We have to address the political grievances terrorists exploit.
– Barack Obama
All week, the bully-in-chief of cable news, Bill O’Reilly, has been passionately recruiting American clergy of all ethnic and supernatural inclinations to preach from their pulpits this weekend for US troops to lead what he sees as a holy war declared by ISIS. “The problem is Islamic fanatics who want to kill Christians and Jews.” The goat that gives him his vein-popping urgency is President Barack Obama who is determined to never make a reference to religion in his call for international propaganda war against the ISIS phenomenon — to accompany his current bombing campaign and any other military action he may lead.
While Mr. Obama is guilty of a host of national security state sins and is not without blood on his hands, the president’s rhetoric is smart when he emphasizes that ISIS is a “death cult” with incredible influence that should be engaged by the forces of civilization. The problem is the fine rhetoric seldom translates into action. Policy always falls back on our runaway national security state and its deep terror of losing some aspect of its power and self-image of exceptionalism.
The question that needs to be asked — and answered forthrightly and courageously for the American people — is why ISIS is so successful all of a sudden in the geographic arc made up of the Middle East, Southwest Asia and North Africa. Ordinary Americans should realize this is a serious question that has less to do with messiahs and theological beliefs about the afterlife than it has to do with frustrated human aspirations and the power of a death cult. It’s true that comforting afterlife fantasies certainly constitute fuel for a death cult; in fact, it’s the religious component that makes them that much more deadly and frightening.
What we’re talking about is ideas that coalesce as mobilizing thought in the mass human mind. Think of a school of fish or a swarm of birds moving as one. In this sense, then, what exactly is a death cult? My dictionary defines cult as “a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.” As for the adjective in this case, death, in line with his long 1930 essay Civilization And Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud might have defined a death cult as a group focused on a mythic and psychological obsession with Thanatos, the Greek mythic personification of death, or what he called the death instinct — versus its counterpart, Eros, or the life instinct. The latter drive overcomes difference and pulls things together, while the former accentuates difference and tears things apart. This is how Freud put it:
“[B]esides the instinct to preserve living substance and to join it into ever larger units, there must exist another, contrary instinct seeking to dissolve those units and to bring them back to their primaeval, inorganic state. That is to say, as well as Eros there was an instinct of death. The phenomenon of life could be explained from the concurrent or mutually opposing action of these two instincts. … [T]he two kinds of instinct seldom — perhaps never — appear in isolation from each other, but are alloyed with each other in varying and very different proportions.”
All this, Freud characteristically tells us, goes on pretty much without us even knowing it, to the point, beyond the individual, entire societies can be infused with these impulses toward unity or destruction. “[T]he struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species, … this struggle is what all life essentially consists of.”
The human carnage of World War One had a strong effect on Freud and moved his thinking from sexual matters to the need to understand aggressiveness and the compulsion for destruction. This led him to what smacks of a political, even Utopian, position.
“I adopt the standpoint … that the inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man, and I return to my view that it constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization.” He went on to define civilization as “a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind.”
On a pop cultural level, I recall about ten years ago cultural critics talking about a trend in which violence was overtaking sexuality as the new taboo in pop culture and pornography. One might apply Freud and see this as an example of the culture shifting its balance from Eros to Thanatos. As for ISIS’s exploitation of western pop culture and cinema, New York Times reporter Anne Barnard quotes a man working in an opera house in Damascus, Syria: “It’s like action movies.” She writes that the man compared ISIS’s intentionally provocative, real-life violent cinema to the taboo-pushing fictional work of Quentin Tarantino, calling it a macabre effort “to win the prestige of horror.” The point of Barnard’s article is that this high production value cinematic violence has trumped the slaughter of 200,000 Syrians with crude bombs. In the west, we’re now so numbed to that kind of violence we no longer even register it.
Literature is, of course, replete with this dichotomy. One of the most famous Latin American works is titled Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism. Written in 1845 by an Argentine, Domingo Sarmiento, the book is nominally about a famous caudillo named Facunda who used violence and terror to accumulate and hold power. Civilization, in this case, was life as Sarmiento saw it in Europe. He, thus, saw Argentine life as a struggle between civilization and barbarism.
“Facundo is a type of primitive barbarism,” he wrote. ”Incapable of commanding noble admiration, he delighted in exciting fear; and this pleasure was exclusive and dominant with him to the arranging [of] all his actions so as to produce terror in those around him.”
In War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, war correspondent Chris Hedges devotes a chapter on Eros and Thanatos. He cites Freud and talks about the attraction of war among soldiers and war correspondents. He describes how war “destroys the outside world until it is hard to live outside war’s grip. It takes a higher and higher dose to achieve any thrill.” He tells of a doomed photographer friend who could not stay away from the war in El Salvador. Shooting stories in Miami was boring. Drawn back to the Salvador war, “he was frightening to behold, a walking corpse.” He eventually met his fate and was killed.
Hedges sees this sort of compulsion also working on a national, cultural level. “The question is whether America now courts death. We no longer seem chastened by war as we were in the years after the Vietnam War.” It’s a real question: Is there a part of our cultural selves that surreptitiously compels us toward death and away from life?
We might ask, is the blockbuster film American Sniper — about Chris Kyle’s life and his capacity for efficient killing as a military sniper — a case of cult worship? Kyle’s wife told Sean Hannity, “Maybe it was always to be that he was going to die the way he lived.” Is it out of line to ask whether the reverence for someone like Chris Kyle amounts to a cult? In this case, a death cult focused on discipline, training and competence? Can the Second Amendment worship of guns and the too-easy reliance of a culture on the shock and awe power of the world’s most lethal mechanized military fairly be described as a death cult?
