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Screaming for No Apparent Reason

John Brady Kiesling '79

Was I screaming "Nuke them!" or only "Bomb them!" as I sprinted into the control room in Trotter during the waning seconds of the poli-sci international-relations simulation? My memory is untrustworthy. But I remember clearly that my machinations as defense minister and U.N. representative of the African Front Line states bore bitter fruit in this, my first and last international-relations course. I had blithely lied to my South African counterpart, luring him into his cross-border provocation that legitimized a Soviet invasion to free the oppressed African peoples. My glacial Soviet protector, however, had just lost five armored divisions in an uncharted swamp west of Cape Town as play was ending.

Ah, Secretary Rumsfeld, I was young and stupid, awash in hormones and with a distribution requirement to fulfill, but what was your excuse? No, seriously, it was an excellent class, like most Swarthmore classes. But was I better suited then-a classics major caught up in an adolescent game-to represent a new American Empire than I found myself to be 20-odd years later as a professional diplomat promoting our invasion of Iraq as the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Athens? Sometimes I think so. I foundered on an administration that prides itself on its brutally "realistic" foreign policy. That realism has little to do with the definitions of realism I studied in philosophy class. It is a realism that maps the real world about as precisely as did the "Dungeons and Dragons" fantasy campaigns I lived through at Swarthmore. The results are no more morally uplifting than those of my poli-sci role-playing exercise, and the security our realism purports to offer is a mirage or worse.

Security is a legitimate hunger. Swarthmore College was and remains dutifully in loco parentis, attempting to persuade the student body that its landscaped little universe seethes with menace. In my day, this attempt was subverted, rather than reinforced, by the campus security reports prominently posted each week. Yes, there was a rape attempt, and we large males were deputized to walk women friends home in the dark. There was an off-campus suicide, pilferage from the dorms, and the ransacking of the campus dope dealer's room when his relations with the Warlocks went through a delicate phase. But those security reports lingered in my memory as an accidentally poetic embellishment of a benign landscape: Each new spring, freshmen would spot the "naked man in the Crum"; almost every week, the overweight police pensioners on their underpowered golf carts would dutifully pursue reports of "screaming for no apparent reason." This last phrase, read on the dorm bulletin boards many times over my four years, was to stick in my mind, a general-purpose metaphor for the human condition.

We insist, in tones that brook no rational discussion, that the world has changed since Sept. 11, 2001. Has the world, in fact, gotten more dangerous? More dangerous than the Swarthmore it was and it remains. Still, all my diplomatic experience, all my reading of the world's bloody history, made me confident that, until we began our slide into war with Iraq, we had succeeded in making America as safe as any state at any time. The planet was dominated politically, economically, and militarily by ourselves and our allies. Growing networks of international law were fortified by bonds of economic interdependency without precedent. Terrorism indeed posed a disproportionate threat to Americans compared with Western Europeans, but the absolute magnitude was small, and the disproportion could be reduced by wiser diplomacy and by using existing institutions more effectively. I resigned from the State Department at the end of February 2003, as it became absolutely clear that we were not interested in reducing the threat but rather had chosen to increase the threat as the price for legitimizing the outcome of an internal Washington policy struggle that could not be legitimized analytically or morally.

Legitimacy is a hunger. For most of us, happiness inheres in knowing what we are supposed to do and doing it, knowing who our leaders are and following them. I arrived at Swarthmore with a hazy faith that the universe had rules, that it would unveil those rules to a mind sufficiently precise, patient, and detached. I was lured early into the microcosm of Greek and Latin, seduced by that small principality in which classics professors Martin Ostwald and Gil Rose knew the set of knowable rules and seemed to derive their great good humor from that knowledge. But a budding academic career was haunted by the fear that the secret rules of the broader universe might not be learnable inside the academy.

