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Now is the Time for Camus -- as an Antidote to Despair


If the latest news from the Middle East makes you want to puke, I have a suggestion. As an antidote to nausea and despair, read Albert Camus' The Plague.

Born in the Algerian village of Mondavi in November 1913, just a few months before the outbreak of World War I, Camus scarcely knew his father, a winery worker and grandson of French immigrants who was called up to fight for France in the summer of 1914. Soon after, when Albert was less than a year old, his father died of wounds suffered in the first battle of the Marne. By then Albert and his older brother Lucien had moved with their mother to Algiers, where she worked in a munitions factory and then as a cleaning woman. She and the boys lived with her own mother and her two brothers: four adults and two children in a three-room apartment with no electricity, no running water, no books, and just one toilet shared with two other apartments.

Could any seedbed for a life in literature be less fertile? How could this second son of widowed, illiterate cleaning woman find his way out of poverty, let alone into print? Apart from the ultimately unfathomable mysteries of genetics, the answer-or at least part of the answer-lies with a teacher at the primary school that Camus attended up to the age of ten. Recognizing the boy's potential, the teacher gave him special instruction and helped him win a scholarship to secondary school. No teacher's investment in a promising child was ever more handsomely rewarded. In 1957, when Albert Camus won Nobel Prize for Literature, he dedicated his acceptance speech to the grade school teacher he never forgot: Louis Germain.

Camus' own life was a triumph of hope and perseverance over despair, and though he died forty-six years ago, three years after winning the Nobel Prize, his work still speaks to us. If literature is news that stays news, as Ezra Pound once memorably declared, nothing is newsier than Camus' The Plague.

It was written during the Second World War, when-not satisfied with the ten million deaths achieved by the first one-the most powerful nations of the world were doing their best to kill even more. Camus had a different agenda. Published in June, 1947, barely two years after the war ended in Europe, his novel says nothing directly about the war, but in telling the story of what a Bubonic plague does to the coastal Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s, it symbolically represents what war did to Europe in the same period. At one point, in fact, the narrator of the novel openly compares plagues to wars. Both, he writes, take us equally by surprise, and both commonly last longer than we expect them to. Also, neither one is ever wholly defeated. Like the plague, war will always come again.

But this is only a part of the final message of the book, which is narrated by a doctor who tells his own story: a doctor who sees his patients dying all around him and yet who never stops trying to save and comfort them, and never stops inspiring others to do likewise. In the end, he says, this tale records what had to be done and what must be "done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts." If those words seem uncannily prophetic, consider what he says about how the fight against terror should be waged. "Despite their personal afflictions," he says, it must be waged "by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers."

Ever since 9/11, we as a nation have striven to be anything but healers. Given a seemingly divine right to retaliate against terrorism, the global enemy that came along just in time to fill the gap vacated by communism, we have relentlessly spread the plague of war across the Middle East: first in Afghanistan, where we killed some 4000 civilians in order to liberate the country from the Taliban, who-nearly five years later-- are still wreaking havoc in the country; then in Iraq, where we have killed over 30,000 civilians to establish a government that cannot even manage Baghdad, where killings now average 100 a day; and now in Lebanon, where Israeli airstrikes-fueled by our money, carried out with our bombs, kept up with our blessing-have killed over 430 people in the past two weeks, most of them civilians.

Am I forgetting the viciousness of the 9/11 hijackers, the heinousness of Saddham Hussein, or the ruthlessness of Hezbollah militants who deliberately aim their rockets at Israeli civilians? Absolutely not. But can anyone show me that what we call "terrorism" can be conquered by force of arms or crushed by the imposition of what we call "democracy" in the Middle East?

Consider just the war in Lebanon. If Israel thought that its airstrikes could crush Hezbollah once and for all or rouse the government of Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah's fighters, it has had a rude awakening. Two weeks into the war, Hezbollah is still firing its rockets into Israel at the rate over 100 a day and has made itself the champion of the Arab world. against what even Jordan's King Abdullah II-one of our staunchest Arab allies-calls "Israeli aggression." Just when Hezbollah's star within Lebanon was starting to fade (chiefly because of its support for Syria when the Lebanese drove the Syrians out), Israel has made it burn more brightly than ever. Aside from holding thirty percent of the seats in Lebanon's parliament and enjoying the support of its speaker, Nabih Berri, Hezbollah now has the overwhelming support of the Lebanese people-for the simple and obvious reason that they believe it is fighting for them against a brutal and far more powerful adversary. (Yes, I know that many of the Christians in southern Lebanon bitterly resent Hezbollah for launching rockets from their neighborhoods, but that doesn't lessen their rage against Israel.) When Condoleezza Rice declares--in Malaysia-that "the key [to a cease fire] is the extension of Lebanon government authority throughout the country, the ability of the Lebanese government to control all forces, all arms in their country," what has she been smoking? Does she not know that Israeli airstrikes have demolished radio and television stations, crippled electric power, closed Beirut Airport, made major roads all but impassible, and displaced twenty percent of the population? Under these circumstances, how could any Lebanese government-let alone a government as new and frail as that of Faoud Siniora-take control of the only forces that are fighting on behalf of Lebanon right now?

