Regardless of one’s position on “imperialism,” “neo-imperialism,” “liberal internationalism,” and other attempts to describe, project, or critique an American role in the world, the assumption that a nation will seek to take care of its own hardly counts as unusual, and rather more counts as obviously required by any meaningful concept of national community. If there will be exceptions to the general rule, times that we may choose to look away or may simply fail to recognize our responsibility to each other, the high-definition murder of American journalists, submitted as a direct political challenge and broadcasted to the world, would not likely be one of them.
Democratic Senator Bill Nelson put the matter succinctly if a bit narrowly: “All you need to do is see the videos of the beheading, and then you’re not worried about mission-creep.” I offered my own version of the same argument immediately after the Foley execution: In sum, it is hard to imagine a world in which acts like the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff simply as Americans, in connection with an American decision to rescue others from imminent annihilation, did not produce among Americans a demand for punishment as both practical and moral necessity. Yet there is a tendency even among many would-be supporters of President Obama, or of his plans to “degrade and ultimately destroy” “the group known as ISIL,” to diminish and disdain politically aggravated homicides as actual and compelling bases for a specifically American reaction. We are asked to treat our outrage as mere emotion divorceable from supposedly more serious concerns: “Not something for the US to wind itself into a tizzy over” were the ill-considered words of one journalist. If usually more judiciously, area experts and all-purpose pundits alike will typically revert to modes of analysis that fail to consider the American response as, whatever else it is or becomes, a response to injury. It does not seem to matter to the legion of critics how much emphasis the President puts on what he calls a “core principle of [his] presidency,” as he reiterated it in his speech to the nation: “If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” They warn of obstacles to achievement of a desirable end state in and around Iraq and Syria, or even of “a trap,” but seem never to recognize that failing to react – even if only to render exemplary punishment of the executioners and their friends – would also entail practical consequences, not only in regard to the offender’s future calculations or abilities to repeat or escalate, and not only in regard to the conduct of potential imitators, but in regard to our concept of ourselves, which in turn is not a matter of statistical cross-comparison of theoretically similar instances.
In another era it would have been easier to justify military action in the language of honor, also the language of class, though it would be another mistake, or another version of the same mistake, to treat honor as an obsolete idea rather than a term for inherited knowledge of how the world works, in particular in regard to how and why we come to fight, or discover a will to fight. According to a recent poll conducted after the President’s speech, a large majority of Americans favor action even while, in even greater numbers, not expecting it to “eliminate” the group known as ISIL. The seeming contradiction, some substantial segment of opinion seemingly in favor of a project expected to fail, is easy to explain in human terms: We do not now actually require the group to be fully eliminated – assuming we could even agree on what level of destruction equated with elimination. We require that its members now suffer grievous punishment at our hands, and we know we are capable of causing them to suffer and die virtually without limit, a fact whose brute significance they, and anyone tempted to stand too close to them, may come to recognize.
A bit more than two hundred years ago, on the occasion of America’s first overseas intervention, a president received authority not to eradicate the “Barbary Powers” or extinguish the practice of piracy, but to “protect our commerce & chastise their insolence—by sinking, burning or destroying their ships & Vessels.” That president, Thomas Jefferson, who was long acquainted with the issue of state-supported piracy, especially hated for the practice of abducting Westerners, acted with broad popular and congressional support, though without a formal declaration of war. Among the results of the ensuing actions involving a detachment of only six ships was the first American military victory on foreign soil, on “the shores of Tripoli.” Prior to that point, the American frigate Philadelphia, which had been captured and turned against the American Navy, was set on fire: hardly the last time American arms would fall into an enemy’s possession, and have to be destroyed. Though we may imagine an 1804 Twitter reacting with the sophomoric snark that is our 2014 default, no doubt with additional concern over merely producing more pirates, the action by a small group of Marines under the command of Lt. Stephen Decatur was called “the most bold and daring act of the age” by no less a figure than Admiral Horatio Nelson. As for greater matters, over the course of decades, Barbary piracy was in fact eradicated, with the aid of allies who prior to the American intervention had previously been content to pay ransom and tribute.
As for the, of course, in many ways very different efforts today and going forward against a different type of enemy of humankind, it may well be that American words and actions already imply or eventually will require annihilation of this peculiar Levantine and Iraqi movement in detail, alongside escalated investment in the welfare of many who, at least in American eyes, rightly or wrongly, may not seem to qualify as particularly deserving recipients. Responding to a particular injury does not preclude response to larger or supposedly larger matters: Confronted directly, such events reveal their greater significance spontaneously, and, more important, authentically engage us in it. In the meantime, however, if we needed to burn Philadelphia – the city itself, not a ship – then we might do so, if that is what it took for us to send the necessary message to the enemy, and to the world, and to ourselves.