Part 1: A Death Observed
On the evening of May 2nd, 2011 in the city of Abbottabad Pakistan, a special operations team lead jointly by the CIA and JSOC, and consisting of eighty personnel, four helicopters, and one Belgian Malinois military dog, began a raid that would mark the culmination of America’s longest war. In objective terms, the operation had difficulties. The product of years of intelligence work, the raid ran afoul of one of America’s regional allies, Pakistan, and resulted in a helicopter crash that would be the source of an embarrassing leak of American technology. But, in the end, Operation “Neptune Spear” had accomplished what few people previously thought possible: the death of Osama bin Laden.
I remember reading the news late on a Monday night, half expecting to learn it was a hoax the following day. In fact, its reality didn’t dawn on me until the next day’s shift pass-down at the factory where I worked. As the supervisors asked for recognition for work well done the night before, a machinist called out loudly, “Seal-Team Six! The men who killed Bin Laden!”. The rest of the shift broke into applause. Indeed, it had occurred, the rogue sheikh and author of the attacks of 9-11 was dead by American hands.
But for some reason, the event did not sit easy in my mind, and as the days past after Bin Laden’s assassination, I could tell that I was not alone. There seemed, in the minds of Americans, a difficulty in finding a narrative that could contain the event. In some sense, Bin Laden’s death had come too soon and too late; too late for the triumphalism that would have certainly greeted the news had it happened in the early Bush administration, and too early for the event to be the capstone of futility in the wake of the renewed Islamic radicalism of ISIS. In 2011, as much as Americans could hope, we could see that the shadow cast by the rogue sheik was not undone by his earthly demise, and we knew too much to believe that the event marked some turning point.=
Part of this dissonance stemmed from the fact that ordinary Americans understood Bin Laden on an emotional level much better than their media and intellectual elites did. Regardless of the mainstream narrative, Bin Laden’s magnum opus was not the deaths of 3000 Americans, it wasn’t even the notion that large-scale terrorist attack could happen in America. Instead, the sheikh’s legacy was, a challenge for which the theatrics of the collapsing world trade center was a framing device. Osama’s legacy was an accusation that Western power -as far-reaching and as unquestioned as it remained in the early years of the 21st century – was at its core, hollow and built on a foundation of decadence.
For all the cultural self-criticism the West had undergone since the 1960s, Osama Bin Laden was the first to announce the weakness of modern man, not with critical theory or deconstruction, but with a declaration of war and a call to battle. Bin Laden was the first to wager that, underneath the mountainous wealth and military might of America and its European allies, was a “Weak Horse” that when the chips were down, no one would choose support. And for all the congratulations being exchanged in the spring of 2011, Bin Laden’s death had not answered his accusation.
America had been at war for 10 years. Had it shown itself to be the “Strong Horse” in the conflict with the Islamic world? Was the Western man the victor over the pre-modern jihadi? Bin Laden’s question, wild conjecture in the 1990s, was asserting itself with overdue irony. While Osama’s body now slept at the bottom of the Indian ocean, his shade still loomed over the America’s universalist project and the West was left to ask itself if it had finally dispelled his prophecy.
Part 2: The Fall of the Western Archetype
When discussing historical trends, there is much to be said for the use of the “archetype”. Indeed, the University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson has made a career around employing this tool, almost to the point of self-parody. But while many modern people might balk at a discussion of “forms” and “types”, the fact remains that on a society-wide level, Western man has always defined himself using symbols and abstractions.
America, in particular, has always been fond of elevating an archetypal vision of what it means to be “American” in any given era. From the gilded age to the progressive era, each period of American history has been characterized first by a challenge and then by a vision of a man who could might that challenge. In the era of manifest destiny, there was the pioneering man who boldly took his family across a wild continent, for the era of the New Deal there was the honest working man who did an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wage, and for the suburban age of the 1950s there was the nuclear family led by the prosperous patriarch and the happy homemaker.