So what has been achieved by fifteen days of fighting? While Hezbollah's rockets and guns have killed 52 Israelis, including 19 civilians, the Lebanese government estimates that Israeli airstrikes and artillery have killed 430 Lebanese-most of them civilians. The civilians include, of course, the four UN observers who were killed on Tuesday when their observation post was demolished by an airstrike-after they had called Israeli commanders at least six times to let them know where the post was, and after the commanders had promised to avoid hitting it. Israel has expressed its regret for this "mistake," but Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, has said that Israel will not allow the UN to join its investigation of it and has also said that if a new international peacekeeping force is deployed in southern Lebanon, UN soldiers should not be part of it. He just wants some other force that will disarm Hezbollah completely.

Dream on, Mr. Ambassador. Israel would love nothing more than to disarm Hezbollah by itself, but no less a hawk than Richard Armitage-second-in-command at the State Department under George W. Bush, ardent supporter of regime change in Iraq well before 9/11-has just told National Public Radio that it ain't gonna happen. "You can't [eliminate Hezbollah] from the sky," he said, "and . . . you're going to end up empowering Hezbollah."

Hezbollah has indeed been revitalized by this war-so much so that our new man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, dare not denounce it, at least not in public. Which is why his speech to Congress this week was "boycotted" by-among others--Senator Charles Schumer of New York. As a Democrat, I am sickened by Schumer's hypocrisy, along with that of Howard Dean. Both are incensed that Maliki has dared to criticize Israel for invading Lebanon and failed to condemn Hezbollah for provoking the invasion. Can neither one of these seasoned politicians imagine what it would cost Maliki in Baghdad right now to condemn Hezbollah--when this Shiite force has made itself the champion of all Arabs against Israel? Surely they must know it would be suicide-and not just the political suicide that either one of them would commit if he dared to denounce Israel.

When are we going to realize that we will never "win" the war against terrorism until we stop thinking in bi-polar terms, until we stop believing that anyone who attacks us or one of our allies is a terrorist who hates freedom and must be obliterated, never an Iraqi or a Palestinian or a Lebanese who simply resents the brutal occupation of his country and wants freedom on his own terms-not ours? In response to yesterday's broadcast by Ayman al-Zawahri, deputy leader of al-Qaida, who denounced the "Zionist-Crusader war" on Lebanon and Palestine, President Bush said, "Zawahri's attitude about life is that there shouldn't be free societies. And he believes that people ought to use terrorist tactics, the killing of innocent people, to achieve his objective. And so I'm not surprised he feels like he needs to lend his voice to terrorist activities that are trying to prevent democracies from moving forward."

Does President Bush forget that Hamas and Hezbollah--the "terrorist" organizations that Zawahri supports-have both achieved political power by means of democratic elections? And why is damnable for them to kill innocent people to achieve their objectives but permissible for Israel to do the same-by a multiple of more than 8 to 1 in Lebanon right now?

With no convincing answer to that question, we have lost whatever credibility we might once have had to broker a peace in the Middle East, and we are fast losing whatever is left of our moral authority in the world at large. At this perilously late stage, we can salvage it only if we begin to exercise our imaginations, to break the stranglehold of bipolar thinking, and to talk to our adversaries instead of demonizing, threatening, and trying to annihilate them. The families of the two Israeli soldiers captured earlier this month by Hezbollah guerillas-in a raid that precipitated this war--have urgently pressed the Israeli government to consider an exchange of prisoners, which would mean of course negotiation. Yes, the unspeakable N word. Even Richard Armitage thinks that Condoleezza Rice should talk to the Syrians. Is it sheer folly to think-to hope-that one day Israel might be willing to talk to Hamas or Hezbollah? And if you ask how Israel could even consider talking to an organization that denies its right to exist, don't you think Hamas and Hezbollah could ask exactly the same question? How many more innocent people on both sides will have to die-in Lebanon and Israel-before we stop fighting each other, stop denying each other's right to exist, and start fighting the plague of war itself?

Perhaps Camus can tell us.