The death of Itzhak Rabin at the hands of a religious fanatic leads one to think about the deadly rhetoric of acting in God’s name. Although even for the vast majority of the Israeli right, Yigal Amir’s act was evil rather than righteous, it is an Enlightenment fantasy to think that “fanaticism” can be eliminated and Reason enthroned. The human is the realm of reason, but also that of paradox which makes reason inadequate. The entry-point of the transcendent into human affairs cannot be fixed in advance nor legislated permanently. This is the greatness and the horror of the human.

For if God could not be evoked as the guarantee of Amir’s murderous deed, neither could he be evoked as the source of the Law. To banish the language of divine sanction from human affairs is to banish the human itself. This is in no way to excuse this particular use of divine justification. But it is humanity that must finally judge such deeds. God’s judgment is never available to us except as the horizon of our own.

We generally have a sense that the age of revelation came to an end in the West with the founding of Christianity, or at the latest, with Islam; the present is supposed to be a more ecumenical, more tolerant age. Hence we have been surprised and troubled by the recent sharp upswing in religious fundamentalism. The parallel between Jewish and Moslem fanatics in the Middle East has often been noted, and fundamentalist Christianity is also on the rise, along with a myriad of lesser sects all over the world. The most obvious common point of such movements is their rhetoric: if the rules one obeys are God’s own word, there is no recourse against them, surely not that of reason or common sense. This rhetoric reflects in counterpoint the fuzzy ecumenism of cosmopolitan society. The flaccidity of the peace of compromise is shown up by the voice of militancy.

Although they even now appear to the naive as unfortunate contradictions, Western thought ever since Heracleitus has recognized the inevitability of such tensions. Universalism generates particularism. Those who decry the prospective MacDonaldization of the world are oblivious to the countervailing growth of local or “ethnic” markets in customs and ideas. The unity of the global village is accompanied by the disunity of intensified tribalism. And the world-wide rationalization of communications goes hand-in-hand with the rise not only of religious fanaticism but of particularistic rhetorics of every kind, even the comically vulgar language of the talk-shows (“I just have to sleep with my daughter’s girl friends”; “I have this thing about incest”). In a world of winner-take-all rationality, the vast majority has more to gain by emphasizing its eccentricity than from direct competition in the universal arena. There is no absolute meta-rule that obliges us to play by the rules that govern the world marketplace. What sells in the market is rather what resists than what follows its anticipation, and this resistance is made easier by the reinforcement provided by one’s neighbors. Tightly-knit religious groups not only preserve their values in the face of the temptations of consumption, they may also–like the Mormons–succeed in the marketplace. But even economically backward communities are reinforced in their particularity by the very visibility of the forces arrayed against them.

Thus the sectarian mind-set of Yigal Amir, David Koresh, the Aum Shinri Kyo, the Ayatollah Khomeini and even Pat Robertson are “secreted” as it were by the market system. The paleo-conservative view that the market is the destroyer of moral values has been largely marginalized in American intellectual circles by the neo-conservative position that the market is the guardian of these values. Both are right; the answer depends on whether one attributes to the exchange system itself the inevitable reactions it provokes among its participants.

Within the freedom available to this system, what can be done to minimalize the resentments that lead to the worst sectarian excesses? Perhaps we should begin by recognizing the overweening arrogance implicit in such a question. If “we” all got together to eliminate fanaticism and initiate the rule of reason, things would quickly get much worse. The degrees of freedom eliminated high-mindedly from the system would come back to haunt us in other, more pernicious ways, as they did in the French Revolution, in the Russian Revolution, and in what the Fascists and the Nazis rightly called their revolutions.

Does this mean we must complacently accept the horror of murderers who claim without remorse that God has approved and even commanded their deed? Not at all. It implies only that we should be careful to protect ourselves, as the Israeli security services tragically failed to protect the life of their Prime Minister, rather than expect the words of reason to prevail over the forces of resentment. We are condemned to this kind of relativism, not because, as our PC friends like to think, one cannot reason about the human in universal terms, but because there is nothing in the terms of this reasoning that can establish a priori rules of behavior. The killer of Rabin is infamous; the killer of Hitler would have been a hero. We can only accept the greatness and the horror of the human, and unlike Rabin, wear a bulletproof vest.