Our Timbers Should Shiver

The Somali pirate drama is one of those small, but potentially telling, incidents that happen from time to time. The pirates attacked a ship flying an American flag and took its captain hostage. Days have now passed, the captain remains a captive, and the pirates continue to thumb their noses at our government.

I am a subscriber to the “broken windows” theory described at some length in The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. That theory posits that people who live in a neighborhood that features little signs of unaddressed lawlessness — like broken windows, graffiti, and other petty crime — can lose hope and conclude that there is no law. Events then can spiral downward and out of control as people perceive that there is no order or authority. I think the same concept applies to international law. An attack by pirates may be a small matter — indeed, the concept of modern-day pirates seems ludicrous — but it is one of those signs of lawlessness that could promote more reckless illegal behavior by other renegade actors on the international stage.

Unfortunately, many civilized governments don’t seem to have the stomach to deal with the Somali pirates. Instead, they seem to hope that the pirates, or the terrorists, will realize that we mean them no harm and just go away. Our country, on the other hand, seems to have the will but is so bound up by concerns about legality and the perceptions of the international community that we shy away from taking unilateral action. In the meantime, outright piracy goes unpunished — and the number of broken windows in the neighborhood grows.

I think it is time for us to realize that our failure to act in these situations is sending a strong, but negative, message. It can only encourage other “bad actors” to commit acts that risk the mere disapproval of the civilized world, but no other consequences. If inaction continues, and piracy, kidnapping, and other guerilla tactics proliferate, the impact on things like international trade, democratic institutions, and global progress will be devastating. What is the point of being an economic and military giant if we cannot crush pirates who flout international law, and thereby send a message that such intolerable lawlessness will be dealt with swiftly, and with finality?

Vegetable Week: The Cultural Impact

Another way to assess the value of vegetables versus meats is to look at their impact on our culture. In that regard, vegetables fare very poorly indeed. Many of our holidays revolve around preparing and eating a traditional meat dish, such as the Thanksgiving turkey. If you go to a baseball game, you have a hot dog. The characters in American Graffiti keep returning to a particular hamburger stand that is the locus of their cruising activities. In America, there is an entire genre of restaurants — the steakhouse — that celebrates meat consumption by featuring particular cuts of beef and, typically, oversized portions. There is, of course, nothing comparable on vegetable side. People don’t eat a beet at a hockey game, or feast on the broccoli casserole at Christmas, or hang out at the fava bean palace on a Friday night.

Of course, another way to measure cultural impact is to consider poetry, and literature, and song. In these categories, too, meat blows vegetables out of the water. Consider:

But man is a carnivorous production
And must have meals – at least once a day;
He cannot live, like woodcocks, upon suction,
But, like the shark and tiger, must have prey.

Lord Byron (1788-1824)
‘Don Juan’ (1821)

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

Robert Burns

And then there is Shakespeare:

‘Brutus’ will start a spirit as soon as ‘Caesar’
Now in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great?

Julius Caesar, Act I, sc. 2, l. 146

And, as to song, I give you Tom Waits: