Commenting on the Pentagon video that showed US cruise missiles being thrown on an airfield in Syria, Brian Williams, reporting on MSNBC, found himself “tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”
Although widely ridiculed on social media, the quote was actually strangely appropriate. This is so not just because the cruise missiles indeed looked beautiful against the sky, like a firework. The quote stems from the song “First We Take Manhattan,” first recorded in 1986 by Cohen’s long-term confidante Jennifer Warnes, later by himself. The reference to weapons is not accidental; Cohen himself called his song a “terrorist song,” “an examination of the mind of the extremist.”
The next line in the song is “Then we take Berlin,” and while the reference to Manhattan was more mysterious in 1986 than it would become fifteen years later, the reference to Berlin was not. Although Cohen was always ambivalent about exact sources for his lyrics, Jennifer Warnes’ recording draws a clear connection: it starts with a radio announcement, in German, of the terrorist attack on the German-Arab Society in Berlin which had taken place earlier that year.
Now, the explosive material for that very attack likely came from the Syrian embassy in East Berlin. At the time, the Syrian embassy was considered a main support center for terrorism, involved also in other attacks at the time: the French Cultural Center in West Berlin 1983, possibly also the La Belle discothèque in 1986 (though Libya secret service was later held responsible for that). After German reunification, German authorities tried repeatedly to prosecute the then Syrian ambassador Faisal Sammak, but in vain. Austria arrested him at one stage but let him go after it was argued that he benefited from diplomatic immunity, probably on strong pressure from the Syrian government. Syria’s strong protection for Sammak was not just a matter of political loyalty but also a consequence of family bonds: Sammak is the uncle of Bassar Al-Assad, Syria’s President since 2000.
There is thus a direct line from Cohen’s song via the Syrian ambassador to East Germany to the Assad family and the airstrikes on a Syrian airbase. Did Williams know that the quote he used was written in connection with assassins supported by the very country that the United States was bombing? He could hardly have found a better way to express, albeit probably without realizing it, how much our cruise missiles mirror the bombs harbored by the state we are bombing, how much the airstrikes are the continuation of a history that begins not in 2001 (as we often think), nor even in 1986, but goes way back. Nor are the airstrikes an endpoint: less than 24 hours after the airstrike, Syrian fighters reportedly reopend the airbase and flew renewed attacks on Khan Sheikhoun. The US ambassador to the United Nations said, ominously, “We are prepared to do more, but we hope it will not be necessary.” But will doing more, even if deemed “necessary,” achieve anything?
Williams’ admiration for US weapons does not in fact twist the song’s original meaning. The sympathy and admiration it expresses for its protagonist was deliberate, as Cohen suggested: “There’s something about terrorism that I’ve always admired. The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises.” Not just in terrorism, one may add. “No compromises” seems an apt description of at least the rhetoric of the Trump administration. (“No alibis” is a little less fitting for a President who blames everyone else for mistakes but never himself.) We may be “guided by the beauty of our weapons,” but so is our enemy, and the feeling of righteousness we both feel is no trustworthy guidance to moral justice.
What, if anything, makes us better than them? Maybe our cause? In the same interview, Cohen juxtaposed the terrorists who blow up airplanes with what can be called terrorists of the mind—“Jesus, Freud, Marx, Einstein,” infinitely more influential. (Perhaps he also included the musicans with “[t]he monkey and the plywood violin” – a street musician’s tools, cited later in the song). Cruise missiles may light up the sky, Cohen might say, but ideas light up the mind, and they are the more powerful weapons, and more beautiful too.
But this would be too easy, and in another interview, Cohen was indeed more ambivalent. He admitted “the captivating energy… coming from the extremes” and conceded his need “to resist these extremist positions when I find myself drifting into a mystical fascism in regard to myself”.
This may be a more apt suggestion. This mystical fascism explains how our admiration for the beauty of weapons can be stronger than our concern with the destruction they bring. Out of this mystical fascism we celebrate an airstrike as a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. Our justified horror at the mass killings committed by Assad creates a sense of self-righteousness that is itself dangerous. Faced with extremism we become extremists ourselves. And this is what is so worrying about the widespread admiration that Donald Trump gets for his airstrike.
Like the terrorists, we are “guided by the beauty of our weapons.” We should recognize this, and we should realize what it says about us. Brian Williams’ use of a Leonard Cohen provides us with a good opportunity to do exactly that.