Friday, November 13, 2015
Paris and What It Means
The scariest short story I ever read (and I, a fan of horror, have read some doozies) was Stephen King’s “Quitters Inc.” In the story, a man who wants to quit smoking is referred to a program with that title. He is guaranteed that not only will he quit but he will not gain weight. After he has signed an agreement form, the program is explained to him. If he lights up another cigarette, his wife will be tortured. He quickly finds out that this is real and that he will live the rest of his life in fear of that one extra bite of cheese cake. It turns out that the founder was a gangster who suffered from lung cancer. His last act was to turn all of his power to curing people of the habit that killed him.
What was terrifying about the story was that the ruthless violence of a gangster could be divorced from self-interest and turned to abstract and potentially arbitrary ethical principles. If left unchecked, such a social trajectory could turn the entire human population into prisoners and wardens.
I thought about this story tonight as I watched the horrific news from Paris. As I write this, the fatalities are reported to be well over a hundred. There were a number of well-coordinated attacks and the terrorists used conventional automatic weapons. The contrast between the killers and ordinary gangsters is instructive. Gangsters are social parasites. They feed on the host of some larger society, depleting its wealth and doing a great deal of harm. The damage they do is limited, at least in a robust regime. Like all biological parasites, they have to make some concessions to their hosts if they are to remain in business. Parasitic fungi that prey on ants need the supply of ants to continue and thieves need the stuff of honest men to steal.
The French mass murderers are like organized criminals in so far as they occupy a niche in a society, exploit the social structures that benefit the larger population as well its openness, and depend on illegal trade (e.g., AK-47s). Unlike gangsters, they are not pursuing their own long term self-interest. They are acting out of a poetic ideal, a story that gives the lives meaning.
That story is almost certainly incoherent. I mean that it unlikely to function as the basis for viable political institutions, though they dream of such things. In its current presentation, in France, it seems aimed at nothing higher than destruction. Whether or in what sense the attacker turn out to represent ISIS remains to be seen. While the latter presents as an organization and promises the establishment of a new Caliphate, it also seems to want to hasten the apocalypse. Here is how Graeme Wood put it in the March issue of Atlantic:
The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.
It seems unlikely to me that such a movement can really coalesce into a coherent state, Islamic or otherwise. It is rather what happens when a Branch Davidian cult is supplied with a large number of cultists and is able to expand into territories that cannot be defended by the disintegrating states that claim them. Isis exploits all economic production under its control and no doubt benefits from the largess of dreamers in still coherent states. Without an internal revolution, it can only destroy.
If biological parasitism is a good analogy for organized crime, cancer is the best analogy for militant Islam. It is a product of the DNA of social and political culture, broken beyond coherent function but not beyond dangerous effect. Today’s atrocity in Paris is another reminder that the cancer can metastasize.
Our global civilization is an invaluable achievement. To say that is not perfect, that it has victims as well as beneficiaries, is to say what is trite because true of any human institution. People are still starving around the world, but we live in the first period of human history in which more people suffer from obesity than from malnourishment. We live in the first period in which millions of human beings enjoy both prosperity and liberty. Progress means the survival and continued expansion of that civilization.
We will have to summon enough industry, courage, and genius to meet its greatest threat, or else the darkness.