However necessary the turn from nihilism to the affirmation of life may be in the intellectual world, in the domain of practical politics it is truly a question of life or death. The great conflict of the 21st century is shaping up between those who believe in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and those who are willing to blow themselves up in order to prove this belief unfounded. The survival of humanity requires that we recognize and counter this threat.
The now waning postmodern political configuration emerged from the conflict of WWII. Although, tragically as it turned out, Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jews was not seen as a central focus of the war, both major Axis belligerents’ doctrines of racial superiority were nonetheless perceived as challenging the fundamental reciprocity of the moral order; the consciousness of racial and ethnic equality thus raised would provide the basis of the victimary politics of the succeeding era.
In this context, the war had to be won at all costs. The enemy having chosen to massacre whole groups of people, the Allies felt justified in considering all enemy lives as more or less equally acceptable targets. As a result, the Allies, albeit for less condemnable reasons, shared with the Axis powers the dubious distinction of inflicting history’s greatest violence on civilian populations. Voices continue to be raised against such conceivably unnecessary occurrences as the Dresden firestorm and, of course, the atomic bombing of the two Japanese cities. But although these critiques carry moral weight, they have purchase only within the context of Allied debates; in no way does the civilian death toll put in doubt the justness of the Allied cause.
The use of the atomic bomb nevertheless marked a turning point in the history of warfare; for the first time we had created a weapon that–and a fortiori the vastly more destructive fusion or “hydrogen” bomb that evolved from it–could no longer either justifiably or realistically be used in warfare. Awareness of this made a third World War unthinkable; the incipient West-East conflict froze into a Cold War standoff of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) accompanied by secondary, limited hot wars, in none of which were atomic weapons used or even seriously considered. As Adam Katz pointed out to me recently, this was the context of the birth of modern terrorism, whose threatened and real killing of civilians could be “justified” by the fact that the credible threat to kill unacceptably many enemy civilians was the basis of the foreign policies of the great powers.
In the postmodern configuration, the Hiroshima factor is subordinate to the Auschwitz factor; it is the identification with victims against their persecutors that supplies the context in which possession of the ultimate weapon is the ultimate sign of inhumanity. Terrorism is the ultimate weapon of victimary politics, which sees the terrorist not as a denier of life, but as one who defends the rights of the oppressed by wreaking violence on their–by definition less worthy–oppressors. The terrorist is a “freedom fighter” whose victims, civilian or military, are tainted by their own participation in victimization. By the same token, terrorism against the Soviet Union was unthinkable; their bomb protected the global proletariat. Yet ideology eventually yielded to reality; the “anticolonialist” USSR fought a guerilla war in Chechnya and lost one in Afghanistan.
Nietzsche’s notion of life-affirmation, its Nazi perversion aside, could not serve as the foundation of postwar political morality. Eliminating ethnic, class, and later gender distinctions was felt to be more urgent than affirming life across the board–what affirms the life of the dominator denies the life of the dominated. As the term “affirmative action” suggests, affirmation tended to be limited to groups classified as oppressed. To translate “Black is beautiful” into White, or woman’s liberation into men’s liberation, is either caricatural or sinister; “White people’s” organizations are crudely racist, just as the “Christian Identity” movement is a neo-Nazi organization.
The postmodern period entered its penumbra with the end of the Cold War and went black on 9/11. The end of the spurious symmetry between “capitalism” and “socialism” marked the triumph of the market system as the only system conceivable, of which first fascism and then communism were revealed to be merely nocive variants. Not that the disintegration of the Soviet Union put an end to victimary politics; on the contrary, this politics received a new impulsion from casting off the obvious vices of Sovietism. But the new race-gender-ethnicity triumvirate that replaced the class struggle lacked an alternative social model. Its political options were limited to the choice between incremental gradualism and utopian anarchism–“working within the system” or refusing to accept the lack of viable alternatives.
After 9/11, this mode of denial did not disappear, but it could no longer disguise its nihilism. The Chomskys and Sontags who continue to explain world affairs as the American victimization of everyone else are exposed not merely as having nothing to put in the place of the system they condemn, but as accomplices of those who would destroy this system even at the price of exterminating the human race.
Nietzschean thought, as we have seen, came to grief over the lack of specificity with which the “artistic” affirmation of life was defined. The Nietzschean artist is not a victimizer, but, in the absence of originary morality, it is inevitable that the strong will define or at any rate confirm their strength by their ability to crush the weak. Hitler is only the most extreme in a series of obnoxious twentieth-century “Nietzscheans,” from Gide’s Immoralist and Lafcadio to Leopold and Loeb. Our contemporary predicament is, in its practical essence, far easier to define than Nietzsche’s: the battle against the “decadence” of early consumer society was both less urgent and less winnable than the war against those who make our annihilation their principal goal.
The opposition between the market-oriented liberal-democratic West and the ritual-centered, dictatorial (Middle-) East is often put in terms of “way of life”: isn’t the imposition of liberal democracy on other peoples colonialist, hegemonic, “Orientalist”? Although it is of the essence of liberal democracy that the members of the society choose their own rulers and, as far as possible, their own careers and consumption patterns, this choice is not made in a vacuum; it requires a context whose specificity–and relative rarity–we increasingly respect, and which may not be either available or attractive to the members of traditional societies.
