The moral landscape of terror

The modern world has been experienced as a moral cataclysm by many people from many cultures.  This world tears away at traditions with new technologies and universal communication, produces scientific refutations of hallowed beliefs, appears to promote the indulgence of our basest appetites — for sex, money, food — and concentrates sovereignty on the individual at the expense of the community.

Those who have experienced modernity as essentially a moral phenomenon naturally rebel against its consequences.  That was true of the Catholic Church in the 19th century, and of Protestant evangelists today.  Both wished to maintain a degree of moral certainty and social cohesion threatened on a daily basis by party politics, religious pluralism, and the me-first pleasure-seeking stimulated by free markets.

The line between disgust with the seamier aspects of modern life and loathing of the fundamental principles on which this way of life rests is a difficult one to trace.  The most tolerant parents worry about their children’s exposure to sexual and economic predators on TV or the Web.  They deal with it variously.  Some cocoon their families within like-minded communties.  Others start crusades.  All try to teach their children decency and respect for human diginity — not least, their own.

Fragmentation defines the modern world.  For the majority, the spiritual rewards available under this condition far outweigh the moral hazards.  People can live according to their private understanding of good and evil, rather than by a single official faith, imposed by government power.  Yet it is precisely that singleness, that power-imposed narrowness, that the enemies of modernity crave.

Who are these people?  In The Politics of Cultural Despair, Fritz Stern profiled the lives and works of three pre-Nazi Germans who provided much of the creative force behind the anti-modern ideology.  These men were highly literate, educated to a fault.  A case can be made that the revolt against modernity springs from a wholly modern phenomenon:  the spread of education beyond the elites.

By the same token, these men were not conservatives.  They created a romantic, imaginary past for Germany, and heaped scorn on traditionalists, whom they considered self-interested defenders of the status quo.  They despised liberalism as the chief moral disaster of modernity, and parliamentary politics because it called for constant moral compromise.

They were not failures.  They were not poor.  The revolt against modernity is emotional rather than material.  Bismarckian Germany was an unlovely creature.  The profound spiritual longing felt by these men lacked an object of attachment.  Science had refuted religion.  Nationalism had ended in the decadent cosmopolitanism of Berlin.  The three men dabbled in vague idealisms, calling for a new religion with a new prophet to unify and purify the people, and lead them to a glorious, righteous, and warlike future.

But they knew what they hated, and they called their enemies by their proper names.  Theirs was a morality of negation:  behind the foggy idealisms lurked the urge to destroy an admittedly imperfect society.  They hated its past and its present.  They hated the Jews, stateless carriers of modernity.  They hated the big city, and glorified the simple village life.  They hated science, industrialism, liberal democracy, parliaments, politics, “the West,” and they lent their considerable talents to eroding the legitimacy of these notions.  They were, even more than Nietsche, intellectual nihilists, destroyers of established ideas.

How much they were responsible for Nazi Germany is an open question.  Both were conceived in the same womb of cultural despair.  Both sought to heal, in words and blood, the same traumatic wound:  the loss of wholeness and moral certainty that is the inevitable consequence of increased freedom for the citizenry.

The Germans invented the anti-modern ideology.  Their morality of negation, however,  has travelled far, transcending nations and cultures.  It provided the core of anarchism.  The Russian Nechayev, in the Revolutionary Catechism, proclaimed that his hero, the anarchist revolutionary, will need only one sort of learning:  “the science of destruction.”  It nourished certain kinds of Marxism, exemplified by the Khmer Rouge, who blew up the banks and emptied the corrupt cities of their populations.  Postmodernism, properly understood, is a turgid academic version of the Germanic ideology.

Islamist terror flows out of this tradition, as much or more than from any Arabic or Middle Eastern cultural pattern.  The individuals involved, like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, are affluent, well educated, well travelled, and often speak several languages.  They dream vague visions of a caliphate or an Islamic nation, but they know the West quite concretely, and they hate it.  Their hatred is born of experience, not ignorance.  They know us much better than we know them.  We are an obsession to them, and they are driven by the hope of our destruction.

Many things remain the same, between the Islamists and the Germans.  Liberal democracy remains an abomination.  The Jews remain diabolically clever and evil.  The city corrupts still:  virtue dwells with the Bedouin (and Osama) in the wilderness.  But the West, the modern world, have become America, and that is something of an innovation.  In this morality of negation, this wish to replace with self-invented fantasies the world as it now exists, we are the great Satan, tempter and seducer.

Islamists oppose a moral vision to pluralism.  Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, who call the anti-modern ideology “occidentalism,” observe:  “This is not about policies, but about an idea, almost a vision, about a machinelike society without a human soul.  So anti-Americanism plays a large role in hostile views of the West.”

The vision assumes the weakness of men and women, who must succumb to temptation.  Only the ruthless application of power will save their souls.  Only the destruction of America, the tempter,  will save the world.

Jeffersonian democracy takes for granted the benevolence of the individual and the tyrannical instinct of rulers.  The ideology of Islamist terror teaches the exact opposite.  Expanding the freedom of the individual, it maintains, must lead to moral catastrophe.  That is what the West has wrought, what America is perpetrating on the human race.

Violence against America, to the individual terrorist, becomes a path for moral and spiritual fulfillment:  in the collapse of the World Trade Towers and the death of thousands of our people, the terrorists’ deep longing for certainty and wholeness found an object of attachment.  They can be only briefly satisfied.  So long as we stand, they must, in the logic of their beliefs, continue to deploy against us the science of death and destruction.

On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, we must, in the logic of our beliefs, summon the strength to sustain ourselves over a long, long fight.

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