absence of a clear and imminent threat. The current lull, while the world waits to see whether UN weapons inspections will work, is a good time for everyone to take a deep breath, step back and reflect.
Three events in recent weeks focused attention in surprising ways on the implications of war.
First, the Washington, D.C., sniper killings. An alienated drifter and his teenage sidekick apparently terrorized the metropolitan area for three weeks without getting caught. All due credit to the police who apprehended them — but that was the result of an alert citizen's tip. If trained terrorists take it into their heads to strike again, will they be less successful?
Second, the Moscow theater massacre. Nearly 175 people — hostages and Chechen militants — died. Among the lessons is that a band of armed killers can seize a public building in the downtown area of one of the world's great cities — a city that had suffered terrorism before — without much trouble.
Third, the report prepared for the Council on Foreign Relations by a blue-ribbon panel which concluded that, well over a year after Sept. 11, 2001, the United States is seriously unprepared to repel a terrorist attack or deal with one if it occurs.
But what does all that have to do with going to war with Iraq? Consider the CIA analysis that surfaced several weeks back arguing that a U.S. attack could lead Saddam Hussein in desperation to use his biological and chemical weapons. Mightn't that include slipping a few litres of smallpox or anthrax to terrorists?
These are self-interested considerations against war. There also is the altruistic argument presented at length by Paul Schroeder in Pat Buchanan's new paleo-conservative magazine The American Conservative. Schroeder, a writer on international affairs, concludes that the U.S., as the world's only superpower, should not act unilaterally to impose its will on countries and dictators merely because it doesn't like them.
He bases his moral argument on Immanuel Kant's famous principle of “universalizability” — behave in such a way that your behavior be the basis for a universal moral norm. Fair enough. But it takes nothing away from either Kant or Schroeder to note that this principle has earlier antecedents and deeper roots. I mean the Golden Rule.