OCTOBER 23, 2001: Oh, dear. More writers have come down with Peggy Noonan's disorder. Will Cipro help? Not likely.
Insanity, it has been shown, spreads faster than anthrax.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Jim Lileks is a frequently lovely writer with a winning, Thurberesque style, seen near-daily at his "The Bleat" weblog. That style has on occasion been marred by a strange anger at people who don't live the way he does (house, mortgage, wife, dog, new daughter, widescreen TV). But generally, his observations of suburban life and cultural artifacts have been pleasing.
Since September 11, though, he's been on the moon. He's been bravely going after bin Laden in his fantasy life -- "Give me a gun; show me the cave." -- but he's also been going after intellectuals, NPR, the guy who draws The Boondocks -- you know, people who aren't showing the requisite bloodthirst.
Things have gotten steadily worse for Lileks. On October 18, he dreamed: "I looked at my hands and watched in horror as the smallpox blisters formed. WOKE UP. I'd slept for 7 minutes. I didn't want to sleep anymore." As of the 22nd, he hadn't bounced back. "Right now my brains are elbowing against my eardrums," he wrote. "And I'm as calm as I've been all weekend." He has of late wondered "what I was going to do about . . . about that which I cannot describe. It's a small thing in the scale of things, but it has such depressing ramifications in the short run I am considering taking a week off so my blood pressure can go down."
Lileks seems to be in the middle stage of WRI -- War-Related Insanity. His case is not uncommon. You can see WRI in its various stages all over the Web, in the writings of Peggy Noonan, Andrew Sullivan, and various lesser lights. The most reliable symptom: anger at America's actual enemies (i.e., the guys who hit the Towers and the Pentagon, the guys who sent the anthrax) bleeding over into hatred of imaginary enemies on our own shores (e.g., intellectuals, NPR, and the guy who draws The Boondocks).
Noonan, poor soul, has lately been obsessed with Arabs with cameras; Sullivan has been more wide-ranging in his wartime paranoia, as detailed by David Talbot in Salon recently. His wrath has fallen on Gary Kamiya ("moral abdication"), Katha Pollitt ("hippie"), Joshua Micah Marshall ("lost a sense of the difference between 'off-message' and 'evil'"), Britain's Independent("the house-organ of appeasement in Britain"), and many others -- including, of course (and eternally) Clinton -- "all signs point to the Clinton administration as the major source of responsibility" for the Terror, Sullivan declares, despite years of Republican footsie with Islamic nutcakes in Afghanistan and elsewhere. (Hillary -- "deranged" -- is not forgotten.)
But hateful as Sullivan is toward Clinton, he's not a suitable scarecrow, so he has hauled out Susan Sontag for special abuse ("contemptible," "buffoon," etc). Sontag is a buffoon -- and thereby useful to Sullivan, who swings her at the heads of other, far less culpable citizens. For example, Sullivan has created a Susan Sontag Award, which he bestows on folks like Ted Rall, who has been tagged for merely criticizing George W. Bush -- a thought crime in the age of Everything-Has-Changed. The target is weak, but the tar-brush-wielder ever willing.
This last ploy reveals an interesting symptom of intelligent writers in the throes of WRI: mad though they may be, they may also retain much cunning. Sullivan responded quickly to Talbot's piece, disdaining "the notion that I have criticized some individuals, including Talbot, for lack of patriotism. This is simply untrue. I challenge Talbot to prove it." That'll be hard because Sullivan took care to maintain what his bete noir Clinton might have called "plausible deniability." What Sullivan said was, "The middle part of the country -- the great red zone that voted for Bush -- is clearly ready for war. The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead -- and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column." Look up "fifth column" in the dictionary -- or check Joshua Micah Marshall, who did it for you on September 20 -- and you'll see what this really means. But of whom is Sullivan speaking? Noam Chomsky? Ted Rall? The guy who draws "The Boondocks"?
It's easy to see how this sort of thing gets started. The war is still undeclared, its targets indistinct. The President himself has told us it will take a long while not just to kill our enemies, but also to figure out who they are before we kill them. Is it any wonder columnists with a bellyful of free-floating rage should take it upon themselves to fill in the blanks with the names of their fellow citizens?
I offer a stopgap solution: reinstitute civil defense a la World War II. Make it part of that Homeland Security thing. That ought to help Jim Lileks. Give him a helmet and a whistle and put him on blackout patrol -- he's a nostalgic fellow, he'll like that. After a few tours of duty, he may come to feel that he is doing his part for our fighting men, and sleep again the sleep of the just.
As for Sullivan, well, some people are just beyond help.