Age of terror, age of illusions
Part One: I remember the anger I felt watching the endlessly repeated images of the towers collapsing. But there's another kind of anger — a more cerebral one toward the intellectuals of our time who contributed to all that destruction through their hostility toward the mores and traditions of western civilization.
The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, September 09, 2006
NEW YORK – I still see bodies falling. Standing at my hotel window, overlooking Ground Zero, it's not hard to visualize the flaming towers and the bird-like figures of human bodies plummeting through the air. I especially remember a couple leaping hand in hand into emptiness. In their flapping clothes they looked like big clumsy birds, desperate to fly.
There were others, of course. Dozens. According to one estimate, some 200 people jumped from the North and South Towers in the hour-and-a-half the buildings remained standing after the planes hit the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Clerks and executives, cooks and waiters, patrons and clients; they leaped in a continuous stream from the four sides of the buildings, from the office windows of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading firm, from the Windows on the World restaurant that occupied the 106th and 107th floors, from the offices of the insurance company Marsh & McLennan. Writer Tom Junod, in a recent article in Esquire magazine, described the jumpers in heartbreaking imagery: “They jumped through windows already broken and then, later, through windows they broke themselves. They jumped to escape the smoke and the fire; they jumped when ceilings fell and the floors collapse; they jumped just to breathe once more before they died.”
Some clearly hoped they wouldn't die. They used drapes and tablecloths as parachutes. It did no good. The force of falling tore the makeshift parachutes from their hands. And so they fell, bodies arcing and wheeling and tumbling through space, dropping at an ever-increasing a rate of 9.8 metres per second. In the 10 seconds or so it took to reach the ground they were moving at more than 200 km/h. At that speed their clothes were shredded and stripped from their bodies.
For a while the television networks showed the jumpers, as they became known. You heard witnesses on the ground shouting in horror. “God. Save their souls. They're jumping. Oh, please God. Save their souls.” And then the broadcasts stopped. Maybe it was too much horror on top of all the other horror. Maybe it was the realization that, no, this wasn't “almost like a movie.” Indeed, in the days that followed it was as if a decision had been made at some level of collective unconscious not to show the full horror of these deaths. Most North American newspapers ran only a few pictures of the jumpers and then never ran them again. By then, of course, the images were indelibly etched in the collective consciousness. No one who witnessed the events of that day will ever forget them. The most famous picture, the one that probably ran on every news broadcast and in every paper, is that of the unknown “Falling Man,” who, as Junod says, appears to have embraced this death in his last moments of life, dropping through the air like an arrow.
I remember him, certainly. There have been numerous articles about who he might have been, and even a BBC television program documenting the efforts to identify him. But the picture I have never been able to get out of my head is that of the leaping couple. I imagine them as a man and woman, but it could have been two women or two men for all I know. Even now, on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, I still wonder who they were — lovers, friends, colleagues, or strangers who met in their final moments and chose to die together rather than alone. What were their last thoughts as they leaped, hand in hand, into the void? How long were they able to hold on to each other before the laws of physics pulled them apart?
Naturally, I have tried imaging myself in such circumstances. My mind doesn't want to go there, veering away instinctively in the same way your body pulls back from a cliff edge. Still, you wonder. When American Airlines Flight 11 plowed into the North Tower at 8:45 a.m. it sliced through floors 93 to 99 like a scythe, tearing up offices, hallways, conference rooms, rows of desks, ripping out elevators and stairwells, cutting off escape from the higher floors. Hundreds died instantly. Hundreds more were left stranded on floors 100 to 107. Eighteen minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., the second plane slammed into the top of the South Tower, trapping about 600 people. Inside the buildings, temperatures would have approached 1,000 degrees Celsius as the flames consumed furniture, wiring, carpets and computers, creating a tornado of poisonous smoke that funnelled upward to the top storeys. Even the steel beams melted. What would you choose: Death by immolation and choking smoke, or death by a final act of will, a final assertion of a terrible freedom?
