Politics & Policy

What’s So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding?

Post 9/11 humor.

Whether you are for or against the war on terror, whether you think Bush is a statesman or a fraud, Saddam a devil or a scapegoat, it is impossible to write that it’s been an eventful year without being guilty of understatement. The script whose opening act began with the closing of more than 3,000 American lives and whose prologue stretches into antiquity is still being written, but today is supposed to be a day for catching up with what has transpired.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this column for three days — an eternity for a feature normally written in a fit of pique the day it is due. But I haven’t figured it out yet, and so for the fourth time I am writing it from scratch. On the one hand, I deeply respect the need for a day like this. Grieving and mourning and paying our collective respects not just to the dead but to the heroic living, too, is a necessary and noble national endeavor.

On the other hand, it feels as if we’ve been doing that for an entire year. I simply don’t have the energy, or perhaps the psychological need, to express my remorse anymore. And the last thing I want to do is fake it. I leave the bathos to the likes of Dan Rather who, according to one of my readers, said on the radio the other day that as the 9/11 anniversary approached, he had to keep reminding himself that “this story isn’t about me.”

Perhaps one day Dan Rather’s heroic struggle will receive the recognition it deserves. In the meantime, all I can do is be honest and, in all honesty, I’d rather find some humor amidst all of this seriousness and weeping. Humor, as James Thurber noted, is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility. And now, one year out, there’s finally enough tranquility for a chuckle or two. But, if that’s not what you need today, I urge you to look elsewhere, particularly on National Review Online, which overflows with more somber and sober commemoration of that terrible day and its consequences.


Let’s face it. It wasn’t all funereal bagpipers, terror alerts, and the righteous boom of the arsenal of democracy in far-off lands. I still get chuckle when I think about the special-forces troops who modified their standard headgear for urban warfare. While storming a nest of al Qaeda members in downtown Kabul, the good guys donned New York Yankee caps for a little payback from the Big Apple. And, truth be told, I still grin whenever I hear President Bush talk about “getting the evildoers” because, from the way he says it, I always hear “getting the evil Dewar’s”; “We’re going to find the evil Dewar’s”; “When it comes to the evil Dewar’s, there’s no place to hide…,” etc. Don’t even get me started on Johnny Walker.

“Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell” was one of the first headlines from “The Onion” about September 11. “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule,” was another. Which illustrates another important aspect of humor, the best and most effective kind tells the truth. Oh, I don’t necessarily mean capital “T” Truth or immutable truth, nor objective, time-transcending, universal truth either. (Neither the Ten Commandments nor the square root of pi are the punch-line to a joke.) I just mean jokes can be more honest than speeches or dirges, because we tend to avoid telling the truth when we can’t sugarcoat it with humor.

Consider Mohammed Atta who had the intestinal fortitude to carve up innocent men and women in order to crash a plane into more innocent men and women, but who went to his grave shaking with terror that a woman might touch his man-panties, even after he died.

If “The Onion” is right, Atta and his evil troupe are in Hell right now. But the really funny thing is their Hell might also be his Heaven. A German scholar made a fairly startling discovery this year. It turns out the 72 virgins these guys expect upon arrival in Paradise might not be virgins at all. Oh, I don’t mean that they might have played the field in college (or burka-knitting school) or anything like that. I mean, they might be raisins. It turns out that the passage which so many of these psychopaths considered their eternal nookie ticket was mistranslated over the centuries.

Because of a grammatical glitch, it’s quite possible that the Koranic passage which promises that salvation is an eternal Fleet Week for young men who massacre innocents more likely promises that you get a nice bowl of juicy white raisins when you go to Heaven. Not only is that great news for twitchy evil pervs like Atta because it means his tighty-whiteys will remain unsullied by female hands for all eternity, it opens huge new possibilities for “Fruit of the Loom” underwear. One can only imagine the reactions of these young men, all torqued-up from endless assurances that their afterlife will be one endless booty-call, only to be greeted with a great big bowl of white raisins.

Of course, I should be careful, the German scholar who made this discovery has to use a pseudonym because he’s legitimately worried that he will be murdered by people who insist Islam means peace.

Okay, that’s a bit unfair. The Muslims who go around saying “Islam means peace” aren’t the ones who want to kill religious dissenters, infidels, etc. Islam is a big religion and there are surely good folks in it. But the thing to understand is that there are a great number of Muslims who aren’t going around saying “Islam means peace.” One small example: At the University of Nablus, Professor Suliman Bashear suggested that Islam, like all other religions, evolved over time rather than having been simply delivered, perfectly formed, from Mohammed’s mouth. His students responded by throwing him out the second-floor window.


