Terror and modernity

In his address to Congress after 9/11, President Bush repeated the question most Americans were asking:  why do the terrorists hate us?  His answer:  “They hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with one another.”

In yesterday’s WaPo, Fareed Zakaria contemplates the slaughter in Mombai, and arrives at this conclusion about the terrorists:  “they are all enemies of modernity and democracy.”

Such explanations leave me a tad uneasy.  I don’t doubt they are true, but true at a level of vagueness that conceals other truths:  and because it’s comfortable to believe that we are hated for our advanced condition, they don’t invite further questioning or additional details.  Indeed, President Bush never again achieved the level of specificity he delivered in this memorable speech.

Islamist terrorists surely hate democracy.  For Ayman al-Zawahiri, human nature is corruption, which only obedience to God can purify.  (The group suspected of planning the Mumbai atrocity calls itself Lashkar-e-Taiba, “the army of the pure.”)  What Jefferson called the pursuit of happiness, and Zakaria calls modernity and democracy, is for al-Zawahiri the worship of sex and money:  the freedom to sell of women for profit and engage in homosexual marriages.

But it doesn’t follow from a hatred of democracy that one must become a murderer of innnocents.  Both 9/11 and the Mumbai massacre were exquisitely planned operations, not acts of rage.  Both aimed at practical goals.  9/11 sought to frighten the US into leaving the Middle East.  Mumbai sought to frighten the Indians into relinquishing Kashmir.

Much has been made of the striking capacity of terror networks.  The terrorists themselves, however, desperately wish to command the massive power of a national government in a Muslim country.  They believe, with some justification, that the US and India stand in their way.

They strike at us not merely from hate, but because they want us gone.  They slaughter innocents because they are too weak to fight military forces, and because their ideology has released them from all moral restraint.  In this as in much else, the Islamist terrorist is a thoroughly modern phenomenon.

Modernity is hard to define, but it is felt by many to be a Faustian bargain:  we win health, wealth, long life, education, comfort, endless choices in communication and travel and entertainment and work, but we lose the old certainties, the ways of our fathers, the beliefs and behaviors that made us who we are.

I have touched on this theme before (see here and here).  The release from traditional relationships — in which one must be either master or servant — stirs uneasiness and fuels some of the hatred called out by the President.  But it offers opportunities for action to the uneasy and the hate-filled, no less than to the entrepeneur and the democratic reformer.

The young men who murdered nearly 200 persons in Mumbai would have been at the beck of some family elder, in the traditional scheme of things.  Because they were young, they would have been servants.  They would have stayed at home, and done what they were told.  Instead they were modern, free of the ways of their fathers.  They had choices.

We should not mistake Islamist terrorists for primitives.  The men responsible for 9/11 learned to fly commercial aircraft.  The Mumbai killers used GPS navigators and Google Earth to guide themselves, Blackberries to check how well they were doing, satellite phones for communication, and anonymous email, sent during the massacre, to brag to the local media.  They knew how to exploit technology, far more effectively than the local authorities.

Science and technology are no respecters of the rights of persons.  Any who doubt this should consult Richard Overy’s account of the scientific and technological establishments that served Stalin and Hitler, to the satisfaction of the two tyrants.

Technology helps uproot young men from their traditional environment, but fails to provide a moral GPS to orient them in the brave new world.  They are empty vessels empowered by gadgets.  The age of technology gives rise to a peculiar illusion:  everything is possible.  The killers of 9/11 and Mumbai were, in the end, filled with a typically modern desire.  They wanted to save the earth.

That young Muslims can long for the caliphate yet handle the new technology so dexterously appears, to the casual observer, as something of a puzzle.  This may be the Islamist equivalent of Lenin’s threat to hang the capitalists with their own rope — but I doubt it.  The ideology promises purity and gadgets too.  Its followers embrace the good life of modernity, and believe they can prevent the undesirable consequences by a ruthless application of brute force.

In its contempt for morality, Islamism stands in the same line of descent with the totalitarian ideologies that tormented the last century.  All were born in the great rupture of nations after the First World War and the Versailles Treaty.  All worshipped death, and made a virtue of human sacrifice on an industrial scale.  All sought to bleed modernity into submission, and became the vandals and brutalizers of the modern world, the ultimate unforeseen consequence, the moral plague ever confronting the rest of us.

Enter democracy.  It too can be thought to have an uncertain relation with modernity, but only when reduced to a political system.  But democracy is, above all, a moral achievement:  the self-rule, self-reliance, and public-mindedness so monstrously lacking in totalitarian zealots, leaders and trigger-men alike.  Democratic politics can degrade to tyranny, as our Founding Fathers well knew.  The democratic character will tolerate most differences that don’t threaten freedom, and fight with fierce courage if freedom is in peril.

Democracy, understood as a moral ideal, opens a vast space for personal achievement — a space in which all the glorious innovations of the modern world are generated.  Because it places choice at the center of personal and community experience, democracy allows the old customs and habits, the ways of our fathers, to evolve gracefully in face of the wild storm of change.  Any change is chosen.  Any unwanted consequences are coped with by means of debate, elections, and the rule of law.

Democracy isn’t perfect, but free citizens, unlike totalitarians, accept imperfection so long as there is progress toward the ideal.  They don’t wish to save the earth, but to become better persons in a better community.  Freedom endows a moral strength that in turn allows for flexibility:  and flexibility is the most powerful weapon in the defense of democracy.  A single ideologically pure answer need not be given to the multiple questions posed by modernity.

The 9/11 and Mumbai murderers made such purity their choice.  To Americans and Indians alike they preached an inflexible message:  “You love life and we love death.”  They are the empty hearts, the vandals and brutalizers, the moral pollution of modernity.  They are a question posed in blood to citizens of the two democracies.

The answer to such a question is never simple, but it is, and always will be, our choice.

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