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With God on their side
Religion and politics: the worst are full of passionate intensity
Eamonn McCann, 27 Sep 2001
“The world has turned its face towards God”, claimed Dublin cardinal Desmond Connell. I wonder if it was scowling.
It doesn’t seem from the evidence that God figured prominently in the hearts or minds of the section of humanity which was sealed into doomed airplanes or entombed in the tottering top floors of the twin towers.
From the fragments we have of their last moments, it appears that distraught men and women, knowing death was upon them, made desperate efforts to ’phone husbands, wives, parents, children, lovers, friends, even utter strangers if nobody close was contactable, to say over and over, I love you.
There were few reports – none at all I’m aware of – of the doomed turning towards God. It was human contact, human love, that they craved as they felt eternity shrug, apprehending, perhaps, that the only sense in which we live on when life is done is in the emotional memory of those we have shared love with.
If was afterwards, when giddy disbelief had given way to the horror of having to try to make sense of it all, that religion stepped forward to fulfill its core and ultimately only function of providing fantastical rationale for such human experience as the mind resists dealing with, and offering ersatz comfort to the inconsolable.
Not so the men engaged in arrowing the planes in on their targets. God was above them, before them, and in them.
Certainly, the presumed perpetrators appear to have believed in their religion with a more passionate intensity, and seen to have been more vividly aware of the immanence of God, than any of the prelates, rabbis, imams and the like who have stood on platforms to say prayers for the dead in the days since.
Who’s to say that Cardinal Connell’s appreciation of God’s presence in the event is more accurate than the view of the hi-jackers that they were about God’s work?
Religious fervour cannot have been the sole driving force behind the suicide bombers, nor does consideration of religion provide an adequate account of the reasons for the attack or a useful guide to the response we should make. But without the religious dimension, it’s unlikely the massacre would have happened in the way that it did.
What fitted the perpetrators for the task was the fact that their own mortal lives meant relatively little to them compared with the bliss for all eternity which they believed would be theirs for having accomplished God’s will. The thousands of other lives turned to vapour in the process will have meant nothing at all in comparison with the infinite majesty of Allah.
It’s only, exclusively, uniquely in the context of religion that calculations of that sort become thinkable.
It’s said now by a united front of religious leaders that the bombers represented a perversion of Islam. All apologists for religions say this when actions arising from their beliefs lead to an outcome they don’t approve of, or which they can’t, for the moment, defend.
The leaders of the main Churches in the North abhor the hate-sheets freely distributed which tell of God instructing His people, on pain of damnation, to kill everyone in the places they manage to subdue. But in a different time and place it was mainstream Christianity itself which sanctioned such wholesale slaughter. George Bush talked of a “crusade”, and there was an immediate fluster of concern that he should choose his words more carefully. But he’s a devout, practising Christian. The phrase will have come easily. He may have had at the back of his mind, and to have been reminding the rest of us, of the relevant reality that western Christianity, after all, has been massacring Muslims for a thousand years.
The British historian William Lecky argued that, of all the major religions, Christianity had caused the greatest measure of undeserved human suffering. Islam and Judaeism, he believed, were the less murderous variations on ancient Abrahamic thought.
Abraham, it will be recalled, agreed to cut his son’s throat because that’s what God wanted.
Judaeism is expressed in contemporary politics as Zionism, the ideology which holds that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews. To seek to extirpate all others living upon it, then, is to follow the word of the Lord. Palestinian children are casually killed, by divine providence as it were. Which, in turn, helped shape the circumstances of the outrage on September 11th.
All things considered, instead of mounting platforms to emit comforting platitudes, would not a period of silence from the leaders of religion be altogether more appropriate?
The attacks didn’t change the direction of US and world politics so much as suddenly accelerate the pace of development.
The preparations for war under way within a week of the strikes represented not a new strategy but a surge forward in the strategy outlined by senior officials of the Bush administration before and after the election of last November.
In fervently pressing for a swift declaration of war against what they deem to be “rogue” States, they have racheted medium-term plans to the top of the agenda, for immediate implementation.
Within weeks of the election, before taking office, Bush instructed defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld to “challenge the status quo inside the Pentagon...to develop a strategy necessary to have a force equipped for warfare of the 21st century”.
Through the years of the Cold War, US military strategy had been predicated on the liklihood of a land war in Europe. The basic scenario had the Red Army sweeping across the north German plain. “Tactical” nuclear weapons were deployed against the possibility of Nato’s defences being overrun.
The new thinking in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon was summed up in August by Michael Klare, author of a key study published earlier in the year, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict: “They expect to fight intense campaigns in widely scattered locations across the world”.