As someone, reaching adolescence in the late 1990s, I recall a distinct awareness of the archetypes that inhabited the contemporary cultural milieu. The 1990s was the era of the “global village”, the “end of history”, and the birth of an optimism, both technological and geopolitical, that seemed to stretch endlessly from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the end of time. The era contained nothing less than a promise that liberty and prosperity would touch all peoples and all places and would continue to expand forevermore.
The world was becoming smaller. Nationalism meant less. Individualism meant more. We as Americans would grow broad and less particular and the world, in turn, would grow more American. Everything was at our fingertips and there was nothing to fear. Even in my boyhood I remember this promise hanging tacitly in the air of almost every cultural product. We would all be rich, we would all be free, and this all could be guaranteed. This was the end of historical struggle, and all that was needed was an archetypal of “last man”. The 1990s, in its characteristic over abundance, furnished us with two, which I have dubbed the “Prosperous” man and “Liberated” man.
The “Prosperous Man” formed the ideal of the new 1990s information economy. He thrived in the flattened corporate culture of Silicon Valley, was an early adopter of the novel electronics, drank expensive gourmet coffee, and was linked-in with all the latest developments. He didn’t talk about his mortgage like the patriarchs of the 1950s, he talked about his portfolio, and always had an eye out for growth -both economic and self-actualizing. The “Prosperous Man” found spirituality in the pop-consumeristic tripe of Deepak Chopra, and hope in the utopian corporatism of Tom Friedman and Benjamin Barber’s “McWorld” concept. Like the working family man of the previous eras, the “Prosperous Man” was an American who worked hard and produced wealth. Unlike the previous American archetypes however, the “Prosperous Man” was rootless. There was nothing holding him back. And although history had given him everything, there wasn’t a tradition in existence to which he owed anything back. McWorld had a place for individualistic consumers, but superfluous traditional obligations were hazardous to the bottom line.
However, the “Prosperous” man was not the lone archetype of the 1990s, he was contrasted, loudly, at every step by, “The liberated man”. “The liberated man” was the rebel, the poetic nihilist, and the visionary of post-national world. He bought his clothes on consignment, practiced daring and ironic acts of self-destruction and was ever committed to walking away from that great job or deal that was always and forever achievable and available. “The liberated man” was inspired by the anthems Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vetter, and cheered by the jokes of George Carlin and Bill Hicks. He was the radical anarchists on the left, and the radical libertarians on the right. The “Liberated Man” bought Naomi Klein’s NO LOGO, van shoes, and worried constantly about whether his favorite band had “sold out”. Like the frontiersmen of the past, the liberated man of the 1990s shunned the mainstream in search of freedom. But in all his rejection of conformity, the “Liberated Man” was at his base isolated. He was in rebellion against soulless materialism, but it was not a rebellion that bound him in brotherhood with the common man. His rebellion was aloofness fought almost entirely by consumer choice and expressed only through a differentiated alternative lifestyle.
Looking back, I find it amazing just how important this struggle, between alternative and corporatist voices, was in my own mind and in the culture. I cared deeply about whether Linus Torvalds would triumph over Bill Gates, whether Eddie Vetter would win over Brittany spears, and whether Napster would prevail over the record industry. The conflict was everywhere from the movies we watched to the music we listen to. And while it seemed, at any moment, that humanity might follow the corporate path of wealth, or the poetic path of counterculture, it nevertheless had one such secular global world future in store. And, regardless of what anyone says, this perception persisted well after the events of September 11th, 2001.
Media retrospectives on the World Trade Center attacks often describe the event as a jolt that rattled America awake, but from my own experience this narrative was ridiculous. Almost immediately after the initial shock of the attacks faded, America slid back into the narrative of optimism it had grown accustomed to in the 1990s. Regardless of the physical devastation of the falling towers, the recovery efforts left no space to question our commitment to a globalized world order, or our culture of individualism. Instead, I remember distinctly every media and government institution falling over themselves to reframe the catastrophe and assure the American public that this was an anomalous bump on the inevitable road to global peace and prosperity.
