The Long View 2005-07-22: Last Things; The Foundering Jihad; Various Tirades

I've been a reader of the journal First Things for almost twenty years. The editorship of Jody Bottum almost ruined that, but I managed to persist.

Last Things; The Foundering Jihad; Various Tirades

I have always opposed the death penalty, except sometimes for other people. Now comes Joseph Bottum, in the August/September issue of First Things, with a piece entitled Christians and the Death Penalty, and a quite alarming theory for why capital punishment may be ultra vires the authority of modern governments. The gist of it is that criminal law exists to maintain public order. The death penalty, however, is generally imposed in extraordinary circumstances in which divine justice requires death, but the extreme penalty is not necessary for the public good. Thus, only a sacred mandate could authorize the state to execute people:

The death penalty requires some extraordinary authority, and if we reject the divine election of kings over us...then we have also rejected the justification for a legal system to claim to be enacting the highest story of earthly justice...Christians would have to engage in a national idolatry to suppose that all the acts allowed in ancient Israel are permissible in Connecticut.

This argument invites proof-texting. The piece attempts to distinguish the New Testament passage normally cited in favor of capital punishment:

In Romans 13, St. Paul insists that "the authorities that exist have been established by God," and these authorities "bear the sword," for "rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong"...The "sword" he mentions is a metaphor for police powers that does not necessarily imply approval of the death penalty. And we have a way to read Romans 13, as pertaining only to ordinary social justice...

This interpretation is non-obvious, particularly in light of Jesus's remark (John 19:11) that Pilate's power over Him came from above. The execution of Jesus was not just, and the New Testament implies that the legal process leading up to it was procedurally flawed, but the claim that it was ultra vires may be novel. In any case, the argument is not about capital punishment, but the legitimacy of the secular state:

The divine right of kings was a short-lived political theory, swept under by rival theories in early modern times. A new understanding of the limited sovereignty of government emerged, and one of the primary causes was the gradually developing awareness that Christianity had thoroughly demythologized the state. But that is not, by itself, a stable condition. Without constant pressure from the New Testament's revelation of Christ's death and resurrection, the state always threatens to rise back up as an idol.

Note that this analysis echoes one of the favorite themes of Tradition: democratic states are fundamentally illegitimate because they lack a divine mandate. From this perspective, no modern republic could legitimately ask its citizens to die defending it. (The divine right of kings is a red-herring, by the way. It was a late notion that had more to do with Renaissance tyranny than with the older idea of kingship as a consecrated office, like the episcopacy. Certainly it does not bear on the question of whether government as such enjoys a transcendent mandate.)

More important: although it is true that the demythologization of the state has not produced a stable condition, the instability is not upward, but downward. In the modern world, the state has tended to become a mere utility. It not only cannot support morality that claims an extra-social justification, but must in some measure be hostile to such claims, because they cannot enter into the utilitarian calculus towards which statecraft tends.

It would be a poor notion to suggest that we should hang people now and again to remind ourselves that the state is on a mission from God. We must, however, remember that the state's sources of legitimacy, and its areas of concern, are not wholly immanent.

* * *

According to Daniel Twining, writing in The Weekly Standard (July 25), "Al Qaeda has cleverly united the world against it."

Since September 2001, al Qaeda has accomplished an extraordinary feat. Rather than dividing and weakening its declared enemies, it has spurred the formation of a global alliance dedicated to its defeat that would have been unimaginable four years ago. Few other challenges could bring together the United States, the states of Europe, Japan, Russia, and China in a grand coalition as strange as the World War II alliance of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin--but al Qaeda has done so, at significant cost to its own cause.

The car-bombing campaign in Iraq is also losing the insurgency the considerable public sympathy it had enjoyed in the region. The whole thing seems to be on automatic pilot, like the human-wave tactics that the theocracy in Iran employed in the Iran-Iraq War until it ran out of teenagers. It is beyond horrifying; we are into weird now. And it's just not going to work.

* * *

If your byline is "Spengler," there is no way that you can avoid writing a column with the title, Harry Potter and the Decline of the West:

What accounts for the success of the Harry Potter series, as well as the "Star Wars" films whence they derive? The answer, I think, is their appeal to complacency and narcissism. "Use the Force," Obi-Wan tells the young Luke Skywalker, while the master wizard Dumbledore instructs Harry to draw from his inner well of familial emotions. No one likes to imagine that he is Frodo Baggins, an ordinary fellow who has quite a rough time of it in Tolkien's story. But everyone likes to imagine that he possesses inborn powers that make him a master of magic as well as a hero at games. Harry Potter merely needs to tap his inner feelings to conjure up the needful spell.

Frankly, I doubt that the popularity of the Harry Potter series is a bad sign of anything.

* * *

Speaking of running on automatic pilot, journalists are often required to gather a certain number of quotations for a story, whether or not the people being quoted have anything relevant to say. Here's a good example from a New York Times story, June Report Led Britain to Lower Its Terror Alert:

Asked to comment on the document, a senior British official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "We do not discuss intelligence assessments."

The Platonic ideal of that kind of quotation is: "Sources who asked not to be identified had no comment."

* * *

Getting back to the foundering Jihad for a moment, Mark Steyn makes this interesting aside in a tirade against multiculturalism:

It was the Prime Minister's wife, you'll recall, who last year won a famous court victory for Shabina Begum, as a result of which schools across the land must now permit students to wear the full "jilbab" - ie, Muslim garb that covers the entire body except the eyes and hands. Ms Booth hailed this as "a victory for all Muslims who wish to preserve their identity and values despite prejudice and bigotry". It seems almost too banal to observe that such an extreme preservation of Miss Begum's Muslim identity must perforce be at the expense of any British identity. Nor, incidentally, is Miss Begum "preserving" any identity: she's of Bangladeshi origin, and her adolescent adoption of the jilbab is a symbol of the Arabisation of South Asian (and African and European) Islam that's at the root of so many problems. It's no more part of her inherited identity than my five-year- old dressing up in his head-to-toe Darth Vader costume, to which at a casual glance it's not dissimilar.

Islamism smacks of Disneyland, which, we should remember, was constructed at about the same time as the ideologies that drive the Jihad. One might compare it to the Gothic Revival of the 19th century, except that neo-Gothic was often pretty good.

* * *

Finally, no list of recent tirades would be complete without Ann Coulter's thoughts on President Bush's nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court:

If the Senate were in Democrat hands, Roberts would be perfect. But why on earth would Bush waste a nomination on a person who is a complete blank slate when we have a majority in the Senate!

I take her point: constitutional politics now excludes the nomination of a candidate with mature, published views on the Constitution. Still, he seems to have good affect and adequate motor skills. What more could one ask for in a Supreme Court Justice?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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