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.