JERUSALEM — Translating a scholarly paper the other day, I came across the term menticide. Apparently it’s been around for a while, since it was defined in 1996 as “the systematic effort to undermine and destroy a person’s values and beliefs, as by the use of prolonged interrogations, drugs, torture, etc., and to induce radically different ideas” (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, Gramercy Books). The author of the paper views the Palestinian terror war as an attempt at the gradual menticide of Israeli citizens.
Am I a victim of menticide? There is no doubt that terms like trauma and menticide stir a deep resonance in me. I don’t see anything in my outward behavior that suggests a traumatized or demoralized person, apart from the universal Israeli sense of insecurity in public places and reactivity to loud, sudden noises.
But the word menticide resonates not only for the Israeli experience but back through the 20th century. The Communists, Nazis, and now the Islamists have sought to kill not only human beings but their belief systems, showing them that there is nothing to save them from random, meaningless death, sudden incarceration, the destruction of national or religious symbols and strongholds. For almost a century the human mind has been under an unprecedented assault, first in the name of the no-God of the atheist ideologies and now in the name of a savage God of blood sacrifice.
In the recent Israeli version of menticide, the aims have been to show us that our life in the Land of Israel is untenable, that our security forces are powerless to protect us, and that the price of Zionism is too high. This includes a tendency to target children, confronting parents with ultimate, irresolvable moral dilemmas: if I have a right to put my own life on the line, what about my children’s lives? There have been several attacks or attempted attacks on school buses, and last December two terrorists (dispatched from offices in Damascus) were caught on their way to a suicide bombing in a school in the northern Israeli town of Yokneam. The Beslan terrorists undoubtedly drew inspiration from a tradition of Palestinian attacks on schoolchildren.
Although the Communist and Nazi menticidists were ultimately defeated both materially and spiritually and the Islamist/Arab-nationalist ones can be too, it seems unlikely that this immense, century-long attempt at menticide of the West (not, of course, the only target, but the main one) has had no success at all. The menticide era has also been an era of enhanced secularism, materialism, and individualism, with religious verities weakened especially in Western Europe. Some would say, of course, that modern secularism gave rise to menticidist movements in the first place — indirectly in the case of Islamist menticidism, which in large part is descended from the Communist and fascist varieties, and also is fueled in part by fear of the freewheeling hedonism of the West. But though the causality is hard to determine, onslaughts of moral chaos presumably have had an effect.
I CAN TESTIFY ABOUT myself that the mass-murder legacy of recent history is one of the things that make synagogue not too congenial to me. Though a constitutional theist who has been compelled by the idea of God since early childhood, I have uncomfortable feelings in synagogue that He is being let off too easily. It seems hollow and dubious to heap praise on Him so subserviently; it seems it would be more honest to confront Him with hard questions and admit that belief in Him has become a challenge. The end result is that I keep my more abstract, equivocal faith to myself and don’t attend synagogue much — a partial victory for the menticidists?
But even if the ideological menticidists have some ability to damage Western belief systems, the record so far (and regarding Islamist menticide, the jury is still out on Western Europe) is that Western societies that blend Judeo-Christian foundations with modern secularism eventually understand what is at stake and fight back. America (though, again, there is reason for caution pending the elections) rightly understood that 9/11 was not just a massacre of three thousand people but a menticidist gesture of contempt at its civilization and values. Israel, which has been under the most sustained menticidist assault by the Islamists, is now waging ongoing tactical warfare against the terror masters, and its dovish voices, which became dominant for a while in the 1990s, have receded to the fringes.
Some of this, no doubt, has to do with sheer survival; people who keep seeing their children butchered are likely at some point to fight back. But the act of fighting back affirms something, something that can potentially unite the members of the assaulted society at their various points on the belief and meaning spectrum. Whatever modern, ideological, murderous assault says about faith in a just universe, it in no way undermines the distinction between good and evil; it only reinforces it. If menticidists, God forbid, murder thousands more children, they will only be forcing more and more decent people to confront the fact that evil is real and can only be fought — and that is why ultimately civilization will win.
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