Building fences in Israel and America

Posted: Mar 01, 2004 12:00 AM

What could the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage as the legal union of a man and a woman possibly have in common with the security fence Israel is building to block West Bank terrorists from entering the country and killing civilians?

The two stories share the front pages lately, but that's about it. A philosophical debate over a political process, no matter how contentious, has nothing to do with the nuts and bolts (literally) of building a wall high enough, strong enough and smart enough to fend off terrorist killers.

Except for possibly one thing. Both stories, in their way, show societies engaged in fundamental struggles over their futures and resorting, respectively, to dire measures to preserve themselves culturally and physically. With a marriage amendment, the United States could go to the mat -- the Constitution -- to draw a new line in the sand against continuing cultural revolution. With the security fence, Israel is drawing a line -- and building it, too -- to safeguard the lives of its citizens.

The possibility of homosexuals "marrying" in San Francisco, New Mexico and Massachusetts, even by the thousands, hardly constitutes the mortal danger posed by any one suicide bomber. Even so, there remains something else that links the two issues: namely, what they tell us about 21st-century civilization. The fact is, the proposed American amendment and the Israeli fence are defensive reactions to unprecedented assaults on principles so fundamental that they have never before required much in the way of articulation, let alone defense. For millennia, Judeo-Christian marriage has been the union of a man and a woman, and unremarkably so. Similarly unremarkable has been a nation's right to protect itself against unceasing, barbarous attack. Today, these basic precepts have come under fire -- and unremarkably so -- indicating the extent to which the very foundations of modern civilization have shifted.

That shift is visible between the lines of President Bush's explanation of why, after "more than two centuries of American jurisprudence and millennia of human experience," he believes a constitutional amendment is necessary to bring "clarity" to the definition of marriage. That is, when a president believes he has to bring "clarity" to the definition of marriage, the lens on the world has gone fuzzy. Not that everyone doesn't know that the bride is the girl and the groom is the boy. What's out of focus is the basic notion, as Bush put it, that "marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society."

Once upon a time, such a statement expressed consensus; today, it's a bolt of controversy. "How would gay marriage weaken society?" reporters repeatedly asked White House spokesman Scott McLellan. What specifically would happen? How did the president arrive at this? And could the Bible have been involved? As one reporter wondered, rather memorably: "We understand there's the issue of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, but did he use that? We want to know."

Poor babies. Severed from their own cultural tradition, they grope for a rationale for heterosexual marriage and find only a fundamentalist reading of Sodom and Gomorrah. This, even more than the actions of activist judges and officials, indicates how far we, as anything resembling a unified society, have fallen.

A similar estrangement from basic principles underlies the bizarre "trial" of Israel's security fence at the Hague. Suffering the most savage attacks on civilians in modern history, Israel is erecting a fence to stop Palestinian terrorists from entering Israel from the West Bank to kill and maim its people. (Saudi Arabia and India, by the way, are building similar fences on their contested borders with Yemen and Pakistan.) This act of Israeli self-defense, condemned by the United Nations -- natch -- was referred to the International Court of Justice for an opinion. The Israeli delegation at the Hague aptly framed the case's Dada-esque aspects: "At the same time Israel is burying eight victims of a suicide bombing yesterday by a member of Yasser Arafat's Al Aqsa brigade, the Palestinians are using the United Nations Court to attack Israel for building a fence that could have saved their lives."

Building a fence against Palestinian Authority suicide bombers who blow up Israeli buses and restaurants and markets is an act of self-defense -- not a matter of opinion. The institution of marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Nothing could be clearer. In this fractious 21st century, of course, consensus has vanished. Once, civilization drew these lines; its continued existence depends on somehow holding them.