Tag Archive for Ira Chernus

The Fantasy of Absolute Safety

Ira Chernus

The following first appeared in Huffington Post and is reproduced here by permission of the author.

My son was spending the night in Aurora, Colo., when all hell broke loose just a few miles away. He wasn’t in the Century 16 theater. But he might have been; he loves those opening nights. And there wasn’t a thing I could do to protect him.

I’m a professor at the University of Colorado (though not on the campus where James Holmes studied). I’ve surely had quiet students who were deeply troubled but, like Holmes, drew no attention to themselves. So there wasn’t a thing I could do to help protect them.

The movie theater “was supposed to be a safe space,” as Monica Hesse wrote in The Washington Post. But now it feels like “no space is safe; maybe that’s what’s shocking.” Surely that’s what’s shocking, I’d say. Yet a moment’s reflection tells me we can never make our public or private spaces absolutely safe — neither for our children, our students, nor ourselves — no matter how desperately we want to.

We could make our spaces relatively safer by one simple political decision: No civilian should have military style weapons — AK-47s, semi-automatic rifles, or the Glock semi-automatic pistols so favored by mass killers.

There’s only one problem: Political reality. It isn’t just the clout of the National Rifle Association, which is real but over-rated. A bigger problem is that this is a democracy, and a majority of us do not want stricter gun control laws. The number of Americans favoring stricter gun laws has fallen by nearly half in the last half-century.

That shocking statistic reflects the long post-’60s rightward shift in the national mood. “Gun control” is widely seen as an idea by and for liberals. By now less than a quarter of us will wear that badge. It’s impressive that even 43 percent of us would support the liberal cause of “gun control.”

And the number who want guns laws eased has risen even more dramatically since 1990: from 2 to 11 percent. Yes, even in this conservative era a mere 11 percent of us want less regulation of guns.

What’s more, support for specific gun control measures — waiting periods and background checks for gun buyers (even at gun shows), banning assault weapons, registering all guns with local government — remains very high. A slim majority even support limits on the number of guns a person can own. (Most gun owners have several, and most mass killers are caught holding many guns.)

So here’s the real political problem: Ask people about specific, common-sense gun control measures and they strongly approve. Ask them about “gun control” in the abstract, and a growing majority says no, though almost half say yes. We, the people as a whole, want controls but we don’t want them.

When nations, like individuals, try to go in two directions at once they get paralyzed. That’s where we are on the politics of gun control.

Our national contradiction is an old story. On the one hand, we’ve got a tradition as old as the U.S. itself: If you want to be safe, get a gun; if you want to be absolutely safe, get a lot of guns. That’s why Americans once built forts and stockades and included the right to well-regulated militias in the Constitution.

Since World War II, we’ve made our quest for absolute safety our number one national priority by far, under the banner of “national security.” That’s why we built a nuclear “shield” of tens of thousands of bombs that can each destroy a whole city. It’s also why we have a military nearly as big as all the rest of the world’s militaries combined.

Now we call it “homeland security.” We’ve enshrined it as our sacred national myth. And that’s why, with the eager help of the military-industrial complex, we are awash in a sea of military weapons — a sea that on tragic occasions turns to blood in our own homeland.

Yet we also have another tradition as old as the nation itself, inscribed in the very first words of our constitution: to provide for the common defense, which most of us now take to mean absolute safety. The longing for absolute safety is certainly as strong, and probably stronger, among conservatives as it is among liberals. Across the political spectrum most of us want stricter specific gun control laws, which we expect will keep guns out of the hands of “evildoers” at home just as we hunt down and annihilate the “evildoers” abroad.

We’re caught in a crossfire of competing cultural traditions and beliefs that make it very difficult to mobilize the public in any clear direction when it comes to guns. Paralyzed by our ambivalence, we can’t mobilize for political change. So we leave it easy for anyone to get weapons of mass slaughter.

The result: a growing fear that no space is safe any more, that at any moment our longing for absolutely safety could be shot to pieces. Fear is even more paralyzing than ambivalence. When Americans do manage to act on their fear, their most common response is to chase the fantasy of safety by getting another gun, or at least allowing others to get more guns. Fear will override common sense most every time.