I step back from the window, rolling my shoulders to ease the sudden tension in my neck. It's as though my body remembers the anger I felt watching those endlessly repeated images of the towers' collapse; the roiling storm of smoke and the ashen humanity emerging from the clouds of pulverized concrete and flesh; the shell-shocked relatives stalking the streets with photographs of missing loved ones; the firefighters and police officers crawling over the smoldering mountain of rubble, the mobs dancing on the streets of Damascus and Tehran and Gaza, celebrating mass murder.
But there's another kind of anger, too; a colder, more cerebral anger toward the intellectuals of our time, the cosmopolitans and sophists who, unwittingly or not, contributed to all that destruction through their sophisticated hostility towards the mores and traditions of western civilization.
I return to my chair and the book I had been reading — Samuel Dill's Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire. At the time, Christianity was displacing the old pagan religion and the empire was under frequent attack from barbarians. The great weakness, though, as Dill recounts, was the empire's effete elites. He describes the period as a time when the ruling class — politicians, bureaucrats, intellectuals, artists — were cocooned in lifestyle luxury, unwilling to respond to the barbarian threat on the borders. “This self-centred contentment with the material pleasures of life, this rather vacant existence, gliding away in ease and luxury, and a round of trivial social engagements … is the real reproach against the character of the upper class of that age … Faith in the stability of the Empire and Roman culture is perfectly untroubled. There is not a hint of those dim hordes, already mustering for their advance …” It was, Dill concludes, an “age of illusions.”
I put the book down and go back to the window to look out over the canyons of Manhattan and watch the lights come on in the buildings as night falls. I imagine those lights blinking out permanently. All it would take would be a nuclear bomb on a freighter or a truck, or even a vial of anthrax. And for the umpteenth time, I wonder whether we, like the fifth-century Romans, have become too decadent, too soft morally and intellectually. Decadence is not only a matter of artistic fashion or literary style; it is also a question of self-defence. A society that is unwilling to defend itself, and justifies that refusal with clever rationalizations, can only be described as decadent. This is especially true when the decadents include those elites that provide the ideas and concepts that guide society in its attitudes and conduct. When a society's opinion-makers, its teachers, writers, scholars, artists and thinkers, no longer uphold the values and traditions necessary for that society's survival, well, you're on the downward slope. The question thus needs to be asked: Is our time also an age of self-destructive illusions?
The question is, why are so many unwilling to acknowledge the threat Islamism poses to western civilization? More to the point, perhaps, why are so many so quick to blame the West itself, particularly the United States, for the attacks, as though the 3,000 who perished in the collapse of those 110-storey towers, including many Canadians, deserved their fate?
Sept. 11 was what the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel would undoubtedly call a “world-historical moment”; which is to say, the terrorist attacks forced a fundamental shift in the way we think (or should think) about the world. Simply stated: On Sept. 11, 2001, a half-hidden war against western civilization and all that it represents was finally made explicit for all to see. Only the most naive or ideologically purblind deny this. “Is there a war on?” asks Italian philosopher Marcello Pera. “My answer is: from Afghanistan to Kashmir, to Chechnya, to the Philippines, to Saudia Arabia, Sudan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco, and elsewhere, in a great part of the Islamic and Arabic world, groups consisting of fundamentalists, radicals, and extremists — the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, the Armed Islamic Group, and many others — have declared war, jihad, against the West. They have said it, written it, diffused it in plain speech. Why should we not take action?”
The last five years witnessed gruesome terrorist strikes — or threats of strikes — around the world in the name of Islam — suicide bombings in Bali and mass murder in Madrid and London, to name only the three most deadly. But there was also the beheading of filmmaker Theo van Gogh on an Amsterdam street. In May, a 24-year-old Pakistani immigrant was convicted in the United States of plotting to blow up a New York subway station. More recently, 17 young Muslim men in the Toronto area were arrested for plotting terrorist strikes in this country. In Britain, two dozen young Muslims are accused of planning to blow airliners out of the sky over the Atlantic. In Germany, two men were nabbed in late July after leaving suitcases loaded with bottles of gasoline, propane and detonators — the makings of a firebomb — on trains. In late August, Italian anti-terrorist police arrested 40 people in raids on mosques, Internet outlets and money transfer offices in cities around Italy. With all these terror plots in the works, how can anyone not believe there is a war between radical Islam and the West?