The present context permits a simple answer to this objection. There is only one aspect of our “way of life” that we must, to ensure our own survival, impose on other peoples: the rejection of the nihilistic activity of terrorism. In the era of decolonization, stateless terrorism was tolerated as an evil means to a good end; the terrorist’s statelessness was really the provisional form of a new national state that would one day replace the old colonial one. In the postmillennial era, tolerance of terrorism is globally suicidal. Terrorists no longer act in the service of a proto-state that awaits only decolonization to emerge. Increasingly, even in such places as Palestine, Chechnya, Kurdistan where the proto-state is the ideological basis for the terrorism–as it is not for al Qaeda, the most prominent terrorist organization of our time–there is no clear path from the terrorist act to the desired new state. Terrorism fails the Auschwitz criterion: it no longer constructively defends victims against persecutors, and it fails the Hiroshima criterion yet more clearly now that there is real danger of a terrorist group acquiring atomic or biological weaponry.
Instead of a limited action designed to drive out occupiers with no ultimate stake in the land they occupy–a model that de Gaulle shocked the Algerian colonists by applying to their “overseas department”–contemporary terrorists define as “occupiers” members of ethnic groups as committed to the land as their own: the Protestants in Northern Ireland, the Spanish in Basque country, the Sinhalese in the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka, and, of course, the Israelis in their part of Palestine. As the terrorist’s political aims become more nebulous, he focuses more on killing now than on building later; the farther he gets from creating a state, the greater his interest in acquiring weapons “of mass destruction” previously reserved for states–and the more crucial it becomes to take preemptive action to keep these weapons out of his hands.
The terrorist’s lack of a realistic political aim does not mean the lack of a political worldview. Moslem fundamentalism has its model of the good society: the extension to the entire world, at any rate to those parts of the world Moslems care about, of something like the former Taliban government in Afghanistan. The Umma replaces the state because the modern state is necessarily corrupted by the instrumental rationality of the exchange system. But this disdain for the state and the rationalized economy that supports it is the functional equivalent of genocide. Who doubts whether bin Laden and his friends would have blown up the entire United States had they been capable of it? Stripped of the market and its culture–and of most of its population–the whole world would become a propitious terrain for the new Taliban.
The principal conclusion to be drawn from these well-known facts is banal: terrorism must be suppressed. But the banality belies a moral paradigm shift that signals the passage from the postmodern, victimary era to the post-millennial one. Terrorism in the preceding era was judged in the context of the victimary model, as a necessarily, or, at worst, unnecessarily evil instrument to a greater end. Now it is terrorism itself, the means, not the end, that is the problem. The originary configuration opposing persecutor to victim has been replaced by one that opposes order to violence.
This change in configuration reverses the relationship between center and periphery characteristic of the previous era. We have lived for two generations with the cliché that authority, power, indeed, success in any form, are essentially evil–that in the normal state of affairs, losers are good and winners are bad. In this context, any form of rebellion is justifiable, and its violence, excusable. Where a utopian horizon is posited beyond the present configuration, rebellion is the first stage of the revolution that will eliminate domination for good; where it is not, the cry for freedom generates “white guilt” that undermines, even if it cannot altogether destroy, the oppressor’s authority. The latter case, as we began to discover well before the fall of the Berlin Wall, is far more stable; it makes no historical predictions that can be embarrassingly falsified and permits collective resentments to be focused on incremental rather than apocalyptic goals.
But now that rebellion, in the form of terrorism, poses a threat to civilization and even to the human race, we are obliged to affirm our respect for order and seek to preserve it. Resentment is no longer a guarantee of truth; it has become a symptom to be treated. Victims deserve our sympathy, but just as their plight is not a proof of virtue, neither is it unconditionally appropriate to relieve them of it at the expense of society as a whole. In a word, the Rawlsian-existentialist “original position” of faceless undifferentiation must give way to an originary scene in which the moral order emerges from an act of collective deferral.
Questions of this sort arise in domains other than politics, for example, in medical treatment: at what point does keeping someone alive become an inappropriate use of collective resources? What best “affirms life” in a world of finite wealth and conflicting interests is never self-evident. But whatever policies are decided on, the social order must be preserved, and those who threaten its existence, rendered harmless by whatever means necessary.
We would do well to recall the spirit of a simpler time:
Hitler wasn’t guessing when he incorporated into his psychological warfare the strategy of “divide and conquer.” It worked in Norway and it worked in France, and because there is no immunity to Fascism, it’s trying hard right here in the United States. There is one antidote.
We’ve got to remember that we’re all in this together. British, Russians, Chinese. And French-Polish-Yugoslav-Jewish-Irish-Mexican-English or what-have-you-Americans. Indians, whites, and Negroes. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, boys in the AAF or Merchant Marine. And civilians. Yes, civilians.
All the names from Pearl Harbor onwards are written on our memories and on our hearts and in your steel and your blood and your courage. The exploits at home aren’t of this kind. But believe me, boys, they do exist.
In two and a half short years, the country has rolled up its sleeves, and our production record can be heard in the planes that roar over Germany; our War Bond record is built into every tank and destroyer, and the blood banks of the Red Cross are only one of the “musts” on the daily lists of the men and women on the home front.
None of us here can give as much as you. We all know it. That’s why there is such a determination to give all we can, in time, spirit, money, work. We believe in you. We know you’re good. But you’ve got to believe in us, too, because the home front is also a fighting front. And because this belief, this unity, brings the day of Victory right up there in plain sight. Unity is the one thing Hitler and his cohorts cannot cope with.
Carole Landis, “United We Stand” (MAST [Merchant Marine Magazine], November 1944)
(to be continued)