On Sunday, October 7, as the United States began at last its air strikes against the Taliban, I was on an airplane, more than twenty thousand feet above the Midwestern plains—that height from which the square-edged farms and checkerboarded fields seem not quite real: a toy land, a counterpane spread across a giant's bed, a fantasy.
It was a day that one wanted to be filled with portent and meaningful coincidence. One wanted signs to mark the moment as grief's counterweight: the answer, the justice for the fallen towers and the thousands dead, their ashes mingled with the dust that silts across Manhattan. But all the signs that I could see were unbearably small and sad. The technicians for the luggage X-ray machine squabbling with the porters underneath a poster that read, “United Airlines remembers the victims of September 11.” The stewardesses wearing bits of red, white, and blue ribbon twisted in that little loop which has been asked to fill too many purposes in the decade since it was invented by AIDS activists. The dry chicken served on the flight with a metal fork, a metal spoon, and a plastic knife, all crowded on the tray-table beside a folded cardboard note that explained why metal butter knives are banned. We are very bad at symbols these days—and that leaves us at enormous risk, for we are faced by enemies for whom symbols remain hard and living things.
When the pilot announced over the intercom that the President was speaking, the passengers all put on their headphones and listened to the President's declaration that military action against Afghanistan had begun. The speech seemed good, as good as present political oratory allows. After a disappointing performance on September 11, President Bush has gotten better with each delivery: at the National Cathedral, at the joint session of Congress, from the White House treaty room. He spoke of the limited nature of the air attacks, their justice, and their necessity. He said America will neither falter nor fail, and he warned of more to come.
While I listened, I stared down at the well-ordered landscape beneath me, much of it splashed with irrational, irregular Rorschach blots of dark trees spreading along the windbreaks and the creek bottoms. Before I left, I had done an electronic search of American newspapers and found more than five hundred editorials and op-eds that used the word “senseless” the day after the hijacked airlines smashed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center. To sit for hours in front of the television, as nearly everyone in America did on September 11, was to hear the same thought, over and over: senseless, meaningless, unintelligible. As the fields rolled by underneath the plane, the stands of trees began to look like stains of blood, splatters on a neatly ruled and tidy map. There has been something slightly off-center, something eccentric and askew, about much of the response to September 11. It is difficult to pin down precisely: a rhetoric somehow simultaneously too high and not high enough, a feeling simultaneously of unreality and too much reality. You can catch a hint of it in both the name initially chosen for the Afghan campaign, “Operation Infinite Justice,” and in the fact that the name was quickly abandoned in embarrassment. The neatly ruled and tidy categories of modern thought cannot comprehend the archaic principle that made the destruction of the World Trade Center not meaningless but meaningful for its perpetrators.
A people like us—a people who have convinced ourselves that myth never actually works—cannot understand when real myth rises up in the world again in all its violent, sacrificial, monstrous, and satanic glory. With six thousand dead on September 11, we know beyond doubt what blood is. But we have forgotten what blood means. The crowds in the streets of Cairo, the marchers in Islamabad, the Palestinians who ululated and fired off their guns to celebrate the slaughter of Americans: they still grasp what blood does and why a mythic culture needs violence for its foundation. Until we remember again what they have not forgotten, we will not be able to respond-with the right infinite justice, or the right finite justice, or even the right mercy. We will keep getting it wrong.
There is a more theological way to put this—a way suggested by the work of the French literary critic turned American theologian, René Girard, whose latest book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, is as clear and systematic a primer to his thought as he has yet produced.
