Interesting article with a title calculated to provoke: David A. Bell writes in the LA Times that the 9/11 attacks might have been a horrible act of mass murder, but “history says we are overreacting.”
I generally wince whenever I read the phrase “history says…” and Bell’s piece is in places certainly wince-worthy as well as in places quite thought provoking. In terms of the latter, towards the end of the essay, Bell asks why the United States has felt the need to frame every conflict since World War II as a bitter fight for survival against evil. He argues:
Seeing international conflict in apocalyptic terms – viewing every threat as existential – is hardly a uniquely American habit. To a certain degree, it is a universal human one. But it is also, more specifically, a Western one, which paradoxically has its origins in one of the most optimistic periods of human history: the 18th century Enlightenment.
Until this period, most people in the West took warfare for granted as an utterly unavoidable part of the social order. Western states fought constantly and devoted most of their disposable resources to this purpose; during the 1700s, no more than six or seven years passed without at least one major European power at war.
The Enlightenment, however, popularized the notion that war was a barbaric relic of mankind’s infancy, an anachronism that should soon vanish from the Earth. Human societies, wrote the influential thinkers of the time, followed a common path of historical evolution from savage beginnings toward ever-greater levels of peaceful civilization, politeness and commercial exchange.
The unexpected consequence of this change was that those who considered themselves ‘enlightened,’ but who still thought they needed to go to war, found it hard to justify war as anything other than an apocalyptic struggle for survival against an irredeemably evil enemy. In such struggles, of course, there could be no reason to practice restraint or to treat the enemy as an honorable opponent.
Ever since, the enlightened dream of perpetual peace and the nightmare of modern total war have been bound closely to each other in the West. Precisely when the Enlightenment hopes glowed most brightly, wars often took on an especially hideous character.
I find it personally very difficult to feel any less of a ‘reaction’ to the hideous attacks of 9/11 simply because the body count doesn’t measure up to ‘history.’ What happened on 9/11 should never be minimized. I do think however that the rhetoric of a dualistic end-game battle between good/evil obscures the complexities of international conflict in the 21st century and blinds policymakers to possible solutions to prevent future attacks. Bell’s argument provides some answers as to the origins of this kind of ‘total war’ mentality. I think the theology of Christian funadmentalism that is part and parcel of this president’s worldview is also partially to blame. Life is not an episode of “24″ and our leaders would be wise to stop thinking in such apocalyptic terms lest that thinking leads to a prophecy self-fulfilled.
via Arts & Letters Daily
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.