In this season of the spirit, some somatic news arrives from the Department of Homeland Security. Those busy elves have never left the building, toiling in the caverns and corridors of government to assure our safety. And assure us they do, and then reassure us, that we need not fear Bin Laden during this period. As proof they adduce the fact that the terrorist "chatter," generally as ubiquitous as it is iniquitous, seems momentarily to have quit us. The color code for Christmas seems to be White.
Some would argue that the Department itself is the victim of terrorism, having been beheaded by Mr. Kerik's au pairs and paramours. Others do not find the evidence so suasive; boxing the chatter does not equate to boxing the tinder. I personally find the silence more ominous than the rant. A blustery wind of foreboding blows over me when I don't hear the usual crackle of windy bluster.
Yet in a more profound way, all may agree that the threat from Bin Laden that is most urgent is felt very strongly indeed amid the holiday trappings. Namely, the attack on the expression of religious sensibility that has been restocked with contraband ammunition by a special delivery from Bin Laden. Don't tell me that you have not shared this experience, which now seems to occur daily. You make even the slightest reference to applying a moral standard to public or private activity, and your secularist interlocutor says: "Aha, Bin Laden." Of course, Republican types are inured to this sort of thing after years of offering critiques to affirmative action and getting in return: "Aha, KKK."
Clearly the advent of Bin Laden is not only endangering Jews and Christians physically as his targets, it is besmirching them intellectually by its creedal reflection. It perpetuates a sense that the human mind, by relinquishing its own sense of science in favor of a Divine intelligence, is lowering its barriers against that which is repelled by reason. If God knows better than you and you do not know what God wants until an imam (or a rabbi or priest) passes along the message, then you are a million times scarier than a robot. You are a robot with passion and zest; if you are programmed to destroy, then watch out, world.
This argument always existed, but it had no fresher support than the Crusades and the Inquisition, rather old news. Some credence was added by those of the Nazi collaborators who cited Christianity as a motivation, but the fact is that brutally powerful conquerors can always recruit quislings among the cowardly. Now Bin Laden's merger of the turban with the turbine has resharpened the point of this philosophical and rhetorical bayonet.
The religious counter-argument runs like this. First of all, the human mind is limited, no matter what your belief system. It needs reinforcement for the walls that it builds against the unreasonable and the insane. Religion actually provides that by securing for the individual a sense of place that has preordained coordinates within the cosmos. The range of choices has to be processed using criteria that conform in some measure with reality as perceived, what I like to call syllogistic symmetrical synchronicity. The atheist, by contrast, is the one without existential moorings, because although there is some grounding provided by the physics of time and place, the fact that those things do not have to be there tomorrow ultimately brands them as ephemera. Witness the secular environmentalists who expect the world to implode at any moment.
In truth, the Bin Laden phenomenon in Islam is an aberration. Terrorism is inherently non-religious. Its history is firmly rooted in the secular. All the terrorism of the '60s through the '80s, from the SDS to the SLA to Baader-Meinhof to the Japanese Red Army to the original PLO, was not only avowedly secularist, it based its approach on a nihilistic worldview that viewed religion and government as twin towers of stultifying orthodoxy. Terror is designed to drive a devastating wedge into the structures that enable the traditional society to cohere.
The Muslims who have jettisoned Burke and are hiding bombs under the burqa have taken a scorpion into their tent. It is only a matter of time before this venom corrodes the authority of their religious leadership. Mullahs are meant to mull, not maul. I would tell them that it is too late to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube, but I'm not sure if they are familiar with that product. So let me use a simile that will register: it is too late to get the genie back into the bottle.
Which reminds me of the old Jewish joke about the man on the beach in Miami who finds a genie in a bottle. After gaining wealth and fame with his first two wishes, he hardly needs the third. But he doesn't want to waste it, so he says, "You know what? Make me a malted." The lifeguard never found his body, but he said that the malted was delicious. This time around, on the arid desert sands of Arabia, I would recommend bringing your own canteen; that malted is likely to be toxic.
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