November 9, 2006
The Seduction of Reasons
— Robert P. Baird
"Courage, sir" is the basic prerequisite for any kind of serious moral thought, and British novelist Martin Amis has always impressed me as a person who has such courage in spades. Amis has never shied from the moral critique of life and literature. But Amis's recent essay "The Age of Horrorism" shows that if moral intelligence like his doesn't come easily or cheaply, the same cannot be said for how it goes.
Amis's essay, published in the Guardian, is an indictment against extreme Islamism and Western responses to it. His basic argument is that extreme Islamism is irrational and that the West should therefore abandon efforts to respond to it rationally. He writes, "Contemplating intense violence, you very rationally ask yourself, what are the reasons for this? It is time to move on. We are not dealing in reasons because we are not dealing in reason." Forget for a moment the sophistry that elides "reasons" and "reason" in that last sentence. Forget, too, that one of Amis's gifts as a novelist is to show with heart-sickening precision just how little time any of us spends dealing in reason. What's more interesting (read: upsetting) is that six-word sentence: "It is time to move on."
It is time to move on: so this is it, the famous Hard Line, not unfamiliar to most of us, but still a bit jarring to hear from the author of London Fields, one of the most subtle and morally astute novels of the last century. At the heart of the Hard Line mentality is a refusal or inability to think of violent Islamism in political terms. Amis wants badly to believe that the extreme Islamists' apocalyptic ideology qualifies them as sui generis, near-nihilists beyond the reach of our mortal understanding: "Suicide-mass murder is astonishingly alien, so alien, in fact, that Western opinion has been unable to formulate a rational response to it." "Terrorism" is no longer scary enough to describe it, and so he offers "horrorism" in its place.
But as political scientist Robert Pape has demonstrated, suicide bombers aren't alien at all, at least no more alien than cluster bombs and cruise missiles. Moreover, the motives for their use are explainable in surprisingly familiar terms. "The central fact," Pape says, "is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland" (American Conservative, July 18, 2005). And as Lawrence Wright says in a recent New Yorker article:
"Traditional radical Islam was homogenous and organized; it had a detailed ideology with a specific vision of a non-Western alternative society. There was, in theory, a peaceful path to this idealized vision, but the traditional radical thinkers believed that this path had been cut off by the West, making jihad — which they saw as a political struggle carried out on the battlefield — the only alternative" (September 11, 2006, my emphasis).
Of course, to say that violent forms of Islamism are political, to say that there might be rational, strategic reasons behind their murderous tactics, is not to absolve, justify, or excuse them. Explanation is not exculpation. It is, rather, to suggest that extreme Islamism might not be far from one of Rumsfeld's "known knowns." The Islamic caliphate and an obsessive desire to hurt the West are bin Laden's two fixed ideas, but they do not make him a madman. The simple, appalling truth is that you don't have to be crazy to be a murderer — or even a mass murderer.
Indeed, the portrait of Al Qaeda that emerges from the suite of articles published in the New Yorker's September 11 issue is one of a fairly normal terrorist organization. According to terrorism expert Jessica Stern, Al Qaeda informant Jamal Ahmed Fadl "showed us that bin Laden was like any other C.E.O., and that Al Qaeda was a real bureaucracy." In hindsight this shouldn't have been surprising; though there are many, and many spectacular, ways to kill large numbers of humans, there are relatively few ways to get them to work together toward a common goal, no matter what it is.
Moral thinking is not the same as moral action, and one of the small graces of this life is that the latter does not require the former. Moral thinking can, however, prepare us for moral action in the same way classical training prepares a pianist for jazz. But what we get in Amis's article is not moral thinking, it is rage. And the final irony of Amis's rage is that it apes precisely what it professes to despise.
What frightens me is that in their rage, Amis and the Hard Line confraternity believe that violent Islamism is different — a notion that always issues in the same conclusion: an unprecedented threat requires an unprecedented response. With a new Congress we can hope to learn just what that conclusion entails. But I fear that when the facts are in, we will already have known them all too well.
Martin Amis's article "The Age of Horrorism" appeared in the September 10, 2006, issue of the Guardian, and may be found here: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,1868732,00.html.
Robert P. Baird is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Managing Editor of the Chicago Review.