Girard began in the early 1960s, with such works as Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, by explaining how triangular relations form among characters in fiction. From there, he turned to anthropology, holding in Violence and the Sacred that the myths of ancient cultures invariably show themselves to be based on sacrificial violence against a scapegoat. He connected these themes with a psychological argument that desire is essentially “mimetic”: an anti-Freudian declaration that we learn what it is we want by watching what others want. And finally, in such works as Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Girard put at the center of his thought the Cross, the sacrifice that breaks the cycle of violence, sacrifice, and mimetic desire. Perhaps most overwhelming in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning is Girard's attack on what he once called “the inability of the greatest minds in the modern world to grasp the difference between the Christian crib at Christmastime and the bestial monstrosities of mythological births.” Often in the Old Testament and overwhelmingly in the New, mythology—the mechanics of scapegoat sacrifice—is penetrated. Girard is entirely serious when he seeks an anthropology of religion, but he means the opposite of the typical anthropologist's attempt to reduce Judeo-Christian revelation to a general category of “sacred religion.” Judaism and Christianity are, he holds, fundamentally anti-sacred—anti-mythical-in their partisanship for the victim.
I find all of this Girardianism by turns helpful and unhelpful. But, in thinking about the reaction to the horrors of September 11, something does come clear. We have lived so long with the Christian alternative to the sacrificial logic by which mythic cultures are founded that we've fallen into two massive and dangerous self-deceptions.
The first involves the often inchoate belief that we can maintain the Christian alternative without explicit Christianity—or even, in its most virulent form, that Christianity is an oppressive force that actively prevents the realization of this alternative (which is, of course, no longer recognized as Christian).
And the second involves forgetting that the Christian alternative is actually an alternative to something. We practice a kind of historical make-nice in which we politely disbelieve that violent myths of the founding of culture might do exactly what they say they do, an unwillingness to admit that there exist cultures which genuinely require for their continued existence the blood of sacrificial victims to be mixed with the mortar of their buildings.
You can see the first delusion playing out farcically when a deputy chancellor for New York's schools tells the Washington Post: “Those people who said we don't need multiculturalism, that it's too touchy-feely, a pox on them. I think they've learned their lesson. We have to do more to teach habits of tolerance, knowledge, and awareness of other cultures.” You can see it more significantly in the unwillingness of America's public officials, pundits, and popular figures to say anything that might suggest Islam isn't, well, entirely Christian in its love for peace and rejection of jihad. The relation of Osama bin Laden to Islamic theology and statecraft is complicated, of course, but there was, I suggest, more speculation in the American press about the tie between the militia movement and fundamentalist Christianity at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing than there is today about the connections between al-Qaeda and Islam. At its most virulent, this line naturally ends in something like the financial writer Andrew Tobias, who recently used his column to assert the identity of evangelical Christians and the Taliban—both standing in sharp contrast to peaceful Islam.
But bad as all that is, the second delusion is the more dangerous. Christianity never said that violence is senseless. It said that violence is wrong. The notion that violence has no meaning creates as its first by-product a soft pacifism—the illusion of the comfortable classes, as Reinhold Niebuhr once called it-that wants both to be safe and to refrain from sullying its hands with coercive force. There is, of course, a tradition of hard Christian pacifism that is morally serious and intellectually coherent. But when, for example, Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, writes in the Village Voice that we should give bin Laden a lecture on love—”What would happen to his cool armor if he could be reminded of all the good, nonviolent things he has done?”—we have passed from hard Christian pacifism into the gooey swamps of comic feel-goodism.
Similarly, when Tony Kushner expounds in the New York Times Magazine about the co-feeling of victimhood, he becomes a parody of the thing he fondly imagines he has transcended: “People who have suffered oppression can recognize oppression when it appears in very different context. . . . My impression is that New Yorkers are a lot less hawkish as a city now than we were during the Gulf War, when we had no legitimate complaint and there was a frightening feeling of the city all falling in lock step behind the first Bush. Now we have suffered terribly, and we seem to be responding with far less eagerness for war. And, of course, one of the reasons is that now we know what collateral damage, as the Pentagon calls it, looks like up close. No one has had to see people fall from a 110-story building before-that's a particular horror that has been reserved for us. But it's entirely to our credit that we are learning something from it.”
