This sort of phony bravado has been around for centuries, though it’s always had a special home in the U.S., protected as it is by geography and fortune from the violent upheavals that wracked much of the rest of the world in the 20th century. I recall stories of hip-pocket warriors who rode out the Second World War as 4Fs or deferments, only to become the loudest and most obnoxious trumpeters of the bravery and fortitude “we” displayed by saving Europe’s ass in the Big One; likewise, my old man – who saw some of the most traumatic horrors of war in Korea when he was just the other side of his 16th birthday – holds a special contempt for the commie-bashers of the 1950s who drooled out endless tough talk about the importance of stamping out the Reds, but never managed to find the time to enlist in the service. But it’s been especially pronounced in America since the post-Vietnam era; in the age of the volunteer Army, it’s always been those who deferred their way through the ‘60s and ‘70s who have most vociferously defended Uncle Sam’s interference in Indochina. It’s an open secret that many of America’s most prominent right-wing hawks couldn’t find the time in their busy schedules to fight the wars they considered so important, and this tradition has only been burnished with age.
One of my uncles, a decorated veteran of Vietnam (and, it must be said, a right-wing hawk himself) holds in special scorn those who claim to “know” how they would behave in a violent crisis. This man, who assayed an act of terrifying bravery to save several of his fellow soldiers (and who paid the price with a lifetime of psychological damage), has told me that the man in your platoon who is the bravest one day can be paralyzed with fear the next, and vice versa – and that there is simply no way anyone can predict what they would do in a moment of extreme duress. If that’s true, and I think it is, he must find much to loathe about his ideological allies, who, since the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, have gone completely off the rails with this sort of cheapjack martial fantasy.
It started as early as a few weeks after the wreckage of the Towers had cooled: every right-wing blowhard on the internet was patting himself on the back secure in the knowledge that surely they would have been part of the heroic Todd Beamer Let’s Rollers of Flight 93, and not one of the wimpy-by-extension folks who smashed into the WTC and the Pentagon with barely a peep. As the years rolled by, this self-flattering delusion became a pandemic on the right: every time there was a terror attack, a hostage situation, or a shooting, some armchair-dwelling Monday morning Sgt. York would spout off about how (a) liberalism, feminism, socialism, and an insufficient sexual ardor for handguns had turned the citizens of the world into sissy soft suckas and (b) had they been there, they would have reached for the nearest shooting iron and put paid to those vicious criminal scum faster than you can say John McClane. Although this ludicrous notion could be found everywhere on the right (witness, for example, the insistence of pasty patsy Hugh Hewitt that he, comfortably ensconced in his radio booth, is on the “front lines of terror”), its primary exponent quickly became British expat/professional busybody John Derbyshire.
The Derb, whose primary claim to fame was having been used as a punching bag by Bruce Lee, became a regular contributor to the National Review during its sunset years, and rapidly distinguished himself as the primary shit-talker of the phony tough on the right. Not only did he insist that, unlike the spineless ragheads against whom he demanded it be employed, he would never crack under torture (while avoiding, unlike fellow British blowhard Christopher Hitchens, putting his money where his mouth is), but he also specialized in questioning the courage of people put in situations he would never have to face himself. After the Virginia Tech massacre, he as much as called the murdered students cowards, ignoring instances of genuine heroism by the staff and instead faulting them for having failed to “fight back” against a rampaging homicidal maniac. He took a similar tactic when British Royal Marines were captured by the Iranian navy, questioning their bravery while ignoring the fact that they had been specifically instructed by their commanding officers to surrender rather than needlessly die in a pointless confrontation against a nation with whom they were not at war.
Since then, there have been innumerable school shootings, terror attacks, and hostile skirmishes in which these imaginary heroes have cast aspersions on the bravery of those actually in attendance while shaking each other’s hands for the sang-froid they displayed in their own minds. But nowhere has this noxious behavior reached a peak as fevered as it does here, in a post by John Hinderaker, lead blabbermouth of the Powerline blog. Responding to reports that Indian law enforcement officials were slow to engage in a shooting match with armed terrorists during the recent slaughter in Mumbai, Hinderaker embarrasses the entire human race by indicting all of Hindustan for its failure to live up to his Dirty Harry fantasies:
I wondered earlier today how a mere ten terrorists could bring a city of 19 million to a standstill. Here in the U.S., I don’t think it would happen. I think we have armed security guards who know how to use their weapons, supplemented by an unknown number of private citizens who are armed and capable of returning fire. The Indian experience shows it is vitally important that this continue to be the case. This is a matter of culture as much as, or more than, a matter of laws.
There you have it, folks: because the cops in India — as with cops everywhere — were reluctant to behave as if they were in an action movie and open fire in a panicked crowd, risking the death of even more civilians, the entire culture of that ancient nation is one big chicken coop. While the Israelis, who know a thing or two about how to respond to terrorism, remind us that it’s far easier to remember the few times that flashy big-screen heroics have worked out well than to recall the far more numerous times they have ended in disaster, Hinderaker, a rich corporate lawyer whose only experience with physical peril likely begins and ends with a roller coaster at the Minnesota state fair, ignores genuine examples of heroism by ordinary citizens and instead excoriates an entire (foreign) culture as timid and inferior because it didn’t behave like a drunken posse.
Nothing is more absurd than Hinderaker’s skepticism that “a mere ten terrorists” could bring a big city to a standstill in bold, brave, mas macho America. In service of his phony bravery and tinpot jingoism, he here ignores so many events of the last seven years that he comes across like an utter moron: didn’t a mere nineteen terrorists bring the entire nation to a standstill for months (and throw it into a frenzy of unfocused paranoia and fear from which it still hasn’t emerged close to a decade later)? Didn’t a mere two lunatics bring two major cities to a standstill for weeks by taking potshots at civilians from the back of a car? Didn’t a handful of Lite-Brite toys reduce Boston to a chaotic frenzy by advertising a cartoon movie? Didn’t one jackoff with an unworkable bomb in his shoe change our entire approach to air travel? Didn’t one loser with a telephone evacuate an entire stadium? While the nations of Europe and Asia take a more level-headed approach to the near-constant specter of terrorism, America has responded to one day of attacks by invading countries that did not harm it, by stripping away the civil liberties of its own people, and by soiling its collective chinos whenever someone with dark skin coughs on on airplane, but in Hindraker’s fantasies, we are the sole source of the light of bravery in a cowardly world, a nation of John Rambos that only loses because the cowardly liberal bureaucrats won’t let it win.
If Hinderaker and his tough-talking phony-big-shot ilk had any decency, they’d follow the advice of Ha’aretz: “Terrorist attacks are a cause for sorrow and rage, not for arrogant statements and impossible ideas.”