Ignorant Certainty: On Apocalypse and Empire
Now that the end of the world didn’t happen, I can’t stop thinking about it. What chutzpah, what a diminished worldview, not simply to make such a prediction, but — even more incomprehensible, to my relentlessly self-questioning mind — to know you’ll be among the saved.
In 1011, a guy like Harold Camping would probably have been able to generate more panic than bemusement. A millennium later, with science taught in the public schools and all, we have a little more collective resistance to such thundering certainty leaping from highway billboards. I confess, however, to feeling a deep, reptilian tug last Friday morning, as I saw the sign — SAVE THIS DATE, MAY 21, 2011, CHRIST IS COMING — while driving through eastern Wisconsin. Yikes, that’s tomorrow.
What lingers for me in the aftermath of “life goes on (at least for a while)” is an alarmed sense of the power of ignorant certainty. Fanatical preachers are nothing more than the caricature of this power, which, in 2011, thrives like a virus in the American body politic.
“Today we presented legislation that advances our national security aims, provides the proper care and logistical support for our fighting forces, and helps us meet the defense challenges of the 21st century.”
Thus spake U.S. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in a press release two weeks ago announcing the committee’s approval of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 — which contains provisions so alarming it has been dubbed, by David Swanson, “arguably the worst bill ever considered likely to pass into law,” and even sparked an editorial in the New York Times.
Among the egregious provisions in the legislation, which awaits a vote on the House floor, as Swanson and many others have pointed out, are a crippling of the implementation of the new START treaty and a halting of the process of nuclear weapons reduction, keeping our nuke stockpile at Cold War levels; a total allotment of $690 billion for the Departments of Defense and Energy (including $119 billion to fund the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, $18 billion for ongoing nuclear weapons research and development, and funding for various other highly questionable weapons programs and systems); and allowance for the indefinite detention of current and future Guantanamo prisoners.
But the big, scary thing about this piece of legislation — the thing that summons a newer, deeper irrationality from the pit of our collective paranoia — is the provision that would expand the “war on terror,” at presidential discretion, to the whole world.
As the Times editorial put it: “Osama bin Laden had been dead only a few days when House Republicans began their efforts to expand, rather than contract, the war on terror. Not content with the president’s wide-ranging powers to pursue the archcriminals of Sept. 11, 2001, Republicans want to authorize the military to pursue virtually anyone suspected of terrorism, anywhere on earth, from now to the end of time.”
The bill circumvents Congress and the Constitution and would allow the Executive Branch to wage war solely at its own discretion. “It would allow military attacks against not just Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” the Times explains, “but also any ‘associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States.’” It authorizes, with its excruciatingly vague language, a sort of global manifest destiny.
And this brings me back to the idea of ignorant certainty — a certainty about who should live and who should die — that is the driving force not just behind religious fanaticism but, far more dangerously, behind the politics of empire.
The ignorant certainty of Harold Camping is essentially innocuous. He wasn’t calling on believers to dispatch suspected sinners to their just deserts in eternity, simply to relax in the belief that God would do it himself. But the ignorant certainty of the politically powerful leaves nothing to God. The killing is done on their initiative and at their discretion — and it’s real.
This is war, and it has thrived as vibrantly in democracies as it has in autocracies. It could even be argued that the democratization of war and glory, the promotion of everyman from squire to swordsman, has fanned the flames of war. Consider the history of the 20th century (and the first tenth of the 21st). Democratic governments, while generally holding themselves blameless, have been responsible for a large percentage of the carnage wrought by modern, industrial wars.
And the United States of America, the original democracy, now devotes about two-thirds of its energy and treasure to war and defense. With the invention of the “war on terror” — a term as vague and meaningless as “war on evil” or “war on sin” — the political true believers and the economic beneficiaries of war found a way to keep the game alive indefinitely. NDAA 2012 would create the legal framework to disconnect “terror” from the 9/11 atrocities and guarantee the future of war, at the mere cost of the national soul.
Something feels like it’s about to end. It’s not the world, just what’s left of American democracy. Once an interesting experiment in human sanity, it may prove unequal to its internal forces of fear and greed.