On the left, we heard assurances that the jihadist ideology did not represent mainstream attitudes in the Muslim world and that further attacks could be managed easily by the reformation of American foreign and domestic policy. On the right we heard pronouncements that the attacks were the product of a small group of extremists and that the threat could be addressed through military action and a renewed commitment to national security. The message, over and over, was to stay calm, stay tolerant, go shopping, and to let the professionals manage the professional problem of global security. Besides, it worked in the cold war didn’t it?
The figure of George W. Bush seemed the living embodiment of the attitude prevailing in the wake of the attacks. Even his name contained the implicit promise that the strategies used to bring America victory in the Cold War could simply be re-purposed for the task of combating anti-Western Islamism writ-large. The Muslim world was -in Bush’s mind- a culture like any other. It yearned for freedom and worshiped a God who only wanted peace and prosperity for his followers. Though 9-11 was a bold challenge, in the end all that was required was a bold managerial correction to remove the enemies of democracy and return the Muslim world to the proper path of democratic liberalism. It was the politics of “McWorld” and the mythology of the “Prosperous Man” through and through.
In the end, the failure of Bush’s answer to Bin Laden’s challenge was exposed, with extreme historical irony, in the President’s continued failure in prosecuting the wars of his own creation. Operation Iraqi Freedom remained a show case of this failure: a corporate war, fought to advance the interests of liberty and globalism. The conflict ultimately resulted in an exhibition of America’s fundamental misunderstanding of the Muslim world and the organization of power within Islam.
It was in Bush’s foreign policy fiascoes, followed promptly by the global financial crisis, that the world of the “Prosperous Man” finally crested. The corporate masters and futurists who dreamed of an indefinitely expanding sphere of democracy paired with sustainable economic growth could not account for the post-2007 world. It was apparent that the non-Western world would not, as a matter of course, grow in liberalism just as the Western world would not, as a matter of course, grow in prosperity. McWorld had its limits. As such its vision must recede.
But in the fashion of historical dialectic, if the path of prosperity was closed, did the path of liberation fare better? No Doubt, the inheritors of the 1990s counterculture saw this as the natural conclusion. The “Liberated Man” had triumphed by his opponent’s deficiencies. He had demonstrated, culturally, that his message was irresistible. And while the machinations of universal democracy might fail worldwide, it was of no concern. Personal liberty was unstoppable and ultimately the violence of the third world could not prevail against man’s natural desire for revelry of self-expression. It was just a matter of time. But even in this triumphalism, one could see the inevitable fall of this vision planted in the pages of a Danish newsprint magazine in autumn of 2005.
Following the events of September 11th and an enormous wave of immigration, many among Europe’s self-assured elites were developing a desire to witness secular humanism’s victory over their countries’ newly initiated Muslim citizens. After all, if America’s wars had so obviously failed in winning the hearts and minds of the Islamic world, what better way to demonstrate the dominance of Europe’s peaceful humanitarianism, than to transform the newly immigrated Muslim into a modern secular European within the confines of the modern European welfare state?
The prospect, was too juicy to be undesired. And in response to this desire, the Danish satirical magazine, Jyllands-Posten published a set of 10 cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammad in irreverent and satirical contexts. The publication knew t it was courting controversy, but no doubt the editors anticipated something akin to controversies generated by anti-Christian satire in the 20th century: a quick and lucrative outrage, followed by the full-throated support of the global “free-speech” community, concluding with total victory of irreverent secularism over traditionalist busybodies. Few in 2005 suspected how wrong this anticipation might be.
Far from earning disapprobation of a few mumbling ninnies, the reaction to the Mohammad cartoons exploded into an unending series of violent international protests. Carried forth by Salafist and jihadist clerics, who themselves saw the cartoons as an opportunity to flex their political muscles, the outrage reverberated for months. Resulting in millions of dollars in property damage and several deaths at the hands of mob violence.
