Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Nihilistic Mass Psychosis

There's been a lot of chatter on the net about yesterday's bombing of the UN headquarters. The right blogosphere has been talking about how the UN got what it deserved for "coddling terrorists" while the left blogosphere has pointed to this as further evidence that Bush's invasion of Iraq has just made things worse (I won't link to specific examples of this as there are far to many and I don't want to single out any one of them for specific mention). I happen to lean more towards the latter proposition, but I have no desire to engage in an "I told you so" contest. The truth of the matter is that what happened yesterday is just sad. What we are witnessing is the plunging of an entire region into a nihilistic mass psychosis. When a people fall into a pit of despair, death, especially a glorious death in a struggle against their presumed oppressors, begins to look preferable to what they already have. Suicide mentality spreads not just to the individual terrorists but the population as a whole as the populous cheers on the killers and further alienates themselves from the rest of the world. I mentioned this yesterday in my review of Paul Berman's book "Terror and Liberalism". Berman identifies this form of mass psychosis as the breeding ground of totalitarian ideologies, whether they be Stalinism, Nazism, or Islamism. Berman devotes a portion of his book to a discussion of what happened in Western Europe after the end of World War Two. Many forget it now, but at the time there was a very real and justified fear that Western Europe would fall to the influence of Soviet Communism. After decades of war, war which many blamed on western liberal influences, the arguments for totalitarian communism were very appealing. The west dealt with this threat by a two pronged approach. First there was the Marshal Plan which sought to rebuild Western Europe through massive infusions of capital. The idea being that, if you rebuild the infrastructure, at least people won't have that to complain about. But the second prong, and the one that many people forget about, was an intellectual engagement with the very ideas promoted by the proponents of Soviet Communism. This was the "mind" portion of the "struggle for hearts and minds." Communism had to be defeated not just in the battlefield and in the economy but also in the minds of those to whom it offered such an appealing alternative. As part of this campaign, the west embarked on a program to encourage the development of a western friendly form of socialism. This was not without controversy since that eras equivalent of our present day Freepers would not countenance the idea of good socialism. But it worked. Western Europe was rebuilt, prospered and became a vanguard of western style democracy. And, 50 years later, the marked contrast in prosperity between Western and Eastern Europe eventually lead to the collapse of Soviet Communism from within. What we need today is a similar program for winning the War on Terror. First we need the modern day equivalent of a Marshal Plan that will rebuild a Middle East that has been brought to its knees by decades of internecine warfare. But, just as important, we need to engage the Islamic world on an intellectual field and promote a western friendly form of Islamism. We should put on conferences in every major city of the Middle East. We should also hold them in Europe, the Far East, and America because what we are discussing is are issues that everyone has a stake in. We should invite everyone to these conferences and hold an open dialog of every intellectual dispute that is of concern in this battle. What this will require, of course, is political leadership of the most courageous sort. For, not only will this program require a substantial investment of capital, it will also require accepting the substantial political risk that will come from sitting down across the table from people whose philosophies are viewed with horror by the people those leaders represent. The War on Terror will not be won by bombs alone (though we should do everything we can to remind certain individuals that we aren't afraid to use those bombs if it becomes necessary). It is a war of the mind as well as of the body. We cannot allow political advantage to overcome the need for this kind of program. If we do then we risk encouraging our own form of nihilistic mass psychosis. Death is not an option.

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