The ambition was, in the words of assistant Secretary of State John Bolton, “to have the capacity to strike with pin-point accuracy at a time of our choosing anywhere on the globe”. Bush used some of the same phraseology in a speech in February outlining how he envisaged America’s “defences” shaping up by the end of his administration’s first term: “On land, our heavy forces will be lighter, our light forces will be more lethal. All will be easier to deploy and sustain. In the air we will be able to strike across the world with pin-point accuracy”. The US would be able “to fight and prevail on any conceivable battlefield, especially in east Asia”. Now we see it happening, sooner than anticipated.
This gives the lie to the notion that prior to September 11th Bush had been intent on pulling US forces back behind the walls of “Fortress USA”, in keeping with a generally isolationist stance. What has been expressed in the changed orientation of the Pentagon was a stiffening of resolve to represent US interests in the world before all else. To an extent, this has always been the case. But henceforth there’s to be less messing with extraneous notions such as the defence of democracy or the maintenance of regional balance, which previous administrations – constrained by the Cold War or for reasons of diplomacy – had, at all times rhetorically, some times in reality, held out as guiding principles for global action. As Klare wrote in August: “These objectives have not entirely disappeared under Bush, but they are being pushed aside by an explicit emphasis on the pursuit of America’s own national interest”.
On the campaign trail a year ago, prospective vice-president Dick Cheney told the New York Times: “The difficult part is deciding what’s in our strategic interest, what’s of sufficient significance in terms of US interests so it’s worth the commitment of resources and the potential loss of US lives”. The September 11th attacks forced speedy decisions on these matters.
Bit-players like Bertie Ahern may follow Tony Blair in asserting that the attacks were “not aimed at America but at the whole of the democratic world”, implying that retaliation led by America amounts to defence of democracy deserving of automatic backing from democrats everywhere. But this is not the way Washington sees it.
What’s afoot is the imposition at breakneck speed of a new world order in which the interests of capitalism, as determined and mediated by the sole capitalist super-power, will prevail everywhere over everything.
Millions of people sense that this is what it’s about. They know that Bush and Blair are out to exploit the anguish decent people feel for the office workers, the firefighters and the other innocent victims in order to win support for a war to make the world safer for their exploitative system. All governments seek support for oppressive wars on this basis. We should stand firm against them.
Heroic magnanimity is commonplace in Northern Ireland. We have come almost to expect it. The sibling, parent or child choking with tears on the doorstep and saying that the main thing, the thing they really want to get across, is – No Retaliation.
We want no other family to go through the grief which our family has been plunged into, no more innocent people so cruelly cut down.
We marvel at the resources of compassion unremarkable individuals are able to call on, and wonder whether we, cast down into so deep a sorrow, would find the same quality of forgiveness within us.
It would have been asking too much to have expected feelings of such tenderness to emerge in the aftermath of the US atrocity. The sheer scale of suffering and death made any individual generous response seem, initially at least, inappropriate, even humanly impossible.
And yet, among the tear-sodden photographs and prayers and placards on display in Manhattan in the days after the calamity was a banner with the reminder that, “An eye for an eye equals blindness”. And in the background of one CNN broadcast, a crowd in New York’s Washington Square, seemingly of some hundreds, hands cupped around candle-flames in the dark, singing, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance”.
Soft-focus, fuzzy-edged mawkishness it might have seemed in other circumstances. But in that time and place, a triumph of decency.
It is unsurprising but dismaying that none at all of that sentiment seems to have seeped through to the Bush administration, or to those squared off as shoulder-to-shoulder associates. That which is held up here as wholly admirable and inspiring when displayed on the doorsteps of the routinely bereaved is scorned as a weakness of the spirit, as cowardice and lack of resolve, when it comes to the shaping of governments’ response.
We are told that the world shifted on its axis of morality, but it’s not true. There is no sign the ruling elite of western capitalism paused for thought, or tried at last to see the problems of the planet in human perspective, or considered whether they ought generally to change course for the future. Instead, the natural outrage arising, too, from the death-heap in Manhattan was put instantly at the service of the project for permanent supremacy they had been pursuing all along.
To change course would be “giving in to the terrorists”. Anything other than stomping straight ahead to tramp down all resistance would be “giving in to the terrorists”.
No mention of offering a different, better way forward to any of the wretched who were minded to follow the terrorist path. No talk even of a twin-track strategy for delivering political solutions in tandem with security action. No plan for mopping up the pools of misery in which the seeds of Manhattan’s horror will have had their slow germination. No proposal for dropping the Third World’s debt and no indication of easement of the terror financed by the US and visited by Zionism on the people of Palestine.
Instead, says the most powerful man on earth, “We’ll smoke ‘em out and they’ll get theirs”. Or, alternatively, “We’ll whup their ass”.
The rest of us might find comfort in the fact that it’s possible to encounter more humanity, and higher morality, and deeper political understanding, on the grief-stricken doorsteps of Belfast and Derry.