Notes from Underground


Five years after 9/11
Loving death:
How the West is lost




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On this, the fifth anniversary of the series of dramatic and traumatic events that have since become known in peculiar popular shorthand as "9/11," it is worthwhile to take stock of the metaphorical fallout from the attacks that wiped out New York's two tallest buildings, a section of a government facility, four passenger planes, and nearly 3,000 innocent lives.

Of course, and most obviously, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, formed a pretext for the U.S. invasion of two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, which had the unfortunate result of adding a good deal more death and destruction to the initial equation. It would be interesting, if depressing, to calculate the total loss of civilian property and life across the globe resulting from events set in motion by the machinations of 19 men armed only with box-cutters.

Some may say that the events were in fact set in motion by U.S. foreign policy before 9/11, which gave rise to the grievances of the al Qaeda plotters. I am not here concerned with assigning blame or diagnosing the motivations for the attacks, or assessing the justifications for the counterattacks launched by the Bush administration. I have written elsewhere about neoconservatives and what I regard as their imprudent and hubristic efforts to democratize and Americanize the Middle East. Here, on this somber anniversary, I would like to leave that issue aside. People of good will have supported and continue to support the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the general "war on terror," and other people of equally good will opposed and continue to oppose those same efforts. Today, I would like simply to address all people of good will.

Death and destruction aside, 9/11 has had an appreciable effect on popular culture as well. The ever-present American appetite for schmaltz has been fed by country-and-Western ballads such as "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning" and "Have You Forgotten?" Novelty artist Ray Stevens has given us "Osama Yo Mama," and Toby Keith has provided the memorable "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)," a country tune that is almost punk-rock-ish in tone with its sneering defiance of namby-pamby attitudes and its open endorsement of violence:

"You'll be sorry you messed with the U.S. of A.
'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass; it's the American way."
This past year has seen the release of two movies with 9/11 themes, the excellent "United 93" — a harrowing, unsentimental depiction of what may have happened on the fourth plane, in which the passengers rose up in revolt against their hijackers — and Oliver Stone's less-than-excellent "World Trade Center," a somewhat maudlin account of two firemen trapped under the rubble and their subsequent rescue. Lest we forget, the year before that we were treated to Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," a muckraking documentary that managed to win critical and popular acclaim but failed to unseat George W. Bush in 2004.

Certainly, 9/11 has changed the cultural and social landscape greatly. It has been constantly invoked by a myriad of special-interest groups and political factions, all hoping to use the potent images and emotions of that day to sell their products or promote their agendas. Without a doubt, the largest beneficiaries of the attacks so far have been weapons contractors; the Republican Party, which has cannily exploited patriotic fervor and fear of future terrorist attacks to maintain its majorities in Congress and its president in the White House; and the Likud Party in Israel.

But what will be the long-term influence, and relevance, of that day of infamy?

Only time will tell. However, it is hard to escape noting the significance of one message, apparently left by an al Qaeda operative in the wake of the Madrid bombings, two and a half years after 9/11. In that message, the writer predicts the doom of the West. His reason? "You (Westerners) love life, while we (Muslims) love death."

Loving death. Can there possibly be a notion more alien to a thoroughly secularized, hedonistic, and materialistic culture? For it cannot be said that we hold any affection whatsoever for death. We hate and fear it. We want it to stay away from ourselves and our loved ones for as long as possible — in fact, we'd like it to stay away forever, if only such an outcome were an option.

In contrast, devout Muslims go to their death without fear; they apparently have no objection to strapping on explosives and blowing themselves up. Even parents of suicide bombers show no sorrow at the loss of their sons (and sometimes daughters); on the contrary, they celebrate on such an occasion, so firm is their conviction that their beloved offspring are now in Paradise.

Reading my account of the Muslim terrorists' love of death and Western secularists' fear and hatred of death, some perceptive readers may remember my extensive use of the late Pope John Paul II's famous phrase "culture of death" to describe the modern secularist mentality, and ask, "How can a culture that hates death be a 'culture of death'?"

In fact, our murderous propensities as a culture stem from our wish to prolong and enhance our own lives, and to shun self-sacrifice if it impinges on our happiness. That is why so many in the West approve of abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and euthanasia; we would rather the weakest among us be sacrificed in order to enhance our well-being. The murderous (and suicidal) tendencies of Muslim terrorists stem from an entirely different motivation: they kill others (and themselves) because they believe that Allah mandates such actions.

Thus, the Muslims' stated love of death is of a different stripe from our propensity to be a culture of death; they murder for the sake of a believed transcendent principle, while we murder for the sake of our own comfort and convenience. Of course it should go without saying that murder is always wrong, regardless of what motivates it. But such a principle holds little sway in either a Muslim or a secular, post-Christian society.

That said, I am certainly not inclined to debate who, between radical Islam and the secular West, has a healthier perspective on life and death. Like most Westerners, I am appalled by the callous, cruel manner with which Muslim terrorists relentlessly strive to kill as many innocent bystanders as possible, believing them unworthy of being spared, apparently for the singular crime of merely being "infidels." I am also aware that at one time, the cultural West had more of a place for death in its overall conception of things — unsurprisingly, back when the West still generally held to the tenets of the religion that formed it, that is, Christianity. I do think the West would be well-served by a return to its spiritual roots, but I don't see such a thing happening. Most demographic trends indicate that Christianity is growing most rapidly in the global South — Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia — and that it is shrinking rapidly in Western countries.

Unfortunately, without faith in a transcendental God, it becomes well-nigh impossible to view death as anything but a horror. Thus, the process of secularization tends to lead a culture away from heroism and toward cowardice, away from self-sacrifice and toward self-indulgence. In short, loss of belief in transcendent faith leads to a culture-wide loss of nerve. Only a sincerely religious man can "love death," and only a religious culture can have the nerve to weather a protracted and bloody conflict, one in which loss of life is commonplace.

This, I fear, is the real significance of 9/11. No matter how many songs we listen to, or movies we watch, or books we read about that day, it will not change us into men and women who fear and hate death any less than we already do. Similarly, the government can create as many new departments, tap as many phone lines, or declare war on as many countries as it wants. None of those acts, whatever else we may think of them, will change our national soul.

We appear bound to remain a culture that loves life and hates death, in the modern way; and our enemy seems determined to remain the very opposite, in its own old-fashioned way. As long as such a circumstance holds, we are bound to lose, no matter how vast our armaments, and our enemies are bound to win, even if they have little more than box-cutters and a meager amount of flight training.

September 11, 2006

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