Thursday, April 23, 2020

Ten Commandments That Failed

It seems morbid, perhaps, to be raising the topic of 9/11 going on two decades later. It was a sad, bitter moment, one that we might all wish to forget.

But wisdom does not always come quickly, and events of this magnitude take a very long time to understand. There are some things which are best left unsaid in the heat of the moment, but are better brought slowly to the surface when due time has passed. Such is the case with what I am writing today.

Even now, the fall of the World Trade Towers is not an easy subject.

There Are No Words

It was surely one of the most profound and disturbing events in modern history. We all staggered beneath the crushing weight of the moment; we could not help it. With helpless, horrified fascination we witnessed the death-blow delivered by the second jet, the ball of fire, then the collapsing towers, the screams, the cloud of dust … it was all simply too much to take in at the time. As CNN reporter Aaron Brown so famously and so aptly put it, “There are no words.” And indeed, at the time there were not.

But another thing that we all felt on that day is that we had all been guilty of underestimating — or was it overestimating? — something. Had we all been too confident of our security? Had we all failed to imagine things could change so fast? Had we all supposed that epoch-making events happened in history books, but not in our day, not to us? Had we been smug about Western power, or had we perhaps not believed that it was resented elsewhere?

Probably all of these things.

Shockwaves of Desperate Uncertainty

But what was most staggering about the whole incident may well be the implacable, fiery zeal of the Islamic zealots who drove the planes into the towers, not once, but twice — three times including the Pentagon — and more if they could have successfully done it. Here was no random accident, no product of a single, fevered mind, but a calculated, concerted effort by many men to incinerate themselves and to take as many innocent lives as possible with them. Maybe that was the hardest thing to believe. No wonder we fell silent.

And yet I wonder, did anyone else feel the shockwaves of desperate uncertainty that rattled through the various engines of our public information system? Here I mean not just our schools, but our political organizations and mass media as well. They were quite simply struck dumb, to the extent that it was several days before most could find a voice to try to put the incident into any kind of context. Until then, they limited themselves to repetition of facts and updates on the current situation, and endless replays of the fall of the towers.

As it happened, I was positioned to see the reaction on several fronts. Not only did I watch the events on television as so many others did, I was also teaching in a public high school during the day, and as it happened, at night I was taking classes for advanced degree work in a secular department of religion and cultural studies at a local university. I watched the destruction of the towers on TV at about 11:00 a.m. I talked about it with my students through the afternoon. By 4:00 p.m. that same day I was at my graduate class.

What Islam Really Stands For

On that day in particular I was eager to arrive early because I felt that surely my own department would have something of substance to say about an incident so obviously important to our understanding of both religion and the surrounding culture. In particular, I wanted to know “How Islamic was it: to what extent was religion a part of this event?” But I was sorely disappointed. The university experts were as dumbstruck as the politicians and news anchormen. It seemed their advanced education gave them no quicker grasp of the situation than anyone else. At first, no one seemed to want to discuss it at all. Then they held a special forum to clarify “what Islam really stands for anyway”, and then there was silence for a great time. There was casual talk, to be sure, and much sympathizing and fund-raising, but what was stunningly absent was any demonstration of ability to put the events of 9/11 into a meaningful religious context.

I shouldn’t really have been surprised. What you have to understand about the school system, both the public system and the post-secondary system, is that it is the chief engine of liberal hopes of social engineering. (By “liberal”, I mean the dominant ideology of Western society, not a particular political party.) “Children are our future,” goes the old liberal logic, “and so if we wish to control the future we must devote ourselves to the right indoctrination of our youth.” Toward this end the apparatus of the school system has been dedicated.

In our schools, colleges and universities, we work to create good citizens. On the way to doing this, we promote particular beliefs about morality, life and the good of society. For example, tolerance figures highly in our curriculum because we live in a multicultural, multi-ethnic environment, where particular and exclusive views are a threat to social harmony. For the same reason, we encourage a relativistic view of truth, because objective values create factions. We teach individualism, because in a transient society like ours, self-confidence must be portable, not limited by local communal bonds. We teach for the practical purpose of making modern, Western citizens out of our children, and the ideologies through which we teach are shaped by this purpose.

