A Permanent Enemy

Fred Smith

Editor's note: "A Permanent Enemy originally appeared at The Gathering.

In his documentary film, “Korengal,“ author and director Sebastian Junger recounts the stories of a platoon of American soldiers deployed to a tiny and dangerous outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The “grinding boredom gives way to bowel-emptying fear, followed sometimes by episodes of nearly psychedelic blood lust and the frankly sexual pleasure of unleashing a .50-caliber machine gun on enemies who are doing the same to you.”

While the film is horrifying to watch, Junger’s book, "The Tribe" makes the case that coming home from war is often harder than risking your life: “There is something to be said for using risk to forge social bonds…Having something to fight for, and fight through, is a good and important thing.” It is re-entry into a divisive country that proves more difficult.

Coming home from such a “band of brothers” experience to enter what Junger describes as “the conflict of a society at war with itself” is painful and confusing: “People speak with incredible contempt about, depending on their views: the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign born, the President, or the entire US government. It is a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime except that it is now applied to our fellow citizens. Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker…You don’t speak with contempt about someone who may be saving your life tomorrow or who you may need to risk your life for tomorrow. One of the amazing things about the current political season is to watch very powerful people in politics and in the media speak with contempt about their fellow citizens. Contempt is poison to democracy…People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long.”

In his letter to the early Church, the Apostle Peter warned that “scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires.” Scoffers and mockers are not only those who poke fun at us. Ridicule is just a step along the way to something far more serious and ultimately fatal. It is not cynicism or irony or even humor. Contempt is deadly hatred posing as superiority – intellectual, moral or political. The soldiers were mocking Christ when they whipped him. The Psalmist writes about scoffers who long to see him dead. Mockers want to stir up anger and violence – not just ridicule. Ecclesiastes says, “anger rests in the bosom of fools” and Proverbs says, “mockers stir up a city.”

Do you know how carbon monoxide works? Because its bonding power with hemoglobin is more than 200 times stronger than oxygen, it simply prevents the body from getting oxygen. While it does not attack or assault, its effect is silent, gradual and absolutely fatal. It merely works better than oxygen. People who are contemptuous of others are poison. They are monoxides, and because we are increasingly numbed we have lost our sensitivity to the threat they pose.

Contempt also poisons what makes the life of a democracy possible – respect. A friend told me this week that all Democrats are pure evil. Another claimed that Donald Trump is beyond contempt as she rolled her eyes dramatically. I read headlines like “MSNBC Mocks Trump As A Business Failure” or “Trump Mocks Biden Stumble” and I realize how right Sebastian Junger is. We are more in danger of losing our democracy to the monoxide of contempt than the invasion of a physical enemy. The bonding power of contempt is overwhelming that of respect and a common purpose.

Arthur Brooks often has said, “The best way to have a permanent enemy is to show contempt,” and he is right. Instead of two parties who disagree – sometimes vehemently – we are in danger of creating permanent enemies who treat each with contempt and are convinced of the utter worthlessness of the other.

A nation can recover from the bloodiest of wars, but it is the cold and bloodless wars that leave us laid bare and divided. Again, that is what Peter warns. Those who mock and scoff and treat others with contempt are interested only in creating divisions that are beyond healing. I don’t think we are there but when soldiers returning from mortal danger are more fearful of the poisons of our divided nation than the unrelenting life-threatening assaults of a merciless enemy then we have cause to fear for our Republic.

Editor's note: "A Permanent Enemy originally appeared at The Gathering.


Fred Smith

Fred Smith, author of “Where The Light Divides,” is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He is the co-founder of Leadership Network with Bob Buford and served as President for 12 years. Fred is the founder of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. He and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.