Last night the BBC had an interview with two “youngish” Muslim “community leaders” on their ten o’clock news broadcast. Obviously, the topic of conversation was why disaffected Muslim youth were so marginalized by British society that they felt the need to lash out in acts of unspeakable terrorist violence. Both “leaders” agreed that at least one source of the trouble was current British foreign policy, ie get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and help the Palestinians and the terrorist attacks in Britain will largely disappear. They also agreed that more “education” of young Muslims was needed. They claimed that neither the current Government nor “Muslim leaders” had done enough to educate Muslim youth that the way to change British policy was “the ballot, not the bullet.”Needless to say this was a highly frustrating interview because the interviewees (and even the interviewers to some extent) presupposed a rationality on the part of the terrorists, ie the young Muslims who turn to terrorism are not “bad” or “evil”, but simply “misguided” or “uneducated”. Even Gordon Brown, the new Prime Minister (who, in the main, has handled the latest terrorist crisis with great skill and sensitivity) has publicly said that the “real battle was for the hearts and minds of the terrorists.”
Mr. Brown, in his own BBC interview on Sunday, analogized the current situation with the West’s activities in the Cold War. Mr. Brown said that while we must remain strong and vigiliant in the face of terrorism we must also constantly advocate that our system, with its commitment to fundamental individual dignity and human life, was the best system for securing human happiness. As in the Cold War, he thinks that will ultimately win our enemies over.
Philosophically, I understand the attraction of this position. It makes us all feel as if this is a struggle we can ultimately “win” and gives us hope. The only problem, I thought as I cycled past the spots where both car bombs were found in London and as I recall the horror of being in Manhattan on 9/11/2001, is that I am not sure that this is an accurate description of the problem.
Factually, I am not sure the West won the Cold War in any meaningful sense. Given the current situation in Russia, China, Central Asia, much of Africa and Venezuela I wonder if the elites in those countries haven’t simply decided that it is better to have flat screen TVs rather than not have them. They seemed to have liberalized enough to attract western capital (a real commitment to the rule of law and individual human rights be damned) and now, shockingly, they have us by the short hairs by playing on our greed and consumerism and our need for ever cheaper energy and toys.
Mr. Brown’s position of course, has a sterling intellectual pedigree in that it harkens back to Plato. He too thought that education, “winning the hearts and minds”, was the key to instilling moral behavior. St. Augustine, having the benefit of Scripture, puts paid to this idea throughout his writings, particularly his Confessions. You will recall Augustine’s story of the pears. As a boy, he and his friends would break into a neighboring pear orchard and steal pears from the trees. What shocked Augustine about this behavior was that there was no real reason for them to do this, they weren’t particularly hungry, their families didn’t need the pears, in fact he says they threw most of what they stole away. They also knew that what they were doing was wrong. He concluded that he and his friends stole the pears for the pure pleasure of doing evil. They enjoyed wallowing in rebellion against God’s order. This is, of course, and Augustine recognized it as such, Lucifer’s sin of pride and the most difficult evil to cure. In fact, only the death of God Himself could cure it.
It strikes me that terrorism is like that. What kind of animal (and I use that term specifically, with all its connotations of lack of reason and sense) leaves a car filled with shrapnel to explode outside a night club where young people are celebrating their life and their youth or in a park where young mothers (like my wife!) and nannies take pre-schoolers to enjoy a fleeting English summer day? What possible reasonable statement (political or otherwise) is that making and how do you possibly “educate” someone that that type of behavior is wrong and should be avoided. It strikes me that the immorality and futility of that type of gesture would be self-evident. Therefore, the only explanation for it is the joy which the perpetrator takes in commiting the evil act itself. Quite literally, God help us.
None of this is at all reassuring. If my analysis (such as it is) is correct, all we can do is resist, perhaps without hope of conquering. In the Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf tells Frodo, “Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.” When Frodo laments that he wishes he had never lived to see such times, Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we can decide is what we chose to do with the time given to us.”
Here in London, I am choosing to live as I have always lived and pray that is enough.