Does it matter that the Obama administration is now involved in “overseas contingency operations” rather than “fighting terror”? Is it important that our Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, refers to man-caused disasters rather than terrorism? And how about the news made by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, when she was asked about the elimination of the phrase war on terror: "The administration has stopped using the phrase and I think that speaks for itself," Clinton said. “It was controversial here [in Europe].”
The New York Times often used quotation marks around the war on terror during the Bush administration. National Public Radio commentators sometimes referred to “the so-called war on terror.”
The rhetorical struggle isn’t just about the war on terror, of course. It’s about the very notion of terrorism. To modify Burleigh Taylor Wilkins’ excellent definition, terrorism is violence against the property or lives of noncombatant civilians, whose purpose is to promote the terrorist’s cause by preventing moderate solutions or provoking extreme countermeasures. But when someone commits such an act, he usually graduates to militant status within a couple of days, if not immediately. Several months ago Judea Pearl, the father of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, asked the question this way: “When will our luminaries stop making excuses for terror?”
It appears that those luminaries have won the war on the war on terror. Scores of innocents will continue to be killed by terrorists but their lives will no longer be part of a narrative that we understand as the fight against terrorism.
In the secular liberal tradition beginning with Hobbes, the greatest human passion was said to be fear of violent death. With some modifications by Locke, the social contract minimizes that fear when we give up certain natural rights to the civil government in return for the protection of our rights to life, liberty and property. Civil government, Locke continues, is appointed by God “to restrain the partiality and violence of men.”
The terrorist has never accepted these Enlightenment cultural norms. He rejects the modern liberal tradition at its heart because he has overcome the fear of violent death. He recognizes nothing in this tradition that would prevent him from imposing his will—to the point of murder—on whomever he chooses.
Nietzsche illuminates this mode of thought in his devastating critique of the secular, rationalist tradition. In The Genealogy of Morals he calls the social contract a “sentimental effusion.” The origin of the state is really in “some horde or other of blond predatory animals, a race of conquerors and masters which [is] organized for war and [has] the strength to organize others.” Whether these “predatory animals” are blonds or brunettes isn’t the point. The issue is that Nietzsche identifies the will to power, not fear of violent death, as the deepest human passion. Exercising that will becomes the key to freedom, not restraining it in order to exercise a limited menu of natural rights in a safe, bourgeois society.
Liberating oneself from a commitment to truth—“that Christian belief, which was also Plato’s belief, that God is the truth, that the truth is divine,” as Nietzsche writes —was his next step. It’s revealing that Nietzsche finds this freedom outside of western culture, in the twelth-century Shi’ite sect known as “the Assassins.” They had discovered the secret formula for liberation centuries earlier. “Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” he writes of them. This secret made them free spirits, which they expressed by acts of terror against Crusaders and fellow Muslims. No matter that they were violating Surah 4.92–93, which forbids the killing of fellow believers. Their glory was to die after assassinating their victim.
Azar Nafisi’s gives Hizbollah’s endorsement of a similar philosophy in her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. “The Islamic Republic [of Iran] survives through its mourning ceremonies,” she quotes Hizbollah’s leaders as saying in the late 1980s. Its ceremonies had an “orgiastic pleasure,” she says, where people mingled publicly, their bodies touched, and emotions flowed. “The more we die,” the slogan ran, “the stronger we become.”
Islamic statements that embrace death can be gathered all the way back to one of the Muhammad’s closest companions, the first Caliph Abu Bakr. One of his commanders is said to have sent a message to a Persian commander and his army on behalf of the Caliph, warning them to convert to Islam for their own safety: “I have come to you with an army of men that love death, as you love life.” Abu Bakr was embracing martyrdom in battle, as Muslims understand it, but hardly advocating the killing of innocents, especially the killing of fellow Muslims. For that we need to go to Sayyid Qutb, the modern, ideological father of the Muslim Brotherhood. For Qutb, Muslims who promote a social order that neglects Shariah are living in a state of ignorance, or jahiliyyah, the term given to the unenlightened mindset of the polytheistic tribes during the birth of Islam. Righteous Muslims must wage armed struggle against such ignorance, he wrote. A true “Islamic community . . . has a God-given right to step forward and take control of the political authority,” he writes, “so that it may establish the Divine system on earth.” For the terrorist, this injunction silences all rational and ethical questions that might be raised by philosophy, Islamic tradition, or the Qur’an. Even sympathetic commentators on Islam, such as John Esposito, call such thinking a “theology of hate.”
