The Culture of Death

The latest outrage piece, in which David Warren attacked two kidnapped journalists for falsely converting to Islam at gunpoint as part of a propaganda video, brings me back to my elementary school days, when I was first acquainted with the fundamentalist/nationalist culture of death.

When I was in 6th grade, my school’s history curriculum included the Jewish rebellions against the Roman Empire, and, nationalism being nationalism, the primary textbook held the people who killed themselves in order to avoid capture as great heroes. Then the teacher tried shaming my classmates and me for not buying the bullshit about dying in order to glorify God.

Glenn Greenwald calls Warren a coward and talks about his physical lack of fitness; Lindsay bashes his rhetoric about Christian martyrs. But there’s something a lot more pernicious going on about his claim that,

The case of the two Fox News journalists, held hostage in Gaza, is worth dwelling upon. They were released after their captors had made tapes of them dressed as Arabs and announcing they had changed their names and converted to Islam.

Lately I have been looking at the large — at how the West is proving unable to cope with a threat from a fanatical Islamic movement, that it ought to be able to snuff out with fair ease. (See my column last Sunday.) But the large is often most visible in the small.

The degree to which our starch is awash is exhibited in the behaviour of so many of our captives, but especially in these two. They were told to convert to Islam under implicit threat (blindfolded and hand-tied, they could not judge what threat), and agreed to make the propaganda broadcasts to guarantee their own safety. That much we can understand, as conventional cowardice. (Understand; not forgive.) But it is obvious from their later statements that they never thought twice; that they could see nothing wrong in serving the enemy, so long as it meant they’d be safe.

The Christian fundamentalism he then advances, the sexism implicit in his “be a man” rhetoric, and the tough-guy persona are all fairly marginal. They’re the superstructure, if you’ll excuse the Marxist terminology. They’re good for outrage or for laughing at him, but not for analyzing just how damaging, and how powerful, people like him are.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of fanatics, be they fundamentalists of any religion, patriots of any country, or even communists, is their reckless hatred of life. Life is degenerate. Life is about improving people’s lives rather than destroying them while promising heaven, or a heaven on Earth.

While humanists work hard at building strong, nurturant societies, fanatics nib at the edges, telling people that if only they live their lives according to a few Spartan rules, everything will be great. Usually they’re con artists looking for money; occasionally, they believe what they say, and we get a cult, a religion, or a radical movement.

Bin Laden once said that the difference between Islam and the West is that Islam had a culture of death whereas the West had a culture of life. Of course when Bin Laden said it, humanists and Western fanatics alike both were horrified and held it as the best example of how pernicious it was.

It’s in fact the best example of how there is no real difference between the extremists of Islam and those of Christianity or the West, take your pick. For normal people, and that includes people on the field, what matters the most is life. Military training is all about making sure people are willing to sacrifice themselves for obvious causes, like winning a battle.

The only problem is, ideological grandstanding isn’t a battle. It’s only a battle in the demented minds of the David Warrens and Osama Bin Ladens of the world. Dying for the sake of dying doesn’t make you a hero – it makes you an idiot who deserves a Darwin award.

Warren’s rhetoric about the need to become just like the terrorists in order to win is one more symptom of this disease that is the culture of death. Just as for Bush, every situation is an excuse to cut taxes, so is every situation an excuse to be more tyrannical for Warren.

And, of course, in a way, he’s right. People who aren’t into needlessly dying are at a natural disadvantage when it comes to fighting off fanatics. There’s a reason the USA is slowly becoming more fundamentalist.

But the nuttiness of it all is also the fundamentalists’ greatest weakness: when people’s lives are good enough, it’s too hard to get them to die for The Cause. When the humanists show that they can concretely improve people’s lives, they almost invariably win.

The culture of death that the fanatics of the world promote is not as powerful as the fanatics think. Authoritarian hacks have predicted the death of liberalism with astonishing regularity for decades; just as regularly, they have offered fanatic authoritarianism as the solution to any conflict with an authoritarian enemy. Eighty years later, these hacks’ predictions have yet to come true.

Once in a while, when it is truly necessary, the people raise their heads and collectively say, “No, we will not die for your stupidity.” At other times, they just refuse to become suicide bombers. And always, a small number of people go further and say, “We’re not dying for you; but if you try to compel us, we won’t mind risking our lives against you.” The culture of life isn’t a source of weakness. It’s liberal societies’ greatest strength. Cowards are not those who won’t die for The Cause; they’re those who offer death as a way of escaping from reality.

9 Responses to The Culture of Death

  1. parse says:

    For normal people, and that includes people on the field, what matters the most is life.

