We are right to be anxious because our gods are dissolving right before our eyes. We are anxious in the same way Pharaoh was anxious after the third plague. We want to bargain with the mediators of this strange religion but we cannot. They are totalitarian. They will not bargain. They will not go along and we cannot understand because we have lost our categories for understanding that sort of absolutism. Our amnesia blinds us. We are cultural and religious Alzheimer’s patients trying to understand the stranger in the mirror.
Historians like to characterize periods of time. The 16th century is “The Age of Reformation” or “The Early Modern Period.” The 18th century is “The Age of Enlightenment” and 19th century is “The Industrial Age” or “The Age of Westward Expansion.” The 20th century has been characterized as “The American Age.” It all depends upon at what one is looking and from where. There is some use to these labels. They give us a way to think about a period of time and a starting point for understanding it. Of course, the closer one inspects anything, the more complex it becomes, the more the particulars come to the surface and they, in turn, make it more difficult to speak about universals, that which unites particulars.
One way to characterize the post-9/11 world is as “The Age of Anxiety.” This is not a new label. In the 1940s Auden wrote a poem with that title. There is a sense in which the late industrial age, the early days of the high-tech age marked the onset of anxiety. It is no coincidence that Auden wrote about anxiety just as television was coming into existence. By 1947 television was assuming the form it has today. Meet The Press was already on the air. The speed of change began to increase. I remember Bob Godfrey talking in 1986 about the influence of television on social change. Who knew that just 7 years later, when the public began using the Internet, how much more quickly social change would occur?
Still, after 9/11 our anxiety is only partly driven by the social fluidity enabled by rapid technological change. On 9/11 we witnessed the effect of the toxic combination of ancient grievances combined with a triumphalist eschatology and the will to murder and to die to make a point. That elixir is a powerful cocktail many that late moderns refuse even to consider in their analysis of why the 9/11 hijackers did what they did. Most late moderns live in such a closed universe that the four jets that crashed on 9/11 came literally and figuratively out of the blue. Late moderns, who have accepted the essential premises of modernity—the essential goodness of humanity, human perfectibility, human autonomy relative to all other authorities divine or human, the universal fatherhood of God, and the universal brotherhood of humanity—struggle to understand the sort of religious commitment that not only permits and condones but even requires the religious murder and martyrdom.
So, we comfort ourselves by talking about the mental health of hijackers, as if we can medicate the millions of adherents to Islam worldwide who fundamentally agree with the theology, eschatology, and political ideology of the hijackers. Take a look at the streets of any major metropolitan area. We cannot even hospitalize our own mentally ill. How on earth do we think we are going to “treat” millions of Islamist Muslims? We, in the late-modern, post-industrial West, who have never read the Qur’an, nor the Ahadith comfort ourselves by telling ourselves that the the Islamists do not understand their own religion properly.
We think we can bargain with those who would kill us.