WASHINGTON -- Seven weeks into the war against terrorism, and -- all of a sudden -- the New Seriousness with which America and its allies have been pursuing the war is being put to the test. The fact that civilians are suffering casualties is softening European staunchness. American media are growing impatient with perceived hesitancy in Washington and, once again, civilian casualties.
Yet instantaneous news analysis is even less reliable than government performance. As for civilian casualties, it ought to occur to journalists that these unfortunates are as much a part of the Taliban's arsenal as their AK-47s or commandeered commercial aircraft flown into skyscrapers filled with civilians.
Walter Isaacson, the new chairman of CNN, has attempted to steady the New Seriousness, at least in the media, by reminding journalists that part of the story of civilian casualties is that the Taliban is not terribly solicitous for their citizens' safety. They station troops around civilian areas. In fact, as Isaacson wrote his international correspondents: "As we get good reports from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we must redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their vantage or perspective. We must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people."
That reminder about the Taliban using civilians as human shields should not come as a surprise to seasoned international correspondents. Brutes such as the Taliban have hidden their forces within civilian areas throughout the history of warfare.
Now the Taliban are operating near hospitals, schools and mosques. I recall visiting a mental hospital in Grenada after the American liberation of that island. There had been a major flap in the press about our bombing of a Grenadian mental hospital. The bombed-out structure was indeed a mental hospital, which is precisely why the communists placed their troops there. One of the reasons that the press is now perceiving hesitancy in the allies' execution of this war is that the allies are trying to avoid civilian casualties. That is not easy when one's opponents have so little regard for civilians, whether they be Afghan civilians or civilians flying commercial aircraft and working in skyscrapers.
Yet the New Seriousness about the barbarism threatening us survives. I saw it last week at Washington's Inter-American Development Bank. There the recently named Nobel prize-winner for literature, V. S. Naipaul, gave a reading attended by nearly a thousand people. One might have expected hostility and many silly questions, for Naipaul has been a critic of Islam and the Third World generally for years. For that matter he is a critic of hypocrisy wherever he sees it. Yet he was accorded the utmost respect.
In his reading he, within a half hour, skewered some of the most familiar frauds of the last half of the 20th century: the black Marxist who beneath the ideological blah is simply interested in good old fornicating, the vacuous South American heiress married to a "pederast" and to cocktail chatter, the urban intellectual poseurs and a narcissistic writer who has all these clowns gathered into a London apartment so he can ambush them with a teary reading of his own maudlin obituary written by he himself. Naipaul was reading from his new book, "Half a Life."
Having read Naipaul's Third World satires and his travel books through Islam, "Among the Believers" and "Beyond Belief," I wanted to see if he would evince surprise over fundamentalist Islam's grisly turn. In his travel books, he introduces readers to all the gasbags of Islam who have done so little to improve life in their countries.
"There is so much to learn about in Islam," a smug rube tells Naipaul in "Among the Believers". Like so many others Naipaul interviews, this self-absorbed fellow has mingled the worst of Western pop thought in with Islamic pieties and esoterica. Their countries have gone to ruin. The rights and spiritualism they blab on about are for the most part humbug. But from the humbug has emerged Islamic fascism that now threatens vast carnage. Did Naipaul expect it?
The other night he did not say. He only recorded his hope that the terrorists will be defeated. Later I read again his most recent book of travels through Islam, "Beyond Belief." I should have remembered. All the anger is recorded, and the hatred of the West, and the threats of violence. Once agai, a great writer has seen the world as it is. Like Solzhenitsyn before him, Naipaul gave us fair warning.