Things That Go Bump in the Night…

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.

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4 Responses to “Things That Go Bump in the Night…”

  1. Mark Patton Says:

    I agree with you entirely that the “animals” who attempt or perpetrate such attacks–whether Al Qaeda, IRA, Hamas/Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, pick your flavor of homicidal nut–likely cannot be dissuaded by “education” or other soft outreach efforts. At first blush, in fact, I’m tempted to see the reflexive noises that some people make about the need for better outreach when confronted by these outrages as a sign of cultural nihilism, and perhaps an instinct for self-absorption and self-flagellation run utterly amok.
    But perhaps what I tend to dismiss as the bleatings of the “why do they hate us?!” crowd are closer to the mark than we’d like to admit. Perhaps the point that Mr. Brown and the “community leaders” ought to be making is that the “education” efforts need to be targeted at the larger communities from which these “animals” spring. Where there is a significant section of a community that, while agreeing that bombs aimed at civilians are bad, are willing to shake their heads sadly and note “but I can understand their grievance,” I would think the “animals” are more inclined to see themselves as heroes. “My friends/relatives/co-religionists agree with me, I just have greater conviction and courage.”
    Maybe that swamp of tacit, quasi-approval of such monstrosities can be drained through better “community outreach.” If so, and if that will counteract common murderers’ delusions that they are martyrs, then perhaps a certain amount of “education”–properly understood–is worthwhile.

  2. Mark Grannis Says:

    I’ve been a long time in responding to this, partly because I am so much more distant from it than Dave (it took several days for me to hear the news), and partly because I just wanted to think about it. (I hope I won’t be drummed out of the blogosphere for that.) Then, having thought about what to say, I’ve had some trouble saying it. I’ve settled on three points.

    First, aren’t we dealing here with a false dichotomy? It seems to me that educating fellow citizens (of all backgrounds) that it is better to settle political disagreements democratically than with violence is essential to our own continued liberty, and would be even if no terrorist attacks were occurring. And as far as I can tell, making the sort of effort Mr. Brown recommends does not foreclose any other options. So it’s something we should definitely be doing, regardless of whether it is likely to “work,” i.e., to stop the violence.

    Second, I believe the same logic applies to broader questions about our response to terrorism. For example, some people say the attacks will stop if we withdraw our forces from the Middle East; others say that won’t work. As I’ve suggested on this blog, twice actually, I tend to think that a policy of sustained “disimperialism” would improve our situation, even though other means of defense would still be required. But again, we need not and really should not link these questions. We should define and protect American interests without regard to what terrorists think or do, and if withdrawal of U.S. forces from the middle east is the right answer then it’s the right answer regardless of whether it would stop the attacks. Some of the arguments against withdrawal — such as “You’re blaming America first” or “You’re appeasing them” or even “You can’t possibly think that would stop the attacks” — seem most mistaken to me precisely because they confuse the question of what we ought morally to do with the question of whether doing it will make other measures against terrorism unnecessary — an artificial and unreasonable standard in any event.

    Third, because I am writing from the Adirondacks, let me return — gently, I hope — to the issue of how long it took this news to reach me. I have before me the July 10 edition of the Adirondack Express — which is a weekly. The lead story is, “North Street plans receive an overhaul.” If I remember correctly, the lead story from the preceding week was about the future plans of the local high school’s Class of 2007. I am reminded that something similar happened last summer when Israel was fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon; people in D.C. were worried about Armageddon and yet if the television was off up here in the north woods there really was no reason one had to know about any of this. And so the question, in a nutshell, is this: Were the foiled London bombings news for me, or just for Fitz?

    Now I want to be careful not to overstate this point, because I am not recommending that we all stop watching the news. If murderous madmen are threatening our civilization, responsible citizens need to be reasonably well informed about it even if it is happening half a world away. But at the same time, we should not conclude that murderous madmen are threatening our civilization just because they’re the big story on the cable news channels. The crucial step, which we dare not skip, is to define where our vital interests lie. Do we have a vital interest in ridding the world of evil-doers? In exporting our political system to foreign autocracies? In supporting U.S. economic activity at home and abroad? In guaranteeing the physical safety of U.S. citizens at home or abroad? Or merely in preventing overthrow of our government? These are very different possible conceptions of the national interest, some unrealistically expansive and others disquietingly restrictive. I am reluctant to have the choice among them made by TV producers who have to fill 24 hours a day with news that supposedly affects us.

  3. Timothy Peach Says:

    Granulous, I want to applaud that response. As always, it was too wordy and indirect, but your points about the value of news inundation probably deserve a separate topic all their own.

    The whole “need to know” farce is used to justify plastering the airwaves with garbage, intruding on everyone’s private matters, and providing in many cases aid to the enemy.

    A few weeks in the sticks gives one a fabulous reminder of just how little journalistic drivel one really “needs to know”.

    Regarding the Iraq war, it amazes me that so many people talk about the “cost” even though their own personal connection to the war consists only of having a badly informed opinion about it. No war in US history has had so little real impact on the day-to-day lives of American civilians, no war has cost us so little personally, and even I have to admit, no war has been so tenuously connected to direct national interest. (I am still an advocate of Pax Americana, and therefore I would not require direct national interest for involvement in a war.)

    Excessive pointless provision of information to the masses has resulted in a long list of spurious conclusions about the world. We now a completely distorted view of the magnitude and concentration of global instability, a completely exaggerated and utterly unscientific collective opinion about the global warming phenomenon, and, somehow, an intense level of interest in the granular inanities of the lives of well-heeled bozos like Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan.

    I don’t have an intelligent opinion about what is required for our democracy to continue to flourish. I am certain, however, that nothing depends on the “wisdom of the American people”. What the average Joe thinks about carbon crimes, terrorist cells, or tax policy is about as important as what Donald Trump thinks about Rosie O’Donnell.

  4. Mark Esswein Says:

    I find that it only takes a couple of days away from DC to realize the distortion of the inside-the-beltway view. It doesn’t even require a trip to the wilderness – even people in New York City have a more practical approach (and I dare say that they are more polite than people in DC.) Invariably when my family and I get out of town, I find myself saying “DC is not America!”

    That said, since my wife is originally from Northern Minnesota, we often find ourselves traveling in the Midwest. The one thing I find disconcerting and sometimes infuriating is that the majority in the heartland don’t “think”, they “feel” – as in “I feel such and such” rather than “I think thus and so”. It may be just a figure of speech, but maybe not…


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