Civilization and Barbarism
ADVANCE EDITORIAL from the April 29, 2013 issue.
10:30 AM, Apr 19, 2013 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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:
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