Benedict XVI’s speech at Regensburg in September 2006 brilliantly grasped the moral and epistemological issues confronting Islam and Christianity, with their strong beliefs in God’s sovereignty:
. . . Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry. As far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we find ourselves faced with a dilemma which nowadays challenges us directly. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?
For the pope, of course, Christian thought and practice must never stop trying to reconcile reason with piety, nor must Christian theology come to worship a capricious God who is not bound to truth and goodness. It’s unfortunate that he went on to quote the Byzantine emperor’s criticism of Muhammad, which let loose the controversy that obscured his attempt at interreligious dialogue.
All of this may explain why some Muslim extremists can justify using violence against civilians to call attention to their cause. They don’t consider it terrorism, and they justify it by an extreme reading of Islamic tradition. But all of that is foreign to most of us who are reading these words. Why have we become tongue-tied in response? Why would the cultural elites at the New York Times, our universities, and our government erase the distinction between terrorism, properly understood, and a “man-caused disaster.”
Erasing distinctions is something scholars in my field—literary studies—enjoy doing. And this brings me to the second reason for the victory of the war on “the War on Terrorism,” a reason internal to our culture.
Secular elites have inherited the Enlightenment rationale for the social contract as explained by Hobbes and Locke. But that rationale is built on a narrative—a “grand narrative,” as Jean-François Lyotard would say—that they no longer believe. “The grand narrative has lost its credibility,” writes Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition, “regardless of what mode of unification it uses.”
I’m not saying that our cultural leaders woke up one day and discovered they no longer believed in Locke and Hobbes. It’s more like an inheritance whose origins are so obscure that they’ve forgotten the source. Think of C.S. Lewis’ atheist tutor, who persisted in wearing a more respectable suit on Sundays to do his gardening. If they believed in the social contract’s promise to provide a political, economic, or pragmatic “mode of unification” for society, in Lyotard’s phrase, they would not find it difficult to wage war on terrorism. But they don’t.
Our elites cannot respond to the charge that their own authority is illegitimate, whether the charge comes from Nietzsche, a campus blogger, or a terrorist. It doesn’t matter that Al Qaeda had plans for destroying the Sears Tower, Heathrow Airport, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Even Somali pirates—not conventional terrorists, since they have financial rather than political motives—do not lack for defenders in the West: The alleged violation of Somali fishing rights is the “root cause” of their behavior. There is never a narrative that can stand up to the delegitimization critique of postmodernism. Never. The postmodern critic can always respond with some variation of “who are you to say?” And sooner or later, the heir of the Enlightenment tradition will crumble.
Long ago, Dostoevsky understood both the instability of the secular basis for social harmony and its likely outcome. “If God does not exist,” he wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “everything is permitted.” The illegitimate son Smerdyakov believes he can murder his father. But Smerdyakov is just acting out the consequences of the intellectual theory of his half-brother, Ivan, who penned the phrase. In Ivan’s “Grand Inquisitor” the fictional Cardinal of Seville unites spiritual and political power to overcome human need—as Satan had urged in the temptation scenes—at the expense of human freedom and the true worship of Christ. Parricide, blasphemy, murder, and tyranny. Without God, all are justified. And terrorism? Dostoevsky had already created characters who defended terrorism in The Devils.
In the postmodern condition, writes Lyotard, “knowledge and power are simply two sides of the same question: Who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what needs to be decided?” It’s but a short step from there to erasing the distinctions between knowledge and power, will and reason, terrorism and political action. The “terrorists” who attacked Mumbai in November 2008 became “militants” before the Thanksgiving weekend was over. Hamas has moved all the way from a terrorist organization to a to a “resistance” movement.
Lyotard writes mostly in a descriptive rather than a prescriptive tone. His book is subtitled A Report on Knowledge and was produced at the request of the Conseil des Universites of the government of Quebec. Blaming postmodernism is hardly the way to regain our language for good and evil. A better response would begin by answering the fears of the Enlightenment. John Paul II understood these fears perfectly, and he responded by going back to our Lord with a phrase that rang throughout his papacy: “Be not afraid!” Recovering the narratives behind that courageous phrase—the work of at least a generation—will take us beyond the paralyses of the postmodern moment.
Daniel E. Ritchie is professor of English and director of the humanities program at Bethel University.