Posted: November 28, 2001
hese are the words of Edmund Burke, referring to a corps of irregulars used to enforce the tyranny of the French Revolution. I hope I will not be drafted into the "blame America" crowd if I briefly expound on the place of terror in the tradition of modern political thought in the West. Then we can compare the terror we know from our philosophers with the terror from Islamic radicals that we have lately experienced.
Aristotle speaks of terror used by tyrants to maintain their rule, but he rejects it because he rejects tyranny. Terror is directed against the notable and high-minded of the tyrant's subjects; with terror, the tyrant eliminates these dangerous potential foes and keeps the people modest and submissive. It was Machiavelli, a modern writer, who picked up this tyrant's weapon and made it an instrument of all government, including republican government. He recommended the practice of cruelty as long as it was "well-used," but he suggested too that the infinite cruelty of Hannibal was a virtue. While individual killings might be represented as punishment for crimes, Machiavelli went so far as to propose killing all the gentlemen in a republic so as to make it governable. As with Aristotle, terror is essentially anti-aristocratic. It is used against the honorable, who do not fear death, or fear it less, in order to impress the multitude, who do fear it and take satisfaction in the elimination of those who pretend to be above them.
Thomas Hobbes founded a philosophy of rights on the timorous character of the multitude, making it universal in a "state of nature" where everyone would be in fear. John Locke, the founder of liberalism, continued Hobbes' reliance on a fearful state of nature and the right of self-preservation. To a degree, therefore, modern political philosophy is implicated in the terror that was adopted as deliberate state policy by the French Republic when the Convention declared the Terror to be the order of the day on September 5, 1793. Here the tyrant's recourse for saving himself becomes the republic's chosen policy of killing its enemies, potential or actual.
To Burke the policy of terror revealed the principal feature of the French Revolution, its fanatical atheism. Religion can be the cause of fanaticism ("enthusiasm" in the eighteenth-century sense), he admitted. But so too, the world learned then for the first time, could atheism. The Revolution's philosophers taught its politicians an atheistic doctrine that they used to consolidate their power at home and expand it abroad. Conscience was deposed from its dominion over the mind, and the dreadful maxim of Machiavelli—never to be wicked by halves in great affairs—was put in its stead.
The revolutionary politicians hardened their hearts against their victims because their humanitarian goals gave them license to look far into the future for the benefits of their theories, beyond the horizon of the present in which people actually live. To arrive at the future, Burke argued, these politicians felt justified in despising men's natural affections, in denying them the consolations of religion, and in depriving them of their property. Behind the revolutionary terrorists Burke sees aggressive modern secularism, and he compared their leaders to Mohammed and their movement to the Protestant Reformation.
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To sum up: our modern political philosophy has experimented, to say the least, with the manipulation of fear. Although Burke decried the Terror in the French Revolution, G.W.F. Hegel, who followed him, justified is as a stage of the learning process of Absolute (or unrestrained) Freedom, as if this historical event were a stratagem that could have been adopted by a rational God. Moreover, the reliance of Hobbes and Locke on the right of life, understood as the priority of self-preservation, makes government responsible for security rather than for virtue. Security is easy to define and attainable, virtue is hard to define and unattainable. But a people primed for security and given to fear for self-preservation is subject to the frequent alarms of insecurity and thus particularly vulnerable to terrorism. The peace in which it lives, sustained by routine instead is virtue, is easy to disrupt.
So, apparently, the Islamic radicals believe. They fasten on the modern respect for life, which they dismiss contemptuously as a cowardly clinging to life. Just as they use our technology against us, making weapons of our commercial airplanes, so too they make our principles contradict themselves, our very desire for security driving us into insecurity.
Like Burke, the Islamic radicals oppose modern secularism, but unlike him, they do not do so in the name of modern freedom. What they want is not clear. Do they desire to return to a pre-modern life of piety and obedience to law removed from the temptations that modern technology puts in the way? Or is there something still more sinister in their seething hearts smacking of modernity in its latest, most destructive totalitarian phase, a hatred of peace, comfort, security and the pursuit of happiness? To bear out the latter possibility, one sees in their religion truly ferocious anger against modern democracy, endorsed, they believe, by Allah and the Prophet, as if the purpose of divinity were to intensify human passions to their utmost and to turn mankind against itself in an endless war that rewards murderers in the next life with a vulgar bliss only murderers would enjoy.
To defend ourselves, we could take another look at Burke. Burke stands for the dominion of conscience over the mind, which is not a refusal to think but an unwillingness to abandon scruple. And, lest conscience make cowards of us all, he combines it with a manly freedom, which replaces the right of self-preservation and promises to keep democracy powerful and brave. I think I see an impromptu instance of that freedom in the passengers on United flight 93 who conquered their fear and resisted their murderers. That story deserves to go into every future American civics textbook, if it can be verified—or even if it cannot.