Lee Harris’ Insights on What 9-11 Means

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Silicon Valley, skmurphy

Some excerpts from “Civilization and Its Enemies” by Lee Harris, with commentary on the implications of 9-11 for Silicon Valley.

We Have An Enemy

“It is the enemy who defines us as his enemy, and in making this definition he changes us, and changes us whether we like it or not. We cannot be the same after we have been defined as an enemy as we were before.

That is why those who uphold the values of the Enlightenment so often refuse to recognize that those who are trying to kill us are their enemy. They hope that by pretending that the enemy is simply misguided, or misunderstood, or politically immature, he will cease to be an enemy. This is an illusion. To see the enemy as someone who is merely an awkward negotiator or sadly lacking in savoir faire and diplomatic aplomb is perverse. It shows contempt for the depth and sincerity of his convictions, a terrible mistake to make when you are dealing with someone who wants you dead.

We are the enemy of those who murdered us on 9/11. And if you are an enemy, then you have an enemy. When you recognize it, this fact must change everything about the way you see the world.”
Lee Harris  in”Civilization and Its Enemies

We face enemies who want to kill us and we need to act accordingly.

Pockets of Peaceableness

“The first duty of all civilization is to create pockets of peaceableness in which violence is not used as a means of achieving one’s objective, the second duty is to defend these pockets against those who would try to disrupt their peace either from within or without. Yet the values that bring peace are the opposite values from those that promote military prowess, and this poses a riddle that very few societies have been able to solve and then only fitfully. If you have managed to create your own pocket of peace – and its inseparable companion, prosperity – how will you keep those who envy you your prosperity from destroying your peace?

There is only one way; you must fight back; if your enemy insists on a war to the finish, then you have no choice but to fight such a war. It is your enemy, and not you, who decides what is a matter of life and death.

Once you have accepted this reality, however, you are faced with the problem of how to fight. If the enemy is composed of men who will stop at nothing, who are willing to die and to kill, then you must find men to fight on your side who will do the same. Only those who have mastered ruthlessness can defend their society from the ruthlessness of others.”
Lee Harris  in”Civilization and Its Enemies

By creating these pockets of peaceableness–places like Silicon Valley–the United States gains a tremendous economic advantage that confers prosperity not only on its own citizens but all of its trading partners. It also gains significant military strength if we are willing to invest in raising, equipping and training military forces to use these technologies. But technology is not enough.

A Code of Honor

“This was the plight faced by the peasants in Kurosawa’s masterpiece, The Seven Samurai and by the dirt farmers in the American remake, The Magnificent Seven. Men and women who knew nothing of battle, the impoverished peasants of a remote village found themselves at the mercy of a gang of ruthless bandits who each year came at harvest to steal what the peasants had managed to eke from the soil. In their desperation, the farmers turned to the seven samurai, all of whom had fallen on hard times. But then, once the samurai had defeated the bandits, the question immediately arose in the peasants’ minds: “Now how do we rid ourselves of he samurai?”

Such has been the lot of most of mankind: a choice between the gangsters who come across the river to steal and the gangsters on this side of the river who do not need to steal because they have their own peasants to exploit. How else could it be? Given what we know of human nature, how could we expect there to be a government that wasn’t, in the final analysis, simply a protection racket that could make laws?

Yet this is not how Kurosawa’s movie ends. The samurai do not set themselves up as village warlords but instead move on, taking only the wages due them for their services. How was this possible? It was possible only because the samurai lived by a code of honor.

Codes of honor do not come cheap, and they cannot be created out thin air upon demand. The fact that you need samurai and not gangsters is no guarantee that you will get them; indeed, you will almost certainly not get them when you need them unless you had them with you all along.

A code of honor, to be effective when it is needed, requires a tradition that is blindly accepted by the men and women who are expected to live by this code. To work when it must, a code of honor must be the unspoken and unquestioned law governing a community; a law written not in law books but in the heart – something like an instinct.

A code of honor cannot be chosen by us; it can only be chosen for us. For if we look on it as one option among many, then we may opt out of it at will. I which case, the community will never be quite sure of us when the chips are down.”

Lee Harris  in”Civilization and Its Enemies

Inculcating a code of honor requires a willingness to see the world as it is, not as we want it to be.

See The World As It Is, Not Just As We Want It To Be

All of which explains why those who subscribe to the values of the Enlightenment find the existence of the enemy so distressing.

The enemy challenges the Enlightenment’s insistence on the supremacy of pure reason by forcing us to respect those code of honor whose foundation is far more visceral than rational, a fact that explains the modern intellectual’s hatred for such codes in whatever guise they lurk. The enemy requires the continued existence of large groups of men and women who refuse to question authority and who are happy to take on blind faith the traditions that have been passed down to them. The enemy necessitates the careful cultivation of such high-testosterone values as brute physical courage and unthinking loyalty to a leader.  The enemy propels into positions of command men who are accustomed to taking risks and who are willing to gamble with the lives of others, and shuns aside those who prefer the leisure of contemplation to the urgency of action. Lastly, the enemy shatters the Enlightenment’s visions of utopia, of Kant’s epoch of perpetual peace and of the end of history.

Our modern civilization in Silicon Valley will require continued sacrifice to prevail.

See also these 9-11 related posts

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