But something even worse overtakes those who have forgotten what violence was originally—originally, in the sense of the Fall, of the satanic order—designed to do. In and out of the pages of the Nation, Noam Chomsky and Christopher Hitchens have been feuding ever since September 11. Observing that the attack on the World Trade Center was the first assault against the American mainland since 1812, Chomsky declared that between 1812 and 2001, the United States “annihilated the indigenous population (millions of people), conquered half of Mexico, intervened violently in the surrounding region, conquered Hawaii and the Philippines (killing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos), and, in the past half century particularly, extended its resort to force throughout much of the world. The number of victims is colossal. For the first time, the guns have been directed the other way.”
Confronting this parade of comparative victimology and moral equivalence, Christopher Hitchens has been marvelously sharp-tongued at denouncing Chomsky's ethical idiocy. And yet, identifying the Taliban as “religio-fascists,” Hitchens reveals that he too does not know what the attackers and those who sent them thought to gain from their attacks. For both Chomsky and Hitchens, the only categories that exist for understanding are the categories of contemporary political discourse-which leaves utterly unexplained both the blood spilled and the essential wrongness of its spilling.
You can see the real danger perhaps most clearly when the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, universally admired author of The God of Small Things, writes in the Manchester Guardian that Osama bin Laden “is nothing more than the American President's dark doppelgänger. The savage twin of all that purports to be beautiful and civilized. He has been sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by America's foreign policy: its gunboat diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal, its vulgarly stated policy of ‘full-spectrum dominance,' its chilling disregard for non-American lives, its barbarous military interventions, its support for despotic and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda that has munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of locusts. Its marauding multinationals who are taking over the air we breathe, the ground we stand on, the water we drink, the thoughts we think.”
This isn't just a claim of moral equivalence born from a hatred for the United States. Neither is it just an obscene parody in which the concern for victims is transformed into a competition of victimhood. It is not a coincidence that (as Girard points out in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning) innumerable pagan myths of cultural foundings—from Romulus and Remus on—speak of twins, one of whom must be sacrificed in order to build the new city. Reaching through the haze of post-Christian understanding, employing against itself the only moral language she knows—the Judeo-Christian language of victims—Arundhati Roy alights by chance on a solution. And that solution turns out to be the ancient, satanic, sacrificial one: the solution of violence to which Christ offered the alternative.
For Girard, the problem of forming a culture—of preventing and containing the spiraling disaster of internecine murder and cultural collapse—is like a quadratic equation with two solutions, a positive one and a negative one. We have lived so long with the Christian attempt to understand and instantiate Christ's positive solution that we have forgotten there was, and is, another solution. Violence actually can drive out violence—Satan actually can drive out Satan, to use Girard's formulation—by aiming all the escalating and random violence of a culture at a single enemy and victim, a scapegoat for all that ails it. And people like Arundhati Roy—and Noam Chomsky, and Christopher Hitchens, and even all the soft pacifists who babble about the senselessness of violence—end up facilitating and recreating the conditions for the rebirth in the world of the old, forgotten logic of sacrifice, scapegoats, and slaughter.
Hard Christian pacifism is perhaps an answer for some (for the pacifistic Stanley Hauerwas, for instance, who, in something of an irony, was named “America's best theologian” by Time magazine only two days before the events of September 11 massively raised the stakes of American pacifism). But for the rest of us, and for the Bush Administration in particular, the answer must involve the proper use of force to stop the cycle of violence—force and violence being by no means the same thing—from becoming established. There is a task far more important even than capturing Osama bin Laden or destroying the Taliban regime that harbors him. And that task is to prevent—by war, aid, diplomacy, and example—a new culture from being founded on the mythological value of the blood of six thousand dead American scapegoats. We must not allow the return of that ancient logic, that satanic solution, that other scapegoating answer to the question of what violence is for.
Joseph Bottum is Books & Arts Editor of the Weekly Standard and Poetry Editor of First Things. He wishes to thank the Hoover Institute on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University for providing resources to complete this article.