The return of sacred violence

The return of sacred violence

“Central to both torture and terror is the political psychology of degradation”  Paul Kahn, Sacred violence: torture, terror and sovereignty

Violent imitation, which makes adversaries more and more alike, is at the root of all myths and cultures. Rene Girard, Battling to the end.

It is a characteristic of our time that as political authority disintegrates, political violence for a cause is resurgent.

This is a troubling phenomenon, but its difficulty should not lead us to avert our eyes.

Its most obvious form is in the appeal of Islamist terror to a small group of Western muslims.

But we have also seen acts of extremist violence from across the political spectrum. On one side, so to speak, Antifa and its violent protests, a Bernie Sanders supporter shooting Republicans at a charity baseball match, d a comedian pictured with a severed head of a democratically elected President. On the other, the spectre of white supremacists, nostalgic for the confederacy, shouting “jews won’t replace us,” and then driving a vehicle, the mobile weapon of choice in these times, into a crowd of leftist demonstrators.

Identity politics, in all its forms, from the rainbow coalition to the white supremacists shouting “you won’t replace us” , lives on the edge of violence. In asserting identity, it soon insists on the degradation of those who differ in their identity. Tolerance and respect are not values of importance for identity politics. They tend to be sneered as as the condescending gestures of a hegemony to be replaced.

And authority – the one essential attribute for the effective exercise of governing power – is despised. Yet authority alone can constrain violence.

Is the return of sacred violence across our world closely related to the cultural decay described in this blog? Here in closing this brief fragment are the thoughts of Rene Girard:

“I began to see the end of war as a subject in itself. The last days of an institution whose purpose was to control and restrain violence corroborates my central hypothesis, namely that for three centuries all rituals and institutions have been crumbling. War, through its rules and orders, also helped to create meaning by establishing new equilibria over an ever growing geographical area. It has generally ceased to play this role since the end of  World War II. How did the system suddenly disintegrate? How has political rationality finally become powerless?” Rene Girard, Battling to the end


Image source: Science News


On tyranny or terror?

On tyranny or terror?

The American historian of the holocaust in Eastern Europe, Timothy Snyder has delivered in On Tyranny: 20 lessons of the twentieth century a best-seller by combining seemingly wise apothogems – be ascourageous  as you can, be calm when the unthinkable arrives – with a wailing cry for help from the soul of liberal America in despair at the triumph of Trump.

His warnings that under Trump the USA may slide into totalitarianism have delivered him an audience on talk shows and business magazines. I bought his little book out of love for the great East European dissidents under communism like Havel and Kolakowski who Snyder quotes liberally in this little lament for a broken liberal consensus. I found the form and some of the early ideas intriguing, but ultimately I put this work, which can be read in barely an hour, disappointing.

The essay is an extended implied comparison between tyranny, ancient and modern, and most of all its Nazi manifestation, and the unfolding phenomenon of Donald Trump. If we believe Prof Snyder, we – or at least the citizens of the USA – are at the beginning of the end of democracy. All the signs show an accelerating slide into tyranny: the condemnation of the media, the contempt for the educated elite, the search for new partners, such as Russia (god forbid), in the fight against terror. Snyder even compares the burning of the Reichstag with our contemporary responses to repeated attacks of terror.

Now I am no ingénue about the quality of our democracy or political leadership in a disintegrating culture obsessed with shallow spectacles. Nor am I bedazzled by that impresario of shallow spectacle, Donald Trump. I have predicted here, months prior to the November ’16 election, that Trump would both win the election and fail as President. But to equate Trump’s administration with Hitler or the worst tyrannies of the 20th century reflects a loss of bearings. So too does the diminution of terrorism to little more than a scare campaign engineered by conniving political leaders to usher in dark tyranny.

It does seem that Prof Snyder has allowed Trump to get under his skin, and to distort his better judgement. This tweet in response to the Manchester bombing claimed Trump’s health care reforms would claim the same number of lives as the bombing in just four hours. Enough said really. Twitter makes idiots of even the most intelligent people. Prof Snyder would do well to do as I did several years ago, and abandon his twitter account.

He would do still better to reassess his level of concern with terror over tyranny. Islamic State, after all, operates both. Democratic states need to defend their citizens against both. It is true that democratic states need urgently to repair their quality and stop their decay. But that task must be done together with action against the dark terrors that reach into our lives every week. We must defeat the tyranny of terror.

That is at least one lesson so far of the 21st century. That is a lesson better learned from Michael Burleigh than from On Tyranny.

Islam and false lessons from history.

Tony Abbott has provoked outrage in some circles, and proud banner raising in others, by proposing that Islam needed to reform itself, and so undergo something akin to the complex sequences of cultural and institutional changes that led to the formation  of politically secular, if morally religious, liberal democracy. Islam, he says, making an argument based on some historical knowledge, never had the equivalent to “the West’s” separation of church and state, its acceptance of a public culture of reason in the Enlightenment, its theological renunciation of violence in defence of the faith. While recognising the risk of demonising Islam, Abbot draws attention to a defensive weakness concerning these strengths of modern secular, liberal political culture. His real target is pusillanimous relativism when threatened with random death. “Cultures are not all equal. We should be ready to proclaim the clear superiority of our culture to one that justifies killing people in the name of God.”(Daily Telegraph 9 December 2015)

Much of the commentary on these comments is overheated. It is not as if Abbott is the only commentator to say these things. Some want to verbal Abbott and confuse him with demagogues like Donald Trump. Many are perhaps overly optimistic about what can be achieved by an overly sensitive commitment to consensus and the private dealings of moderate Muslim leaders with the police and security agencies. Some want to paint Abbott as a political caricature, as some rearguard leadership revolt, but rarely with a strong sense of how Abbott himself may have been inspired by Churchill’s moral opposition to Nazism. All these objections focus on process, and refuse to consider the substance of Abbott’s claims, which I would summarise as three key propositions: Islam is not only a religion of peace, but at its core preaches violence – “killing people in the name of God;” the West’s pattern of development of political institutions, especially the separation of church and state, is worthy of emulation by Islamic societies since it is superior; and the adoption by moderate Islam of such institutions in the political world can stop the violent radical among Islam.

It seems to me that only the first of these propositions is true. People shy away from such a conclusion, and there are many aspects of Islam that are peaceful. It has its own traditions of reform and modernism, and especially Sufism has been important in promoting a less austere church. It has been a religion of traders as well as warriors and jihadists, but this does not deny that it has long been a religion of jihadists, fatwahs, and warlords. In some of its traditions, it does not only justify killing, it sanctifies it. No-one would say this is all of Islam, but to pretend it is not part of it is to be willingly blind.

A more detailed discussion of the contrasting experience of church and state between the West and Islam is here:

The final question is whether amendments to political institutions and developments of political culture can remove the periodic outbreak of cults of violent death in political cultures. I think here the answer is no, and after all there are many examples of the outbreaks of violence within liberal cultures that would lead one to doubt this. A more detailed reflection on that question will need to await another night.


It is not just the Paris attacks but Lebanon, the Russian plane from Egypt and Paris in quick succession, in a crescendo of terror.

And Hollande’s direct words: we are at war.

Speaking to a colleague when making morning coffee, I was told there was nothing new, nothing distinctive about this attack. David Kilcullen says the military situation has not changed even if the political situation has.

Some march and sing in the streets claiming we are not afraid. They are not the people who panicked behind chairs and sheltered behind shop warehouse screens when a light bulb blew in a Paris square.

I have sat tranquillised with fear watching the journalists and experts hide their forebodings.