For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why I thought that was so funny. Sick and twisted too, of course. But there’s a punch-line in there somewhere. And I think I’ve got it.

In the aftermath of 9/11, a lot of people, myself included, wrote a lot about the death of irony and cynicism. Everywhere you looked, there was Yeats and T. S. Eliot and various psalms. But in a sense, 9/11 didn’t expunge cynicism (as we use the word today), it redirected it to where it belongs.

Every single day since those planes crashed, there has been a parade of experts, authors, intellectuals, self-righteous C-SPAN callers, and weepy NPR hosts informing us that what Americans need most is more “understanding.” We need to understand what Islam means, we need to learn our own “violent history,” we need to comprehend where Arabs, Europeans, Muslims, rebels, freedom fighters, Palestinians, and anybody else who criticizes America are “coming from.” Sanctimonious editors would tell us that the well-informed and well-traveled understand that “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” American parochialism, in effect, was the source of all the world’s problems because if we would just read a book we’d understand that the bad guys really aren’t so bad.

What a crock. First of all, it is a myth of staggering endurance that “understanding” leads to peace. Israelis and Palestinians, for example, understand each other far better than any American understands either, and it has not brought them one inch closer to peace. Indians and Pakistanis understand each other perfectly, and yet, after several wars, they remain not very far from the brink of nuclear annihilation. Throughout history, whether you are talking about Greeks and Turks, Poles and Russians, English and Irish, or Haitians and Dominicans, it is the peoples and nations who understand each other best who are most likely to hate each other most. It’s not that understanding necessarily fosters conflict, it’s just that understanding doesn’t do much to stop conflict. Agreement prevents wars, understanding without agreement tends to make wars more intense because both sides more fully comprehend the intentions of their opponents.

The “understanding” myth endures because it serves as a podium of arrogance for the ignorant to stand on. European sophisticates and Left-wing peace marchers believe as an article of faith, not intellect, that America is wrong and therefore if we simplistic Americans educate ourselves we will agree with them. It doesn’t occur to them that we could possibly hold our views and know what we’re talking about at the same time.

Well, on September 11, after several years of al Qaeda’s declared war on us (You do know we didn’t start this war? Right?), we decided to declare war back. Ambrose Bierce once quipped that “War is God’s way of teaching Americans about geography” and so, not surprisingly, Americans have learned vastly more about Saudi Arabia, Islam, Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan, and the like than they ever knew before. And, lo and behold, the understanding we’ve gained only makes us understand more than ever that we’re right, they’re wrong, and we’re the good guys in this global conflict. We’ve turned our skepticism and cynicism, albeit briefly, away from institutions which make our nation great and pointed it at the false pieties and hateful-yet-fashionable propaganda which says America is somehow inferior to every crapulent backwater and European debating society alike.

Americans question themselves all of the time. We ask hard and, often, stupid questions about our religions, our laws, and our politicians every single day. We study Islam in our universities (while Saudis confiscate Bibles and jail people who carry them) and our leaders, from the president on down, talk themselves blue in the face about the need for tolerance and understanding.

And I guess that’s what’s so funny about the defenestrated professor. Eugene Volokh once pointed out that “every age seems to warn itself most sternly about the risks that are least likely to do it harm.” If you asked Queen Victoria what the biggest threat to Britain was, she’d say it was the decline in sexual probity. But, today, if you ask a bed-hopping Hollywood producer, Volokh noted, he’d rant about the threat from sex-hating moralists. Well, if you ask an American college professor or journalist the same question, they’d first probably whine about the nonexistent threat to our ever-freer free speech. But coming in at a close second would be their belief that America needs to understand its own history and the world more.

But, despite the best efforts of our public schools, Americans actually understand their history. We just don’t wallow in it. Because one of the great things about America is that it was designed to be a life raft to escape the sinking ship of history. If Arabs and their American apologists want to bitch and moan about the crusades, if they can’t get over the fact that a few hundred years ago their societies imploded like a bad soufflé in a clay oven, that’s their problem. We’re not mad at the Japanese for bombing Pearl Harbor anymore, but we’re supposed to keep apologizing for a defensive war launched by popes nearly a millennium before the Boston Tea Party? Get over yourselves, you’re not that important.

Meanwhile, if you asked a college professor in, say, Saudi Arabia what the biggest threat to his society is, you’d probably get an earful about the decline in respect for religious authority in a country that makes Vatican City look like Vegas. Of course, you might find a more clear-eyed observer, who might list the bigotry, backwardness, and oppression of his own society. But if he said any of that out loud, his students would probably throw him out the window, too.


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