When someone as popular and as volatile as Bill O’Reilly exhibits such fury on TV calling for sending young Americans into what he sees as a holy war, one should ask whether what we’re witnessing is less religious conflict than an example of Freud’s death instinct at work.
Provoked by ISIS’s willful provocations, the usual suspects are lining up. Senator John McCain was on the O’Reilly show recently for what amounted to a mutual stroking of the slavering dogs of war; what worked them up to a lather was the martial inadequacies of our current commander-in-chief. We’ve now entered the 2016 “silly season” and we have Jeb Bush making a speech meant to distance himself from his older brother — the guy who gave us the now agreed-upon debacle in Iraq that, then, gave us ISIS — and what’s notable is that Jeb sounds just like his brother, talking about the need to “take out” ISIS. Like, what exactly does that mean: Take out ISIS? Killing people en-mass is treated rhetorically, here, like it’s a matter of shutting off a light switch. Jeb is certainly hoping we’ve forgotten that he was part of the Project For A New American Century that devised the blueprint for his brother’s Iraq War.
While we’re on the topic of PNAC, it’s also worth remembering that a year before the right-wing, militarist think tank was founded future PNAC members Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz sent a report entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Among other lethal imperial plans, it recommended an invasion of Iraq by the United States. It also pointed out, “Over the long term, Iran may well prove as large a threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf as Iraq has.” Netanyahu was raised and educated outside Philadelphia, so it’s no surprise he’s coming to speak to Congress as a leader of “the realm” to throw a monkey wrench into sane negotiations with Iran.
As a longtime peace activist, watching war activists become so stirred up by ISIS — which is doing everything in its power to stir them up — you begin to realize what these men (it’s a very male issue) are so troubled about is not really ISIS and its gruesome acts of murder. What makes them want to go to war is how ISIS is humiliating them. It’s personal. It’s like some insignificant backwater gang of falafal-eating piss-ants is insulting their imperial manhood. They’re not doing the dying; they’re not even planning on actually doing any of the killing — but it’s their honor that’s at stake.
One might humbly ask these war activists why the military thug government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt can shoot down and run over with tanks Coptic Christians demonstrating in the street and draw cheers from their corner for defending liberty, while ISIS thugs in black garb slicing the heads off 21 Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach provokes feverish calls for religious war. OK, it’s a rhetorical question. We know the answer. It’s OK to kill Christians as long as they’re leftist rabble in the streets calling for human rights and democracy against a friendly tyrant who took down a democratically elected government made up of Muslims. There’s so much hypocrisy going down these days it doesn’t even raise an eyebrow in official Washington or on the right-wing cable airwaves.
But, then, it’s not restricted to the right. ISIS exasperates the liberal Chris Matthews of MSNBC to the point he begins to sound like Daffy Duck declaring how “dithpicable” it all is. These monsters are rubbing our noses in this stuff. The sky is falling! What are we gonna do!? Unlike O’Reilly, Matthews has no plan to flog, holy or otherwise. He just wants somebody to do something — quick!
As is his wont, O’Reilly invited a nice Quaker woman and the well-known left-leaning cleric Jim Wallis onto his show so he could badger them over and over with his deeply-felt assumption that killing lots of people is the only answer. “What would you do?” he’d ask belligerently. His guests would try to tell him their alternative ideas, and he’d come back with: “No! What would you do!!?”
Wallis calmly persisted. First, he would not invade like O’Reilly wanted to do. He pointed out that the disastrous Iraq War helped give us ISIS in the first place, and a new invasion would only make things even worse. His point: “The countries in the region have to solve this.” This only inflamed O’Reilly’s obnoxious side even more. He hollered back: “It is our moral obligation to confront evil!” Wallis calmly smiled. O’Reilly then moved on to friendly ally Laura Ingraham and told her, virtually quoting George W. Bush, “We need to step up against the evil doers.”
The US has so badly damaged its image in the region that the one thing that’s clear is we need to keep our military out of it and let those directly affected by ISIS engage with the phenomenon in a struggle between civilization and barbarism. The New York Times reported on an Afghan released from years in Guantanamo who said he was falsely named in 2002 as a “terrorist” by a man who wanted to steal his store; this man’s photo was recently mis-identified as a drone-killed terrorist, publicity that made his life miserable all over again. He put his frustration this way: “The Americans do not care about people’s lives. They are careless people. They are the bane of my existence.”
The solution is to follow up on the president’s rhetoric and actually do concrete things “to address the political grievances terrorists exploit.” That is, in this case, put our money where the president’s mouth is — not into another misguided military campaign.
The other good news on the life cult front is reports that France has plans to seriously address those bubbling suburban rings of disaffected former colonial subject peoples surrounding its major cities. Economic improvement, educational improvement, judicial reform; the whole gamut of life cult issues must be seriously addressed to better unify the nation. Religion is a distraction from real human problems. The fact is, one can’t address something like ISIS and its influence in places like Europe without engaging the legacies of colonial and imperial history. The Times has an interesting profile of France’s current reform-minded education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, an ambitious Muslim woman born and raised in Morocco.
ISIS isn’t going to go away any time soon, especially as long as it causes our war advocates to run around like Chicken Little calling for Islamic heads on pikes. It may sound silly to some and even provoke ridicule, but the solution is Eros oriented, the aspect of our inner and public lives that seems never quite as compelling — certainly, never quite as able to give quick, satisfying results — as the feverish call for blood and destruction. The only way to really beat a death cult is with a dedication to life. This would seem to me a no-brainer for Christians, because, while I’m an atheist, there’s few people in the history of the world better at the life cult message than Jesus Christ, who war advocates like Bill O’Reilly claim to worship.