The Magazine

Civilization and Barbarism

Apr 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 31 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

They were, those people, a kind of solution.

How many times in the last century have these concluding lines of C. P. Cavafy’s famous 1898 poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” been quoted? How many modern intellectuals have pondered the subversive implications of that sophisticated question? 

It’s an interesting question. But it turned out to be a hypothetical one. The 20th century didn’t lack for barbarians. Indeed, modern barbarism proved more dangerous than the old-fashioned kind. As Churchill put it in his great House of Commons speech on June 18, 1940, after the fall of France, rallying Britain against the National Socialist tyranny in Germany: “But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

Of course, Churchill and Britain—joined by the United States and the Soviet Union—prevailed. We averted a new dark age.

But we didn’t enter a new age of enlightenment. The Soviet threat replaced the Nazi one. The barbarism of Mao and Pol Pot matched the worst of what had gone before. And the end of the Cold War didn’t mean an end to the assaults on civilization—foremost among them the attacks of 9/11. 

The bombs on Patriots’ Day in Boston brought a fresh reminder, if any were needed, that there are still those who would send us into a new dark age. And the trial of the murderer-abortionist Dr. Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia reminds us that other barbarous things are being done in our midst. So there are still, in the enlightened and progressive 21st century, barbarians at the gates—and, sadly, within the gates.

The barbarians within the gates should lead us to reconsider certain uncivilized aspects of our own society—such as the unfettered abortion regime of Roe v. Wade, which both empowered Gosnell and removed barriers to his barbarism. It’s not fashionable today, even among conservatives, to make Ronald Reagan’s pro-life arguments, or to profess concern for civic virtues, as Margaret Thatcher did. Who today explains that the abortion regime of Roe is one unworthy of a decent country, or that uncertainties about how far government can and should go in protecting unborn children are no excuse for a failure to protect them at all? Who points out that how we treat the unborn has implications for how we treat the born? The silence of the liberals about Gosnell is understandable. His deeds raise uncomfortable questions for and about modern liberalism. But what is the excuse for the silence of conservative political leaders?

Haven’t conservatives also lapsed into silence about the barbarians outside? Bush’s “war on terror” has been much mocked, and not just by liberals. Of course the idea is too abstract. Still, on the big question Bush was right. Terror is real, and terrorists must be defeated. Bush’s failure was to stop short in 2004, when he had the terror sponsors on their heels, and to allow them to regain momentum. That momentum has accelerated under President Obama.

Consider the attitude of the Obama administration, as revealed in this exchange in the White House press room last Wednesday, two days after the Boston terror attack. A journalist asked White House spokesman Jay Carney the following question:

I send my deepest condolence to the victims and families in Boston. President Obama said that what happened in Boston was an act of terrorism. I would like to ask: Do you consider the U.S. bombing of civilians in Afghanistan earlier this month that killed—that left 11 children and a woman killed a form of terrorism? Why, or why not?

The White House spokesman’s answer?

Well, I would have to know more about the incident. And obviously the Department of Defense would have answers to your questions on this matter. We have more than 60,000 U.S. troops involved in a war in Afghanistan, a war that began when the United States was attacked in an attack that was organized on the soil of Afghanistan by al Qaeda, by Osama bin Laden, and others. And 3,000 people were killed in that attack. And it has been the president’s objective, once he took office, to make clear what our goals are in Afghanistan, and that is to disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat al Qaeda. With that as our objective to provide enough assistance to Afghan national security forces and the Afghan government to allow them to take over security for themselves, and that process is under way and the United States has withdrawn a substantial number of troops and we’re in the process of drawing down further as we hand over security lead to Afghan forces. And it is certainly the case, but I refer you to the Defense Department for details, that we take great care in the prosecution of this war, and we are very mindful of what our objectives are.

Appalling. We have a White House spokesman who seems incapable of saying: We regret any inadvertent killing of civilians in Afghanistan, but American troops fighting there are not engaged in terrorism. We have a White House that lacks moral clarity about the world in which we live. Moral clarity by itself isn’t sufficient to produce a successful national security strategy, or for that matter successful domestic policies. But a degree of moral clarity and candor is surely necessary. A political leadership that cannot speak of barbarism with the same confidence with which medicine speaks, for example, of cancer, cannot understand political phenomena for what they are and cannot deal with the threats to civilization as they exist.

In the 19th century, liberals like John Stuart Mill could write of civilization and barbarism. In the last half of the 20th century, as liberalism degenerated, it fell to conservatives like Reagan and Thatcher to call the evil empire by its proper name, and to stand up to it. Do we in the 21st century have what it takes to confront and defeat today’s barbarians? It’s not a sophisticated question. But it’s a real one.

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