TCS Daily


Taking the Terror
Cult Seriously

By Lee Harris - February 7, 2003 12:00 AM

The Bush administration was unquestionably acting with the best possible intention when it attempted to alter the term "suicide bomber" into "homicide bomber," and it is certainly understandable why people, both within and outside the administration, might flinch at the idea of calling a terrorist a martyr. Yet if we are going to understand what confronts us we must make an effort to take the contemporary Islamic terror cult seriously, and at the heart of this cult is the symbol of the martyr.

The cult of martyr is one of the two historically known types that defy the ability of established social orders to handle them in accordance with the normal rules of engagement-the other is the warrior cult. And both cults have something in common that allows them to defeat even the best effort of settled bourgeois existence, and that is the systematic eradication of the fear of violent death.

But remember that we are not talking about individuals here, but about an entire culture, and this means that this critical lack of a fear of violent death is not something that crops up spontaneously in this or that individual by chance, but rather a cultural norm that is embraced by an entire community. It is a goal that all those in the respective community are trained to look upon with admiration, and the ideal model of conduct that is held out as a standard for emulation of the young.

In the modern West, we are appalled at the very idea of a systematic discipline to instill an ethic of self-immolation in the young. We want to give our children something to live for, not something to die for; and the very thought of encouraging a contempt for one's own life in the minds of impressionable children and adolescents is looked upon as criminal at worst, and immoral at best.

'Come back with your shield, or on it.'

But this was not always the case. Spartan mothers, acting as high priestesses of their indigenous warrior cult, told their sons upon departing for battle, "Come back with your shield, or on it," and they meant exactly what they said. And from the first centuries of Christianity we know that martyrdom, far from being a dreaded fate, was often eagerly sought and earnestly embraced when found. In both cultures, the fear of violent death, instead of being accepted as man's natural state, was looked upon as a shameful impulse to be eradicated or at least overcome; and those who had mastered themselves sufficiently to achieve this end were glorified by the community of which they had been a part.

However irrational we are apt to regard such behavior, we must check our tendency to dismiss it as a mere historical curiosity from an earlier, but no longer relevant epoch; for if such behavior strikes us as madness, it is nonetheless a madness with a profound method.

To see this we must go back to Thomas Hobbes, author of The Leviathan.

Hobbes was the first man to argue that it was possible, in principle at least, to create a stable and peaceful social order exclusively on the basis of the enlightened self-interest of the individual members of that social order. Each man would see that it was to his advantage to renounce violence as an instrument for his own self-aggrandizement and to permit a monopoly of violence in the hands of a single authority.

This is the foundation of all forms of liberalism, both classical and modern, and is equally the presupposition of both Ayn Rand and John Rawls; though none of the later formulations of liberalism achieves the same clarity in respect to this core belief as Hobbes achieved in his political philosophy. For the great indispensable faith of all liberalism, as Hobbes understood, is the tenet that all men have the exact same proportionate fear of violent death, and that because such a fear is equally distributed, men all have the exact same motive to renounce violence, namely their equal fear of violent death at the hands of their neighbors.

Hobbes and the utopians.

This is where Hobbes' political philosophy, and indeed all forms of liberalism, reveal their strongly utopian streak. For while it may be in the enlightened self-interest of all men to seek peace if they all fear death equally, it is not in their enlightened self-interest to fear death equally in the first place. On the contrary, it is obvious that any group that can overcome its own natural fear of violent death has a decisive edge in competing with any group that has not overcome this fear. Or, to put it more bluntly, in a world of the timid the reckless will rule.

And this was the secret of the power achieved through the classic warrior cult. In Apache and Spartan societies, for example, all young males underwent a grisly system of training designed to eliminate all fear of violent death from their minds. And this is also what the martyr cults of the various religious have also succeeded in doing, often with historical consequence of no small importance, as the eventual triumph of Christianity suggests.

This is what is happening today in much of the Islamic world, and the instrument by which this is being done is the terror cult. But the first thing to notice about the terror cult of contemporary Islam is that it is sui generis, for while it plays on the classical tropes of the religious martyr as well as those of the warrior hero, it cannot be reduced to either one of them. Yet it functions in precisely the same way, as a method by which the rising generation of one group is trained and disciplined to an ethic of radical self-immolation.

'We will win because you fear death more than we do.'

The terror cult is not terrorism-it is the romance of terrorism in which the act of self-martyrdom is made into a proof that the martyr has no fear of violent death, and where this is amply proven by the martyr's choice of the most graphically violent forms of death conceivable, as if the deliberate challenge posed to the imagination by the physical details of the manner of death indicated the ultimate refinement of the courage, in the same way that ghastly ritual of seppuku in its rigorous formality was chosen to demonstrate that this mode of death was not occasioned by a fear of torture, but only a dread of indignity.

At the siege of the Moscow Theater one of the terrorists put this all quite plainly: "We will win because you fear death more than we do."

As Hobbesian liberals, we in the West do not like to contemplate this unpleasant truth, for it undercuts the foundation of all our faith in reason. For as long as I fear death less than you, I do not need to reason-for I am still willing to fight for what I want; and if I am confident that you will not fight back, then I know I will eventually get what I want.

Reason is what men begin doing once they have decided not to kill each other any more. It occurs when men have exhausted violence as a means to settle their difference, and this point is reached only when both parties are equally afraid of the consequences of continued violence.

But suppose one side is teaching its children to glory in violent death, while the other side is teaching its children the horrors of collateral damage in times of war, then what side do you suppose will prevail?
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