In the movies we see the most fantastic military-style weapons deal out measureless blood and gore. Audiences applaud it all, because they trust that the good guys on the screen will end up with their absolute safety restored. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way in real life — not even in movie theaters.

The root of the problem is our dedication to the fantasy of absolute safety and security. The sooner we recognize that as our national fantasy and stop arming ourselves to the teeth in pursuit of it, the safer we all will be.

Israel vs. Iran: Deciphering the codes

The following article by Ira Chernus, Professor of Religious Studies at Colorado University-Boulder appeared in Huffington Post and Common Dreams. We are honored to have his work appear on Free Range Longmont.

Just days after the New York Times Magazine’s lurid cover story, “Israel vs. Iran,” the Washington Post struck back with a two-fisted effort to win the “most dire prediction” contest. The Post’s foreign policy pundit David Ignatius wrote a widely-circulated column claiming inside information: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June.” The next day the Post’s front page headline warned ominously, “Israel: Iran Must Be Stopped Soon.”

Both stories reported that the Obama administration opposes any Israeli action, just like the Bush administration before it. The risks to U.S. interests are incalculable, as the Pentagon and State Department have been telling us for years.

Yet both stories added a new note: Israel might strike without U.S. support or permission. “The administration appears to favor staying out of the conflict unless Iran hits U.S. assets,” Ignatius wrote.

Of course the U.S. is already in the conflict, as the Iranians know perfectly well. Israel’s ability to strike depends largely on its high-tech weaponry, paid for by the $3 billion a year coming from Washington. With that kind of money flowing — plus U.S. diplomatic support, which many in Israel see as their last barrier against international isolation — the Obama administration has powerful leverage to stop any Israeli action that threatens U.S. interests.

When the administration tells the Washington Post that the U.S. is unhappy but helpless, it’s obviously looking for deniability if the attack occurs. But it’s also a clear signal to the Israelis: Though we could stop you, so far we have not decided that we will. This is a major shift in the message coming from Washington.

Why now? Ignatius put it delicately: “Complicating matters is the 2012 presidential campaign, which has Republicans candidates clamoring for stronger U.S. support of Israel.” Obama, the Republicans, and the mass media all assume that a red light from the White House to the Israelis would hurt the president on Election Day.

Why should the voters punish a president for insisting that U.S. interests must come first and for preventing an attack that would probably cause a spike in gas prices?

The two WaPo articles offered an important clue. One mentioned Israeli warnings about “an existential threat to Israel.” The other called this “a time when their security is undermined by the Arab Spring.”

For decades, American voters have been inundated with news stories reporting supposed threats to Israel’s security as if they were objective fact. Rarely do our mass media allow any questions about, much less objections to, the myth of Israel’s insecurity. At least two questions are urgent now:

Even if the Iranians did manage to make a handful of nuclear weapons, why should we believe they would ever use them against Israel? They know that Israel already has 100 to 200 nukes of its own, enough to destroy every major city in Iran, and is perfectly prepared to use them. Iranian leaders have not given any evidence that they’re interested in committing national suicide.

And why should we believe Israel was better off before the Arab Spring, when its neighbors were all dictatorships, breeding grounds for popular anger that could easily turn (or be manipulated) against outside enemies? Governments that better reflect public sentiment are more stable and reliable for their neighbors to deal with. In fact, the Arab Spring movement is having a moderating effect on Islamist politics, as both the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are now demonstrating.

Read the references to Israel’s insecurity in the two WaPo articles more closely, and a third question arises: Do Israelis leaders seriously believe that their national existence is threatened?

The front-pager says:

Israeli officials warn that beyond posing an existential threat to Israel, Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon could trigger a regional nuclear arms race in the volatile Middle East and alter Israel’s strategic position in the region.

Since Israel brought nukes into the Middle East decades ago, its concern about a “regional nuclear arms race” is code for other Mideast nations getting nuclear capability. “Strategic position” is code for Israel’s current absolute military domination of the greater Middle East, symbolized by its sole possession of nukes. It’s that symbolic as well as very real domination, not its national existence, that Israel is at risk of losing.