This was not an outrage that could be solved through the assertion of “free speech”. In fact, as the protests mounted and showed no sign of abating, the institutions that would have ordinarily gone to the wall for free expression one by one conceded to Islamist demands to censor the publication of the cartoons. And so, with a whimper, the media mainstream looked on as the editors and satirists of the Jyllands-Posten were forced into an apology and then into hiding; cowed by perpetual death threats which, the world would soon see, the jihadis had every intention of carrying out.
At the time of the Danish “Cartoon Riots”, few grasped the critical turning point that had been accomplished. After half a generation of fearless and irreverent rebellion, after every right-wing society, church, and conservative group had failed to turn back the deluge of iconoclastic rebellion marching in the free expression, a small group of Salafists had broken history like a twig. Whatever we might have wanted to believe in the 1990s, free expression was not unlimited, it could not forever grow unchecked, and whatever inspiration was drawn from unconstrained human imagination, it was no match for the terror and zeal that could be unleashed by the proteges of bin Laden. The liberated man of the 1990s had met his match.
After this what more could be hoped for from a rootless Westerner dreaming of some liberation in global cosmopolitanism? To be a citizen of the world among a growing number of people who had no interest in granting your cherished principles? A rebellion against anything traditional, so long as that rebellion never crossed the piety of the most puritanical imams? It was one thing to be the “Weak Horse” on the battleground of Tikrit, quite another to be the “Weak Horse” in the culture of one’s homeland. No one could want this role for themselves. And no one did. And sure enough, a reaction was in the works.
The reaction manifested in a new type of progressive anti-particularism, seen first in the “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, then returning again in the platitudinous multiculturalism of progressive leaders like Barack Obama. It was a type of crusade against Western tradition and a doubling down on the cosmopolitanism of the past decades. This time the victory of emancipatory movements would be complete in the West, and no traditional sentimentality would stand in the way.
While the rootlessness of 1990s was unconscious and habitual, the multiculturalists and secularists of the late 2000s sought a more active approach at cutting away the stifling grip of the past. The traditions and mores were now considered an active threat to humanity’s progress. And from Bin Laden down to the Danish Cartoon riots, the opponents of a post-national future could no longer be ignored. What was needed was a harder counter-punch, a more fanatical and directed cultural revolution, and a more focused intolerant tolerance, in the West at least.
What defined the opponents of the cosmopolitan future? Religion? It must be eliminated! Traditional cultures? They must be interchangeable! Ethnic custom? It must be a toy reducible to exotic restaurants and yoga lessons. It was time to join the struggle, tradition was for the past! Any notion that Western or European culture needed to be valued, in particular, was the source of racism and hate. Bring on the cosmopolitan future of undifferentiated globalism! Bring forth the post-national and anti-cultural world order!
Of course, there was no path to bring this revolution to the Islamic or developing world. In fact, there wasn’t even a path to bring this anti-cultural revolution to immigrant populations living inside of the west. Still none of this mattered. What did matter was that the upper middle class of the West was dedicated to showing that THEY were living in a post-cultural age. The west, at least, could demonstrate that history was moving in the right direction by cleansings itself of its own particularism with the assurance, that, whatever might be delaying the rest of the world, the continuation of progress would eventually become unstoppable.
But what were the specifics of this vision? What was the new society or the new man who would emerge from this process of cultural sterilization? No one knew, and no one cared. The progressive revolution was not directed at some ideal, it was a desperate grasp for consolation, designed to save elites from the realization that their own vision of the future was adrift. The snake of societal progress had begun to consume itself in a quest to satiate its own hunger.
