Friday, December 29, 2006

The Drama of the Bully and the Victim

Like it or not, history is driven by war. Warfare is conducted by a universal set of rules. Men learn these rules during adolescence in the sandlots and schoolyards of their communities; it is there that the drama of the bully and the victim is first played out. One of the rules of the schoolyard is that — whenever the teachers are out of sight — any boy may walk up to any other boy and punch him. Everything that happens next depends upon the reaction of the victim:

• He may punch back;

• Or he may acquiesce, and accept the dominance of the other boy;

• Or he may seek relief by running to the teachers.

• But the very worse thing he can do is to do nothing at all.

Unfortunately, that is precisely what President Carter did in response to the Iranian Hostage Crisis, what President Reagan did in response to the Beirut Marine barracks bombing, and what President Clinton did in response to the Khobar Towers attack; in all three cases, they did nothing. Why is this fact so significant?

Consequences of Not Fighting Back
When the victim does nothing, the following things happen:

1. The prestige of the attacker goes up; the smaller the attacker, the greater the gain.

2. The prestige of the victim goes down; the bigger the victim, the greater the loss.

3. The attacker is emboldened to attack the victim again. After all, there were no negative consequences the first time. Why should a second attack be any different?

4. The allies of the attacker are emboldened to attack the victim, too.

5. The allies of the victim wonder why they should defend him if he, himself, is not willing to fight back.

6. Boys who were previously neutral begin to side with the attacker.

7. The whole school learns about the incident, and watches for what will happen next.

The victim has only three choices:

• Fight back. This gets progressively more difficult the longer he delays.
• Allow himself to be destroyed.
• Transfer to a different school.

In fairness to President Reagan, the dominant threat to America at the time was nuclear annihilation by the Soviet Union. Reagan set out to disable this threat. He succeeded, and as a result, the world no longer needs to fear a nuclear Armageddon, and all nations respect the military might of America. All nations but one: Iran. Unfortunately for us, the drama of the schoolyard bully is not driven by what the other students think: it is driven by what the bully thinks. From the viewpoint of Iran, a small Islamic nation of 30 million had just bloodied the greatest military power in history, and America did not retaliate. This strongly suggested that America was afraid of Iran.

Once an aggressor believes that the victim fears him, he does not back off; he pushes his advantage, and attacks again. That is precisely what Iran has done.

The Neurology of Human Aggression
This posting is somewhat of a departure from my main story line. However, if you are a woman or a peace-loving man, this may be the most important posting of all. I know I am taking a risk, and that you may, at this point, swiftly conclude that I am sexist. But the simple truth of international politics is that it is run primarily by men, and all men pass through the gauntlet of the schoolyard bully during adolescence. This trial by fire in which a boy begins to assemble his true masculine identity is a universal phenomenon. It cannot be avoided. Muslim boys, Jewish boys, and Christian boys alike must submit to it and survive it before they can become adult men. Sometimes it is easy. But more often it is cruel, brutal, and swift; and how the boy and his family handle the crisis in large part determine the caliber of his manhood.

Because human males share this universal psychology, when they acquire positions of high political power, they automatically know how to defend the nation. This is not to say that the choices they make are always right; only that they all understand the protocols of warfare. These protocols are the rules I have listed above.

Therefore, in the arena of international politics, doing nothing in the face of naked aggression is dangerous just as it is in the adolescent schoolyard. However, in the international arena, things can be deadly, because the men, now grown, possess deadly weapons like atomic bombs.

The protocols of human aggression are easily dismissed as failings. Many Americans honestly believe that, with enough time and effort, and with a commitment to non-violent action, human nature can be incrementally perfected. But studies of aggression among populations of wild animals strongly suggest that aggression plays a creative role in the survival of social species. Were it not for the mutually-repelling force of aggression between lion families, African lions would form one huge pride and eventually consume all the prey animals in the region. Then the lions would all starve. Aggression, by its constant winnowing, controls both the size and hunting range of lion families, thereby insuring that most lions survive.

When contemplating human aggression — whether in the adolescent schoolyard or in the conflicts between nations — what is easily missed is that most of the protagonists survive, and that there is a kind of honor that combatants enjoy when they follow the rules. What is evil in the modern world is that we now possess the means to kill the majority of a large population in a highly dishonorable way: simply by lobbing a nuclear missile. There is no striving of body to body, sweat to sweat, from which the combatants can emerge with honor. Murder, genocide, and sucker-punching are eschewed by nature, as they are in the adolescent schoolyard.

If we do not make Iran pay for its murder of Americans, they will simply kill more of us. And now that they have nuclear missiles, they can kill us by the millions.

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