Page 1 of 2 How the hijackers changed American culture
This essay is excerpted from my collection of essays, It's Not the End
of the World - It's Just the End of You . It appears simultaneously with my
new book, How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying Too). .
A month after the September 11, 2001 attack, I wrote in this space:
grand vulnerability of the Western mind is horror. The Nazis understood this
and pursued a policy "des Schreckens" (to cause horror) and "Entsetzens"
(terror, literally: dislodgement). Horror was not merely an instrument of war
traditional sense, but a form of Wagnerian theater, or
psychological warfare on the grand scale. Hitler's tactical advantage lay in
his capacity to be more horrible than his opponents could imagine. The most
horrible thing of all is that he well might have succeeded if not for his own
megalomaniac propensity to overreach.
America, as Osama bin Laden taunted this week, lost in Vietnam. But it was not
military setbacks, but the horrific images of Vietnamese civilians burned by
napalm, that lost the war. America's experience in the war is enshrined in
popular culture in the film Apocalypse Now, modeled after Joseph
Conrad's story, The Heart of Darkness. The Belgian trading company
official, Paul Kurtz, sinks into bestiality and dies with these words: "The
horror! The horror!" It was a dreadful film, but a clever reference. At the
close of World War I, T S Eliot subtitled his epitaph for Western civilization, The
Waste Land, with a quote from the Conrad story: "Mr Kurtz, he dead."
In this essay, adapted from material first published in
First Things magazine, I argue that the 9/11 terrorists succeeded in precisely
this goal: to employ the theater of horror to demoralize Americans. The culture
has changed in consequence of the attack, to our detriment.
The "horror" genre supplied one out of 10 feature films released in the United
States in 2009, according to the International Movie Database. During Universal
Studios' heyday in the 1930s, the proportion was one in 200; only a decade ago
it was one in 25. Vampire teen heartthrobs meanwhile take first place on some
lists of best-selling books.
By way of contrast, 716 horror features were released in 2009, compared to 39
Westerns, a ratio of almost 20 to one. During 1960-1964, Americans saw more
Westerns than horror movies. The earlier date is pertinent because it includes
two of the most fearful events in post-war American history, namely, the Cuban
missile crisis and the assassination of president John F Kennedy.
Westerns invariably portray a well-understood form of evil and contrast it to
the courage to stand up to evil. Horror films involve an evil that is
incomprehensible because it is supernatural and so potent that ordinary courage
offers no remedy.
Americans never were more frightened than during the Cuban missile crisis, when
nuclear war might have erupted, and never more affected by an act of violence
than by the murder of a president. But in the 1960s, Americans thought they
understood what they most feared; today they appear to fear most what they
What has horrified them?
The element of incomprehension, that is, of the supernatural, distinguishes the
horror genre from mere gratuitous violence. It is not the spurting blood or
mangled flesh that defines horror but the presentiment that the world itself is
disordered: Demons abound in the absence of a beneficent God, who is somehow
There is nothing new in the monsters that infest popular culture, indeed,
nothing particularly scary about them compared to the lurid products of the
pagan imagination in antiquity. What is new is the unprecedented way in which
they have proliferated in the American popular media.
In biblical terms, we may define horror as the presentiment that the forces of
chaos have escaped their appointed bounds and that a good God no longer
exercises mastery. Fear and awe of God differ radically from horror: We fear
God's punishment and stand in awe of his presence, but we are horrified when we
no longer believe that God will do justice. One might mention in this context
O God, my king from of old,
Who brings deliverance throughout the land;
It was You who drove back the sea with Your might,
Who smashed the heads of the monsters in the water;
It was You who crushed the heads of Leviathan,
Who left him as food for the denizens of the desert.
Jon Levenson of Harvard University observes (in Creation and the Persistence of
Evil), these are unmistakable references to a Canaanite myth discovered
in the excavation of Ugarith (14th century BCE). "Each of these words occurs in
some form in the passage just quoted. Without the Ugaritic literature, these
allusions would remain tantalizing obscurities."
In Levenson's reading, creation ex nihilo in the sense of an
instantaneous change from nothing to something fails to capture the theological
implication of the biblical creation story.
Two and a half millennia of
Western theology have made it easy to forget that throughout the ancient Near
Eastern world, including Israel, the point of creation is not the production of
matter out of nothing, but rather the emergence of a stable community in a
benevolent and life-sustaining order.
The defeat by YHWH of the forces that have interrupted that order is
intrinsically an act of creation. The fact that order is being restored rather
than instituted was not a difference of great consequence in ancient Hebrew
culture. To call upon the arm of YHWH to awake as in "days of old" is to
acknowledge that these adversarial forces were not annihilated in perpetuity in
primordial times. Rising anew, they have escaped their appointed bounds and
thus flung a challenge at their divine vanquisher.
There is a
radical difference, by the same token, between Christian apocalyptic literature
and the corresponding subgenre of horror films: In the former, God manifests
himself in the world and his mastery over the fearful apparitions never is in
doubt. But God remains inexplicably absent while hell rampages in The Omen or
Biblical faith has no need of theodicy (YHWH explicitly condemns the theodical
arguments of Job's friends in 42:7). Jeremiah's famous accusation (Jer 12-13)
against YHWH is neither a philosophical judgment of God nor a cry of horrified
despair but rather an indignant demand that God rise up and destroy the wicked:
will be in the right, O LORD, if I make claim against You,
Yet I shall present charges against you:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper? ...
Drive them out like sheep to the slaughter,
Prepare them for the day of slaying!
comments: "The answer - and please note that there is an answer here - is
nothing like those rationalizations proposed by the philosophers: 'Drive them
out like sheep to the slaughter.' The answer to the question of suffering of
the innocent is a renewal of activity on the part of the God of Justice. In
light of the answer, it becomes clear that the question is not an intellectual
exercise but rather a taunt intended to goad the Just God into action."
Jeremiah recounts dreadful events, but he is outraged rather than horrified.
That is the decisive difference.
The faith of the West too easily devolves into philosophical rationalization
about divine justice rather than persisting as faith in the covenantal
relationship with a just and loving God. We then become vulnerable to a
neo-pagan foe that wielded horror as an instrument of policy.
What produces monsters is not the sleep of reason but the absence of faith.
God's creation metaphorically banished the monsters from the world in the
biblical creation story. If we cease to believe that God will rise up as of old
and fight our fight, then we will reify the world's evil in the guise of
fictional monsters. That is the secret of our morbid fascination with the