The naked unsustainability of this new mode was apparent. Even its cultural products seemed like less vigorous echoes of their 1990s counterparts. Gone were the fearless anarchists who wanted to tear down the superstructure that stood in their way. In was the hipster, the diversity consultant, and the progressive fanboy. This was not a time for righteous rebels, this was the age of nihilists with no chests, urbanites who defined themselves through consumption, and technocrats congratulating themselves on far-off plans to solve humanity’s problems with “science!”. This was the age of the eternally offended social justice warrior and the pathetically sycophantic pop culture consumer. A society whose visionaries, from Steve Jobs to Barack Obama, seemed to have little interested in planning for anything other than a post-national, post-hardship, and post-scarcity future. A civilization where one might define themselves as consumers of organic food, video games, or queer paraphernalia, but never believers in tradition, posterity, nationhood, or faith.
It was this new cultural archetype that, on the morning of May 3rd 2011 greeted the news of Bin Laden’s death. It was the juxtaposition of this archetype to Bin Laden himself that gave the news of the sheik’s death its strange melancholic aftertaste. The contemporary world could produce ineffectual consumers and self-obsessed preening moral puritans. But it could not produce devout and courageous men and women who wanted to defend their civilization and fight for their posterity. And although its author was dead, Bin Laden’s prophecy had been granted its final demonstration.
Part 3: The Men Who Killed Bin Laden
The period between September 11th and the death of Osama Bin Laden marked a transitional period, both for my own thought process and the ideological development of the West at large. At this time, reeling from the disrupted optimism of the 1990s, America paused briefly before finally doubling down on the globalist vision during the age of Obama. My own journey marked a similar transition, albeit, in the opposite direction. Still, strangely enough, both transitions have become indelibly linked in my mind with a speech delivered by Pope Benedict XVI to an audience at Regensburg Germany in 2006.
Pope Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg lecture, originally intended by the Pontiff to address spirituality, became infamous when it sparked controversy by its inclusion of an 15th century quote from Byzantine Emperor Manuel Palaiologos on the persistence of violence in Islam. Like the Danish cartoon riots previously, the Regensburg address inspired massive Muslim protests, who in vindication of the Byzantine Emperor’s words, carried their murderous rage to the streets. Its irony lost on opinion makers of the time, the incident was characterized by the mainstream media as an outburst prompted by the cultural insensitivity of an out of touch pope and promptly forgotten about within a month.
I remember reading the address at the high point of my youthful anti-religiosity, hoping to find some lurid anti-Islamic screed and being disappointed to discover only esoteric religious ruminations which I did not have the spiritual or philosophical background to understand. Years later, following my return to the Church, and on the advice of a friend, I revisited the lecture with different eyes and found something entirely unexpected.
Although often talked as a departure in tone from other addresses, Benedict’s lecture at Regensburg summarized much of his previous thinking on the state modern man in the 21st century following on a deeper examination started by his predecessor John Paul II. The address documented the path that both modern Western man and his pre-modern Islamic counterpart had taken over the course of the last two centuries. Setting aside the assumed opposition between the rootless modern and the intolerant Islamic fanatic, might both implicitly share a common critical flaw? Could both archetypes be the product of an acute intellectual mistake so near to our own age that we failed to notice? Here Pope Benedict laid his thesis. Instead of opposites, perhaps the fanatic of the old world and the secular of the new were complementary pieces of humanity torn apart by the old misbegotten notion that evidence driven rationality was fundamentally incompatible with transcendent human spirituality.
For over a millennium, the Islamic world held firmly to a spirituality that would admit no rationalism and stood prostrate before a God who ruled by fiat; a tyranny of divine meaning that could not even admit exploration and under whose reign there could be no art, music, or reason not determined by divine decree. It remained a stifling straight jacket that limited the Muslim’s imagination and stunted Islamic civilization.
By contrast, the post enlightenment western man remained enthralled to a rationality that permitted not even a shadow of the living God. After a century of becoming liberated from all external constraints, had the secular age produced great saints or great spiritual achievements? While the West’s liberation and rationality resulted in exploration, music, and literature, nowhere in its modern life could be found meaning or edification. The man who made rationality his religion could produce his own culture, but not a culture he would make sacrifices or, as it turned out, expend any real effort to defend.
