An Inadequate Strategy

Michael Metzger

What a week.

Last Monday’s terrorist attack in Boston is a tragic example of what it means to live in a fallen world. But it’s an example of something else. If we want to rid the world of these heinous acts, last week was an example of how much of the Western world is pursuing an inadequate strategy.

This past Friday authorities arrested Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after an intense manhunt. He is one of two brothers alleged to have exploded two homemade bombs at the Boston Marathon Monday, killing three people and injuring more than 175. Details will continue to unfold, but here’s one worth recalling – the initial reluctance on the part of many leaders to use the word terrorist. Why the reticence? The late Philip Rieff had an answer.

In his monumental work My Life Among the Deathworks, Rieff wrote that we live in a world shorn of any sacred canopy. All religions and ideologies are now considered fictions. In the final analysis, they’re not factual but rather fanciful – a “personal relationship” between individuals and their God. Rieff coined a word for these types of societies – “deathworks.” They’re deathworks because they treat ideologies, or faiths, as individual options or inclinations. These should never intrude on real life. Cultivated in our elite colleges and universities, this “invincible ignorance” (as Rieff described it), overlooks the reality that all behavior is rooted on ideologies.1

Invincible ignorance coincides with a second development – positivism. Positivism grew out of a general revulsion with religious wars in the Middle Ages. By the 1700s, positivists sought to “cleanse” the world of religious influence by making an “absolute distinction between facts and values,” writes Harvard professor Louis Menand. By the 1800s, positivism shaped the arts, law, commerce, and our elite educational institutions. It posits a world where facts are the province of science while values are the province of what the positivists mockingly called metaphysics, or religion.2 In truth, positivists believe there is no actual reality beyondmeta – the physical world.

The collapse of a canopy and the rise of positivism explain the initial reluctance on the part of our leaders to use the word terrorist. While we want our leaders to err on the side of caution, setting off bombs to maim or kill spectators is terrorism, plain and simple. Only in a deathwork society, where leaders assume ideologies are fictions, do we see such reticence. Acculturated to assuming tolerance is the cardinal virtue, leaders are initially reluctant to appear to be intolerant by uttering the insensitive word terrorist. Common citizens experience no such difficulty. Leaders, slowly sensing the sensibilities of the nation, soon come around. But they frame our nation’s response as “the war against terrorism.” This is another example of invincible ignorance.

Terrorism is a tactic. So were Nazi concentration camps in World War II. The Nazis were not however animated by operating concentration camps. They were fueled by an ideology, fascism. The Allies understood this distinction. They were first and foremost fighting a war against the ideology of fascism. Today, in a world shorn of a sacred canopy, leaders are reluctant to go after ideologies. Religions are the realm of “personal values.” No one wants to step on an individual’s values. Hence, we witness a flaccid tolerance that is reluctant to mention any ideology that might be behind the attacks. The prime example is our leaders being reduced to talking about tactics, such as “the war against terrorism.” Can you imagine Franklin Roosevelt rallying the nation around “the war against concentration camps?”

The Western world should fight terrorism, but this alone is an inadequate strategy. First and foremost, we must take seriously the ideologies behind terrorist attacks. At this point, Western societies seem generally incapable of doing this. Last Monday’s terrorist attack is tragic, but until we reconstruct a world where leaders take a sacred canopy seriously – and dismantle positivism – we will fight one terrorist tactic after another. That’s an expensive and necessary tactic, but insufficient for ridding the world of these heinous acts.

1 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), p. 56.
2 Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), p. 207.


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  1. Mr. Metzger,

    Thank you for your article. But given your critique of Western leaders’ timidity, isn’t the absence of such terms as “radical Islam,” “jihadist islam” or even “Qur’anic jihad” from your article a case of the pot calling the kettle black?


    Alex Swem

  2. Alex:

    The absence of such terms in my column is not timidity but simply acknowledging that, at this point, authorities are uncertain as to whether the animating ideology was Islamist.

  3. Mike,

    Do you think there would be the same reticence to label an ideology had the bombers been evangelical Christians?

    Mike Cochrane

  4. Alex asked the same question I was thinking. How can the authorities be uncertain at this point? What other ideologies are under consideration? Other than that omission, I agree with your article.

