Beowulf & C

On Noam Chomsky's Thoughts on Bin Laden:

Nor shall lilt of harp
those warriors wake; but the wan-hued raven,
fain o'er the fallen, his feast shall praise
and boast to the eagle how bravely he ate
when he and the wolf were wasting the slain.

The famously anti-war thinker Noam Chomsky asks some questions that are, he says rightly, the sort of questions that ought to provoke thought. His thoughts and mine are rather different.

However, he is quite right to point out that the Taliban made an offer regarding Bin Laden in the event that we could show evidence of his guilt. As I recall, however, the Taliban standard governing guilt was the traditional sharia standard, that is, three eye-witnesses who would testify. We could probably meet that standard now, but it would have been hard to meet at the time. In any event, I do remember the offer, and I also regretted that we didn't try to take them up on it.

His remarks on the Iraq war are without merit; it was not an act of aggression ('the supreme crime,' etc.), but a legitimate and just response to humanitarian crisis. (As to which, Arts & Letters Daily has an interesting piece on the subject of how Tolstoy and Dostoevsky debated the subject of humanitarian intervention in their own day: you may not have realized that it was a concern in imperial Russia. The Tolstoy piece being cited also contains one of the most poignant descriptions of the fate of a philosopher who becomes unmoored from God; and of the necessity, and means, of bringing that ship back to harbor.)

How to respond, though, to this line?

We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic.
I expect we might have invaded their country and overthrown its government, seen to a democratically elected replacement, and then turned the old leadership over for trial and execution. That seems like a reasonable surmise, all things considered.

I knew one of those Iraqi commandos, by the way; one of the tribal leaders I used to deal with fairly regularly in Iraq had been in the Special Republican Guard. I always liked him. He and I saw eye to eye, because his perspective was that of a tribal member of of an honor culture -- remember that "tribal" does not mean anything like "primitive," but in Iraq as in many other places is entirely integrated into the modern world. He has tribal duties as well as duties to the state, just as you may have family duties as well as duties to the state; and, like him, you may take the personal duties at times as being the more compelling.

He surely understands that the function of the Bin Laden raid is to deter violence. Honor cultures get this in a way that 'international law' types often do not. In the Beowulf, after the death of the dragon and the king, a warrior laments that the Swedes will now be on their way to pillage and plunder the Geats. With the strong defender gone -- and given the standing feud, and given especially the cowardly behavior of Beowulf's war band in the face of the dragon, with the noble exception of Wiglaf -- the coming of the Swedish raids is taken as a certainty. At the funeral that takes up the final verses of the poem, an old woman laments the coming doom and shame that will befall the Geats.

This killing of Bin Laden was an obligation of honor. We have fulfilled it, but it was he himself who required it of us. There was never any choice. Any man should know that.

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