    I don’t think that is quite true. Many people, not just religious fanatics, find that there are things worth dying for. Many others sign living wills or insist on “do not resusitate” instructions to medical caregivers because they think that life that does not include a certain quality of life is not worth living. And people do lots of things likely to hasten death–smoking cigarrettes, for example–that could fairly be interpreted as saying that life matters most of all.

    It’s ironic that those most committed to the culture of death, as you call it, were the ones insisting most loudly that Terry Schiavo not be allowed to die.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    That’s an entirely different thing from dying for The Cause, of course. Tons of people would die to save their families, for example. As I said, everyone who goes through military training would die to win the battle, let alone the war. And, of course, having fun now is more important than longevity to everyone, on some level.

    All that is entirely irrelevant to the fact that a small pack of fascists and fundamentalists exhorts and sometimes coerces people to die for the pack’s feel-good principles.

  3. gordo says:


    This is a great post. I should have linked it up in my Sunday Links section, but I missed it.

    There is another aspect of pro-death fundamentalism that bears mentioning: you often see spasms of it in affluent societies. Usually, a military defeat triggers it (Vietnam, WWI, the Arab-Israeli conflict, etc). Often, the fundamentalism of the affluent is the most extreme and dangerous form of the culture of death.

    As you say, though, the cure for the culture of death is improvement of the human condition. The more people benefit from the technology and freedom that liberalism bring, the less powerful the fundamentalists become.

  4. SLC says:

    I assume that Mr. Levy is referring to the incident at Masada. The mass suicide there had certainly little to do with religion. Consider the alternatives which those folks faced.

    1. They could try to fight to the death. Given the weapons systems available at the time there was no guarantee that the Romans would kill them all; some might be taken prisoner to be subjected to very unpleasent consequences.

    2. They could commit mass suicide and deny the Romans the satisfaction of inflicting the very unpleasent consequences.

    3. They could surrender without a fight. The result would have been being sold into slavery, a fate they undoubtedly considered worse then death.

    By the way, Mr. Levy might be interested in the following web site

    which is the site of radio station KGO in San Francisco.
    This is a talk radio station which has live broadcasts over the internet; two of their hosts, Karel and Bernie Ward are hard nosed, rooten tooten two fisted left wing Israel bashers.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    You assume incorrectly, SLC. I’m not referring just to Masada; I’m referring to all the mass-suicide incidents, most famously the one involving Josephus (who was apparently the only thinking person in the group). In addition, there’s the Bar Kokhba Revolt, about the stupidest war any Jewish person has ever gone on, and that includes the latest forays into Lebanon.

    Slavery isn’t worse than death. You can live to fight another day; you can live to just live and forget the fight. Josephus successfully switched sides, after all.

    And all that is irrelevant to the fact that “dying in God’s name” was considered a very honorable thing to do – that is, when ancient Jews did it. Those of us in class who thought it was dumb had to undergo serious prodding by the teacher, who I take to be fairly representative of Israeli teaching because she was very secular on most things.

  6. SLC says:

    In the first place, I don’t think the Masada folks committed suicide in Gods’ name. They preferred suicide to the alternatives, a choice they were entitled to make. Mr. Levy disagrees with their decision. I don’t have any problem with that. To each his own. As to whether slavery is preferable to death, that also is a personnel decision. Mr. Levy would choose slavery, others would choose death. Again, to each his own. Very frankly, I have no idea which choice I would make; the sensible thing is to avoid having to make such a decision.

    On the subject of Lebanon, Mr. Levy and Thlis Old Brit from the appletree board may be happy to learn that there is a report that Prime Minister Blair will be forced to resign this week due to his tardiness in opposing the Israeli actions in Lebanon. Another casuality chalked up to Ehud, the schmuck. There is also a report in the Jerusalem Post that Ehud, the crook may be indited for corruption in his previous post, a report sure to warm the cockles of Mr. Levys’ heart, as well as mine.

    Further on the subject of Lebanon, Mr. Levy may be unhappy to learn that it appears that the damage done to Hizbollah may be greater then it appeared earlier on. This was mentioned in a column by Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post last week.

  7. Alon Levy says:

    Obviously, the sensible thing is to avoid that decision. And choosing death over slavery, or over the death of a loved one, is not what I call the culture of death; choosing death, or more often other people’s death, as part of an ideological grandstanding, is. A good example of a widespread culture of death is traditional Japan, with its glorification of samurai who kill themselves rather than face any sort of dishonor. More contemporary examples abound in the Middle East, or at least its poorer and more fundamentalist parts.

  8. gordo says:


    This Old Brit has his own site. He’s not officially connected with appletree.

  9. […] After exposing the diseased thought at the heart of fundamentalism and other extremist movements, Levy offers a cure for cultures in which fanatical movements have taken hold. The essay is well worth reading in its entirety. This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 5th, 2006 at 7:06 pm and is filed under Religion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. Home» […]

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