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 beyond – meta – 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.