But many, it seems, still do. Former Liberal party leadership candidate Sheila Copps, for example, was recently quoted as suggesting the terrorist roundup in Britain is a conspiracy. “Could it be that this whole thing was an orchestrated overreaction to steer public attention away from the difficulties facing the Bush-Tony Blair fight on terrorism?” she asked.
Lenin had a label for people who think in such an unreal fashion. He called them “useful idiots.” We heard a lot from such people during the Cold War. High-minded, well-intentioned they may have been, but in their naivete and ignorance they served as apologists for Soviet totalitarianism with their ill-thought criticism of all things western. A great many were academics and journalists. We're hearing similar appeasement psychology regarding Islamism. I can think of no better example than the reaction to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's remark that western civilization is superior to Islamic culture.
“We should be confident of the superiority of our civilization, which consists of a value system that has given people widespread prosperity in those countries that embrace it, and guarantees respect for human rights and religion,” Mr. Berlusconi said in late September of 2001. “This respect certainly does not exist in Islamic countries. … We must be conscious of the strength and force of our civilization.”
Not surprisingly, Muslims denounced him. “I consider his remarks racist, and by such remarks he has crossed the limits of reason and decency,” said Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League. In Turkey, the Islamist newspaper Akit described Berlusconi as “a new Mussolini.” But the denunciations of western politicians and commentators were equally vitriolic. Amos Luzzatto, spokesman for the Italian Jewish Organizations, told La Repubblica newspaper: “In my opinion, one can not speak of the superiority of one culture over another.” (You have to wonder what he would say about Nazi culture in Germany 70 years earlier.) The Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, thought Mr. Berlusconi's remarks could have dangerous consequences. “I can hardly believe that the Italian prime minister made such statements.”
It was, indeed, a surprising thing to say, considering the climate of opinion that prevails in western societies, particularly among the intelligentsia. As historian Keith Windschuttle says, “The statement was extraordinary because, although western superiority in every major area of human endeavour, especially in political and individual liberty, is patently obvious to everyone, it has become a truth that must not be spoken.”
To say one civilization or culture is better than another is one of the Great Taboos nowadays, at least if you subscribe to the postmodern shibboleths of multiculturalism, multi-racialism, egalitarianism, relativism, post-structuralism, etc. There is one exception, of course. If the civilization you love to hate has its roots in European Christian culture, well, that's all right, then. You can have a nice career as a professor or a newspaper columnist denouncing the traditions and values of western civilization, even as you enjoy the best that civilization has to offer.
Nevertheless, Berlusconi was right — assuming you think societies that allow religious freedom, free speech, human rights, etc. are “superior” to those that forbid the open practise of all religions, denounce non-believers as less that human and impose death sentences of those who dare criticize the faith. If you don't assume the former is better than the latter — if you disagree with Berlusconi — then you really need to ask yourself why you live in the West. To partake of its material benefits while denouncing its fundamental values is the life of a parasite. This isn't to say you're obliged to worship all things western. To the contrary, one of the secrets of the West's vitality is its openness to rational self-criticism (at least until recent decades). But to be “anti-western” while partaking of the benefits of western society is, to say the least, to live with a false and hypocritical consciousness. But that perhaps describes the zeitgeist for many contemporary intellectuals in these early years of the Age of Terror.
