I was at a county fair in New Hampshire last summer and stopped by the National Guard tent. They had those "Support Our Troops" ribbon stickers for sale one on a Stars-and-Stripes background, one of them just plain yellow. I've never liked the whole yellow-ribbon thing: It's too victimological, too passive, too enervated. One of the distinctive features of that immediate post-9/11 moment of near national unity was the blessed absence of yellow ribbons. It would have been the wrong symbol for an America full of righteous anger.
But four years on, and there are "Support Our Troops" yellow ribbons a-plenty. "What's the idea behind that?" I asked the National Guardsman manning the display.
"Well," he said, "a lot of people don't support the war and they aren't comfortable with the flag-colored ribbon but they support the troops."
It seemed to me unlikely that people who were uncomfortable with the national flag were likely in any meaningful sense to be supportive of the national army. But a couple of weeks later, driving past a house in Hanover, N.H., I saw an even sillier qualification: "Support Our Troops. Bring Them Home Now" so they can sit around the barracks feeling like losers until they're needed for some hurricane-relief operation.
Joel Stein (no relation) of the Los Angeles Times took a lot of heat last week for coming right out with it and saying that he didn't support the troops and that it was a humbug phrase that he and his anti-war comrades shouldn't have to use as cover for their position. Good for him. He's right. It's empty and pusillanimous, the Iraq war's version of "But some of my best friends are Jewish . . ." If you're opposed to the mission, if you don't want to see it through, if you're supporting a position whose success would only demoralize those serving in Iraq and negate their sacrifice, in what sense do you "support the troops"? Stein ought to be congratulated for acknowledging that he doesn't. We armchair warmongers are routinely derided as "chickenhawks," but Stein is a hawkish chicken, disdaining the weasel formulation too many anti-war folks take refuge in.
The Palestinian elections were similarly clarifying. The old guard Yasser Arafat's Fatah cronies had their own take on the "But some of my best friends are Jewish" routine. For years they insisted, at least in the presence of Americans and Europeans, that they were in favor of a "two-state solution" Israel and Palestine living side by side at the same time as they supported and glorified and financially subsidized suicide bombers and other terrorists. Insofar as their enthusiasm for a two-state solution was genuine, it was as an intermediate stage en route to a one-state solution.
Hamas, by contrast, takes a Joel Stein view: Why the hell should we have to go tippy-toeing around some sissy phrase we don't really mean? Hamas doesn't support a two-state solution, it supports the liquidation of one state and its replacement by other, and they don't see why they should have to pretend otherwise. And in last week's elections for the Palestinian Authority they romped home. It was a landslide.
As is the way, many in the West rushed to rationalize the victory. The media have long been reluctant to damn the excitable lads as terrorists. In 2002 the New York Times published a photograph of Palestinian suicide bombers all dressed up and ready to blow, and captioned it "Hamas activists." Take my advice and try not to be standing too near the Hamas activist when he activates himself.
Oh, no no no, some analysts assured us. The Palestinians didn't vote for Hamas because of the policy plank about obliterating the state of Israel but because Fatah is hopelessly corrupt. Which is true: The European Union's bankrolled the Palestinian Authority since its creation and Yasser and his buddies salted most of the dough away in their Swiss bank accounts and used the loose change to fund the intifada. After 10 years you can't blame the Palestinians for figuring it's time to give another group of people a chance to siphon off all that EU booty.
So I'd like to believe this was a vote for getting rid of corruption rather than getting rid of Jews. But that's hard to square with some of the newly elected legislators. For example, Mariam Farahat, a mother of three, was elected in Gaza. She used to be a mother of six but three of her sons self-detonated on suicide missions against Israel. She's a household name to Palestinians, known as Um Nidal Mother of the Struggle and, at the rate she's getting through her kids, the Struggle's all she'll be Mother of. She's famous for a Hamas recruitment video in which she shows her 17-year-old son how to kill Israelis and then tells him not to come back. It's the Hamas version of 42nd Street: You're going out there a youngster but you've got to come back in small pieces.
It may be that she stood for parliament because she's got a yen to be junior transport minister or deputy secretary of fisheries. But it seems more likely that she and her Hamas colleagues were elected because this is who the Palestinian people are, this is what they believe. The Palestinians are the most comprehensively wrecked people on the face of the earth: After 60 years as U.N. "refugees," they're now so depraved they're electing candidates on the basis of child sacrifice. To take two contemporaneous crises, imagine if the population displacements caused by the end of the Second World War and by the partition of British India had also been left to the U.N. to manage and six decades later they were still running the "refugee" "camps," now full of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, none of whom had ever lived in any of the places they're supposed to be refugees from. Would you wish that fate on post-war Central Europe or the Indian subcontinent?
So what happens now? Either Hamas forms a government and decides that operating highway departments and sewer systems is what it really wants to do with itself. Or, like Arafat, it figures that it has no interest in government except as a useful front for terrorist operations. If it's the former, all well and good: Many first-rate terror organizations have managed to convert themselves to third-rate national-liberation governments. But, if it's the latter, that too is useful: Hamas is the honest expression of the will of the Palestinian electorate, and the cold hard truth of that is something Europeans and Americans will find hard to avoid.
As with Joel Stein, you're always better off knowing what people honestly think. For decades, the Middle East's dictators justified themselves to Washington as a restraint on the baser urges of their citizens, but in the end they only incubated worse pathologies. Western subsidy of Arafatistan is merely the latest example. Democracy in the Middle East is not always pretty, but it's better than the West's sillier illusions.