The fifth commemoration of 9/11 brought forth the expected ceremonies and painful memories. It also generated a particularly thoughtful column in the British magazine Spiked by Frank Furedi, a purported atheist. Atheists may be especially sensitive to a lack of faith in others. Furedi thinks that a "lack of clarity about what the West stands for" has been made excruciatingly evident by the reaction to 9/11, which "exposed and brought to the surface the difficulty Western society has in giving meaning to its way of life."
Furedi writes: "For a brief moment, many observers believed that 9/11 would represent a rallying point and provide the West with a sense of mission. However, in the absence of a coherent system of meaning, the West struggles to promote its own values; instead, it relies on tawdry advertising and marketing… This focus on improving ‘the image’ indicated that the US was not prepared to engage in a serious battle of ideas."
It sounds as if Furedi would agree with the statement of President George W. Bush in a recent Wall Street Journal interview about the importance of the war of ideas. Bush said that "the only way to make sure your grandchildren are protected is to win the battle of ideas, is to defeat the ideology of hatred and resentment." Yet, Furedi is right. We are losing. And he might be surprised that the US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, agrees with him. Last March, Rumsfeld graded the US performance in the war of ideas, or public diplomacy, with a "D."
In a way, it may seem a bit disingenuous for an atheist to criticise a lack of coherent meaning in the West, when such a lack is the inescapable conclusion to his own premise. That is, unless the meaning is self-given, from where else could it come if not from God? However, if it is self-given, then it is revocable, and therefore not "coherent." The West is awhirl with such self-definitions, based upon appetite and will, with little connection to objective reality. That is why we find ourselves babbling incoherently in the face of an assault by a very coherent adversary.
In fact, our moral incoherence is what appals so many Muslims who prize faith in God and family morality. The more immersed we are in abortion, pornography, drugs, homosexuality, and the break-up of the family, as well as the rationalisations for these things, the more appalling we appear. For example, 32 per cent of British Muslims (half a million people) believe that "Western society is decadent and immoral and that Muslims should seek to bring it to an end." We are losing because belief will always trump unbelief. And the moral relativism under which so much of the West lives is simply a form of unbelief.
We are failing because we are so confused over essential issues concerning the meanings of life, family, and moral worth that we cannot coherently articulate a set of ideas to project beyond saying we are for "democracy." That does not work. As Harry Jaffa wrote, we are "telling others to accept the forms of our own political institutions, without any reference to the principles or convictions that give rise to those institutions." Threats to national existence, however, have a marvellous way of concentrating the mind on exactly why we do have a moral right to exist, in fact, an imperative to exist in a certain way.
What, after all, was wrong with 9/11? As has often been remarked, it was an act of barbarism. But what does that mean? What is the moral import of an act of barbarism? One can only answer fully by defining what civilisation is – the act of recognising another person as a human being. The definition of a barbarian is someone who cannot perform this act – often because he has either come from or chosen a universe of meaning that does not contain the term "human being." It is hard to overstate the catastrophe resulting from this incapacity or refusal. If one is unable to recognise another person as a human being, then one does not know the difference between the animal and the human, or the human and the divine. Confusion over these matters leads to slavery, human sacrifice, cannibalism, and other horrors.
It also led to Nazism and Communism, both of which denied a common humanity. Now, we are in another struggle – this time against Muslim radicals who assert their perverted standard of faith as the litmus test for life or death. Share it or die. They serve an angry god who demands human sacrifice, first from other Muslims who do not subscribe to their darkness, and then from us. To fight this new war of ideas, we require a firm conviction in the justice of our own cause, and the means to explain it to our enemies and to friends. We need to recover our own civilisation in order to defend it.
But this is nothing new. We have been through this before. Everyone now celebrates "our" victory over Communism, conveniently forgetting that the struggle was not only with Communism, but within the West as to what the West and Communism meant. Communism was a form of absolutism fighting a form of relativism. As such, Communism had the clear advantage, and only lost it after the moral recovery of the West under the leadership of John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and others, who spoke unequivocally about the inviolability of each human being, endowed by God with inalienable rights.
In the darkest days of the Cold War, Whittaker Chambers wrote: "For the West, the struggle is its own solution. Out of the struggle itself, the West may rediscover in itself, or otherwise develop, forces that can justify its survival." And to paraphrase Joseph Cropsey’s famous remark from the Cold War by substituting radical Islam for Communism: "Do we have any reason for believing that the Islamicisation of the world is an evil commensurate with the peril created by opposing it?" These statements and questions pertain to today.
Can we rediscover ourselves? I received an unexpected answer to this question from what may seem an unlikely source. A friend of mine who suffered from a debilitating stroke recently wrote to me with the help of his wife. He said, "If my mind or my life should be destroyed, let not one helpless pre-born be slain in order that any stem cells be harvested for me. Let us pray for young lives stolen." In his great distress, this man spoke out for the sanctity of all human lives, even the most helpless and innocent. That is civilisation. It still lives, and can be spread again.
Last year in the Balkans, I spoke on the roots of Islamlist ideology to a small group of Europeans. When I finished, they seemed to go into a state of shock. What I had said, they told me, had confirmed their worst fears. "What should we do?" they asked. The answer was one that even Mr. Furedi might approve of: "First, recover your faith."
Robert R. Reilly writes from Washington DC. He is a contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.