The Ten Commandments of Modern Liberal Faith About Religion

Common liberalism has a particular set of attitudes to religion. These are held and promoted with great seriousness, because secular liberalism today depends on their truthfulness. Let’s call them “The Ten Commandments of Modern Liberal Faith About Religion”. Really, they form a kind of odd religion of their own, a liberal belief in the harmlessness of religion and the certainty of a better world ahead. Here they are:
  1. All religions are ultimately the same, in that, rightly understood, they all ultimately teach love, peace and tolerance, or perhaps the Golden Rule.
  2. What a person believes is not as important as the fact that that belief has meaning to him.
  3. In the final analysis, religion is a private matter, and personal religious convictions are not matters for public debate.
  4. What someone else believes is of no concern to others. Live and let live.
  5. It is wrong to express doubt or concern about the value of anyone else’s religious beliefs, or to call into question his sincerity or his actions. Those who profess a particular religion have done enough to justify their claim to it. Every professing person is genuine (or at least should be accepted as genuine).
  6. Religion does not have practical significance. It deals with intangible things like imagination, feelings and beliefs, not with the real world. It is rightly excluded from consideration in practical fields such as politics, economics and science, which deal with the real world.
  7. Ancient religions are practiced by na├»ve, backward people, and so pose no threat to modern rational people.
  8. Deep down, human nature is good, and this will eventually make any religion unnecessary, because people can be good without God.
  9. Religion may be fine for the present, but eventually will probably disappear when we all become sufficiently scientific in our views.
  10. Liberal values like tolerance, relativism, pluralism, materialism, individualism and probably some form of capitalism or socialism have reason and evolution on their side, and so will probably become the final “religion” of everyone one day.
But on 9/11, these Great Commandments failed. They failed because they were foolish, because they were dreams, and because they were lies. Moreover, they failed most badly because when secular liberals needed categories into which to fit the events of the day, they were left with none at all. Nothing about the events of that day fit into their narrative, their big, phony story about how religion and human action relate.

Optimism With No Vocabulary

Yet this faith, this liberal dogma, continues to dominate our educational systems. Most universities, public high schools and the mass media in general share its suppositions to varying extents. But liberal optimism of the kind that produces these “Ten Commandments” has no vocabulary for dealing with events like 9/11. What 9/11 really did was to bring into stark conflict two cardinal tenets of the liberal canon of belief. If the terrorists were true Muslims, then what they did was a truly Islamic action, and Islam itself is a religion that promotes murder. For a liberal, that conclusion is a violation of tenet number one; but if the hijackers were not true Muslims, were not acting the true spirit of Islam, then to say so would violate tenet numbers two, three and six. Clearly this was a no-win situation for liberalism. No wonder no one wanted to ask the question.

Later, perhaps a week after 9/11, media liberals finally found their voices and began to inveigh loudly against potential (but not actual) “hate-crimes”. “Don’t blame our Muslims,” they started to chant, all as one, all in the same tones. Yet it seems they needn’t have worried. Not much happened. Eventually, they settled down to a muted rumbling about “Islamophobia”. Really, though, one could not miss the impotence of the liberal establishment to say anything worthwhile. They simply had no terms or suppositions from which they could form an intelligent response.

New York, London, Paris, Munich ...

And so it has continued. Paris, Brussels, Manchester, London, London, London, Orlando, Columbus ... but also Jaffa, Cairo, Mostar, Istanbul, Mumbai, Nairobi, Sehwan, Java, Beirut, Damascus, Karbala, Tehran, and on and on. You can find the lists online and I note that they always rank them from oldest to newest, presumably so as to leave a convenient place on the list for tomorrow, when news of the latest such atrocity comes in.

Today, I still want to know what liberalism has to say about 9/11, and about the character of the hijackers in particular. I still want to know if liberals continue to believe in the innate goodness of mankind, in the harmlessness of Islam, and the public irrelevance of religion, and in the chances of a religion-free liberal utopia ahead. I know they keep talking as if they do: but I can’t help but wonder if there’s anything sincere behind it. I wonder how long their delusion of a wonderful, humanist future for the planet can hold out against the gathering facts ... and how many more victims will have to die while they cling to it.

A Mortally-Stricken Edifice

In his memoir Night, Elie Wiesel wrote “God died at Auschwitz”. If the horrors of the Holocaust could wrench one man’s religion from him, perhaps it is possible also that the tragedy of 9/11 could tear away the blind faith of the liberal ideologues. But liberal optimism is persistent — our sanguine confidence in our ability to master and control humankind’s religious yearnings has probably not quite fallen yet, though certainly it stands smoldering. The great danger, and the final folly, would be for us to continue to build upon the mortally-stricken edifice of liberal optimism.

9/11 should teach us just how suddenly and violently our illusions can come to an end.

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