Apocalyptic Violence – Justification for Enlightened People?

In an article that argues that the events of 9/11 and subsequent are not that bad, not as threatening as we seem to think they are, evidenced by what he sees as our overreaction to them, Johns Hopkins professor David Bell seeks to understand just why we feel these events are massive, on-a-Hitlerian-scale, threats to the U.S.

First, of course the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon, the hijacking of United Flight 93, and deaths of American military personnel in Iraq are exactly that bad if you’ve lost someone you love, or if you suffered great harm because of them.

But that’s not where this author is going.  Here’s where he’s going:

“But it is no disrespect to the victims of 9/11, or to the men and women of our armed forces, to say that, by the standards of past wars, the war against terrorism has so far inflicted a very small human cost on the United States. As an instance of mass murder, the attacks were unspeakable, but they still pale in comparison with any number of military assaults on civilian targets of the recent past, from Hiroshima on down.
“Even if one counts our dead in Iraq and Afghanistan as casualties of the war against terrorism, which brings us to about 6,500, we should remember that roughly the same number of Americans die every two months in automobile accidents. … [More on that here.]

“A war it may be, but does it really deserve comparison to World War II and its 50 million dead? Not every adversary is an apocalyptic threat.”

Here comes his explanation for why we think it is:

Seeing international conflict in apocalyptic terms — viewing every threat as existential — is hardly a uniquely American habit. To a certain degree, it is a universal human one. But it is also, more specifically, a Western one, which paradoxically has its origins in one of the most optimistic periods of human history: the 18th century Enlightenment.

“Until this period, most people in the West took warfare for granted as an utterly unavoidable part of the social order. Western states fought constantly and devoted most of their disposable resources to this purpose; during the 1700s, no more than six or seven years passed without at least one major European power at war.

The Enlightenment, however, popularized the notion that war was a barbaric relic of mankind’s infancy, an anachronism that should soon vanish from the Earth. Human societies, wrote the influential thinkers of the time, followed a common path of historical evolution from savage beginnings toward ever-greater levels of peaceful civilization, politeness and commercial exchange.

“The unexpected consequence of this change was that those who considered themselves ‘enlightened,’ but who still thought they needed to go to war, found it hard to justify war as anything other than an apocalyptic struggle for survival against an irredeemably evil enemy.”

It seems to me that this what Girardian anthropology would predict: As humans more and more see (because of Jesus’s death and resurrection, and what it reveals through the intelligence of the victim of the societal mechanism for creating so-called peace) that violence is simply and completely violence — that there is no true distinction between sanctioned violence and any other kind of violence — and as we struggle at the same time to come to terms with our own relational and personal violence — still sometimes attributing our violent acts as imitation of a sacredly violent God, sometimes believing there is no god and that we have to save ourselves from violence and war through meditation, affirmation, good deeds, enlightened thought, and so on — and often fail in controlling our violence impulses, we need an explanation for this cognitive dissonance, a reason why we don’t seem to act on what we believe … OK, so far, that’s just simple psychology, the cognitive dissonance thing, but the explanation we seem most comfortable with is what seems Girardian to me: I have to do this little bit of violence, nasty though I know it to be, to keep much, much worse violence from happening.

In other words, it’s the same explanation cultures have offered for centuries.


About the same topic, this lovely bit from Calvin Trillin, asked why he didn’t mention 9/11 in talking about his wife’s death in a hospital on the same day (11 Sept. 2001): “You will come across people in New York who will say, ‘Oh, I had been thinking for weeks about going to the half-price ticket place in the World Trade towers, and I could have been there’ — people who make it part of their own history, try to use it as a sort of self-aggrandizing thing. I find that offensive, because some people were there — it wasn’t that they might have been — and they died. ” Reminds me of James Alison’s essay, “Contemplation in a World of Violence.”


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