Yet the separation of reason and divinity was not an eternal human condition but a product of our own age. To the medieval man, God unified reason and transcendent love and embodying each in their fullness, an image of the divine that did not operate through dominance but through sacrifice. A vision of creation that extended not from necessary dependence nor meaningless tyrannical whim, but from conscious and intentional will to create based on an act of self-giving love. Beneath this vision of God, man and woman could stand with confidence, curiosity, and compassion reconciled.
It was this vision of God that the ancient Saints and Scholastics felt when laying the stones of the cathedrals and the foundation of the renaissance. It was this understanding of God set the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante to build the outline of Western prose and poetry. And it was this vision of God that was fatally pierced by the late enlightenment bleeding out over the course of centuries to where the modern man stands confused and directionless.
Here was the chink in the armor of modernity. Just as Bin Laden’s challenge itself had exposed the hollowness in the distinction between the “Prosperous Man” and “Liberated Man” of the 1990s, the insight of Benedict and John Paul exposed the seam that bound the Social Justice Warrior to the Salafist. They were both incomplete parts of the human being, emptied of mystery and forced into one dimension, hollow in their intention, and devoid of life or passion.
Much has been said about the malaise that inhabits the Millennial generation. And while this pessimism might certainly be laid at the feet of the 2007 financial crisis, as an observer who has witnessed my own generation from within, I feel that this despair begins with a deeper metaphysical problem. There remains a foreboding sense among Millennials that no future is possible that will require authentic human participation. Destiny might choose the bleary-eyed fanatic as king, or it might choose the detached monomaniacal rationalist. But nowhere in the set of possible futures is there space for humans who believe in the unity of truth, goodness, and beauty. Nowhere is there space for a person who possesses both spirituality an intellect.
I might speculate that my generation is in search of a missing archetype that could unify these desires and promise them a more hopeful future. This archetype that was hinted at in Pope Benedict’s speech at Regensburg and the prior writings of John Paul II. And for a moment after reading these men’s work, I believed that here might be a solution to my generation’s woes. The course of history has so far, not obliged.
It has now been four years since I read Benedict’s address at Regensburg and as I look back on the intervening years, I am struck by a sense of loss. If Benedict and John Paul’s vision was the answer, it was an answer unheeded. The vision of a renewed Christianity that could revitalize the West and heal the world has gone unfulfilled.
I have, in my journeys since then, met many courageous people that seem to walk with the spirit described by Benedict and John Paul. But although these men and women have shaped my life and given me hope, they are still a remnant. They comprise a small part of modern church, and an even smaller part of modern humanity. They are an echo of the past; perhaps, we may hope, a prevision of the future. But at any rate, they are removed from spirit of their own age and live waiting in the wings of modernity. But the future is another country.=
I could have hardly comprehended the ideological battles that now consume the West in the era of Bill Clinton, any more than a knight of the First Crusade could have comprehended Martin Luther. In our own age, framed by the archetypes of Bin Laden and Barack Obama, it might not be possible to imagine what history has in store. And, now, as in every age, there are those who work unseen to build the boundaries of the next epoch. We can recognize this heroic feature of humanity in hindsight, looking back at figures like Catherine of Sienna and Saint Francis of Assisi, but in their own times saints and revolutionaries most often go unnoticed.
Spiritual masters of the past have long cautioned against measuring worth in terms of historical “greatness”. Nevertheless, from time to time I have fancied that posterity may look back at our confused age and recognize not decline, but a turning point. The future is unwritten, and the challenge issued by Osama bin Laden’s may yet be answered if western man claims his heritage and begins an arduous journey back to sanity. Such a phenomenon would require struggle, and would be historically uncommon, but humanity has overcome similar challenges. And after this age and struggle has past, perhaps scholars will look back upon the men and women who pulled their civilization away from the brink and recognize among them two pontiffs who first provided an answer to the dead-sheikh’s riddle, and, with a perspective granted by hindsight, drink a toast to the men who killed bin Laden.