September 30, 2004


Modern evil demands medieval response (John O’Sullivan, Chicago Sun-Times, September 28th, 2004)

Hostage-taking has been a staple tactic of Mideast terrorists since the airline hijackings of the early 1970s. The IRA employed it on both sides of the Irish border. In Latin America kidnapping was started by Marxist terrorists in the 1970s, but since then it has become a profitable commercial business. A hostage is taken every hour in Latin America. The hostage is often a son or daughter of the rich. And the victims are often brutally tortured either to encourage the payment of a ransom or as punishment if it is not paid on time.

Yet 40 years ago hostage-taking seemed a concept from the distant past -- something like slavery and piracy that Victorian imperialists had stopped in their old-fashioned self-righteous way. Like hostage-taking, however, piracy and slavery are making a comeback. Piracy flourishes in parts of southeast Asia, slavery in parts of Africa such as Sudan, and hostage-taking in the Middle East and Latin America.

In general they advance where terrorism has blazed the way by revealing the impotence of law and government when they are not backed by the self-confident application of lawful force. The post-modern world lacks self-confidence and shrinks from using force. It places its trust in treaties and conventions that it enforces only against those who agree in advance to be bound by them. Thus, in the week that its citizens were pleading for their lives in Iraq, the European Union was mainly concerned to prevent Turkey from making adultery a criminal offense -- a droll illustration of "European values."

This high-minded timidity permeates modern culture at high and low levels. For instance, a recent thriller about hostage-taking, "Man on Fire," directed by Tony Scott and based on a novel by A.J. Quinnell, received harsh critical reviews precisely because it seemed to approve of revenge and vigilantism. [...]

But as Bacon pointed out: "Revenge is a kind of wild justice." It will inevitably -- and arguably rightly -- become the resort of decent people when law and government fail to deliver justice. Post-modern governments fail in just that way. Humanitarian bodies such as Amnesty International are even worse: They practice a sort of unilateral civil libertarianism that holds governments to account for the smallest infraction of civil liberty but treats terrorism as a natural disaster. Transnational bodies like the U.N. and the EU are worse -- they seek to take the weapons of war and capital punishment from us in our struggles against terrorism, slavery, piracy and hostage-taking and to force us to rely instead on their own paper resolutions and elevated principles.

All these responses -- from the critical reactions to "Man on Fire" to the E.U.'s prohibition of capital punishment -- are overcivilized. That sounds almost like a compliment, as if it meant more civilized. In fact, to be overcivilized is to be less civilized because genuine civilization includes a robust willingness to enforce its order and truths on anarchy, violence, murder and superstition.

“Pale Ebeneezer thought it wrong to fight,
But Raging Bull, who killed him, thought it right.” (Hilaire Belloc)

Posted by Peter Burnet at September 30, 2004 3:18 PM

BUT I SAY: on.the contrary, midieval evil demands a modern response.

Carthage was classical, Bezier was midieval, Hiroshima was modern. This decapitation business is not terror: SSBN's are terror.

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 30, 2004 3:45 PM

Let's see, 40 years ago was 1964.

20 years before that was 1944.

Anybody who thinks that in 1964 slavery was only a distant, medieval memory has not been paying attention

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 30, 2004 3:57 PM

Harry: as always, what the hell are you talking about?

Posted by: joe shropshire at September 30, 2004 4:14 PM

Harry, slavery exists today in much of the Muslim world. Just ask Henry Louis Gates.

Doing the Scipio Africanus number on Fallujah would probably go a long way to ending further nonsense in Iraq.

Posted by: Bart at October 1, 2004 6:48 AM

I've been reading a lot of Robert E Howard pulp fiction from the Thirties; primarily Conan the Barbarian, but also his lesser-known stuff -- King Kull, Bran Mak Morn, and a lot of pseudo-historical adventures.

One of Howard's continuing themes (expressed most widely in Conan) is the overcivilized effeminate civilization always going down in blood before the mighty thews of The Barbarian.

Posted by: Ken at October 1, 2004 11:50 AM