One rule crept out from Patrick Henry's Early Christianity seminar. As our little circle dissected the first generations of Christianity, I was illuminated by a revelation a more sociable child would have grasped in kindergarten-that legitimacy, whether human or divine, emanates from the dynamics of the group. The early Christians, like my little group of "Dungeons and Dragons" players, generated legitimacy from the interplay of insiders and outsiders, of dominance and submission, of violence and altruism. Later, I learned that evolutionary psychology used the game theory of successful primate hunter-gatherers to generalize the logic of group dynamics. On the African savannas, and inside even the most democratic of governing institutions, successful violence is the first and most potent source of legitimacy. It is not the only one.

Swarthmore is a paradise for small, intense groups and for the sense of unity and purpose such groups generate. We students saw the warm and fuzzy side of that-romping on our green hilltop, we hunted, gathered, and mated in a world of seemingly unlimited resources and only the most genteel competition, whether intellectual or reproductive. Should I be ashamed to admit that my vision of America, carefully nurtured through years abroad as a diplomat, resembled Swarthmore far more than it did the real America of duct tape and permits for concealed handguns? It was a useful delusion. If I was lying to gullible foreigners, selling them the "city on the hill" of a previous president's now discarded vision, I did not know I was lying, and my buttoned-down passion and classical syntax made me dangerously plausible. When I returned from each overseas posting to brief stints as a State Department bureaucrat, it was to a pleasant liberal enclave of Northwest D.C. with a sufficiency of idealistic colleagues and with the potholes not too dire a reminder of the mean streets that, in foreign countries, I thought I had come to understand pretty well.

I had not been a pacifist when I came to Swarthmore, and I was not one when I graduated. I am not one now. Still, a more dangerous and conventional environment than Swarthmore's might have toughened me for official service in post Sept. 11 America. I managed to advance in the Foreign Service without developing any zeal for the bureaucratic battles that are vital in placing the combatants within the small-group hierarchy of dominance and submission. I preferred to focus on what I thought was the proper sphere of diplomacy: the world outside the blast-proof walls of the U.S. Embassy. In crueler surroundings than Swarthmore's, I would have been forced to prize, as threatened primates are deeply conditioned to prize, the instinct of group solidarity over that of intellectual integrity. The lies leaders tell to mobilize followers and allies serve, perhaps, a useful purpose, with a vital caveat: Those leaders should have a functional understanding of the environment in which they operate. But my own functional understanding of a less threatening world did not lend itself to such group dynamics. I could not be a player in this game.

Swarthmore admits no contradiction between idealism and realism, between truth and expediency. In an overpopulated world of finite resources, it is realistic to look at the case studies for success and failure and to admit that unpoliticized analysis, close cooperation, and more efficient organization are a price we must pay to keep so many expensive humans alive. The freedom from realism a little group of Beltway ideologues think it has achieved through the overwhelmingness of U.S. military power is the most dangerous fantasy imaginable. Swarthmoreans are not so different from other Americans in believing in humankind. We have no taste-or talent-for imperialism, and even our moralizing version is too expensive a game to continue playing as badly as we have.

The assigned essay topic is "The Meaning of Swarthmore." Writing now as a temporary expatriate in the shadow of the Acropolis, I would give Swarthmore as much and as little meaning as the ruined Parthenon that looms above me, entangled in its modern scaffolding. Each passing group imposes its own meaning in its own time and to its own purposes. Some basic common humanity assures, however, a certain common agreement that this is an enduring and powerful symbol, a beacon to be maintained at almost any cost.

Alhough I put Swarthmore aside for many years, it shone-and shines-in my memory as a generously tended vision on the hill, an enclave of American civility, a paradise of the changing seasons. The campus security guards were wise enough in 1979, or lazy enough, not to delve too deeply into why anyone would scream at Swarthmore. I witnessed enough on-campus screaming to attest that it seemed to make sense at the time, if only within the context of our little primate band. Humans are as yet imperfectly adapted to life in paradise. Like other primates, we scream occasionally when no mortal danger lurks. Unlike other primates, we are remorselessly rationalizing animals. Intellectual fashion and political expediency now urge that we import real or imaginary serpents into the paradise we labored to build. It may be more rational to settle for "screaming for no apparent reason" as all the explanation we can afford to demand.

Brady Kiesling, who resigned from the State Department to protest the war with Iraq and other policies, now writes and speaks on foreign-policy issues