“Symbolic” is the right word when it comes to nuclear weapons because Israel’s nukes don’t have any practical value. Israel doesn’t need to use its nukes; it has shown itself more than capable of winning any conventional war against its neighbors. And the U.S. has guaranteed that Israel will stay far ahead in the high-tech conventional arms race.

If Israel did use even one nuke against a conventional attack it would probably lose the last shred of its dwindling support around the world, including most of its support in the U.S., and end up isolated, a pariah in the international community. That’s the greatest nightmare for most Israelis.

The Israelis are considering an attack on Iran, fraught with immense dangers, so the Jewish state can keep its symbolic status as the region’s only superpower.

David Ignatius confirms this view in his reference to Israel’s supposed insecurity: “Israeli leaders are said to accept, and even welcome, the prospect of going it alone and demonstrating their resolve at a time when their security is undermined by the Arab Spring.”

Resolve to do what? To do whatever it takes to maintain military superiority. But superiority is useful only if it’s publicly demonstrated from time to time. Symbolism is the key to a sense of national power.

If these WaPo journalists are right — and my forty years of studying the issue tells me they are — what really makes Israeli leaders feel insecure is their fear of not having their power respected. To gain that respect, they’ll talk endlessly about their planning to attack Iran. Perhaps one day they’ll do it, as long as Obama doesn’t raise the red light.

The main thing holding him back is election-year anxiety of his own, fueled by the millions of voters who honestly believe that Israel’s existence is constantly in peril. Why shouldn’t they believe it, when the journalists they depend on for their information repeat that myth endlessly, while they hint at the full truth only in rare sentences that get lost amid the flood of words that evoke fear.

But how tragic that a president has to worry about voters punishing him if he puts U.S. interests above Israel’s desire to symbolize its military strength and resolve.

Read more of Ira Chernus’ writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.

New York Times Hypes Israeli Attack on Iran

The following article by Professor Chernus has been published on Huffington Post and on CommonDreams.com.

It’s an impressive piece of art: the cover of this week’s New York Times Magazine. “ISRAEL VS. IRAN,” spelled out in charred black lettering, with flame and smoke still rising from “IRAN,” as if the great war were already over. Below those large lurid letters is the little subtitle: “When Will It Erupt?” — not “if,” but “when,” as if it were inevitable. Though the article itself is titled “Will Israel Attack Iran?”, author Ronen Bergman, military analyst for Israel’s largest newspaper, leaves no doubt of his answer: “Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012.”

Bergman does cite some compelling arguments against an Israeli strike from former heads of Mossad (Israel’s CIA). And he makes it clear that no attack can prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons if it wants them. Everyone agrees on that. The argument is only about whether an attack would delay the Iranian program by a few years or just a few months.

Nevertheless, his article stacks the deck in favor of supposedly persuasive reasons for Israel to act. It’s almost a hymn of praise to what one Jewish Israeli scholar has called Iranophobia, an irrational fear promoted by the Jewish state because “Israel needs an existential threat.” Why? To sustain the myth that shapes its national identity: the myth of Israel’s insecurity.

That myth comes out clearly in Bergman’s conclusion: Israel will attack Iran because of a “peculiar Israeli mixture of fear — rooted in the sense that Israel is dependent on the tacit support of other nations to survive — and tenacity, the fierce conviction, right or wrong, that only the Israelis can ultimately defend themselves.”

Fear of what? Defend against whom? It doesn’t really matter. Israeli political life has always been built on the premise that Israel’s very existence is threatened by some new Hitler bent on destroying the Jewish people. How can Israel prove that Jews can defend themselves if there’s no anti-semitic “evildoer” to fight against?

So here is Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, talking to Bergman about Iran’s “desire to destroy Israel.” Proof? Who needs it? It’s taken for granted.

In fact, in accurate translations of anti-Israel diatribes from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there’s no mention of destroying or even harming Jews, nor any threat of war. There’s only a clear call for a one-state solution: replacing a distinctly Jewish state, which privileges its Jewish citizens and imposes military occupation on Palestinians, with a single political entity from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Guess who else called for exactly the same resolution to the conflict: the most renowned Jewish thinker of the 20th century, Martin Buber. Plenty of Israeli Jews keep Buber’s vision alive today, offering cogent (though debatable) arguments that a one-state solution would be in the best interests of Jews as well as Palestinians.

Yet Ronen Bergman and the editors of the New York Times Magazine see no need for their readers to encounter these facts.

Nor do they see any need to mention the most important fact of all, the one most flagrantly missing from Bergman’s long article: No matter what Iran’s leaders might desire, it’s beyond belief that they would ever launch a single nuke against Israel. They know full well that it would be national suicide. Israel has at least 100 nukes, and 200 or more by many estimates, all ready to be used in a counterattack.

Which makes it hard not to laugh when Bergman reports Ehud Barak’s other arguments for attacking Iran. Even if Iran doesn’t intend to kill all the Jews, “the moment Iran goes nuclear, other countries in the region will feel compelled to do the same.” That’s the foolish “stop a Middle East nuclear arms race” argument we hear so often coming out of Washington, too — as if Israel had not already started the Middle East nuclear arms race decades ago.

And how can a supposedly serious journalist like Bergman solemnly repeat the latest popular argument of the Iranophobes: A nuclear-armed Iran (in Barak’s words) “offers an entirely different kind of protection to its proxies,” Hezbollah and Hamas. That “would definitely restrict our range of operations” in any war against those so-called “proxies.”

As if Iran would even consider committing national suicide to serve the interests of any Lebanese or Palestinian factions.

Yet the myth of “poor little Israel, surrounded by fanatic enemies bent on destroying it” is so pervasive here in the U.S., most readers might easily take this Iranophobic article at face value, forgetting the absurd premises underlying all arguments that Israel “must” attack Iran.

What American readers think is key here. Most Israelis do believe that (as Bergman puts it) Israel needs “the support of other nations to survive.” It’s a crucial piece of their myth of insecurity. And the only nation that really supports them any more is the U.S. So Israel won’t attack Iran without a green light from Washington.

Bergman glibly asserts that there’s some “unspoken understanding that America should agree, at least tacitly, to Israeli military actions.” For years, though, a torrent of reports from Washington have all agreed that both the White House and the Pentagon, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, would refuse to support an Israeli attack on Iran. The consequences for the U.S. are too drastic to even consider it. Why should that change now?

Bergman’s article ignores the obvious answer, the most crucial missing piece in his picture: Barack Obama wants to get re-elected nine months from now. Despite what the headlines tell us, he doesn’t really have to worry about pleasing hawkish Jewish opinion. Most American Jews want him to work harder for peaceful settlements in the Middle East.

What Obama does have to worry about is Republicans using words like these (which Bergman tucks into his article as if he were paid by the GOP): “The Obama administration has abandoned any aggressive strategy that would ensure the prevention of a nuclear Iran and is merely playing a game of words to appease them.” Only a dyed-in-the-wool Iranophobe would believe the charge that Obama is an “appeaser,” but we are already hearing it from his would-be opponents.

Obama also has to worry about fantasies like the one Bergman offers (apparently in all seriousness) of Iranian operatives smuggling nukes into Texas. Republicans will happily spread that story, too.

All of this could be laughed off as absurdity if the American conversation about Israel were based on reality. Israel, the Middle East’s only nuclear power now and for the foreseeable future, is perfectly safe from Iranian attack. Indeed, Israel is safe from any attack, as the strength of its (largely U.S.-funded) military and the history of its war success proves.

But as long as the myth of Israel’s insecurity pervades American political life, an incumbent desperate to get re-elected just might feel forced to let the Israelis attack Iran. The only thing that would stand in the way is a better informed American electorate. Apparently that’s not what the New York Times Magazine sees as its mission.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea. Read more of his writing on his blog. Contact him at chernus@colorado.edu