Writing about the latest terrorist attacks, this time in Canada, author and journalist Andrew Cohen [cnn.com 10/23/14] commented:
This is not supposed to happen in Canada — much less Ottawa, its sleepy, self-absorbed capital.
Sentries do not die on duty at the National War Memorial in this, our season of remembrance. Politicians do not cower in the committee rooms of Parliament, as its Gothic hallways ring with gunfire. Sharpshooters do not take up position on oxidized copper rooftops nearby, looking for men with long rifles.
This is Canada, once known as “the Peaceable Kingdom.” Now we have learned, like so many other countries, that terrible, unsentimental reality of the 21st century: It can happen here.
Terrorism is seen as the enemy. But terrorism is merely a tactic. It’s a tactic done in the name of something. What’s that “something”? Specifically, it’s Islam. No, we’re not supposed to say that it’s Islam, even though it almost always is.
But it’s even deeper than Islam. The real motive at work in these attacks is nihilism. Nihilism refers to a philosophy, but also an attitude, of destruction for its own sake.
One definition of nihilism is “the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.” Religion is not the only context where one can identify moral principles; moral principles can be secular, as well. For example, one could identify life and existence in reality as the standard of value, and develop a set of moral principles based on that standard. With religion, one identifies an afterlife or some other kind of “transcendence” as the standard of moral values, and takes it from there.
Either way, secular or religious, nihilism means the destruction of values because they are values.
The rise of Islamic-based terrorism shows how an established religion — one of the world’s three major religions — can actually collapse into nihilism. How can this be?
Well, it makes sense if you think about it. Islam is a religion that takes the supernatural seriously. It doesn’t view life as an important test or preparation for the afterlife, as Christianity and (to a lesser extent) Judaism does. It’s the least secular of the major religions, and the most concerned with an afterlife.
Islamic fundamentalists believe that they’re right, and believe that anyone who disagrees is a threat to the only life that really matters: Life in the aftermath of death, with Allah and all the attendant beliefs.
Islamic fundamentalists — the ones who take the religion the most seriously — look at Western civilization and decide it’s civilization itself they wish to destroy. Not some particular point-of-view, but civilization itself.
Why do you think they choose as targets such contexts as Parliament, the seat of civilized government (such as it is); the World Trade Center, the seat of capitalist, for-profit commerce (or at least a perceived symbol of it)? It’s really life-on-earth they’re after, along with the people who celebrate or otherwise represent or participate in that earthly existence.
Think about whatever it is you value in life. Maybe it’s your marital relationship, your children. Your home, your ability to travel. Your health. Your animals, the causes you believe in. It’s not just these things that are under attack — it’s the very fact that you value any of these things at all that’s under attack. That’s what nihilism means. There never has been anything like this in human history before, because there never has been such a level of prosperity and civilization before. Nihilists have never been so unhappy, and Islam/ISIS is the ideology that seems convenient for expressing their underlying rage and misery. That’s why you find ISIS to be the “new cool thing” among young nihilists who feel that life is meaningless and without purpose, and wish to impose that attitude on the world.
Andrew Cohen expresses the feeling of a lot of people that, “This can’t happen in Canada. Canada’s a peaceful place. Canada doesn’t engage in the controversial foreign policy the U.S. often does. Canada is bland and nice, in a good way, and nobody hates them. How could it happen in Canada?”
If you understand the nihilistic mentality of those who choose to utilize terrorist tactics, you’re not surprised at all. By the attitude and ideology of nihilism, Canada has to go, too. In fact, your attitude about the recent events will be more one of, “What took you terrorists so long?’
The Canadians are now faced with the same challenge facing the United States, and all of the civilized (and particularly non-Islamic) world. That challenge is even more than freedom. It’s standing up for your right to exist, in a secular way; it’s a challenge to uphold happiness on earth as the moral standard.
Another definition of nihilism states, “Nihilism can also take epistemological or ontological/metaphysical forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or that reality does not actually exist.”
It all starts with the idea that there is no objective knowledge, that there’s no way of knowing anything for sure, and that who are we — any of us — to actually draw conclusions about things?
Notice that those who represent this nihilistic point-of-view are generally the ones most prone to the destructive use of force. Many of these ISIS-inspired terrorists, we’re learning, are young people who turn on their own societies. They have evidently concluded that life has no meaning, no purpose, and that no objective knowledge about anything — no certainty — is possible. In different ways, this is what their intellectual leaders, their teachers, their professors, their clergy and even their psychotherapists have taught them. And yet, these same “you can’t know anything for sure” nihilists exercise unhesitating certainty when deciding that a house of Parliament, or anything else, should be decisively blown up.
The spread of the Islamic/nihilistic violence that we’re not permitted to call Islamic is like a big dare. It’s a message not primarily to our governments, but to all of us, from crazed but — in their own bizarre way — consistent ideologues who are asking us, “Do you really value your civilization? Or not?”
The challenge is for our leaders, and the rest of us in the context of our own lives, to rise up and say, in essence, “Yes I want to live. I’m sure of it, and I’m certain of all that I know. You’re bad in what you’re doing, and you ought to be totally wiped out before you harm anyone else.”
That’s not happening. Our own President responded to the latest attack on Canada by saying we have to be “vigilant.” In other words, we have to start adding more security measures to existing embassies, and “battening down the hatches,” as if what we’re facing is an oncoming hurricane with no man-made causes, and about which we can do nothing.
This is the sort of learned helplessness approach that will be the undoing not just of the United States, but all of Western civilization. Yes, it seems inconceivable that something so evil, so little and so metaphysically and morally puny as this ISIS-inspired violence can be the undoing of the greatest civilization in history. But nihilists only feed off the weakness of others. They have nothing coherent, rational, or livable to offer. They enter our world — material and mental — only once something important has eroded in ourselves. Our challenge is to reawaken that self-confident certainty and only then will we be able to put ISIS and nihilism in the place it deserves.
We all have to rediscover and assert our will to live — in the fullest and most complete sense of the term.
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