How this zeitgeist has come about, why it dominates the psyche of western elites, and whether it continues to hold sway — the answers to such questions may well decide whether the West prevails in this war, or whether we are already seeing its decline and fall. The idea of the West in decline is a hoary trope, but societies don't always recognize when their moment in the sun has been eclipsed. The Muslims of the Ottoman empire did not think their hegemony was on the wane when the Turkish navy lost the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 to a fleet of Holy League ships. In fact, the Ottomans, who had not lost a battle since the 15th century, bounced back to reassert naval supremacy and control the coasts of the Mediterranean from the Straits of Gibraltar to Croatia and Slovenia for another century or so. Nevertheless, after the Battle of Lepanto, Islam never again threatened the heartland of Christianity, arguably allowing the West to devote its burgeoning energy to its own expansion. The Ottoman Empire, meanwhile, slowly fell apart, unbeknownst to most of its subjects.
So, too, today westerners might not notice — or notice too late — when one too many bricks have been pulled out of the western edifice. In any case, it can take a long time for a civilization to fall. The final collapse of the Roman Empire took at least a century — from, say, the end of Emperor Valentian I's reign in AD 375 to the sad and short rule of Romulus Augustus in AD 476. After that, well, it got very Dark Age very fast. The point, though, is nobody noticed the coming darkness, least of all the Roman elites. Even at the end of the fourth century, with the barbarians soon to sack Rome, “faith in the stability of the Empire and Roman culture is perfectly untroubled,” says Samuel Dill. “There is not a hint (in the writings of Rome's elites) of those dim hordes, already mustering for their advance, who within twenty years will be established on the banks of the Garonne.”
The situation is equally disturbing today, if not more so. The Roman elites — poets, rhetoricians, scholars, soldiers and senators — may have been blind to the barbarian threat, lost to decadent pursuits, but they weren't actively promoting their civilization's destruction. The same cannot be said of contemporary western elites.
In the words of philosopher Marcello Pera, the western elites, particularly in Europe, are delusional in their views of the Islamist threat, and for much the same reason as the ancient Roman elites. In their denunciations of the United States and the war on terror they have chosen wrongly, says Pera, having “made a flawed analysis of Islamic terror — based on an anti-American bias — in the mistaken belief that it is a limited and easily contained phenomenon.” He attributes this choice to the mistaken, if comforting, belief that “the terrorist war is an act of reaction rather than aggression.” Westerners, Pera writes in an essay entitled “Relativism, Christianity and the West,” have enjoyed peace for 60 years and are thus “inclined to believe that peace is a natural state and a natural right, and that perpetual peace can indeed exist.” As a result they think no price is too high to achieve peace, “not appeasement, not massacres on its own soil, not even surrender to terrorists.” Such an attitude betrays intellectual and moral impotence, says Pera. Tragically, it is this impotence that shapes the response of many western elites to the Islamist threat. Why this is so, why this zeitgeist dominates so much of the western mind, needs to be understood if the West is to recover from its decadent ennui.
In a 2004 speech, “The Spiritual Roots of Europe,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — said: “There is a self-hatred in the West that can be considered only as something pathological. The West attempts in a praiseworthy manner to open itself completely to the comprehension of external values, but it no longer loves itself; it now only sees what is despicable and destructive in its own history, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure there.”
Pope Benedict also finds a parallel between the West's situation today and that of ancient Rome. “There is a clear comparison between today's situation and the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice it was already subsisting on models that were destined to fail. Its vital energy had been depleted.” In particular, the Pope points to Europe's low birth rate, its seeming unwillingness to reproduce itself, as evidence of decline. “Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present, as if they were taking something away from our lives. Children are seen as a liability rather than as a source of hope.”
Might Europe's reluctance to reproduce — at least on the part of the non-Muslim population — reflect a spiritual malaise, a psychic impotence, similar to that which afflicted ancient Rome? As commentator Douglas Davis asked in a recent National Post column, “Why would a civilization, at the height of its intellectual, cultural and technological power, seek to subvert its own values to appease a bunch of jihadist fanatics?”