  5. Mike,
    I whole-heartedly agree with you concerning the two issues you raise in today’s culture. I find it difficult to speak with some people about faith issues since it is viewed by them as simply an individual’s private viewpoint which has nothing to do with reality. When I explain that all that I do is motivated by my faith in Jesus Christ (including issues of social justice that my interlocutors usually enthusiastically support), they find this strange and foreign.

    That being said, I wonder if one of the reasons we are careful to quickly label events as terrorism might be even more complex. I think that the first thing national leaders need to do in situations like this is not to give those who seek to invoke terror the satisfaction that they succeeded. The worst thing for a nation (and especially the Christians in that nation) to do is to react to attempted terrorism with… terror! We do not want the assailants to succeed.

    A second issue is the reticence to label an entire ethnic group or religious group as “terrorist.” It does not help the situation when we create an “us vs. them” culture in which those who are Muslim or have a lot of consonants in their name are labeled as something less than human.

  6. While it is not fair to characterize an entire religion or ethnic group by the actions of a couple of individuals. Moreover, if there is one thing that we know from orthodox belief is that our motivations are complex and never limited to just one thing. Moreover, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, “When it comes to evil, we must never be surprised.”

    Nonetheless, for the first time that I can remember, the Islamist community here in Boston is doing all it can to distance it self from this senseless bombing. The local Inman is refusing to bury the deceased brother. It is not yet clear how deeply religious these brothers were. But this much is true, they were not going to a Baptist or Roman Catholic Church.

  7. Mike

    There is a tendency, nearly a school of thought, perhaps illustrated by the blunt accusation of your first commenter, that we must label the terrorists ideology, linking it to radical Islam. And, of course, of course, you and he are correct — this is the perverse ideology that is driving most contemporary terrorism. (Paul Marhsall has written clearly and thoroughly about this.) So, yes.

    But what I appreciated about your essay is that you framed it by going after more than Islamic zealots, the Muslim Brotherhood, et al. You talked about our own Western history of secularization, the loss of the sacred canopy, the worldview/story/ideology of the post-Enlightenment West, that causes us to misconstrue these religiously-motivated ideologies. It is easy to show that violent perversions of Islam are behind Al Q et al. It is harder to understand why we don’t get that. It isn’t just that we want to be PC, that we don’t want to step on toes. It really is, as you and Reiff show, this large historical trend of relegating faiths to lesser importance. We have these “blind spots” and demanding that you mention Islamic extremists (or faulting you for not) misses the bigger point you were making.

    I am grateful for your larger thinking, wanting to help us understand what most profoundly is going on in our era. Getting at the “deathworks” in our own social imagination and the structures the enforce them is very helpful. Thanks.

  8. I hope that I’m wrong, but it’s quite possible that the awful events in Boston will serve to affirm and strengthen the positivist position. Once again, religion is seen as the culprit. Put yourself in the shoes of a typical American while you read the long story in the Wall St. Journal today (front page). It portrays a pretty normal couple of brothers becoming increasingly influenced by a religion which in turn results in violence. It’s possible that most Americans will be able to differentiate between radical Islamic religion and other faiths, but my guess is that our society as a whole will become increasingly suspicious of ANY religion, including all Christian faiths. The Boston bombings will be another vindication of Positivism and the need for more of it.

  9. I am guessing that the authorities are focusing on the tactic of terror because they assume that they have no right to criticize Jhhadist thinking. As long as Jhadis only preach death and destruction, they are perfectly free to do this. But the faithful can’t translate their religious views into actions such as terror tactics.

    To criticize Jhadism, would violate their tolerant attitudes.

    I am glad we did not allow this to happen during WWII. If we had, then Hitler might be alive today.

  10. To revisit what Rieff so insightfully wrote concerning how our culture is increasingly considering all religions as fictions, where it’s reduced to a “personal relationship” between individuals and their God –
    I agree with Glenn M above: In American culture, we are seeing more and more the attitude that religion is the culprit of evil perpetrated upon others.
    But the issue is not religion, it is ideology. It could be a fascist ideology, a Marxist ideology, a capitalist ideology, etc. Religion is not alone in producing radicals who take ideology to the extreme.

  11. Sandcastles are built with the minutiae of deconstructed rock. The Rock needs no construction or deconstruction. Restoration of the appropriate boundaries is in order. Loose words and actions without appropriate authority are harmful to us all.

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