Bad behavior overlooked leads to more bad behavior

Published 4:25 pm Monday, April 20, 2009

“If you don’t deal with criminal behavior, then it will continue.”

That’s the lesson all right, as relayed by New Jersey Democratic Congressman Donald Payne, who, this week, acquired the standing to speak in such terms. In other words, the Somalis could have killed the guy. They certainly tried: firing mortars as his plane lifted off from Mogadishu on Monday. Payne was headed home, having dispensed his cogent advice at the end of a visit with Somali leaders of one kind or another concerning piracy and like Somali specialties.

Any cop, practically any mayor who isn’t posturing for the cable news cameras, knows the truth of what Payne said — knowledge gleaned from experience with local crime.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The more bad behavior you overlook, the more you get, is the timeless message — a fresh dose of which the world could stand right now.

Three Somali pirates came to a well-deserved bad end on Sunday, thanks to Navy Seal Hawkeyes who, with presidential approval, put them away before they could harm Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama.

None of this was Guadalcanal or Gettysburg: no massed armies, no banners, no desperate charges. Fine. If we caught a glimmer of truth anyway — especially if the Obama administration as a whole caught such a glimmer — concerning the fate of soft nations, we are ahead of a game that grows graver all the time.

The truth, though you wouldn’t suspect it from Democratic rhetoric of the past several years, is that a nation runs serious risks when it acts as though there’s no such thing as a foe who can’t be reasoned or jollied into at least marginally good behavior.

A weak nation, or one merely perceived as weak and feckless and ineffective, draws the immediate attention of bullies. Such a nation opens itself to insult and worse, for instance the carnage of September 11, 2001. Al-Qaeda’s overconfidence respecting its declaration of war on the United States likely owed much to perceptions that the response, when it came, would be bearable.

Barack Obama spent much of his presidential campaign more than suggesting that we wouldn’t, under his presidency, be the same kind of nation that George W. Bush led, or tried to. We beat our breasts over Abu Ghraib, wailed about Guantanamo, lamented the presence of American troops in troops in Iraq — on a mission designed to punish bad people.

Certain bad people soon got the message that we’re rethinking the whole punishment business. If they pushed back just a little, they might find the American tiger to be made of flimsy paper. North Korea, with its missile tests, and Iran, with its reputed determination to go nuclear, push back against America. So also Russia, with its aggressive attitudes toward the United States on practically everything, including the war on terror.

War on what? According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she and those around her no longer talk that way. Instead they converse more spaciously of “overseas contingency operations.” “Terrorism” itself is a goner of a phrase, according to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who prefers to speak of “man-caused disasters.” Depend on the bureaucracy to come up with language that leaves everyone in doubt as to whether America is contending with people who want to destroy the nation, or with silt pile-ups in the Amazon basin.

Let’s hear Congressman Payne once more: “if you don’t deal with criminal behavior, then it will continue.”

We know this; that’s the sad part of it all. We don’t need, intellectually, to hear explained for us the link between weakness in the Western nations and Adolf Hitler’s escalating threats. It is part of our folklore, requiring only to be dusted off a little.

Unwillingness to believe that circumstances today are different, to doubt that face-to-face rapport has its limitations when you’re dealing with scum — there’s where we fall short in our attitude toward the outside world. We don’t believe what we know to be true.