Destroying the World to Rescue the World
Paul Kahn: The popular sovereign emerges when all members of the polity can experience the pain of politics. All citizens are equal, when all read the same history of suffering as their pain, and all stand equally before the threat of future pain—sacrifice—for the state.
At the heart of the state, we find a commitment to the willing sacrifice of all of the national resources—human and material—for the end of preservation of the state. All can be called upon to sacrifice—to suffer—for the maintenance of the state. Nuclear weapons are the perfect expression of democratic pain. A policy of mutual assured destruction is the end-point, ending in a vision of universal self-sacrifice founded on a love of nation.
Richard Koenigsberg: Better dead than red. Hitler declared, “You are nothing, your nation is everything”: destroy the world in order to rescue one’s nation and its sacred ideals. But the other side—one’s enemy—they too are willing to destroy the world in order to preserve their sacred ideals.
Destroy the world in order to save the world. This is the fundamental structure of political ideologies: Where is evil located? Who is the enemy? Evil is located within the heart and soul of the enemy. Political ideologies are rescue fantasies. To save the heart and soul of the world, one must destroy evil—kill off the enemy.
Hitler located evil in “the Jew.” If Germany was to survive, every single Jew in the world would have to be located and destroyed. “We may be inhumane,” Hitler declared, “but if we rescue Germany we have performed the greatest dead in the world.” Is there any political ideology that does not have this structure?
Ideologies differ in terms of the class of people identified as the source of evil: Jews, communists, capitalists, the great Satan, terrorists. Political ideologies seek to locate the source of evil. In our hearts the dream remains the same: if only this class of people did not exist, the world could return to a state of perfection. Destroy the enemy to save the world.
Torture—or Noble Sacrifice?
Paul Kahn: Nothing is easier than to describe the horror of the battlefield. Yet, despite our knowledge of that horror, we celebrate a political history of achievement on the battlefield. The West not only experienced the destruction of a generation of young men in the First World War, it pursued the Second World War to the point of genocide and the destruction of European material wealth and civil society.
The experience in the trenches of the First World War may come to appear as nothing other than a torturous mauling and destruction of bodies. For the soldier who has lost faith in the sovereign character of a politics of sacrifice, war becomes a scene of horrendous torture: broken bodies, pain and death. Once a family loses this faith in the sovereign, it will only see the state conscripting and killing its loved ones.
The sacred loses its power and we are left with the tortured body—a residue of politics when faith in the sovereign has disappeared. Wilfred Owen captures this residue of the dying body when he writes: “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?” Not sacrifice, but slaughter; not the transcendence of the merely human, but the evil of the loss of the human. To those who do not hear God, Abraham’s action must have looked like a bizarre torture of his son.
Richard Koenigsberg: Yet historians continue to write about episodes of mass destruction as if they make sense. Historians are true believers. Their craft builds upon faith in sovereign entities given names like France and Great Britain and Germany. Dying for one’s country: sacred devotion.
Losing faith, one perceives the horror of the battlefield. Warfare comes to be experienced as torture: the torture of young men. The First World War was a massive scene of torture, with national leaders sending young men to be blown to pieces: broken bodies, pain and death.
But they were “dying for their countries.” Faith transforms slaughter into sacrifice. Dying for Great Britain, the young men are revered, memorialized, commemorated. The soldier—like Christ—is resurrected in the immortality of the nation. And so in the soldier all will be made alive. The soldier dies so that we may live.
Destroying Witches/Killing Enemies
Paul Kahn: A secular age looks back at the wars of religion and sees in them a great evil: bodies were destroyed for “no real reason.” All the suffering and destruction to what end? Similarly, we look at the tortured destruction of witches and heretics as a kind of madness producing great evil. Once faith is gone, we are left with only tortured and maimed bodies.
So we are beginning to see our own political past. We do not see political martyrs, but senseless suffering. No longer understanding the sacred character of the political, we see only the tortured bodies of the victims. We see a field of arbitrary death and destruction that contributes nothing to the well-being that we would place at the heart of the contemporary political narrative.
Or, I should say, this is what we might begin to see—or even hope to see—but still not quite yet. The politics of the sublime, of the sacred character of the nation, recedes but is not yet gone. The popular sovereign remains a brooding presence capable of enthralling the nation. It remains a hungry god and we remain willing to feed it our children. We react in only half-forgotten ways to the attack of September 11.
Richard Koenigsberg: Yet we do not yet understand political mass murder as a “kind of madness.” We still do not equate our drive to destroy “enemies” with the “tortured destruction of witches and heretics”: a form of madness producing great evil.
Looking back upon the twentieth century, historians imagine that—somehow—it all made sense: anti-Semitism was a cultural form rooted in Western civilization and history; communism was a doctrine created by serious thinkers who believed that a humane world required the elimination of capitalism and capitalists; and preservation of the American way of life required the destruction of communism and communists (generating “witch-hunts”).
Was killing Jews in Nazi Germany analogous to killing witches? Yes. However, the enlightenment belief in rationality persists: we seek “reasons”; assume there must have been reasons, refusing to embrace the reality of collective madness. MAD = mutually assured destruction: “A doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of high-yield weapons of mass destruction by two opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both attacker and defender.”
Insanity—or Noble Sacrifice?
Paul Kahn: Willingness to sacrifice for the creation and maintenance of political meanings always appears inconceivable to those outside of the community. We find it incomprehensible that Palestinians would be willing to blow themselves up for the maintenance of a political identity. But the suicide bomber is not different in kind from the Israeli soldier. Both know that political identity is a matter of life and death.
Both sides in this conflict wonder at the capacity of the other to kill and be killed. We have the same reaction to the sacrificial politics of others as we do to those who believe in different gods, rituals, and sacred texts. It literally makes no sense to us; it appears “crazy.” How, we wonder, can anyone believe that the gods appeared in that object or that place? This shock of difference, however, usually does not cause us to doubt our own beliefs. We think others strange, but that does not unmoor us from our own sacred rituals. The same is true of our own political meanings.
Richard Koenigsberg: How strange and bizarre that Islamic radicals would willingly die for Allah. How weird. Yet 360,000 Union soldiers died in the American Civil War in the name of “preserving the Union.” And 126,000 American soldiers died in the First World War—in order to “make the world safe for democracy.” We don’t find these deaths strange at all. There is nothing “crazy” about dying for our own sacred ideals. By virtue of faith, slaughter becomes noble sacrifice.