The key reason is the ideology that currently prevails among the western intellectual class. As Keith Windschuttle explains in his essay, “The Cultural War on Western Civilization,” recent decades have seen leading opinion-makers in the media, the universities, social and political institutions, and even the churches, promote the notion that the West's “superiority” is shameful and must be opposed because it is based on power and domination of others.
This is a radical change from past understandings of western civilization. Up until the 1960s, most intellectuals believed the West's achievements in political freedom, scientific advance and cultural development were largely explainable in terms of its own internal evolution: the inheritance of ancient Greece and Rome, the rise of Christianity, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the industrial and scientific revolutions. This self-understanding is now rejected by the radical intelligentsia. As Windschuttle says: “Western political and economic dominance is more commonly explained not by its internal dynamics but by its external behaviour, especially its rivalry and aggression towards other cultures.” Western achievement, in other words, has come at the expense of other civilizations. Ergo, the West is guilty of victimizing the world for its own enrichment. Therefore, westerners should be ashamed of their civilization. Its supposedly universal values — reason, individual freedom, human rights, democracy, etc. — are merely ethnocentric projections used to justify the West's imperialist exploitation of others. Even science is merely the “western way of knowing.”
Admittedly, westerners have not always done well by other societies, and a rational critique of western abuse and exploitation is be welcomed. But this new radicalism goes far beyond self-criticism to constitute hatred of the West. Even if the West is guilty of many of the charges against it, says Windschuttle, that does not justify “an overwhelmingly negative critique of Western civilization itself.”
The biggest factor contributing to this negative critique is, arguably, the West's history of empire-building. The critique might be warranted if it was only the West that engaged in imperial adventures. The fact is that every rising civilization has been imperialistic, including Islam, which from the seventh century through to the 16th century established its hegemony in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and North Africa through bloody conquest. Should Muslims now feel guilty about conquering what were once Christian lands in the Middle East and North Africa? Should they be expected to vacate those lands and return them to the Christian fold? The questions are purely rhetorical, but there's no gainsaying the hypocrisy in denouncing the West for its imperial past while letting other cultures off the hook. In any case, denunciations of western imperialism are, in many cases, unjustified.
Political theorist Lewis Feuer points out in his book Imperialism and the Anti-Imperialist Mind that western imperialism by and large brought improvements in social, economic and political conditions to those they ruled — everything from better education and health to an end to slavery and tribal genocide. “Anti-imperialist literature has perhaps beclouded the great fact that the world's advances have been associated with the eras of progressive imperialism,” says Feuer. “A progressive imperialism is one in which energies are liberated for the advancement of civilization and creative activity … A rising, progressive people will be a correspondingly commercial, scientific, and imperialist people; such imperialism is not atavistic but creative. Decay comes when those energies have become effete.”
Feuer distinguishes between regressive and progressive imperialism. The former, he argues, were devoted to pillaging their colonies, while the latter sought, at least to some extent, to improve social and economic conditions. Feuer offers Mongolian, Spanish and Soviet imperialism as examples of regressive imperialism. The Alexandrian, Roman, French, Dutch and British empires were more progressive forms of imperialism in that for all their errors and arrogance — the British Opium War with China in the 1840s, for example — their rule was generally beneficial. In modern times, imperialism brought improvements in social conditions and economic wealth to many regions of Asia and Africa. As well, Britain's outlawing of slavery throughout the Empire largely put an end to the slave trade, except in the Arab world. “Between the years 1860 to 1876 at least four hundred thousand natives, it has been estimated, were enslaved for use in the Middle East and North Africa,” Feuer writes. Arab slave traders castrated thousands of African boys to turn them into eunuch slaves.
So why, Feuer asks, do “the writings of Arab and black ideologists alike evince no trace of an Arab-Muslim guilt” comparable to the guilt westerners are supposed to feel about their imperial past? Somehow, he says, the “white man's burden” has been transmuted into a burden not of power but of guilt that has been enthusiastically taken up by leftist intellectuals.
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(Continued on Part Two)
9/11: Five Years Later